She'll Get Over
Half a century before the Staple Singers' 1999 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, decades before their run of crossover pop hits for Stax in the late 60s and early 70s, years before they redefined the gospel sound on United and Vee-Jay in the 50s--even before there was a group called the Staple Singers--there was "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
Mavis Staples revisits the spiritual at the end of her new solo album, Have a Little Faith. "It was the first song my father ever taught us," she says. In 1936 Roebuck "Pops" Staples, a Mississippi native and the 13th of 14 children, brought his wife and kids to Chicago, where Mavis was born three years later. "In the late 40s, he was singing with an all-male group called the Trumpet Jubilees. Pops seemed to have been the only one who was really serious about it--'cause there was six guys in this group and he'd go to rehearsal and only two of them might show up."
Frustrated, Pops came home one night in the summer of 1948, grabbed his guitar, and gathered his children--eight-year-old Mavis, big brother Pervis, and older sisters Cleotha and Yvonne--together in the living room. "And he sat us on the floor and started teaching us this song, 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken,' showing us our parts." (The family's youngest child, Cynthia, never performed with the Staple Singers; she wasn't born until 1952, and took her own life in '73.)
The Staple Singers made their debut just a few days later in a south-side church. "We didn't even know what an encore was, someone had to tell us," Mavis says. "And three times we had to sing that same song, 'cause it was the only one that Pops had taught us all the way through. Afterward, Pops said, 'Shucks, these people like us. We gonna go home and learn some more songs.' And that's how it all started."
Almost 50 years later, in the spring of 1997, Pops gathered the family together for what he seemed to know would be the last time. "He said to me, 'Mavis, we gotta have one more record, we gotta do one more album,'" she says. They traveled to Memphis and reunited with the old Stax crew that had helped craft some of their biggest hits--songwriter and producer Homer Banks, keyboardist and arranger Lester Snell, and engineer William Brown.
But before the family could finish the album, Pops fell ill. He struggled to record his parts at studios in Waukegan and Chicago, finally finishing in 1998, and the record remains unreleased. "When he was sick, Pops would be laying in the bed and I'd take the boom box upstairs to his room and put those songs on and play it down real low. And he'd tell me, 'Now Mavis, don't lose this stuff. That's some good stuff.'" Pops died in December 2000, at 85 (his wife, Oceola, had passed in 1987). Mavis is currently shopping for a label, and hopes that the disc--tentatively titled "Better Home"--will be out next year. She plans to bill it as a Pops Staples solo album, though it also features the last three tracks the Staple Singers recorded together.
Cleotha had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1998, and after Pops died she began deteriorating. "When we lost our father, it seemed like she let it take her over," Mavis says. She took 2001 off from touring to help her sister cope with her condition. Cleedi, as Mavis calls her, lives just a few yards away in the same south-side condo complex, where she receives 24-hour home care. "I can go over there and see her and feel really uplifted because we laugh and have a good time. But for a long time it did get to me," she says. "'Cause if there was something that reminded her of Pops she'd ask, 'Mavis, where's daddy?' And I'd say, 'Cleedi, Pops is in heaven with mama.'"
Within days of 9/11, Mavis received a call from local musician and producer Jim Tullio, who's worked with folk artists like Richie Havens and John Martyn as well as members of the Band. Tullio had written a song called "In Times Like These" in memory of two friends who'd died in the World Trade Center attacks. "And Levon Helm [of the Band] told him that I would be the only one able to sing the song," says Mavis. Despite her well-received 1996 tribute to Mahalia Jackson, she had reservations about resuming her solo career--she'd been disappointed by the performance of her previous solo albums, and hadn't made one since The Voice, produced by Prince in 1993. But she agreed to cut the tune with Tullio, and the sessions began a creative relationship that would ultimately yield Have a Little Faith.
Much of the album was recorded at Tullio's home studio, though two tracks are holdovers from the final sessions with Pops. All the material combines the uplift of the Staple Singers' Stax-era soul with flashes of the searching, spooky gospel of the group's Vee-Jay years--and Mavis's voice is still the singular contralto that's made everyone from Dusty Springfield to Bob Dylan fall at her feet. Local blues label Alligator will release the album on Tuesday.
Though she just turned 65, Mavis maintains a busy schedule, touring roughly two weeks of every month; her live sets mingle solo material, Staple Singers hits, and gospel favorites. Her sister Yvonne, her closest companion, retired briefly from the road in 2002, but Mavis has coaxed her back. "I just have to hear at least one Staples voice up there with me," she says. Mavis recently appeared at the Democratic National Convention, singing "America the Beautiful" on the night of John Kerry's nomination, and on August 23 she'll guest on a special live taping of WXRT's Sound Opinions at Millennium Park.
Mavis remains in demand in the studio as well. She recently paired up with Dylan (who once asked her to marry him) for a Grammy-nominated version of his Christian-era classic "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking." She's also lent her voice to the latest releases from Los Lobos and Dr. John and contributed standout tracks to brand-new Stephen Foster and Johnny Paycheck tribute records.
"Well, I have to sing, that's all I know how to do," she says. "I've never had a job, never punched a clock. Plus I have to keep going with what my father started. I know Pops would want me to continue."
Her eyes shine with tears. "Our circle's been broken three times now: my baby sister, my mother, and my father have all passed. But one day we're gonna join back together--all of us--and we'll have our circle again."
Arson in Seattle
Former Chicagoans Scott and Ali Giampino were victims of arson last week. Ali, still a booking agent for the local Billions Corporation, Scott, a former Touch and Go staffer and drummer for Cash Audio, and their three-year-old son just managed to escape the fire that ravaged their Seattle home early the morning of August 6. Investigators believe the blaze is connected to a rash of arsons in the area--15 fires since July 31. Though the Giampinos are insured, they lost two cats and nearly all their possessions, including Scott's massive record collection. A friend has set up an account called the Giampino Fund at U.S. Bank; contributions are being accepted at any Illinois branch (refer to account number 153556105382) and can be made online with PayPal (paypal.com) using the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit billions.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.