September 29, 2020

Breakers (III): Mavis Staples, the colossal voice of the essences of the North American South | Blog North American route and beyond


Many had to check the newspaper archives to find out who that woman with such a colossal voice was. Most did not know where that name had come from, others thought it was dead and very few were aware of its activity, although they had not given a dollar because it could retain so much strength when in 2007 it was uncovered with We’ll Never Turn Back, an album that combined the roots of the American South with overwhelming determination and judgment. Mavis staples He had returned with the solemnity of the risen.

You know, it’s the redemption story that always sells. Also, behind was a first sword admired by musical-critics-savvy and top-notch music lovers like Ry Cooder, that years ago he had given a good account of his good sense of smell when he championed the world unearthing of the Cuban son of Buena Vista Social Club. Everything fit for the rescue operation. The press fell at the feet of Mavis Straples and the headlines related to the resurrection were recurrent, although she had not stopped playing and recording for years. It didn’t matter: Staples, the youngest of the daughters of the legendary gospel group The Staple Singers, was back to stay.

Breakers (III): Mavis Staples, the colossal voice of the essences of the North American South

We’ll Never Turn Back It was the first in a series of albums that to this day have demonstrated the great versatility of a singer with a splendid voice. Most of all, it was the step that allowed Mavis to become known for her work and for her music in the well-worn pop-rock music industry. Until then, beyond those texts that related her to her musical family -something that was understandable and that she claimed-, it was not difficult to find articles that spoke of Mavis as “the gospel singer with whom she fell in love Bob dylan“, Who wanted to marry her.

Mavis Staples had been a trailblazer. The Staple Singers were a cornerstone of the gospel. A family band, formed by Patriarch Roebuck Pops Staples and his three daughters, who since the fifties became a benchmark of the great circuit of the genre throughout the country, but also knew how to approach the university public. That got smart whites interested in folk music like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and other outposts coming to his music. Those whites they learned from the gospel’s passion for their tunes folkies.

During the days of slavery, the church, beyond belief and superstition, was a refuge for the black community, where songs liberated and appealed to the heart. That spirit of inviolable place in the face of imbalances continued in force in the second half of the 20th century in segregationist North America against which Rosa Parks rebelled, by not giving up their seat, and Luther King herself. The Staple Singers were an important vehicle for channeling black pride through gospel and Mavis’s voice, always intense and beautiful, the best climax to elevate it above prejudice.

Mavis Staples, first from right, with The Staples Singers.
Mavis Staples, first from right, with The Staples Singers.

For many years the patriarch of the Staples was offered a lot of money for Mavis to fly alone, but she always wanted to stay with the family. A journey that lasted until the eighties, although it should be noted that the singer tried solo in 1970 on soul with the remarkable Only for the Lonely at Stax Records, in the cinema with the soundtrack of A Piece of the Actionee even under the umbrella of Prince, making his first steps in the eighties in music funk disco. They were always attempts without breaking the family shell.

When she was already engaged in a circuit as closed as that of gospel, and paying homages to Mahalia Jackson, godmother of the genre, Mavis knew how to shed her ties to church music. It is not an easy achievement for a woman who had already left her youthful years behind, especially when the United States is a country that tends to build high walls in the face of such closed styles. The youngest of the Staples was once again presented to the world with an aura of enviable wisdom. First it was her partnership with Ry Cooder, but later other outstanding album-shaped alliances with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco (You are not alone) and M. Ward (Livin ‘on a High Note). In them the gospel, the rhythm and blues, soul and folk as if his booming voice of ancestral resonances were documenting the existence in some sacred scrolls.

Now 81, she is acclaimed as an eminence receiving tributes while continuing to delight with records. It is very difficult to give so much with so little. Without aesthetic pirouettes or deceptive pyrotechnics, Mavis Staples has concentrated the essences of American roots music with quality and elegance in the final stretch of her career. It is the purity of her music that moves, driven by the magnitude of a fiery and swampy voice at the same time. When she thrashes into herself, plunged into a sonic ecstasy born from the crossroads of the most genuine gospel and R&B, she gesticulates endlessly with her powerful throat in command, moving from high to low with astonishing ease, pinching the soul with their full screams, when that happens, simply, life during that moment becomes colossal.

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