Born July 10, 1939, Mavis Staples began her career as a featured voice in her family’s gospel and R&B band, the Staple Singers. The group - consisting of Staples, her sisters and her father (the great Roebuck “Pops” Staples) - were mainstays of the civil rights movement, carrying that torch while topping the charts with indelible classics like “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself” and “Let's Do It Again.”
Mavis began recording solo material in addition to performing with the Staple Singers in the late ‘60s, and continues to perform and record to this day, often with a surprising slate of artists like Ben Harper, M. Ward and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. While some might see such collaborations as attempts to stay in the spotlight, one must consider that the songs that come from those collaborations are only given life once a singer as great as Mavis Staples breathes life into them.
Here’s a selection of tracks, both classic and of more recent vintage, that prove her power as a solo performer.
“Son of a Preacher Man”: Here’s a familiar voice singing a familiar song made famous by someone else (in this case, Dusty Springfield). Considering how many preachers’ sons Staples probably knew, having grown up in gospel music, perhaps her version could be considered the best-informed take on the song.
"I Have Learned to Do Without You": This sad but empowering track opened Staples’ 1970 solo album Only for the Lonely, and it’s a whopper of a tune. When she bears down on the second chorus, you feel every bit of bitterness pass from her past, into the ether.
"A Piece of the Action": Curtis Mayfield wrote the soundtrack to the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby comedy from which this track gets its title; Staples provided the voice for and a pretty cool interpretation of those tunes. “I got some news for ya,” she sings, “I can be funky for ya.” She most certainly could.
“Wrote a Song for Everyone”: Jeff Tweedy, one of the godfathers of Americana music, first produced Staples on 2010's You Are Not Alone, and two years later did it again, on her One True Vine album. On the former, she sang this excellent cover of a Creedence Clearwater Revival classic.
“We Get By”: Ben Harper wrote and produced all the songs on Staples’ 2019 album We Get By. On the title duet, the pair harmonize, holding a gospel soul summit that the rest of us are privileged to listen in on and enjoy.