Sounding the Call for Equality: An Interview with Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples
We'll Never Turn Back

Mavis Staples was at a session in Los Angeles with the Freedom Singers last year recording her extraordinary new album, We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti-). The air-conditioned studio seemed far removed from the world Staples and the Freedom Singers — Rutha Harris, Charles Neblett and Bettie-Mae Fikes — had known in the early `60s, she says.

Those were the bad old days, when restaurants, hotels, bathrooms and even drinking fountains were divided by race in the segregationist South, when African-Americans marched for basic freedoms and were assaulted with police clubs, water cannons and attack dogs. Mavis Staples says she and her family, the Staple Singers, were on the front lines back then, along with the Freedom Singers. These vocal groups provided the soundtrack to that era, with their songs of perseverance and hope in the face of debilitating odds. Not for nothing were the Staples the favorite group of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Fast forward to the present and Mavis Staples was at Sound City Studio in Van Nuys, Calif., with producer Ry Cooder and the Freedom Singers, intent not so much on revisiting that era as channeling it. In separate interviews, Staples and Cooder described one particularly telling moment in the recording sessions:

During a lunch break one afternoon, Neblett started to sing an old melody, and Harris and Fikes quickly joined in. Their voices grew louder, and Staples looked up as goose bumps started to sprout on her arms.

“In the Mississippi River!

“Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord!

“In the Mississippi River!

“Well you can count them one by one!

“It could be your son!

“And you can count them two by two!

“It could be me and you!”

Staples couldn’t place the haunting lyrics.

“What are you singing about?” she asked Neblett. “Who’s being counted one by one and two by two?” The song, written by Marshall Jones, documents the 1964 search for the bodies of three civil rights workers who had been killed in Mississippi while trying to register voters. Their deaths sparked major news coverage and a national outcry. But less publicized was that searchers dragging the Mississippi River also uncovered dozens more bodies, those of African-Americans who had been bound, mutilated and lynched.

Back on her home turf on the South Side of Chicago, Staples says she can still hear Neblett describe the origins of the song. “It was chilling,” she says. “The last time I saw the Freedom Singers, we were at the Newport Folk Festival in Providence, R.I., in 1963. It was so long ago, I had forgotten what they looked like!”

Their reunion was orchestrated by Andy Kaulkin, president of Staples’ label, Anti Records. He had read U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ (D-Ala.) civil rights memoir Walking With the Wind, and approached Staples about making an album that would update and recontextualize songs from that era.

Staples could relate. She had been deeply moved by the news coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans in 2005, which left more than 1,800 dead, displaced hundreds of thousands and caused more than $80 billion in damage.

“That hurt,” she says. “When I saw Katrina, I started praying. People floating in that black water, people on the rooftops and nobody going to help them. Man, tears started streaming down my face. Where is the help? Where is the government? You put thousands of people in a stadium with no water, no food, and it’s hot. Babies are there. An old lady dead in a wheelchair, and they just covered her up. That hurts to see your race being mistreated and abused.”

In this 1996 file photograph, Pops Staples, center, is surrounded
by his daughters, Cleo, from left, Mavis and Yvonne.
(Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Staples mentally scans the headlines from recent times: A young black man shot dozens of times by police on his wedding day; comedian Michael Richards spewing racist invective on a widely seen Internet video clip. Though the civil rights era may have ended, the need for songs that address the racial divide in America felt more urgent than ever.

Kaulkin next called in Cooder to produce the album. The multi-instrumentalist, who oversaw the Buena Vista Social Club sessions in Havana in the mid-’90s, is choosy about his recording projects. But he jumped at the opportunity to work with one of the original Staple Singers.

“When I first heard the Staple Singers’ (1950s gospel hit) `Uncloudy Day,’ it stopped me in my tracks,” says Cooder, 60. “Then I saw them live (in the early `60s). They made me feel like a hopeless, ignorant white kid from Santa Monica without a prayer. There was obviously a world out there, parallel to mine, that was completely unknown to me.”

Cooder caught up fast, emulating the spidery, atmospheric guitar-playing of the group’s patriarch, Pops Staples, and later working with Pops on a pair of `90s albums. When Cooder arrived at Mavis Staples’ South Side condominium last year to discuss the new album, he immediately asked for her late father’s amplifier, and plugged in his guitar as he and Mavis began working on songs.

It would set the tone for their collaboration, out this week. After meeting King in the `60s, Pops steered the Staple Singers toward freedom and message songs. And though he died in 2000, his presence loomed large over the “We’ll Never Turn Back” sessions.

“It’s a very real thing in her life,” Cooder says. “It’s a true fact that Pops is right there for her. He’s gone, but not far.”

In song after song, Mavis called out to Pops, as if channeling his spirit, and summoned up deeply personal anecdotes about what it means to be black in a white society. The singer imbued hallowed songs such as J.B. Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi” and the gospel perennial “Jesus Is on the Main Line” with her in-the-moment improvisations.

“I didn’t ask for that, she just did it,” Cooder says. “It’s part of her expression and training, of growing up singing in churches. What she did was important in bringing this record forward. We didn’t want it to seem antique or to be a history lesson. It had to sound personal. And once she started testifying and adding this poetic recounting of her own experiences to the songs, that’s what it became.”

It’s flat-out one of the best collections of songs Staples has ever made, a small-combo gospel album that rocks and rolls. At 67, she sounds more fiery and inspired than ever. Many of the songs were tracked in only one or two takes, so that “We’ll Never Turn Back” essentially documents excellent musicians and singers reacting and responding to one another in real time: Cooder on guitar and mandolin, the peerless Jim Keltner on drums, Mike Elizondo on bass, the call-and-response harmonies of the Freedom Singers and South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, featured on three songs. The interplay is particularly fierce on “Eyes on the Prize,” “99 and ½,” “Turn Me Around” and the album’s sole Staples original, “My Own Eyes.”

At the center of it all is Staples herself, a great singer simultaneously haunted and inspired by her past. Though her family had moved to Chicago from Mississippi by the time she was born in 1940, the young Mavis often spent summers with her grandmother in the South. She experienced firsthand many of the indignities documented in the songs the Staples started singing nearly 50 years ago.

For her, updating those songs was not particularly difficult, because she’s been living out the stories they contain.

“While I’m singing these songs I’m just visualizing and these memories would come back to me of things that happened during that time,” she says. “And I thought, what has really changed? I’m 67 years old, and I was here the first time around and it’s still not fixed. We can’t let Dr. King shed his blood and die for us trying to get justice and live in a world like this. We can’t allow that.”