Mavis Staples has been a gospel singer longer than Elizabeth II has worn the crown. During concerts, sometimes, she might take a seat and rest while someone in her band bangs out a solo for a chorus or two. No one minds. Her stage presence is so unfailingly joyful—her nickname is Bubbles—that you never take your eyes off her. Staples sings from her depths, with low moans and ragged, seductive growls that cut through even the most pious lyric. She is sanctified, not sanctimonious. In her voice, “Help Me Jesus” is as suggestive as “Let’s Do It Again.” When she was a girl, singing with her family ensemble, the Staple Singers, churchgoers across the South Side of Chicago would wonder how a contralto so smoky and profound could issue from somebody so young.
She is eighty-two. While singers a fraction of her age go to great lengths to preserve their voices, drinking magical potions and warming up with the obsessive care of a gymnast, she doesn’t hold back. Time, polyps, and a casual disdain for preservation have conspired to narrow her range and sand down her old shimmer, but she is not about to hum lightly through a rehearsal. A little ginger tea and onward she goes. Singing is what connects her to the world.
Sly, sociable, and funny, Staples reminds you of your mother’s most reliable and cheerful friend, the one who comes around with good gossip and a strawberry pie. Her cheeks are round and smooth; her hair is done in a copper bob; her resting expression is one of delight. “She is a ray of sunshine,” Bonnie Raitt, her frequent touring companion, said. “She’s never cranky. She has an abiding belief in God and His plan and believes the world is moving toward a higher and more loving world.” Staples has spent the past few decades lending her voice to a startling range of collaborators: Prince, Arcade Fire, Nona Hendryx, Ry Cooder, David Byrne. Anyone who has something to say, she’ll help them say it, in an inimitable gospel voice. One collaborator, Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, said, “All day long, Mavis is having a good time. She’s excited about making music and just being alive. I hope I have that energy when I’m her age, but the truth is I don’t even have it now.”
And yet life has its way of wearing down even the most radiant spirit. For two years, during the worst of the pandemic, Staples stayed home in Chicago—she lives in a modern high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan—and was, like just about everyone else in the music business, unable to perform or record. She watched cable news and saw the ravaging effect that covid-19 was having on folks her age. She didn’t go out, and she let no one in. For company, she’d pick up her phone and check in with “the Twitter people.” The empty days went on and on. “Oh, man, I hated it,” she said. There was only one thing left to do. “I’d start singing around the house. Mostly our old stuff, the songs we started singing when I was a kid: ‘Didn’t It Rain,’ ‘Help Me Jesus.’ ”
The pandemic was the least of it. The passage of time has relentlessly winnowed the comforts of her old life. For decades, she performed in the cocoon of a family that was remarkably warm, loving, and coöperative. Compared with the Jacksons, the Turners, or the Beach Boys, the Staple Singers is a story free of dark drama. But now the other members of Mavis Staples’s family—her father, Roebuck; her mother, Oceola; her brother, Pervis; her sisters, Cleotha, Cynthia, and Yvonne—are gone. “It’s just me now,” she said. She’s left with memories of a bygone world: back-yard barbecues at the Staples place, with Redd Foxx, Aretha Franklin, and Mahalia Jackson piling their plates with ribs and creamed corn; starlit rides in the family Cadillac, touring the gospel capitals of the Deep South; singing “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” at rallies before Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered an oration. “Ghosts,” as Staples put it to me one day. “So many ghosts.”
We were having lunch at a restaurant downstairs from her apartment, and Staples was saying that even now she dreams about her family. Like anyone of a certain age, she has a quarry of stories she mines to explain the shape of her life. She tells these stories expertly, as if each time were the first. She is an entertainer, after all. But, when the matter of loss comes up, there is no sense of performance. She takes a deep breath and lets herself settle, as if to say, This is the important thing about me. Her father—everyone called him Pops—died in 2000, just after the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She still misses him, she says, so much that he shows up in her dreams to give her advice: “And, when I wake up, I be so mad that it was just a dream!” Pops, a son of the Mississippi Delta, was the paterfamilias, soft-spoken and kind. He sang, wrote songs, assembled the set lists, booked the dates, ran the business. The sole instrumentalist in the group, he played a bluesy Fender guitar, surrounding the vocal lines with a spare, tremolo sound. For years, his absence onstage left Staples feeling adrift. “I was having a hard time,” she said. “I didn’t hear Daddy’s guitar.”