Mavis Staples' life has had more twists and turns than a mountain road. As the lead singer for the Staple Singers, the Chicago-based gospel group led by her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, she shared the stage with kings (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to be exact) and presidents (John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter). She captured the heart of Bob Dylan and brought the message of the civil rights movement to the top of the radio charts. As a solo artist, she's worked her way from gospel and social commentary to pop music, sultry soul, and, finally, back to gospel again.
On her upcoming album, Have a Little Faith (due in August on Alligator Records), Staples again shouts her beliefs from the rooftops: "Accept the responsibility/Don't forget humility/At every opportunity/Be the best that you can be," she croons in her trademark growl.
It's audible proof that the down-home, faith-based doctrines (tenets such as "respect yourself" and "you've got to earn it," which later became song titles) that sustained her family during its rise from traveling gospel act to soul superstars have remained intact.
Staples was just a young girl when the Staple Singers got their start in the 1950s, and she laughs when remembering the large crowds that turned out to see the tiny girl belt out the group's first hit, "Uncloudy Day."
"They had bets," she recalls. "No one thought that such a great big voice could come out of me." Onstage, her brother Pervis would step toward the microphone as Mavis' part grew closer. Just as the audience would begin to nudge each other, saying, "I told you so," Mavis would duck in front of Pervis to do her thing.
"We blew them away!" she says, laughing.
But life on the road wasn't easy. Staples recalls a frightening episode that occurred in West Memphis in the early '60s. Returning to Chicago from a show in Jackson, Mississippi, the family pulled over for gas. "I was driving," Staples remembers. "And after the attendant gassed us up, I asked him to please wash the windshield." The man stared for a few seconds before grudgingly doing as she asked. Staples then asked for a receipt. Sensing the tension, Pops got out of the car to speak with the attendant.
"Daddy was wearing his house shoes, and the next thing I knew he and that man were fighting, slipping and sliding in the grease on the ground," Staples says. The attendant made it back to his office, where Staples feared he had a gun. "I woke Pervis up. He was beneath some coats on the back seat, and he took off like Superman! That man didn't know what hit him."
The family jumped into their car and headed for Memphis. But just a few miles down the highway, Staples saw flashing lights behind them. "I thought we were gonna be lynched," she says. "I thought I'd never see my mother again." The police frisked the group and searched their vehicle. They found a cigar box full of cash -- the Staples' take from their gigs -- and concluded that Pops had robbed the service station. The family were handcuffed and taken to jail.
"When we walked into that jail, the first thing we saw was a man mopping the floor. And he said, 'Pops! What on earth are you doing here? And look at your children!'" Pops eventually convinced the police that the family was a gospel group and that the money they had was their own. The Staple Singers were let go.
But the event made a deep impression on the Staples. Pops began writing material like "Freedom Highway" and "Move Along Train," songs that served as anthems for the civil rights movement, and the group added Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" to their repertoire.
"We met Bobby Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival," Staples recalls. Dylan was initially too shy to approach the Staples girls, but he eventually opened up to Mavis and the two began dating. "I was involved in the movement, though, and I didn't think that a black girl could date a white boy," she says. Concerned about the negative impact their romance could have, Staples stepped back from the relationship. "Boy, was I dumb," she now says with a laugh.
In 1968, the Staple Singers signed to Stax Records. Collaborations with staff songwriters Homer Banks and Sir Mack Rice took the group to a new level. Six albums -- recorded at the Stax studio on McLemore Avenue and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama -- yielded a bevy of chart hits, including the rallying "Respect Yourself."
Cut in Muscle Shoals, "Respect Yourself" evolved from the idea that black people needed -- and deserved -- to be proud. The song established the Staple Singers on the pop charts, hitting number 12 while going all the way to number 2 on Billboard's R&B charts. "I'll Take You There," from the same session, eclipsed it a few months later.
The group was dealt a blow a few years later when Stax went bankrupt. Although the Staple Singers got another deal, they lost their momentum and eventually disbanded. Mavis and Pops each started solo careers.
In the late '80s, Staples' career took another unlikely turn when she signed to Prince's Paisley Park label. "When Prince first came backstage at one of my shows, I didn't see how we could ever work together," she admits. "He just sat in a corner and would only talk in one- or two-word sentences. I knew that if we were gonna work together, he would have to open up."
Staples began composing letters, sometimes writing 14 double-sided legal pages at a single sitting. She poured out her life story, giving Prince the background necessary for songs such as "Blood Is Thicker Than Time" and "The Undertaker." Despite her spectacularly soulful vocals and his songwriting and production work, their collaborations died on the charts.
With Have a Little Faith, Staples is once again standing on firm ground. And although Pops died in 2000, she is still heeding his life lessons. On the aptly titled "Pops' Recipe," she sings, "Do it well, great or small/Never give up or don't do it at all." It's a message she's clearly taken to heart.