The World According to Mavis Staples
The legendary gospel singer talks about Little Richard, pets, and her post-quarantine plans
Welcome back to “The World According To,” series in which InsideHook solicits advice from people who are in a position to give it. Our latest subject is Mavis Staples, a founding member of legendary gospel group the Staple Singers. Among their classics on which she sang: “I’ll Take You There,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” and “The Weight.” At 80, Staples continues to record and tour; just a few weeks ago, she released a new track titled “All In It Together.” The singer talked to InsideHook about drinking beer, squats and getting her bra snapped by Mahalia Jackson.
InsideHook: How are you holding up, Mavis?
Mavis Staples: Oh, I’m doing pretty good. I’m pretty much a homebody, but I move around so much on the road, it’s kind of a pleasure to be in my home for a while. I’m doing a lot of cleaning; I’ve cleaned every nook and cranny. Everything is already spic and span.
Did you know Little Richard? I assume you saw the terrible news.
That broke my heart. Richard was such a beautiful spirit. I knew Richard from the ’50s. We first met down South. Richard would come in and he’d say, “Mavis, look at me. Ain’t I pretty?” I said, “Richard, you are so gorgeous. You’re so pretty.” Pops loved Little Richard. Who couldn’t love Little Richard? He’d come in, his personality plus, and he was just fire. He was so colorful. He came to me one time [before a show] and said, “Mavis, they want me to go on now. And I can’t go on right now. I wish you would go on before me, because I’m not supposed to sing before eight o’clock.” You know, his religion. He had joined Seventh-day Adventist and he couldn’t sing. I said, “Oh, I don’t mind, Richard.” I was happy about it because it helped me to get back to the hotel early.
Richard was a gospel man. He started out at his church and sometimes he would take a sermon. He would preach.
What’s one piece of art — be it a song, painting, photography, a book —that changed the way you view the world?
When we were in Africa, that music really changed me. The drums and the people dancing. They were always so happy. The African young people helped me to learn about other cultures, and to appreciate what they were going through and how music brought them through. We were in Ghana. We made this movie, Soul to Soul. I was young. But I tell you something, Elon: in my twenties, I was still a teenager. Because I didn’t know a whole lot, and I was the baby of the family.
I didn’t get a chance to bar-hop until I was about 25. And then I didn’t want to do it no more. My sister, Yvonne, ordered me a beer — I think it was a Miller High Life — because it was my birthday and we were celebrating. She took me to this bar on 47th and King Drive. Man, I slid off the bar school. Then we came out of there, it was snowing. I fell down in that snow. No more, no more.
I assume boxing is on hold, so what are you doing for exercise?
I am doing my training online every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I have a treadmill in my home, and I do it for 20 to 30 minutes. I do squats. I told [my trainer], Look, these squats — I can’t. I’m 80 years old. He said, “Mavis, just go in the kitchen, hold onto the sink, and then do a squat.” I said, Okay. Because I don’t want to fall. So I go in the kitchen, I hold onto that sink and I go down.
It’s working well. I feel good. I would like to get outside, though. I’ve been in for two and a half months. I would like to walk outside, instead of the treadmill. I do have a balcony and I can go out and get some fresh air. But I’m missing people. I miss the band, I miss Speedy [Adams Ayers, her manager]. We do what’s called FaceTime. But I don’t FaceTime that much. If I know you’re going to FaceTime with me, give me a chance to get my hair together and fix my face a little bit. I don’t wear a whole lot of makeup, but I like to get some of the spots out. I have to cover the freckles up.
What’s your worst habit?
Watching too much TV. I like everything. I watch soap operas. I watch the game shows. I watch Shark Tank. That’s my favorite. What happens is, it makes me sit too long and I gain weight. I tell everybody, I don’t eat that much. I’m not a big eater. You know, I’m lazy. I’m really lazy. I don’t have any vices, except sitting around too long watching TV.
When you don’t have any vices, it’s hard. My worst vice right now is going to that refrigerator too often. I go back there and get something, even if it’s just a grape. But it gets me up, gets me out of the chair to move around a bit.
Who was the first famous person you ever met?
Sister Mahalia Jackson. I thought she was a giant princess because she was tall. I was such a little girl and she had on this cream-colored brocade gown. She was the first female voice I heard singing.
My mother had told me, “Mavis, don’t get on her nerve.” She had my sisters watching me, so that I didn’t bother Sister Mahalia. But I saw her come in the door and I made a beeline before they could grab me. I said, “Hello, Miss Sister Mahalia Jackson.” I called her Miss Sister because Pops would always say, “Sister Mahalia Jackson,” and I thought Sister was her first name. She said, “Well, how are you, baby?” I said, “I’m fine. My name is Mavis. And I sing, too.” And she said, “Oh, you do, huh?” I said, “Yes, ma’am. I sang with my father and my brother and my sister.” And she said, “Well, I wanna hear you sing.” And I said, “Oh, you’ll hear me. Because I sing loud.” She laughed. So I got up to sing, and then I came backstage, and she said, “You a good little old singer.” Then I grabbed my jump rope and I was going outside. She said, “Wait a minute, where you goin’?” I said, “I’m going outside to jump rope.” Us kids, we didn’t want to hear the preacher. She said, “You come here.” And she touched my neck. She touched my chest. She said, “Don’t you know you’re damp?” I said, “No, ma’am.” She said, “You don’t want to go out in the air like that. You want to sing a long time, get to be an old lady like me, don’t you?” She told me to take all that stuff off. She even snapped my little training bra. She said, “You tell mama to give you one of your brother’s T-shirts and you put that dry T-shirt on. Then you go out.” And she called my mother the next morning and asked her, “Did that baby tell you what I said?”
So from that day on, Sister Mahalia Jackson was my idol, but she was also my teacher. Taught me how to keep my voice.
You told Rolling Stone you’d like to get a puppy or a kitten. Is that happening?
Speedy won’t let me get one. I want to get a little puppy, because I’ve always had a dog. But here at home, I don’t have anyone to keep him because everybody’s passed on. I said to Speedy, “Well, I can take him on the road with me. Bonnie Raitt takes her puppy with her all the time and Patty Griffin takes her puppy.” Everybody has their puppy with them! “Mavis, who is going to take him out? Who is going to take him out?” I said, “You.” He said, “Not me.”
Speedy don’t like dogs. He has a cat. His cat’s name is Karma. It’s K-A-R-M-A, and it’s a little black cat.
What would you have done with your life if you hadn’t been a singer?
I would have been a nurse. When I graduated high school, Pops told me, “All right, Mavis, you graduated high school. Now we can go on the road full time.” I said, “Daddy, I don’t want to go on the road full time. I want to go to college. I want to go down to Nashville, Tennessee to Meharry and study to be a nurse.” Pops, man, he could always change my mind about different things. Pops said, “Listen, baby. You’re already a nurse. You’re healing people with your songs. When you sing, you make people happy. You make people feel good. You see those people coming around, putting money in your hand and crying? They’re crying happy tears.”
Yvonne was spending the night with me. She was so sick. I got up and I got her some medicine, I don’t know what it was, but it made her feel better. So I was being a nurse then.
What’s the one thing you own that you’d save from a burning building? The Prince calendar?
I have my Prince calendar right on the wall. But I’ve never been in a burning building — that’s the thing. June is his birthday; I’ll put it on June. If I was in a burning building, that would be what I would save. But also pictures of my mother and father and the family.
Last question, Mavis. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get out?
I’m going to shout for joy. I’m going to strut. I’m going to put on my sneakers and I’m going to walk and sing. I’m going to sing at the top of my lungs. Now, I go down to my car and I scream, because I can’t sing as loud as I want to. I don’t want to bother my neighbors, you know. So to keep my pipes in shape, I go down in the car and I give out a good scream — like I’m singing “Freedom Highway” or something.
I’m going to be so happy. We probably still won’t be able to hug. I’m missing hugs. I love hugs. We’ll have to still be careful, I think. I have my whole team that I’m getting together. I’m taking everybody out to a restaurant and we’re going to par-tay.
When I get back on the road, the very first show, I’m gonna go on stage and we’ll say, All right. Everybody in the audience, I want y’all to sing this song with us. And that’s when I’m going to hit, “Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by, by, and by…” That’s gonna be the first song.