Legendary singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples has been in the business of making music and changing lives for over 60 years. The Chicago-born singer with the signature raspy voice launched her career in 1950 as part of the family gospel group the Staple Singers, consisting of her father (Pops) and three older sisters (Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne). The “skinny 15-year-old girl with the big voice” was often mistaken for a man or a big woman, subsequently surprising fans with her small stature despite her full-bodied voice.
Like many family acts, the Staples honed their craft in the church before taking their show on the road. Having recorded a couple of singles, the Staple Singers hit their stride with the 1957 release of “Uncloudy Day,” on the renowned Vee-Jay Records, which became a mainstream hit. The rest, as they say, is music history.
Staples’ life and times as a singer and activist are chronicled in the HBO documentary Mavis!, directed by Jessica Edwards, who made it her goal to capture the life of the living legend in her words on her terms, having realized that “no one had done the story of her.” Mavis! chronicles the rise of the Staple Singers and their evolution from gospel to freedom songs to soul music. Staples leads viewers down memory lane, recalling the group’s work with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, her romance with the love of her life (musical giant Bob Dylan), and her desire to remain humble even as she overcame the precariousness of the music business.
The 76-year-old, who still lives in Chicago, continues to tour and pick up awards, having recently won a 2016 Grammy for Best American Roots Performance for “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” Staples is proud of her win. “It’s a wonderful feeling for an artist of my generation to be honored and recognized,” says Staples. “It’s very inspiring, and it makes me feel like my decision not to retire and to keep making new music was the right one,” she adds.
The Root caught up with Staples, who is as busy as ever promoting Mavis! and her latest album, Livin’ on a High Note, to chat about the documentary and what it means for her tremendous legacy.
The Root: What did you most enjoy about the filmmaking process?
Mavis Staples: I really enjoyed reminiscing and revisiting the stories of my life. I also like that [my sister] Yvonne is in the movie so much and that Jessica captured a time when Yvonne was still on the road with me and singing with me.
TR: What did you learn about yourself that you didn’t previously know when watching the documentary?
MS: I learned from watching the documentary that my family has really and truly made a mark in this world. It gives you a perspective that every day you don’t normally get, even considering our long career. I think it will be educational for today’s youth and will help keep my family’s legacy and music going past 2016 and beyond.
TR: In your words, what is your legacy?
MS: My legacy is that I shared my God-given gift with the world and made people smile or forget their troubles or made them think about their place in the world and how they could help change things.
TR: What is your proudest accomplishment?
MS: My proudest accomplishment was marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with my family. To look back and think about that time, and being able to have raised my voice to his cause with my father and brother and sisters, makes me feel like I really did something.
Editor’s note: Mavis! is currently airing on HBO. Check local listings.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.