It’s been a busy year for Mavis Staples. The storied septuagenarian rhythm and blues icon/civil rights activist was the subject of Mavis!, a documentary screened at this year’s South By Southwest Music Festival, performed at Farm Aid and was awarded the Woody Guthrie Prize for “serving as a positive force for social change in America.” She even found time to team up with label mate Son Little on the Your Good Fortune EP in addition to shepherding her late father Pops Staples last batch of final recordings to the masses via the posthumously released Don’t Lose This, with some help from dear friend and Wilco founding member Jeff Tweedy. But rather than head home to catch her breath, the indefatigable 76-year-old vocalist is hitting the road with famous friend and fan Joan Osborne on a tour being dubbed Solid Soul. It’s a prospect Staples can barely contain her excitement over when she’s asked what people can expect to experience.
“We’re going to make it really nice. I’m anxious. I’m excited about this one. If [fans] know anything about us, they know they’re going to have a great time,” she explained on the way to a gig in St. Augustine, FL. “As a matter of fact, Joan and I will probably sing a couple of songs together. We’re going to make it a really, really great show. She’ll sing her songs and I’ll sing mine. Then we’ll sing together. It’s going to be good. I know I’ll sing some of my old and new songs and she’ll probably do the same thing. But we’re going to get on that bus and rehearse something. Already I think we’re going to do something like ‘Oh! Happy Day.’
For Osborne’s part, who friendship with her childhood idol dates back nearly 20 years, the feeling is mutual. Particularly given the fact that aside from appearing at a couple of larger events including a concert tribute to the late Levon Helm, this is the first time the duo will be hitting the road together.
“Mavis’s band is backing up both of us and they’re an amazing band. [Concert-goers] can expect two singers who are just so excited to be performing together. We’ll each do our own set and then we’ll do some stuff together at the end of the show. I’m so excited to be a part of it,” Osborne said. “Every time I see Mavis, I know she’s excited to be there with her fans. So there’s going to be a lot of love. If I do say so myself, some really good singing (laughs). There’s going to be some amazing singing. It’s just going to be a lovefest all night long. I just can’t say enough about how excited I am to be there.”
Staples, who got her start singing with her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples and siblings Cleotha, Yvonne and Purvis in The Staples Singers back in the 1950s, has traveled a long and impressive path that crossed over from gospel to the world of secular music. And while The Staples Singers were scoring late ‘60s and early ‘70s hits like an early interpretation of “For What It’s Worth,” “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again,” the group’s religious values helped guide their career. Her father’s close friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. found the group recording a number of songs that were part of the civil rights movement soundtrack (“Why [Am I Treated So Bad?],” “Freedom Highway”) that also found them developing a fanbase in the folk scene thanks to appearances at the Newport Folk Festival.
Signing with Stax Records in 1967, the Staple Singers enjoyed their greatest commercial success over the next near-decade, appearing at 1972 Watts Summer Festival, making memorable appearances on Soul Train and being personally invited to involved in the taping of The Band’s Last Waltz, an opportunity Staples fondly recalls
“[The Band] asked us to do it. We had made a remake of ‘The Weight,’ so when they asked us to sing with them, we were honored. We thought it was great and we couldn’t have said no,” she explained. “We were very happy to do it. There was no thinking about it. Pops came to us to say that he had confirmed it and we were all jumping up and down and clapped. It was great and the best time of our lives. It was something we were anxious to see on the big screen and we loved The Band. They were our favorite band back then. We were so close, we were like family.”
Having left for a solo career in the ‘80s, save for a brief stint on Prince’s Paisley Park Records (where she released a pair of records–1989’s Time Waits For No One and 1993’s The Voice), Mavis Staples kept a relatively low profile. No more so than when she and her sister had to take care of her father, who passed in 2000, nine days short of his 86th birthday.
It was while he was laying sick that he gave his daughter a disc full of recordings he’d been working on, which he asked her not to lose. It would take 15 years for the songs to be released, during which time Staples wound up forming a deep friendship with Tweedy, who introduced himself to Staples following a show she played at The Hideout, a club in the duo’s Chicago hometown. Tweedy not only wound up producing a pair of critically acclaimed Staples albums (2010’s Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone and 2013’s One True Vine), but oversaw the completion of Don’t Lose This, producing and playing alongside his son Spencer to provide music for the project’s unfinished track.
Staples’ relationship with Tweedy is one that she feels is heaven-sent and one she has deep loving feelings about.
“I’ve gained so many new fans—college students and young people that didn’t know anything about me. So, Jeff Tweedy has been a big part of my life. I’m so glad that he wanted to produce me and we got together. Jeff Tweedy and I are family now and this is eternal. He’ll be in my life for the rest of my life and I’m just so grateful that the Lord sent him.,” she said. “I know it had to be the Lord because for him to come to our show at The Hideout, it was God-sent because that started it all. I’m 76 years old and people still want to hear me sing ‘You’re Not Alone’ and ‘One True Vine.’ Those are songs I sing at all of my shows now. I’m very grateful to Tweedy and he knows I love him.”
Mavis Staples and Joan Osborne will be appearing on Oct. 30 at Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook University, 100 Nichols Rd. in Stony Brook. For more information, call 631-632-2787 or visit www.staller.sunysb.edu .