Mavis Staples' throat cleared for Obama
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At some point in the next few weeks, you have to figure Mavis Staples' phone will ring and the person on the other line will invite her to perform at the inauguration of Barack Obama.
"You know, I'm waiting," she says with a husky laugh. "Nobody's called me yet. Now, you know, I'm supposed to be there."
- With: The Artistic Youth Ambassadors of Pittsburgh
- Where: Carnegie Lecture Hall, Oakland
- When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
- Tickets: $48 (advance); $53 (door), $20 (student rush); 412-394-3353; www.proartstickets.org.
The legendary gospel-soul singer, who performs a Calliope concert tomorrow night at Carnegie Lecture Hall, is a natural for the occasion, having been one of the outspoken voices for civil rights in the '60s. The songs of Pop Staples and the Staples Singers were sung at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marches, and she already has performed at the inaugurations for John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Watching Obama win on election night, she says, "I thought I was going to be able to do a cartwheel -- but I can't get up there anymore. But I tell you, my heart just jumped. I walked around my house. I must have cried a bucket, a half a bucket of tears. Then I just walked around the house talking to my Pops and Dr. King and telling them how happy I was and how I knew they would feel. I was just completely overwhelmed. ... I thought about Dr. King, all the things he did, all of his growth. He shed his blood for us and died. Had not it been for Dr. King this wouldn't be happening. He did so much for us; now he's the reason for us having a black president."
Although she has never met the president-elect, Staples has another connection to these historic events. For 20 years, she has been a member of the 8,500-member Trinity United Church of Christ, the famous Chicago parish Obama attended until May 31. That's when he resigned his membership, following critical comments the Rev. Jeremiah Wright made in the wake of Obama's landmark "A More Perfect Union" speech.
Staples regrets that the now-retired Rev. Wright will not be swearing in the new president.
"Rev. Wright is a great minister," she says, justifying those startling snippets we saw of the minister's sermons that were first made public on YouTube. "That happens in black churches when you have a minister who's come up during that time and has so many seniors in his audience," who endured the struggle for civil rights.
Hear this interview with Mavis Staples and her music on Believe Your Ears.
"The second time around," she says, "after Barack made that excuse for him in that beautiful elegant speech and said that Rev. Wright reminded him of his grandmother, then Rev. Wright came a second time around at some meeting he was having, my mind was just blown. I said, 'Jer-e-miah, what are you doing?' He went so far as to say, 'Barack is saying these things 'cause he has to say 'em. He wants to be president.' That was the one that made Barack do what he did. And I didn't blame him. Mmm-mm."
Should Obama tap Staples for events in Washington in January, he'll be getting a 69-year-old singer still in peak form. Her vitality has been on display of late with a move to Anti- records that spawned the release of 2007's "We'll Never Turn Back," a powerful set of vintage freedom songs produced with gritty soul by Ry Cooder.
"I feel like that 'We'll Never Turn Back' is some of my best work," Staples says. "I really give the glory to Ry Cooder and his guitar. He played a lot of my father's licks and he admired Pops. He knew how I should be treated in the studio. He didn't put me up in a high pitch. He knew my voice was heavy, that I didn't have a little soprano voice. A lot of people think my voice has gotten heavier since I've gotten older, but my voice has always been right there. The Lord just blessed me to be able to sing higher. I sing the highs and the lows. We kept it in the lows."
Staples has followed that acclaimed studio effort with "Mavis Staples Live: Hope at The Hideout," an album released on Election Day that covers some of the same ground, even managing to up the soul quotient, while adding a new version of the Staples classic "I'll Take You There." The folks at Anti- thought the recent live shows were so strong, they had to capture them.
"They felt the concert was so spell-binding," Staples says. "I hate to say things like that. I don't want to sound like I'm bragging. When you do a live concert like that ... different things come to you that you wouldn't have said on the record. You put more into it. You're on stage now singing to the people. You want to give them your all and sell it to the people, make them feel uplifted."
Her work with the Staples Singers and this resurgence was enough to place her at No. 56 on the new Rolling Stone list of The Greatest Singers of All Time.
"I think that's great," she says. "Out of all the artists in the world, I'm No. 56? I moved up. I think at one time I was 60-something; 56 is good," she says, adding that Aretha Franklin deserved the No. 1 spot. "You can't beat her."
Speaking of classic singers, fans in Pittsburgh Saturday night won't be getting Staples in "Hideout" mode, but rather a tribute to Mahalia Jackson with keyboardist Stephen Smith, who recently moved from Chicago to Pittsburgh.
"I'll be singing songs that sister Mahalia sang," Staples says. "She's my idol, so I wanted to do her songs. I only use one musician. That's all she uses and I wanted it to be as close to her as possible."
First Published November 21, 2008 12:00 am