There is no more fitting talent to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jazz Fest than Mavis Staples, who at 80 years of age is celebrating a total career revitalization. Her second album of 2019, the Ben Harper-produced We Get By, comes out May 10, only months after the acclaimed Live in London, her first live album in a decade.
A veteran of several Gospel Tent appearances over the years as well as shows at the Blues Tent and Congo Square, Mavis’ participation in Jazz Fest activities goes back 40 years, to a 1979 performance at the Municipal Auditorium with her family band, the Staples Singers, led by her father the legendary Pops Staples. Mavis has a good memory, but she doesn’t remember that particular show. She does have precious memories of Mahalia Jackson, a family friend who she knew since childhood, and emulated all her life. In 1998, and then again in 2009, Mavis got a chance to lead a tribute to her mentor at the Gospel Tent.
Congratulations on becoming an octogenarian, 80 years old.
All right, I’ll have to remember that word.
You’re still going strong. You sound great on the Live in London record. We’ve lost a lot of people from your generation. I guess you were pretty tight with Aretha, right?
Aretha and I grew up together. We’ve known each other from teenagers, like 13, 14. Her family and my family, we just combined the two families. We were one family. The Franklins and the Staples, all one family.
Did you ever sing with her?
I’m singing with her on one of her albums, we’re singing “Oh Happy Day.” We did this at her father’s church. It’s a live album.
The albums of his sermons are really amazing.
Oh my God, he was the best. He was the best at sermons. My favorite was, “The Eagle Stirred the Nest.”
Of course when it comes to the musical sermons, nobody beats Pops Staples.
You got that right. Pops was the baddest. Pops was so smooth, y’know? I used to love to hear Pops sing. I still love to hear him sing. He was so laid back and cool. My voice, people say I get it from Pops, but I think it’s the musical part of my life that I get from Pops, while my voice comes from my mother. My mother had a strong voice, and her mother had a strong voice. Pops’s voice is like velvet, it’s soft and smooth.
What stage will you be playing at Jazz Fest?
I don’t know. I’m just honored to be playing at Jazz Fest, I’ve been there so many times. I remember I’ve done the Congo stage, and I’ve done the Gospel Tent.
You’ve also done the Blues Tent.
That might be where they have me this time, because those songs by Ben Harper, they’re my style, but when you get down in there, they’re bluesy.
Who’s in your band?
I’ve got Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass, Stephen Hodges on drums, and the backing singers are Donny Gerrard and Sandra Williams. Sandra is new. Sandra sang background for Sharon Jones. I’ve got a major team around me. That’s the band on the Ben Harper [record], We Get By.
The songs are so powerful. Ben, he’s a great writer, and the songs that he’s written for me, I love them all. I can’t stop listening to them: “We Get By,” and there’s another one called “Strong,” which describes the whole album, because every song gets stronger than the last. My message for Ben’s album is strong and powerful because that’s what the album is. I’m so honored and proud that Ben wrote all of these songs just for me. For a young and gifted young man like him to want to write for me–I’m the happiest old girl in the world. All of my producers have been geniuses. And then here comes Ben. I think Ben is my youngest producer since Curtis Mayfield. I’m so blessed, so grateful to still be here living in this time. My work is still not done yet, but this young man has written me some songs that will help me get over the hump.
He seems inspired by your message.
Yes. He’s been wanting to produce me for a while. He wrote a song for me a while back, for my Livin’ On a High Note album.
Right. “Love and Trust.”
When I heard that song I said, “Ben is ready. Let’s try and see if he will work with us.” It was just great. It was a fun session. He’s comical, and he keeps you happy. I’m happy-go-lucky anyhow. It doesn’t take much to make me happy, just to know that someone cares and someone is interested in me moving on forward.
Are you going to play material from We Get By at Jazz Fest?
We’re already doing that. We’re singing four of the songs. We’re singing “We Get By,” we sing “Change,” “Anytime, Anyway, Anywhere,” and “Strong.” We’ve been singing them because we love ’em so much. And they need to be heard right now. So I can’t wait for the album to be released.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s your family band was very important in the Civil Rights movement, and now at a time when all of these issues are suddenly presented to us again, you seem to have stepped out. You sing, “Things are gonna change around here.” Once again that message comes through.
That’s right. I’m still in the same category that I was with my family. We were singing songs of faith and hope and love and I’m still doing it. I have to—because I’m still here. I was there in Montgomery, Alabama. I’ve seen it all as far as bigotry is concerned, and I’m still here. I can’t let it go, because I have my father’s and Dr. King’s legacy, I have to keep them going. If the Lord has kept me here, he’s kept me here for this reason, for me to keep this positivity in life going’. Trying to bring us together, trying to bring hope and love into this world. I have some fight against me, but that’s all right, because I’m strong. They can push against me all they please, but I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to continue to move forward.
This record is really an example of that. Even the cover art, that powerful Gordon Parks photo, which is so apropos of what’s going on right now, with those young girls looking through a fence at a place…
Yeah, wanting’ to be on the other side.
It’s sort of like a metaphor for Trump’s wall, a symbol of racism in our time.
Right! That’s true. I had looked at about ten different covers. I saw those little girls standing there and it kind of reminded me of my sisters and me when we were that size. They had the little braids and the cute little dresses and they’re standing there wanting to be on that playground. But they can’t go in. I thought that was the best cover. And I had just been with Gordon Parks. I saw a lot of his artwork. I’m glad you mentioned that. It makes me feel so good to have that on my album cover.
I think this record is going to be a really powerful statement. Also the line “bullets flying around here,” clearly we’re in a gun crisis and that’s something the lyric addresses.
It’s unbelievable how people think they can just get out of their cars and shoot somebody. And they don’t even know the people. That tells me there’s just some hate being buried into these people’s minds. And I know where it’s coming from. I’m not saying the name, but he’s putting this in people’s minds. They think they can be doing’ what he’s doing’. They’re driving down the expressway and just shooting into cars. That’s bad. And the stuff that’s happening, I know exactly where it’s coming from, but I just won’t say it. In one of the songs I sing something about this man, and God send us another plan. People know what I’m talking about, but we want to get to those who have been swayed by what he’s telling them. It’s so sad. Anything they wanna do, they just go and do it. And laugh about it.
Right. There’s another song on the Live in London record, “No Time for Crying,” which you co-wrote with Jeff Tweedy, which seems to address the current political crisis.
Right: “No time for tears. We got work to do.” And that little monogram about “motherless children,” that just came to me, thinking about the children in cages, and how we got motherless children. That’s the worst thing in the world, for a child to be taken away from their mother.
Your shows are filled with inspirational anthems like “We’re Gonna Make It,” a classic sung by Little Milton. Did the Staples sing that too?
No, we didn’t record that. My band, we just decided to sing that song because it’s so positive.
And, “Touch a Hand.”
“Touch a Hand” is one of my favorites from way back. We recorded that in the ’70s. When I brought it to the band, I told them it was one of my favorite songs when I was singing it with the family, and I wanted to continue singing it. And man, when we sing, “Touch a Hand” it is the best song of the entire show. People just grab it and they start hugging each other and shaking hands. We still do “Respect Yourself,” and “I’ll Take You There.” “Respect Yourself,” you can’t get away from that.
You have a lot of exchanges with different New Orleans artists. You’ve sung with Dr. John on his records and at the tribute to him at the Saenger Theater in 2014.
That place was loaded. The Neville Brothers were there, there was so many of our friends there, and Dr. John, he’s been a favorite of mine for years. There was so many there, it started getting so late. I said, “Listen, y’all better go on and be calling me, because I’ll be going to sleep in a few.” Dr. John told ’em, “Get Mavis on stage.” It was already after 12 o’clock! I said, “Oh my God, I can’t stay up this late.” But oh that was so good. It was in his honor. I just love Dr. John so much. He’s so comical. We’ve worked together for years. I love him.
Also, the Arcade Fire, they live in New Orleans now. And little Benjamin Booker, he wrote me a song, “Take Us Back,” and I sang with him on his song, “Witness.” I sang with Arcade Fire on the Talking Heads song [“Slippery People”]. I went to Arcade Fire’s house in New Orleans, and it’s a beautiful house, so I had to tell Dr. John, “Hey, you never invited me to your house. You gotta invite me so we can have some crabs, crawfish and oysters.” Galactic, I worked with them too. We did a show together with them last year. New Orleans has some great talent. Irma Thomas, Preservation Hall band, and Chocolate Milk, I love New Orleans. You gonna mess around and have me moving to New Orleans.
Do you remember playing Municipal Auditorium in 1979 with your family band?
I don’t remember that. We used to come there with a caravan of gospel singers, but I don’t remember playing in an auditorium.
Were you with Pops when he played the Gospel Tent in 1988?
I wasn’t there. Pops wouldn’t let me go with him. I wanted to go. “You stay with your mother, you stay home,” he would say. Then he started laughing.
You mentioned Irma. In 2009 you played twice at Jazz Fest, both times in the Gospel Tent, one your own show, and the other a tribute to Mahalia Jackson with Irma.
I’ll never forget that. That was one of the most beautiful experiences. You know, Mahalia Jackson was my very favorite singer of all time. She was my idol. When I was about eight years old, my father used to just play all of these male gospel singers, and one day I was in the back room in my little play area, and I heard this lady’s voice. I sat on the floor listening to her, just rocking, and I asked, “Daddy who is that singing?” and he said, “That’s Mahalia Jackson. Do you like her?” and I said, “Oh yes sir, I like her.” We became friends. She would come to the house on the Fourth of July and my mother would fix barbecue and make homemade ice cream. And Mahalia would always say, “Lil’ baby, take my bowl and get me some more of that ice cream.” I’d say, “Yes ma’am,” and I’d run and get her some more ice cream. Oh Lord, she was the greatest. The last time that I saw my friend, was like 1969, 1970. We were on a gospel festival in Harlem and she wasn’t feeling well. And she said, “Mavis, sing this song for me,” and I said, “Yes ma’am I’ll sing.” So I started to sing, and then by the second verse someone had helped Mahalia up to the microphone, and there I was singing with this great lady. I was just outdone. I must have been about 13 years old. I was in my world. I tell you I was so blessed. And I’m still blessed. Oh Lord, I’ve come a long way. And I ain’t dyin’ yet.