She sings in the key of Jesus.
Legendary gospel singer Mavis Staples lets out a roar of glorious laughter when she hears the assessment.
Special guest: Phil Cook
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Wabash
“I love that! Amen!,” Staples says. “Because you know, I don’t know how to read music and I have no idea what key I sing in,” she continues. “I just tell musicians to start playing and I’ll just come in at the right time. With my father, I just sang from the ear, from whatever he played. Whatever notes he’d hit on hit guitar, I would just know where to start singing. When I’m making records now, I let the musicians know just start playing and I’ll find what’s comfortable for me. Jeff Tweedy, Prince, Curtis Mayfield, all the wonderful producers I’ve worked with, they just play and I come in.”
There are plenty more mentions of Jesus during a conversation with the Chicago-born singer (she still makes her home in the city) and recent Kennedy Center Honors recipient. Staples quickly thanks “the Good Lord” for the success in her life, for the music that has touched the souls of countless fans.
“My voice is my God-given gift,” Staples beams. “I have to use it the way the Lord wanted me to use it. My work has never been work. It’s been fun.”
The fun started more than 70 years ago, when Mavis and her siblings and their father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, a South Side construction worker and blues guitarist/singer began spreading the word of the Lord through song. The Staple Singers would go on to megahits including “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” and the civil rights movement anthem, “Freedom Highway.” Her father was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mahalia Jackson was a familiar presence in their home. Memorable performances for the family included John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. The people, the seminal moments in her lifetime, resonate in her music to this day, Mavis Staples says matter-of-factly. So when she was being honored in Washington, D.C., this past December, her mind drifted to all those years ago.
“The first thing I thought about was my father,” Staples says. “I said to myself, Pops, do you believe it? And I started thinking about sitting on the floor of our home on 33rd Street all those years ago. Pops would get out this old guitar he bought at a pawn shop, and he would tell my aunt, ‘I’m gonna sing with my children!’ I never thought I’d still be singing all these years later. We weren’t singing for a career. We started singing to amuse ourselves.
“People would call us from so many places to come sing at their church or [event], and we would just drive and drive to so many places,” she continues. “When we recorded ‘Uncloudy Day’ [in the late 1950s], I remember Pops coming home with an attaché case full of money, and he told my mother, ‘ I believe my children and me can make a living singing.’ [Laughs] And I remember my mom telling him, ‘Don’t you quit your job!’”
He did quit his job, and music became the family’s life journey. For Staples, it was the joy she found through singing that fueled her spirit, that drives her to this day.
“When I’m singing to the people, I’m singing from my heart,” she says. “I live the life I sing about. I remember when I was 13 or 14 my father took me aside said, ‘You don’t need gimmicks. You don’t need to sing at the top of your voice. Sing from you heart. If you sing from your heart, you reach the people. What comes from the heart, reaches the heart.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
Staples most definitely reached the hearts of the sold-out crowd at Ravinia this past summer where the audience was treated to a double bill of Staples and Bob Dylan, where her highly charged opening set got the audience up on its feet.
She describes her longtime friend Dylan, whom she calls “Bobby” as “quite comical.” Her jovial pal was awarded the Nobel Prize this year (she would have accepted on his behalf had she been asked, she says), and Staples quickly offers that her tour with him last summer was one of her favorites.
“You know, when people found out I was gonna tour with Bobby they all said, ‘Mavis you’ll never see him unless he’s on the stage already.’ Well that’s just crazy! Bobby would come and get me. I’d be sitting on the bus or in my dressing room having my tea and he’d tell my musicians to ‘tell her to come out.’ Or he’d just come and get me himself and he’d sit and talk with me before the show. I’d be standing in the wings every night watching him perform. And when I wasn’t’ there for a couple of nights, he came and found me afterward and said, ‘Where have you been? I thought you jumped ship!.’
“But we got out and walked around [Ravinia] park hours before the show. Just talking and laughing. … We’d talk about the old days. Like the Newport [Jazz] Festival. Or like the many times he and my brother Pervis would sit out on the front stoop and have a bottle of wine and talk all night. He asks me things out of the blue, like, ‘Why did you let Joan Baez cut her hair?’ But he does it in such a way that it’s just so funny. Like I have control over such things!”
Over the years, she and Dylan maintained their friendship in a most unusual way, by today’s standards. “He and I used to write to each other all the time,” Staples says. “You can’t get him on a phone.”
As for contemporary gospel music, Staples is both cautious and optimistic.
“These young people, they have changed gospel music in so many ways,” she says quietly. “They’re still singing God’s praises but it’s a different kind of gospel. It’s their kind. They had to create new gospel because they didn’t witness what I witnessed. They don’t know what I know. They didn’t live what I lived. When I was in Mississippi with my grandma in that little wooden church on the hill, there were no instruments, the whole congregation would just sing all together, and you would hear their feet just tapping those wooden floors. That was a glorious sound. Singers today can’t sing to that because they didn’t live that.”
As for the state of the country since election day, a little sadness creeps into Staples’ voice as she’s asked what her good friend, Dr. Martin Luther King would think of the state of affairs.
“He would be very sad,” she says of the slain civil rights leader, her voice becoming subdued. “His heart would be broken that all of this prejudice, everything he fought for and gave his life for, is still here. But I tell you, he would be marching,” Staples says, her voice springing to life. “And he’d have us singing, [with a nod to the civil rights anthem] ‘Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.’
“Sometimes I watch the news and I feel like I’m back in the ’60s. But I am so glad to see people come together like they are. That women’s march was unbelievable. I just cried when I saw it. The tears just flowed because it made me feel happy and hopeful.”
Happy and hopeful — just like her music.