Interview: Mavis Staples Is Still Going Strong at 75
Staples talks about her new release, her father's last album, and the time Bob Dylan asked to marry her
Above all else, Mavis Staples is a survivor. At 75, she’s continued to keep the legend of her family’s group, The Staple Singers, alive, and see the last album of music by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, through to release this year. Staples continues to tour and perform, and just released a new EP, Your Good Fortune, through Anti- records.
PEOPLE talked to Staples about her new work, putting out her father’s last album and the day Bob Dylan asked her to marry him.
How did the new EP with Son Little come about?
My manager and Andy Kaulkin from Anti-, we were sitting around my dining room table and Andy was just playing some stuff he had on his phone, and I said, ‘Andy, wait a minute, run that one back.’ I said, “Who is that?” and cracked up at the name when he told me. And when he brought me “Your Good Fortune,” my skin just moved on my bones.
I love [Wilco’s Jeff, who produced her most recent two albums] Tweedy, but I think we reached our course. We probably could have done a third album, but it’s good to get a fresh voice. I’m always willing to try new things. And ready. I just felt like, I got to keep moving, got to keep up with the times.
You helped get an album of new material by your father [Don’t Lose This] released this year, as well.
Pops had been ill for a while, and he would get better and he would go down again. We decided as a family to make one last album, but as time went on, we thought we’d just let Pops keep singing and make this daddy’s album.
Towards the end, my sisters and I moved him home to take care of him, and one evening, he said, “Mavis, bring that music up here, I wanna hear it.” And when it finished, I said, “Pops, what do you think?” and he said, “Mavis, don’t lose this.” And that let me know that he liked it, that he meant for it to be heard.
I held onto the tracks that would make up the album for 15 years. There were things that needed tweaking, but at first I couldn’t listen to it. I would get all whelmed up and sad. And when I started trying to get myself out back there, I thought, ain’t no way I can get Pops’s stuff done if no one will take me.
But then after I made the two records with Tweedy, I thought, well, maybe I can get Pops’s record out there. And I asked the people at Anti-, and they were on board, so I said, “Daddy, I’m gonna get your record done.” And I felt so good, because it was time now. And I can just see him smiling about it.
Your father wrote "Why Am I Treated So Bad!" in 1966, but it still applies today.
I sing these songs still, because they’re relevant. Look at what’s happening in the world. I’m seeing the ’60s all over again. History’s repeating itself.
“Why Am I Treated So Bad,” that turned out to be Dr. King’s favorite song. Pops wrote that about the children who were trying to integrate the school in Little Rock, Arkansas. And they would spit upon these kids and call them names, and the kids would just keep their eyes held straight ahead and their heads held high.
And I remember on the day that the mayor of Little Rock and the governor of Arkansas and the President of the United States said, “Let these children go to school.” We were all watching on TV – we wanted to see these kids, they were my age! By the time they got up on that school bus, a policeman had put his billy club across the door. And Pops just said, “Now why is he doing that? Why is he treating them so bad?” And he wrote that song that evening.
HBO just picked up a documentary about your life, Mavis! – what was the making of it like for you?
It was hard. All the memories came back. I just couldn’t help but cry. I’d have to tell them to wait on me, to just excuse me for a minute. I just blubber when I see certain parts of it. And I told my manager at first, “I’m tired of talking about ‘Back when,’ I don’t wanna do this.”
But he said, you’ve lived through so much, you should talk about. So I thought, maybe it should be documented, what we went through, what all happened, while I’m still here to tell it. It brought back a lot of terrible feelings and some happy ones, too.
There’s this story that Bob Dylan once asked you to marry him.
Yes, he did [laughs]. This was the very first day we met. We were doing this TV show in New York for General Electric, and there were a lot of other folk singers on this show. And Bobby’s manager, he told Bobby, “Come here, I want you to meet the Staple Singers.” And Bob says, “I know the Staple Singers, I’ve listened to them since I was 12 years old.” And Pops said, “Where’d you hear us at?” And Bobby said, “I listen to Randy.”
I remember Bobby said, “Pops, you have a velvety, smooth voice, but then Mavis gets rough sometimes.” And then he quoted a verse that I sang in this song! He said, “Mavis sings, ‘Yonder come little David with his rock and sling / I don’t wanna meet him, he’s a dangerous man.” And we couldn’t believe it! We cracked up at this little white boy who knew our songs!
And later, we’re eating lunch, and we were up at the front of the line, and he was at the back, and we heard him yell, “Pops, I wanna marry Mavis,” and Pops yelled right back to Bobby, “Well don’t tell me, tell Mavis!” And that’s how he let me know he liked me.
But yeah, we had many, many good times – we would meet up at different folk festivals. The Newport folk festival One time he even came to The Apollo to see me! He came to my dressing room. I often think about what would’ve happened if I would’ve married Bobby. Our kids would have their own group by now [laughs].