BY ELYSA GARDNER | GANNETT
The living gospel and soul legend Mavis Staples has inspired latter-day artists ranging from Prince, who worked with her on two albums, to Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who produced her last pair, released in 2010 and 2013. She also earned a Grammy Award earlier this month for American roots performance for her reading of “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” from her 2015 EP “Your Good Fortune.”
So it may be surprising to hear that before she recorded “Livin’ On A High Note,” (released Feb. 19), Staples had doubts about how she was perceived.
“I’m 76 years old,” says Staples. “Most of the time record companies don’t like to be bothered with us older folks. I thought I had done my last record.”
Happily, Staples’ label, ANTI-, had other ideas. Staples credits its president, Andy Kaulkin, for the concept behind “Livin’,” which features songs crafted for her by various indie rock darlings, from Nick Cave to singer/songwriter M. Ward, who produced the album.
Staples recalls of meeting Ward, “People told me, ‘He’s a beautiful person, but he’s very shy, so don’t be discouraged by that.’ I said, ‘If I can Prince talk, I can make anyone talk.’ ”
She gave all her collaborators one directive: “I told them I wanted songs that will make people smile. I’ve sung gospel and freedom songs and made people cry, but I always manage to lift them up through inspirational songs.”
Those enduring gifts are also being celebrated in an HBO documentary, “Mavis!,” which premieres at 8 p.m. Feb. 29. Directed by Jessica Edwards, the film traces its subject’s career back to its roots, with footage of the Staple Singers, the family group led by her father, the late Roebuck “Pops” Staples. It was this outfit that introduced a young Mavis’ startlingly voluptuous alto to church audiences, and later made her an R&B star with early-’70s hits such as “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”
When the latter song came out, Staples recalls, “The church people wanted to take us out of church. They said we were singing the devil’s music, because that’s the first time we were singing with a rhythm section behind us. When we did interviews, I said, ‘You have to listen to the lyrics.’ ”
Here Staples begins singing softly, her husky voice shimmering with emotion: ” ‘I know a place/Ain’t nobody cryin’/Ain’t nobody worried.’ Now where else would that place be that we’re taking you, other than heaven? That’s a gospel song! Well, not long after that, we were invited back to church.”
The Staple Singers’ messages of faith and fortitude also extended to the freedom songs they performed at civil rights rallies in the ’60s. “Watching the news now can make me feel like I’m living in that time again,” Staples says. “I get so depressed.”
She is ambivalent about the Black Lives Matter movement, though: “It doesn’t gel with me, because the way I look at it is, all lives matter. We weren’t marching just for black people; we were marching for everybody — and white people were marching with us… I would rather be a soldier for love and hope and peace.”
Mavis! touches briefly on romantic love in Staples’ life, including her recollection of how a young Bob Dylan proposed to her. “He was cute,” Staples says in conversation. “But I said, ‘Bobby, we’re too young. I don’t even know how to cook yet.’ Also, I didn’t tell him this, but my older sisters weren’t married yet, and you don’t go getting married before your older sisters.”
Staples still “wonders what would have happened” had she become Mrs. Dylan. “We’d have us a group” of musically-inclined children, she figures, chuckling. But she’s generally not spending much time looking back.
“When my father passed, I sat down on the couch and didn’t think I’d ever get up,” Staples recalls. “But now it’s come down to me being the last Staples standing. I’m still representing the family, and I’m so grateful that people still care after all these years. I’m the happiest old girl in the world.”