article by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph. D. via theroot.com
Legendary singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples has been in the business of making music and changing lives for over 60 years. The Chicago-born singer with the signature raspy voice launched her career in 1950 as part of the family gospel group The Staple Singers, comprised of her father (Pops) and three older sisters (Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne). The “skinny 15-year-old girl with the big voice” was often mistaken for a man or a big woman, surprising fans with her childlike appearance despite her full-bodied voice.
Like many family acts, the Staples honed their craft in the church before taking their show on the road. Having recorded a couple of singles, the Staples Singers hit their stride with the 1957 release of “Uncloudy Day,” on the renowned Vee-Jay Records, which became a mainstream hit. The rest as they say is music history. Staples’ life and times as a singer and activist are chronicled in the HBO documentary Mavis!, directed by Jessica Edwards, who made it her goal to capture the life of a living legend in her words on her terms, having realized that “No one had done the story of her.”
Mavis! chronicles the rise of the Staples Singers and their evolution from gospel to freedom songs to soul music. Staples leads viewers down memory lane recalling the group’s work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, her romance with the love of her life (musical giant Bob Dylan) and Staples desire to remain humble despite her staying power and overcoming the precariousness of the music business.
The 76-year-old, who still lives in Chicago, is still touring and picking up awards, having recently won a 2016 Grammy for Best Roots Performance for the song, “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” Staples is proud of her win. “It’s a wonderful feeling for an artist of my generation to be honored and recognized,” says Staples. “It’s very inspiring and it makes me feel like my decision not to retire and to keep making new music was the right one,” she adds.
Mavis! is currently airing on HBO. Check local listings