Born in 1940 in Chicago, IL; daughter of Roebuck "Pops" (a singer, blues guitarist, and steel mill worker) and Oceloa Staples; divorced. Addresses: Record company--Paisley Park Records, 1999 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 3150, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
Mavis Staples told USA Today contributor James T. Jones that the Lord sent pop star Prince to her. It was in 1987 when her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, called to say that Prince wanted to talk to her. "What prince?," she asked. "That one they call purple," he answered. A longtime fan of the Staples Singers--Mavis Staples's family band, in which Mavis sang with Pops, sisters Yvonne and Cleo, and brother Pervis--Prince acted as a knight in shining armor to Staples, whose career had been static for a decade.
Troubled with taxes and unpaid bills, she had been reduced to selling her car for cash. Then Prince, who later changed his named to an unpronounceable symbol, offered her a seven-year contract on Paisley Park Records, and Staples's hometown of Chicago began to feel like a fairy-tale land.
Staples's musical life began when her father turned his family into a gospel band. They sang "message songs" throughout the southern United States, inspired by the words of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.; Pops is widely quoted as having said, "Listen, if this man can preach this, then we can sing it." As Amy Linden put it in People, Mavis Staples still "sings with a soaring, liberating power that can make you feel the intensity of a Sunday service."
Staples revealed to Leonard Pitts, Jr., in Musician that during her family's hardest times, she remained optimistic by repeating to herself: "Jesus, this is my gift, this voice you've given me. I don't even know what key I sing in.... And you're not keeping me to suffer. You're keeping me for a reason." Her father apparently agreed. When the family's career seemed to hit a dead end, Pops told her, "Mavis, you better go on and try to find a label. The Lord gifted you with your voice and if you don't use it he'll take it back."
Prince's interest in Staples's career seemed like a godsend. But because of her deep religious convictions and political commitment, Staples's union with the controversial singer-songwriter miffed and confused a number of her listeners. Alf Billingham of Melody Maker reported Staples's amused response: "I was told that I shouldn't be doing stuff with Prince because of his reputation for writing suggestive lyrics. Who do they think I am? The Singing Nun?" Staples does not fear Prince's exhibitionist sexuality. She considers it a healthy sign of his youth and notes that he does not impose it on the music he writes for her. Prince has produced two albums for Staples: Time Waits for No One in 1989 and The Voice in 1993.
While Tom Moon, writing in Details, found that Time Waits for No One "failed to challenge [Staples's] sassy-to-scornful vocal range," other music critics found it an intriguing and remarkable blend of the pair's distinct talents. Simon Reynolds wrote in Melody Maker, "This record is a miniature triumph of futuristic R&B, old school meets techno-chic"; the title song, he commented, is "the killer: a 21st Century cathedral of a ballad, with an epic fade of soul mama throes and Hendrix squeals 'n' sobs." Phyl Garland, writing in Stereo Review, found Staples and Prince the perfect complements: "The result points up [Prince's] very real affinity for rhythm-and-blues while underscoring the close relationship between traditional and contemporary black popular music: the best of yesterday and today meet on the common ground of musical excellence."
Certainly Prince has been the major force in Staples's career's renaissance, and she is nothing but appreciative--but the singer also knows her own talents. According to Pitts, Staples is forever besieged by inquiries about "how it feels" to work with Prince; the music veteran is savvy enough to respond, "Well, how does Prince feel working with me?" Pitts pointed out that Staples "has been in music longer than Prince has been alive," and that evidence of her talents comes not only from the success of the Staples Singers and from her own solo career, but also from the "raiding" of her "vocal arsenal" by such stars as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Prince himself.
Garland assessed that although "[her] distinctive, heavy-throated voice and profound expressiveness became a hallmark of the Staples's sound as they fused elements of gospel with rhythm-and-blues to take their place on the cutting edge of the Sixties soul phenomenon, [her] interpretive strength was even more apparent in her occasional solo recordings." Staples has also appeared on albums with Ray Charles, Kenny Loggins, Marty Stuart, and others, and is featured on BeBe and CeCe Winans's hit remake of the Staples Singers' song "I'll Take You There."
On the 1993 album The Voice, Staples's personality is wholly present, thanks in part to Prince's songs--he wrote or cowrote seven of the album's 12 songs--which Staples feels "are about my life," she told Billboard' s David Nathan. She found "Blood Is Thicker Than Time" particularly moving. "[It] is very special for me. I got so choked up when we were recording it that I had to stop. The song takes me back to my childhood, to those Sunday mornings when I couldn't wait to get to church.... The song's about family coming together, and love."
Prince listened very closely to Staples's stories and reminiscences and wrote songs that come as much from her heart as from his. "The Undertaker," ultimately about the effects of drugs on the African American community, was inspired by the singer's stories about her marriage to an undertaker. But again, Prince's main achievement is in spotlighting Staples. "Mavis's greatest marketing tool is herself," Kathy Busby, product manager at Paisley Park, told Nathan. "Wherever she goes, people love her." "Let's face it, " Michael Eric Dyson wrote in Vibe, "Mavis Staples--whose sensuous, sweet-husky gospel alto is one of pop's most distinctive voices--can blow away 95 percent of the competition just by showing up."
With The Voice, Staples and Prince produced an album that, in Dyson's opinion, "makes clear that [Mavis] has finally found a musical and spiritual visionary [in Prince] quirky enough to suit both her demanding voice and her unique brand of message music." Dyson concluded, "She and Prince move the style forward by looking backward, raiding a cache of '70s forms from funk and contemporary gospel to jazzy, psychedelic soul. These sounds are wedded to house grooves and even new jack swing, updating her messages--brother- and sister-hood, self-respect, and mutual love--for the '90s." A Village Voice contributor noted that it is "the rare singer who can anchor Prince's often-flighty lyrics in the real world. At the same time, she makes his every call for other-worldly intervention sound justified--if not urgently necessary."
Mavis Staples, with help from the artist formerly known as Prince, is calling Jesus' name again--with the help of a little soul, a little gospel, and a little rap; by example, as she indicated to Billingham in Melody Maker, she wants to make sure that the world of younger musicians remembers to "put some humanity into their work."
by Diane Moroff
Mavis Staples's Career
Family gospel music act evolved into the Staples Singers, 1951; group recorded for United, 1954; signed with Vee Jay label, 1956; single "Uncloudy Day" reached Number One on the gospel charts; signed with CBS/Epic, 1964, Stax, 1968, and Curtom, 1975; released solo single, "I Have Learned to Do Without You," and solo album Only for the Lonely, Stax, 1970; first solo critical success, Time Waits for No One, produced by Prince's label Paisley Park, 1989; opened for Prince's overseas tour, 1990; released The Voice, Paisley Park, 1993, also produced and co-written by Prince. Provided backup vocals for Ray Charles, Kenny Loggins, Marty Stuart, and others; sang "I'll Take You There," with BeBe and CeCe Winans, which went to Number One on gospel and R&B charts, 1993.
- Selective Works
- With the Staples Singers; on Stax, except as noted Soul Folk in Action, 1968.
- "Heavy Makes You Happy (She-Na-Boom Boom), 1970.
- "Respect Yourself," 1970.
- Bealtitude: Respect Yourself, 1972.
- Be What You Are, 1973.
- My Main Man, 1974.
- Best of the Staples Singers, 1975.
- Let's Do It Again, Curtom, 1975.
- Pass It On, Warner Bros., 1976.
- Hold on to Your Dream, 20th Century, 1981.
- The Turning Point, Private I/CBS, 1984.
- Solo recordings "I Have Learned to Do Without You," Volt, 1970.
- Only for the Lonely, Stax, 1970.
- Time Waits for No One, Paisley Park, 1989.
- The Voice, Paisley Park, 1993.
- Billboard, September 8, 1984; September 4, 1993.
- Details, October 1993.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 27, 1993.
- Melody Maker, June 10, 1989; July 22, 1989.
- Musician, September 1989.
- People, September 13, 1993.
- Request, October 1993.
- Stereo Review, October 1989.
- USA Today, August 24, 1993.
- Vibe, October 1993.
- Village Voice, November 16, 1993.
- Additional information for this sketch was obtained from Paisley Park Records press materials, 1993.