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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Mavis Staples' iconic voice is part of American history

Mavis Staples performs at the sixth annual Love Rocks NYC benefit concert for God's Love We Deliver at the Beacon Theatre on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in New York.
Evan Agostini
Mavis Staples performs at the sixth annual Love Rocks NYC benefit concert for God's Love We Deliver at the Beacon Theatre on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in New York.

Mavis Staples began singing in church at age eight, and by age 12, she was singing professionally with her family — father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and siblings Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne — as part of the Staple Singers.

The churches were their venue of choice, ranging far and wide—from their hometown of Chicago to playing churches throughout the Midwest and South. With a voice that belied her tiny size, Mavis became the center of attention of the group. When she was 16, they had their first hit with “Uncloudy Day” in 1956.

The success of “Uncloudy Day” led to more exposure. Once Mavis graduated high school in 1957, Pops quit his job at the steel mill, and they went on the road full-time. During this period, the Staple Singers, inspired by Pops' close friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., became one of the musical voices of the Civil Rights Movement, often traveling with King to raise money for the movement.

For decades, the church had been the voice of Black protest, and gradually, social consciousness was becoming part of popular music. So it was natural and inevitable that the folk music movement, personified by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and the Staple Singers would cross paths.

The Staples performed a couple of Dylan songs in their set, and Dylan had already publicly admired the Staples, saying that “Uncloudy Day” had influenced him. Dylan and Mavis begin a romantic relationship, with Dylan actually proposing to her, but they never follow through.

The group name had largely obscured Mavis’ identity, and even when they were adults, Pops was still the leader and made the decisions. Aretha Franklin’s father, a minister, let her sing secular songs and love songs, which made it easier for Pops to accept Mavis’ ambitions. In 1969, Mavis released her first solo album, featuring the Burt Bachrach and Hal David song “A House is Not a Home.”

Two years later, in 1971, the Staples Singers had their first legitimate hit song, “Heavy Makes You Happy,” recasting them as a mainstream pop/vocal group. The song was on the Billboard charts for three months.

Boosted by their success, they followed up with two more major songs—“Respect Yourself” in 1971 and “I’ll Take You There” in 1972. Mavis took two chords and a few words and turned it into an anthem and a No. 1 song. It became one of the best-selling gospel recordings of all time.


Both the Staple Singers and Mavis Staples continued to release albums throughout the '70s and '80s with Mavis collaborating with The Band, Prince, and David Byrne. After Pops died in 2000 at the age of 84, it took Mavis a few years to return to the stage.

She came back in 2004 with the release of Have a Little Faith. More star-studded collaborations followed, with Ry Cooder, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Levon Helm.

In her remarkable career, Mavis not only gave a musical voice to the Civil Rights Movement, but along with people like Bob Dylan she was at the center of political commentary entering into popular music.

The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2018. In 2005, the group was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mavis Staples marched with Dr. King in the 1960s and played at the White House for Barack Obama, spanning two defining points in American history.
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John Kessler