Gospel icon and soul queen Mavis Staples is making a rare local appearance. She’ll be at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on Saturday, March 29, one of a number of legendary artists who are coming to grace the stage in that lovingly refurbished space. This will be a perfect opportunity to see and hear a one-of-a-kind artist right in our own backyard.
The concert promises a mix of old favorites and newer sounds. And “old favorites” in this case is no exaggeration. Mavis Staples started performing gospel music with her famous family band, The Staple Singers, in 1948. The Staple Singers were Mavis along with her sister Cloetha, her brother Pervis, and of course her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples. They lived on the South Side of Chicago, and through the ’50s the band performed locally and recorded for a series of independent labels, eventually breaking through nationally with the record Uncloudy Day in 1956. The Staple Singers were distinguished by Pops Staples’ unique electric guitar style, which owed a great deal to his Southern roots. Early on, the only additional accompaniment they used was complex hand clapping patterns.
Even more distinctive, though, was Mavis Staples’ remarkable voice. From a young age, Mavis had a much lower vocal range than most women, comfortably singing and projecting on notes that would be hard for even some men to hit. Featured as lead vocalist on many Staple Singers songs, she gave the band an unmistakable sound.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Staple Singers, like many gospel singers at the time, became heavily involved in the struggle for civil rights. They performed at marches and rallies alongside Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez.
Starting in the late ’60s, The Staple Singers made a transition to singing secular music—though their material continued to reflect a gospel spirit—and became famous with a string of pop hits like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” all with Mavis’s low, throaty voice out front. Many rock fans will also remember The Staple Singers from their appearance in the film The Last Waltz, performing a classic version of “The Weight” with The Band.
In recent years, Mavis has recorded two fantastic CDs with Jeff Tweedy as producer. Tweedy, a founder of the alternative band Wilco, has captured Mavis in beautiful voice with largely acoustic accompaniment and carefully arranged background vocals, singing well-chosen selections of songs both sacred and secular. The first CD, called One True Vine, received a Grammy award for Best Americana Record. The second CD, You Are Not Alone, was released in 2013.
Mavis explained how her collaboration with Tweedy came about.
“We’re both in Chicago, only I’m on the South Side and he’s on the North Side. I was recording a live CD in this funky club called the Hideout, and afterward Tweedy introduced himself. Then I heard that he was interested in doing some recording, so we arranged to meet—on the South Side, that is. He seemed reserved at first, but when we got to talking about family and I realized that family is really important to him, and that’s where we came together.”
The Staples family wasn’t just important to Mavis and her siblings. A new book, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway by Greg Kot, chronicles how in the ’50s and ’60s the Staples household on the South Side of Chicago was a well-known gathering place for black celebrities and leaders from all over the country. Mavis’s mother, Oceola Staples, was a celebrated cook who was able to give weary performers and civil rights workers a welcome home-cooked meal.
Family continues to be central to Mavis’s life and career. While the Staple Singers are no longer around (Pops died in 2000), younger sister Yvonne will be one of Mavis’s backup singers at the Suffolk Theater. And her guitarist, Rick Holmstrom, has channeled the Pops Staples sound so well that occasionally Mavis has to turn around to reassure herself that Pops himself isn’t back there.
As for her backup singers executing those tricky clapping patterns?
“You know, they try,” laughs Mavis.
Mavis Staples at Suffolk Theater, 118 East Main Street, Riverhead. Saturday, March 29, at 8 p.m. $50 admission, 631-727-4343, suffolktheater.com