Pops ‘N Soul
There are so many wonderful life affirming things going on in this fantastic documentary ‘Mavis!’ (2015) by Jessica Edwards, focused on the life and fascinating times of one of the greatest singers of old and modern times. Still touring at 75 years of age after 60 years on the road Mavis Staples was the lead singer of the group The Staple Singers formed in 1948 by their talented guitarist and singer dad Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples.
Pops grew up on Dockery Farm down in Mississippi where as a young boy he had the influence of fellow farm hands Charley Patton (Father of the Delta Blues) to emulate his guitar playing style. Also living on the farm was Howlin’ Wolf, the seeds of modern music were absolutely sown on that farm. Pops became a consummate player and liked to mix up the multiple influences in his life, the blues from the diary songs of a hard working life and the elation and promises of reward in gospel music. Indeed going to church was a necessary soul food to help black folk deal with the racially oppressive world that was America at the time. Pops took his many talents and beliefs and with the aid of his three daughters (his son Pervis left to join the army) went on to nurture and contribute to a civil rights movement and effectively change music and the rights of black folk forever.
From the opening moments Mavis radiates a serenity, humility and profound peace of an artist that has lived a very full life surrounded by a lot of great people and moments and producing incredible work from all that reservoir of stories. “I’ll stop singing when I have nothing left to say, and you know that ain’t gonna happen.”
Growing up in 1940s Chicago in the 30s area, where such luminaires as Sam Cooke, Spencer Taylor and Curtis Mayfield were neighbours. The Staples parents regularly held garden barbecues where everybody was welcome and hung out. The daughters singing ability became very apparent from an early age, Mavis starting from 9 years of age. Pops took them to the local church where they caused encores at the service, despite only knowing one song to perform repeatedly. The reaction made Pops realise that there was a God given talent in his family and set about touring churches and fetes. This regular singing honed not only their voices, Mavis’ ability to work a crowd, but also their professional work ethic to the extent that at the when Mavis was just 13 (but singing like a 60+ year old man) they released their stunning track ‘Uncloudy Day’ that Bob Dylan has said influenced his work, ‘It was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard.’ It also went on to be the first million selling gospel single ever.
The young Dylan pops up again a few years later in the most wonderful of ways in the continuing influence of the sisters, particularly Mavis who Bob was wholly in love with, to the extent that he asked Pops permission to marry her. Unfortunately for all of man kind that never happened as Mavis thought he wasn’t serious despite some courting going on. They also went on to cover Dylan’s ‘Blowin In The Wind’ in a stunning rendition that effectively encapsulated everything they represented particularly civil rights.
They Staple Sisters were also friends with Martin Luther King and helped him spread the word of deserved freedom by singing at his events, making protest songs never sounded so beautiful, but again humility resides in the eyes of Mavis as it was rightly the most natural thing in the world to stand up for her fellow people, and her heavenly talent was how she was going to help.
The documentary charts from the early years to present day as Mavis continues to create music, tour and with the help of friends (Jeff Tweedy, lead singer in Wilco) lovingly re-record and release some of Pops unfinished works to a new and very appreciative audience. Peppered with stunning nuggets of stories of her journey through life which was constantly and lovingly guided by her dad, we even have such diverse figures as Chuck D from Public Enemy explaining her influence on them and blues singer Bonnie Raitt yet more perspective. But it’s her voice that permeates the entire movie, every time she sings it radiates out to effectively stop time, and will quite rightly send you out searching to find her entire body of work. Spread the word.
‘Mavis!’ is out on dvd and on demand now.