Soul legend to perform in Birmingham

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 18, 2003

Soul and gospel vocalist Mavis Staples, a member of the legendary Staple Singers family music group, will perform August 24 as the opening act for the Tom Petty concert at the Oak Mountain Amphitheatre in Pelham, Alabama. The concert begins at 7 p.m.

Although Mavis Staples has released several solo albums, her performance will be drawn mostly from songs made famous by the Staples.

Her father’s death and her sister’s illness ended a musical career for the group that lasted over 50 years. "Any time I get on stage I feel my father’s presence of stage up there with me," Mavis said. "I’m still singing with the family (in spirit)."

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Formed in the late 1940’s, the Staple Singers were an influential gospel act long before they had their powerful secular hits with "Respect Yourself" and "I’ll Take You There" in the 1970’s for the Memphis Stax label. They were known were their versions of "Uncloudy Day" and protest songs such as "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)."

The family group used to tour in the old gospel music caravans. "Those were the best years of our lives," she said. "Those were fun times, any time we would have those package deals with the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Stirrers, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Caravans, the Nightingales, and not to mention, Birmingham’s own Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes….She was my absolute favorite.

The combination of Pop’s blues guitar style and Mavis’ passionate singing style made for truly inspirational recordings.

Mavis has a raspy, sassy wonderful speaking and singing voice. "My voice comes from my mother’s side of the family," she said. "My mother (Oceola) and her mother had very strong voices, very heavy voices." Although Pops’ voice was light, she said her singing ability came from his side of the family. He always taught her to "sing from the heart and be sincere….What comes from the heart reaches the heart. I used to try to clown," but her father told her to stand flat-footed and use her gift.

The classic Staples records on Stax are very distinctive and oh so funky. Pops’ vocals had a quiet dignity, while Mavis was the counterpoint, a force of nature. She would sigh, grunt, and testify.

Also, when you’ve got a groove going like on "Respect Yourself" (1971), she said, you can’t help but respond verbally to the musicians. Of course, "you want the people to hear the lyrics. You don’t want to overdo it.

The basic tracks for many of their soul hits were recorded in Muscle Shoals. The musicians have said they would listen to a rough guide vocal made by Mavis and base their groove on her performance.

Mavis said her family was blessed to have the best musicians on those Stax records, and the best songwriters such as the late Homer Banks.

She also praised the Stax singer and studio engineer William Brown. "They started (an award) at the Grammys for engineers because of William Brown," she said. When it’s all said and done, the quality of the recording comes from the engineer, the mixing, even the type of microphone selected, Mavis said.

Besides her father, she lists Mahalia Jackson ("the Queen of Gospel") as a major influence. Mavis recorded the outstanding "Spirituals&Gospel: Dedicated to Mahalia Jackson" CD in 1996 and regularly tours in a tribute to Jackson.

The Stapes would later perform with Jackson, who Mavis described as "a princess." In tribute to their musical influence, both Jackson and the Staple Singers have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Mavis regrets that many did not hear her two solo albums she recorded with Prince, "Time Waits For No One" (1989) and "The Voice" (1993). The promotion of "The Voice," in particular, got caught in the middle of a feud between Prince and his label Warner Brothers Records. "That was terrible," Mavis said. "It was a really good record. It was some of the best work I had done. The child had written such good songs, such powerful songs."

The new CD will feature the same type of material fans of the Staples are familiar with. "It’s going to be the same kind of message, contemporary gospel. That’s what I grew up with; that’s what I believe in – singing about what’s happening in the world today.

As dedicated as they were to a message in their music, the Staples were never afraid to experiment musically. As a gospel group, they performed songs by Bob Dylan ("Blowin’ in the Wind") and Buffalo Springfield ("For What It’s Worth").

After having chart success as a soul group in the 1970’s, they recorded songs by The Talking Heads ("Slippery People" in 1984) and, of course, worked with Prince.

Producer Al Bell of Stax Records once called Pops "a youngster," no doubt because of his musical curosity. Prince called him "Junior" for the same reason. "Pops was so ahead of his time," Mavis said. "…He was so ahead of his peers’ time. He always wanted to move ahead."

The Staple Singers made musical transitions from gospel to protest to soul with ease. No matter the musical style, "if the song had something to say that wasn’t derogatory, we’d sing it. If we though it would uplift someone, inspire someone to keep going, we’d sing those songs.

Reserved tickets for the August 24 Tom Petty/Mavis Staples concert are $52, $33, $18and $10. Gates open at 5:30 p.m.

For more information, call 1-205-985-4900, ex. 100.