The career of the U.S. gospel singer Mavis Staples stretches back to 1948, when she sang with her father Pops Staples and her sisters.
Ahead of a short tour of Ontario this week, she spoke about stages – the ones of her long career, as well as ones on which she’s performed. At age 72, she still takes us there.
When it’s winter in Chicago, like it is now, do you ever ask yourself why you’re still there?
It’s home. It’s where I grew up. We’ve travelled the world. I’ve been just about any place you could name. But I’m always happy to get back to Chicago.
Outside of Chicago, where’s your favourite stage?
I have fun just about everywhere I go. But, you know, I enjoy the Hollywood Bowl. We played there for the first time last year. It’s legendary, but more than that the people were receptive. I like the festivals too, like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, where all the college kids are.
You’ve been playing festivals since Newport Folk in the 1960s. Is the vibe at Bonnaroo different?
The vibe is the same, but the faces are different. The kids today have these fresh faces. It’s like they’re on pins and needles, waiting to see what I’m going to do. They’ve never seen me. In the 1960s, those were hippies. They were wired up already. The kids today know me because I’ve worked with Jeff Tweedy and other young producers.
And what’s been their reaction to seeing you for the first time?
At Lollapalooza, I chose to start with Wonderful Savior, which is an a cappella song. So we started singing, [Staples begins to sing over the phone]“I have found a wonderful saviour, who is freely blessing me forever.” And I didn’t see a response. I thought I’d chosen the wrong song, but all of a sudden they started clapping and got with us. They’re curious to see what this old girl is going to do.
Do you change your show, depending on the audience?
When I come out of my dressing room, I go to my heart and say a little prayer and go out on stage. There I am, coming to lift you up and to motivate you. I want to bring joy. It’s gospel, and gospel is the truth. It’s what I do. I’m going to bring you the truth and lift up your spirit. That’s what the Staple Singers have always been about.
Have you ever run into a crowd that wasn’t responding to what you were bringing?
Yes. It was Singapore in 2010, and I never want to go back there again. They were disrespectful, and it wasn’t like they didn’t understand what I was singing. They were walking around, talking and not listening. I cried after. At one point I wanted to walk off stage, but I couldn’t do that.
Because you’re not a diva. But then again, you recently performed for VH1’s Diva Duets .
Yes, I sang with Chaka Khan and Erykah Badu. We did I’ll Take You There. But I’ve never thought of being a diva. I think of divas as those really sharp girls, strutting and talking smack. But I’m still going to walk the same walk I’ve been walking down through the years, and talk the same talk. I will take the title though, a diva.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Mavis Staples plays Kingston, Jan. 24; St. Catharines, Ont., Jan. 25; Brampton, Ont., Jan. 27; Burlington, Ont., Jan. 28; and Toronto’s Koerner Hall, Jan. 29.