It was 1955 the first time a 16-year-old Mavis Staples played the Apollo Theatre with her family, led by the late Roebuck “Pops” Staples, as part of Thurman Ruth’s Gospel Caravan. “I remember it very well,” says Staples, now 75 and calling from her lifelong home on Chicago’s South Side. “It was good me and my sisters were so young; we could run up those stairs to our dressing room on the third floor,” she recalls. “We had lots of Chock Full o’Nuts; I remember it all. It was so exciting.”
More than a half-century later, the storied singer, who went solo with her 1969 self-titled album, has become an American treasure, with 14 records behind her and more, no doubt, in the future. But it wasn’t until her 2007-onward affiliation with punk label Epitaph’s sister company Anti- (also home to another long-beloved late bloomer, Bettye LaVette), that she truly entered the pop-culture zeitgeist. Staples’s first effort for the label, 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back, was produced by Ry Cooder. Her two subsequent studio albums were helmed by Wilco hero Jeff Tweedy.
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“When I first met Tweedy — we both live in Chicago — I had a message that he wanted to come down and meet me and maybe perform a couple of songs with me while I was doing a concert at Millennium Park in the summer of ’07 or ’08,” she reminisces. “That didn’t happen, but about six months later my band and I were doing a concert at a little funky club called the Hideout on the North Side where Tweedy lived.”
Staples had no idea who he was. “But it was nice that some rock guy wanted to come meet me and sing with me,” she laughs. “In fact, the entire Wilco band came down, and Jeff Tweedy came to the dressing room and told me that he enjoyed it, and we took some pictures together.”
A lunch meeting found Tweedy shy, but Staples broke the ice with her easy humor, and the two bonded over family. “My dad taught me that family is the strongest unit in the world, and [Tweedy] sounded just like Pops. He let me know that he used to work in a record shop when he was a teenager and that he had access to all of the Staples Singers music. He knew everything.”
The bond has so far led to two acclaimed records, 2010’s Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone and 2013’s One True Vine, where her gift for interpretation shines on “Can You Get to That” (originally on Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain) and a song by her father, “I Like the Things About Me.” Staples’s faith- and civil-rights-based songs and life have included work with Bob Dylan and meetings with Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy.
Clearly, she’s seen and been involved with a lot of history, and as a singer who came of age pre-rock ‘n’ roll, Staples had a front-row seat for the genre’s inception, when the British Invasion hit with its early revved-up take on American blues music. “I thought that was great, but sometimes I thought it was funny, seeing Mick Jagger sing, ‘I’m a maannnn,’ but they are such nice guys. I thought it was amazing the way the kids were carrying on with their hair. The Rolling Stones actually asked [the Staples Singers] to open for them on their very first U.S. tour. But my father, he was a shrewd operator; I mean, their offer was way too low.”
These days, famous musicians are lining up to play with her, and on November 19 a tribute in Chicago will see her perform with Gregg Allman, Taj Mahal, Grace Potter, Bonnie Raitt, and more. Plus, there’s a new album in the works that she’s “collecting” songs for now. (“You have to have a record out there for people to know you are still alive,” she says.)
Ever gracious, Staples is counting her blessings — if slightly suspiciously. “There are so many good things happening for me this year, I told my manager that this is my send-off,” she says with a throaty chuckle. “You know, that this will be my year to pack it in. But he said, ‘Oh, no, Mavis, it’s just getting started. This is starting you up, not seeing you off.’ ”
Mavis Staples performs Tuesday, November 4, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.