This week in history: Mavis Staples plays the Vic

The Chicago native, born July 10, 1939, found early success as a gospel singer in her family’s band. So what was a gospel singer doing playing the Vic?

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Singer Mavis Staples is shown at her home in Chicago

In this Jan. 11, 2011 file photo, singer Mavis Staples is shown at her home in Chicago. The legendary singer was born this week on July 10, 1939.

Charles Rex Arbogast, AP

As published in the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times:

If Alice Cooper ever announced that he’d be playing a concert in a church, most fans would probably think he was kidding or wanted to make some kind of statement. So what would fans of gospel singer Mavis Staples think if she and her family group, the Staples Singers, announced a performance at Chicago’s Vic Theater?

Staples, born this week on July 10, 1939, and her family proved once and for all that they could feel at home in any Chicago church or venue when the performers prepared to play the Vic on Nov. 22, 1985. In the lead-up to the concert, Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic Don McLeese caught up with the singer to ask about the venue — plus plenty more.

Of course, fans would go anywhere to hear Staples belt out “I’ll Take You There,” but the Vic represented a major deviation for the gospel group. Constructed in 1913, the former vaudeville theater remade itself several times over the years and had operated as an X-rated movie house in the 1970s, according to reporter Chris Mutert for 14 East magazine.

After it was sold and repaired in 1984, its new owners planned for it to become a rock n’ roll concert venue, Murtert said, and since its opening, David Bowie, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bob Dylan himself have played there.

As McLeese put it in his interview with Staples, “there’ll be a lot of people in the audience drinking. Some might even be dancing. Whatever the message of the music, this is territory where many gospel performers would fear to tread.”

None of that phased Staples.

“I don’t feel that the devil has any music,” she told McLeese on Nov. 17, 1985. “Devil don’t make no music, because music keeps us happy, music keeps us going. Whether it’s the blues, whether it’s gospel, rock, whatever, it’s going to do something for somebody — lift them up. And that can’t be nobody but God. The birds, the wind, all that’s music.”

The Vic performance wouldn’t have been the first time Staples stepped out from the church pew. In an interview with Curtis Mayfield published in the Chicago Daily News, the famed producer explained why he loved working with Staples on several songs written for the Sidney Poitier film, “A Piece of the Action.”

“She’s a very sexy singer,” he told reporter Patrick Goldstein on Nov. 18, 1977, “but she’s very much a child of the church, too. She’ll say, ‘Curtis, I’m from the church, and you’ve got to let me study the words to make sure I’m not confused. I want to feel the spirit of the song.’”

But truthfully, anyone would have a “devil of a time” trying to fit the Staples Singers into one musical category, McLeese observed. Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his children started out singing in churches on the South Side of Chicago and signed their first record deal in 1952. Their first pivot away from the genre came in the 1960s as the civil rights movement heated up.

“What really happened when we made the first transition was Dr. [Martin Luther] King,” Staples explained. “We felt if he could preach it, we could sing it. So we started writing songs on what he was preaching.”

As the group’s popularity grew, Staples clearly stood out as the best singer among her siblings, but she never sought the spotlight.

“Pops almost had to whup me to make me sing lead,” the singer said with a laugh. “[My brother] Pervis’s voice changed overnight. For some reason, with my voice being heavy, I can reach both highs and lows. I was so shy. I’d have rather stayed in the background. But Pops got that strap.”

So the Staples Singers had no problem playing the Vic, McLeese concluded, and in her interview about the performance and the group’s new contemporary sound, Staples also opened up about her relationship with fellow Vic performer Dylan.

“He asked pops could he marry me,” Staples recalled. “And Pops said, ‘Don’t ask me, ask Mavis.’ But he was too bashful to ask me. I cared about him, but I was mixed up about it. And Bobby was a little bitty skinny guy. One time he dove into the swimming pool, and he was so little that his trunks came off. My brother had to go under water, they had to get those trunks back on, before he could come back up.”

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