Although she received only belated recognition as a solo performer, Mavis Staples can claim a proud family legacy that stretches back more than fifty years, principally as part of the Staples Singers, one of the most influential gospel groups of all time. Remarkably, she began singing with her family at the tender age of eleven, but the lessons learned from the group’s scion, the late “Pops” Staples — a singer, arranger and vocalist whose early work is now widely viewed and revered by musicians of every persuasion — continue to impact her even now. Under his direction, the Staples Singers moved well beyond their gospel beginnings, not only by integrating pop music into their repertoire, but also by becoming key figures in the burgeoning civil rights movement of the early ‘60s. With Mavis and sisters Cleotha, Yvonne, and Purvis, the group was rightfully dubbed “God’s Greatest Hit makers”, a term that aptly summarized their blend of secular and religious appeal.
Nevertheless, Mavis’ solo career took some time to gain traction. An early solo foray in the late ‘60s received only minor attention, leaving it to a pair of albums produced by Prince (1989’s Time Waits For No One and 1993’s The Voice) to help her gain notice. Have a Little Faith brought her back to the spotlight in the new millennium, but ironically, it was her signing to the otherwise insurgent independent Anti- label and her first release for the company, We’ll Never Turn Back, a concept album produced by Ry Cooder that detailed the struggles for civil rights, that returned her to the mainstream. Two further Anti-releases, You Are Not Alone and One True Vine, each produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, have secured her bond with a new and fully aware pop audience.
Though only four songs long, her latest, Your Good Fortune, offers a succinct summation of Staples’ range and ability. Although the cover photo carries an image of her as a child, it’s far from flush with innocence of any sort. The dark title track is as ominous as it can be, a foreboding and intimidating challenge that repeats its chorus over and over, “Why did you waste your good fortune on me?” “Fight”, the track that follows, is loosely applied, a song that’s ragtag and rebellious, all of it reeking of rebellious intent. Likewise, her take on the old gospel standard, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” is filled with darkness and fearsome desire. The set ends with “Wish I Had Answered”, a riveting and somewhat celebratory groove guaranteed to get listeners clapping along to keep pace with its insistent groove.
Here then is further proof of the fact that Mavis Staples has miraculously managed to integrate the traditional trappings of her seminal efforts with the demands of viable alternative intents. Despite its brevity, admirers will find plenty of cause for celebration.