Mavis Staples Made Me Cry

Yes, it’s true. Mavis Staples made me cry. She made me weep like a baby. And I know I was not alone.

How did she do it? 

She opened her mouth and unleashed her mighty voice, the voice that roused spirits in the dark days of the civil rights movement, taking us on the Freedom March with the song that her father, Pops Staples, had written just for those times.

And the voice that in 1971 told us to “Respect Yourself” in a song with the powerful lines: 

You the kind of gentleman that want everything your way, yeah

Take the sheet off your face, boy, it’s a brand new day

And the voice that next told us, “I’ll Take You There,” with the opening lines:

Oh mmm I know a place 

Ain’t nobody cryin’ 

Ain’t nobody worried 

Ain’t no smilin’ faces 

Mmm, no no 

Lyin’ to the races 

Help me, come on, come on 

Somebody, help me now (I’ll take you there)

Here she was, Aug. 29, on the stage of the Door Community Auditorium, the hippest 80-year-old on the planet, singing for an enthusiastic crowd.

As a teenager in 1972, I’d heard and enjoyed the Staple Singers on the radio, but I fell in love with them on Sept. 18, 1972, when they appeared on Bill Cosby’s Monday-night variety show on CBS, The New Bill Cosby Show. I was particularly interested in watching that episode because Peter Sellers was the guest star. I had become a fan of the British comedic actor some years before when I first saw him as Inspector Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark. That night, Sellers and Cosby pulled off an amazing, show-closing routine that played on Sellers’ penchant for playing multiple roles in some of his past films.

The musical guest for that episode was the Staple Singers, and there was something so warm and human about them that I fell under their spell. And it wasn’t just Mavis and her powerful voice that got to me. It was also Pops’ haunting voice and guitar. 

These many years I have collected their recordings – LPs, EPs, 45s and CDs. So much great music, but my favorite might be their gospel Christmas album The Twenty-Fifth Day of December, recorded in Chicago on two days in July 1962. It’s the sort of Christmas record you can listen to every day of the year if you so choose.

But I digress.

Mavis still sings with a mighty voice and connects mightily with the audience. She thinks Door County is cute but wondered how a place called Grumpy’s could deal in something as happy as ice cream.

During the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth” – a song the Stapleses covered just months after its December 1966 release – she enlisted the audience to sing along. 

“I know you know it,” she said. 

Most everyone obliged, and it didn’t sound bad, as those things often do. Mavis agreed. She dubbed the singing audience the Fish Creek A Cappella Choir and said she’d come back to record it with the attendees, pointing out that it came out a long time ago and is due for a new release.

But that could be true of any Staples musical venture. The songs Mavis and Pops sang decades ago have as much meaning today as they did then.

She had a tight band, with bandleader/guitarist Rick Holmstrom, heavy bass by Jeff Turmes, punchy and tasteful drumming by Stephen Hodges. Some lead and backing vocals were provided by Donny Gerrard, who gave a close approximation of Pops’ gentle and soulful singing. A female backing singer was not identified.

It was a fabulous show. People were jumping out of their seats to clap and boogie. Not me. I was too busy wiping tears of joy from my eyes.

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