Mavis Staples: I'm gonna sing till I die

Gospel singer Mavis Staples performs on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in this April 2010 file photo.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The song "I'll Take You There" took The Staple Singers to the top of the charts in the 1970s. And these days Mavis Staples is as popular a star as ever, Russ Mitchell has prepared this Sunday Profile:

Mavis Staples has no doubt about why the good Lord put her on this Earth.

"I was put here to sing," she said. "I was put here to spread the word. To bring ya'll a message. To inspire you. To motivate you. You know, that's what Mavis is about. That's my life."

"You like doing that?" asked Mitchell.

"I love it," she laughed. "I love it. I love it. I love it."

At the age of 71, you might say the Mavis Staples congregation can be found in theaters and clubs all over the world.

But if the name "Staples" is only vaguely familiar, maybe the song "I'll Take You There" will jar your memory.

Mavis was the lead singer in the family band The Staple Singers, who combined gospel and R&B into monster hits in the 1970s.

It seems she was born to sing.

Web Extra Video: Mavis Staples sings from the heart
Web Extra Video: Mavis Staples on fooling her audiences

She said she couldn't stop singing the first song she learned, in kindergarten:

"'A turkey is a funny bird. Wabble, wabble, wabble! And all he knows is just one word. Gobble, gobble, gobble!' I came home from school. My father had to ask Mama, he said, 'Oceola, stop the baby! Stop her!'" Mavis laughed.

Her father was "Pops" Staples, the force behind the Staple Singers.

"He'd say, 'Mavis, listen, your voice is a God-given gift. You know, you don't know music. You don't even know what key you sing in,'" Mavis recalled.

"and I still don't know what key I sing in."

Pops Staples grew up on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, moving his family to Chicago where Mavis was two years old. They settled in a Southside neighborhood nicknamed the "Dirty 30."

Mavis told us about streets filled with music, from gospel to blues.

Among the sounds floating through the neighborhood: The voice of legend-to-be Sam Cooke, singing jingles for some of the street vendors.

"They would be on the watermelon truck," Mavis said. "And they'd be, 'Yo, hey, hey watermelon, yeah! Get your red, ripe, juicy watermello, yeah.' And all the ladies would come out to their windows, 'Where the watermelon man?'"

Meanwhile, Pops was doing some singing of his own. He started teaching songs to his children: Mavis and her sisters Cleotha and Yvonne, and brother Pervis. When they performed a song in a local church, the audience couldn't get enough.

"Three times we had to sing that same song because it was the only song he had taught us all the way through" Mavis said. "And Pops says, 'Shucks, these people like us. We're going home to learn some more songs!'"

The one song was "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." "And I tell you, that song, we still sing it."

The Staple Singers toured on the gospel circuit. And as they traveled the South, Pops told his children about a preacher named Martin Luther King.

"He said, 'Listen ya'll, I like this man's message. I really like his message. And I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it.' So we began writing freedom songs."

Those freedom songs helped make up the soundtrack to the civil rights movement - the Staples sometimes singing before King spoke.

Mavis described one song her father wrote for the march from Selma to Montgomery, "Freedom Highway": "When I sing it I see it, you know? I see the fire hoses. I see the dogs. I see the policemen. I see the whole scene from that day."

As the 1970s opened, the Staple Singers hit the pop charts.

Left: The Staple Singers perform on NBC's "The Midnight Special" in May 1973. (NBCU Photo Bank via AP Images)

"Respect Yourself" combined an empowering, gospel-like message with a secular beat, a song that made them one of the featured acts at the landmark Wattstax festival.

Then, an even bigger hit: "I'll Take You There," which went platinum.

"Back then it was like Justin Bieber and Beyonce today - people were grabbing us," said Mavis.

"You guys were superstars," said Mitchell.

"We were superstars then. We couldn't go nowhere," Mavis said.

But the Staples weren't necessarily superstars in church, accused by some of playing the Devil's music.

However, Pops had an answer for that: "He'd say, 'Let me tell you something. We have to sing in the club. See, the people in the clubs, they won't go to church. So we have to take the church to them,'" said Mavis.

Mavis Staples has a lot of stories to tell, but here's one you probably didn't see coming: Bob Dylan asked to marry her.

"That's true. It's true. I may as well tell it now," she said.

Yes, love was apparently in the air for the teenage singers. They "courted" (as Mavis puts it) for 3 years or so. But finally, Mavis says, she called it off.

"I didn't think I wanted to get married right then," she said, "And then another thing, you know, I would wonder about what would Dr. King think about me marrying a white guy?

"And so I told Pops about that, and Pops said, 'Mavis, didn't you see all them white people marching with us?' All white people weren't bad back then. I loved Bobby enough to marry him, but I just was not ready to get married."

Back to the music. By the mid-'70s, the tunes they were a-changing, with the rise of disco and rap.

The Staples climbed the charts one more time with a song guaranteed to get the church-going crowd even more upset: The title song to the movie, "Let's Do It Again," with music by Curtis Mayfield.

"And Curtis said, 'Now, Pop, this is your part,'" Mavis recalled. "And Pop's part was, 'I like you lady. So fine with your pretty hair.' Pops said, 'Curtis, man, I'm not gonna say that. I'm a church man. I'm not gonna - '

"'Oh Pop, come on man. This is a movie score. The Lord won't mind,'" Mavis recalls Mayfield pleading. "He says, 'I'll pray for you!' He begged Pop. We kept at him, and he finally went on. We get on the stage and sing that song, you could see Pops grinning from ear to ear because the ladies would, 'Oh Pops, sing it, do it again.'"

Pops and Mavis branched off into solo careers, Pops picking up a series of honors until his death at the age of 85 in 2000.

Mavis said losing him was tough. "For over 50 years I've sang with my father. And and now he's gone. What am I to do? At one point I thought about it, I said, 'Daddy, you left me and I still don't know my key. I don't know what key I sing in!'" she laughed. "I sat down and couldn't get up. If it hadn't been for my sister Yvonne, I was just so depressed."

Her sister Yvonne told Mavis, "Daddy wouldn't want her to just, you know, sit around the house and be moanin' or whatever. You know, he had started us all off. And she [was] supposed to take over."

"That was all I needed," Mavis said. "That got me up."

She found her voice again.

Last year she recorded an album with Jeff Tweedy of the rock band Wilco. It won her something that the Staple Singers were never awarded in Pop's lifetime: A Grammy for Best Americana Album, for "You Are Not Alone."

"I just didn't believe I was winning this Grammy after all these years, sixty years," she said.

This month we traveled with Grammy-winner Mavis Staples to Meridian, Miss., just a couple of hours from where Pops grew up.

With her sister Yvonne at her side, Mavis brought a lifetime of music to the theater.

After two hours, Mavis left the stage in triumph. But suddenly, she was back. Mavis Staples was not done singing just yet.

"Ain't no stopping me, I will sing," she said. "You know, you'd have to come and scoop me off the stage. I'm gonna sing till I die. I will sing until I die. No need stopping."

For more info:

Web Exclusive Video:

Mavis Staples sings from the heart

Mavis Staples on fooling her audiences