Mavis Staples On The Main Line

In a profile from Westword’s June 28 edition, Mavis Staples speaks her mind in a notably feisty manner -- and in the following Q&A, which encompasses the entire text of the interview that formed the basis of the article, her undimmed passion comes through even more clearly.

Topics include her reasons for recording We’ll Never Turn Back, featuring songs of protest and struggle from the civil-rights era; her frustration that this historical period has been forgotten by so many people; her angry reaction to the terrible treatment of too many Hurricane Katrina victims; recent incidents that show her racism is (unfortunately) still alive and well in this country; memories of early trips to Jackson, Mississippi, when prejudice was an ugly way of life; the affluence of today’s children; her request that Public Enemy’s Chuck D contribute a rap to her CD, and the reasons why it wasn’t used; her take on hip-hoppers such as Common and Kanye West; takes on the charitable instincts of Bono and Oprah Winfrey; her disappointment in ministers who care more about money than helping their flocks; her desire to speak with school kids about her experiences; Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite Staple Singers song, and the Little Rock 9, who inspired it; the roots of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push; and the reasons why Chevrolet ads featuring the Staple Singers smash “I’ll Take You There” earned more money for the family than the song itself did during the time it topped the sales charts.

Listen up -- because Ms. Staples has a lot to say.

Westword (Michael Roberts): When you set out to make the new disc, what were your goals? Was it to share some of the music from this very important period with people who were too young to have experienced it themselves? Was it to remind people who did live through the period that the struggle isn’t over? Or a combination of those things?

Mavis Staples: Exactly. A combination. To reenergize the ones who were there, and to let the three generations since then – maybe four, because it was 42 years ago – to let them hear, and help them learn, what we went through, how far we’ve come, where we come from, and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. There’s a teacher who lives right next door to me, and she told me one day, after Sister Rosa Parks passed away – she told me that one of her students, a 17-year-old senior, asked, “Who was she?” And I said, “Oh, no.” It’s just so pitiful, it’s so sad that us as parents, who were here during the ‘60s, during that time, haven’t passed it on to our children. Because we don’t have any black history in our schools. They didn’t pass it on. So I really fault the parents. But the kids, they can go to the library. But this CD, it’s very relevant today.

WW: Does it surprise you that so many people these days have taken for granted all the gains people like you struggled to achieve?

MS: Yes, it does. It’s very surprising – but then sometimes it’s not. Because those of us who were there took it more seriously. But those of us who weren’t should have as well. They are the ones who have benefited. So it wasn’t like they were on the outside looking in. They were seeing what was happening and how many black freedom fighters suffered from being hosed down and beaten with billy clubs and being attached by dogs. They could see it all, and they can see it all today. Every year in February, Black History Month takes place, and the PBS channel shows the entire Eyes on the Prize film. But people so easily forget. They’re living their lives, living the life of Reilly, and once they get to where they want to be, they’re selfish. I just know from seeing Katrina, I had flashbacks from Katrina. I thought about Dr. King. What would he do? What would he say? You’ve got people floating in this black water and people dying, dying in a stadium filled with black people, with no water, no food. It’s hot in New Orleans, and senior citizens and babies were dying. So many things happened that make me know it’s relevant. My sister and I, still in our travels, we still feel it. We get it.

WW: You still feel racism?

MS: Oh, yes.

WW: Could you give me an example?

MS: We feel it in the hotels, in the airports. The people behind the counters. We’ve seen them pass us up, and my sister, Yvonne, she just won’t take it. I’m quieter…

WW: You’re the quiet sister?

MS: No, I’m not quiet! (She laughs) I have to change that right quick! I’m more patient. I’ll take more. But she just won’t have it. She’ll say, “You can’t do that! We were first!” And they know you’re standing there. They look right in your eyes, right in your face. But they’ll be like, “You wait. I’m going to help this white person first.” And we have so many miles. We travel all the time, and if a promoter might put us in the coach, or we put ourselves in coach, we might want to use our frequent flier miles, and they just won’t do it for us. They’ll say, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, ma’am.” They can be so nasty. You just have to hold yourself sometimes. Because you’re black, you’re abused and mistreated. You don’t count.

WW: That’s shocking to me in this day and age, but I’ll bet if you told the same story to an African-American, he or she wouldn’t be shocked at all.

MS: Not at all. Not at all. You see how this policeman in New York shot this young man fifty rounds? Here’s a young kid going to his wedding, but because the policeman was afraid of him, he shot him. And how many bullets does it take to kill a man? So you just have to pray and be strong, and that’s what black people have been down through the years, from slavery time. We depend on our strength, and we’re God-fearing. We depend on our prayers. But we want our turn. And like I say, Dr. King put us in a better place. Dr. King made it possible for black people in the South to vote, even. They couldn’t even vote in the ‘50s. He had all of the signs taken down off of washrooms and water fountains. We could stay in the white hotels down in the South. We could go in the restaurants there. My sisters and I, we started singing in 1950, and when we made our first record, “Uncloudy Day,” a gospel record, it sold like it was R&B. It took us out on the road when I was still in school. So I’ve seen it a long time. My father prepared us for the South. My sister Yvonne and I had been in the South when we were kids, seven and eight years old, but we weren’t in the presence of a lot of white people…

WW: So he prepared you for a lot of the racism he knew you were going to face?

MS: Oh yes, he prepared us. Pops would tell us, “If you go into town, don’t y’all start nothing.” But then he’d tell us, “Don’t take nothing, either.” We would go into town, and in Jackson, Mississippi, we saw some beautiful shoes at a shoe store. The biggest store in Jackson, the most expensive shoes in the window. We went in and asked for the three sizes, because we wanted to use these shoes on stage. And the lady had all three sizes, so we said, “Oh, we’d better try them on.” And she said, “Wait, hon. If you want to try them on, you’ve got to go over behind that curtain.” And here was an old, raggedy curtain that we were to go behind to try on these shoes…

WW: Were they afraid that a white person wouldn’t want to try on shoes after a black person had?

MS: I hadn’t thought of it like that. Maybe she was thinking that, too – that customers would say, “No, I don’t want those. A black person tried those shoes on.” I just thought it was because they didn’t want us sitting down in their shoe store. But they’d take our money. And we told her, “We can’t take these now.” And anytime you said something like that, they’d say, “Well, y’all aren’t from around here, are you?” And we would tell them, “Yes, we’re from here. We were born here.” We weren’t going to say, “We’re from the city. We’re from Chicago.” We would tell that one little white lie. We’d say, “We live here,” because at that particular time, we were living there. We were living at the tourist home. We couldn’t stay at no hotel. These black people would make tourist homes out of their homes, and the gospel singers, they would rent a room. My sisters and I, we would have one room, and Pops would have a room. And the Dixie Hummingbirds, these were places where we’d meet up with all of our gospel friends, because most of the concerts were caravans anyhow. There’d be maybe six of us on the show. But we had many times where even the Chinese would treat us that way. There was a Chinese-owned store down in Forrest, Mississippi, where my grandfather was. We went in that store, and this little Chinese girl told us, “Y’all don’t get as much sun as we get.” We told her where we were from, and we thought she was cool at first. So we told her where we were from, and she said, “Oh, I see. Y’all don’t get as much sun up there as we get down there.” See, our father was brown-skinned, and all three of us are my mother’s complexion. So we weren’t black enough. We didn’t get much sun! And I thought, “Can you believe this? This is a Chinese person being the same way the whites are!” So, I’m telling you, from Katrina to seeing this guy onstage in California using the N-word and saying we would hang that boy from a tree, all these things, I felt so good singing my songs. And I’ve told people it’s not about making money. I wouldn’t mind if everyone who could buy a record burned a copy and passed it on, just so more people could hear it. A lot of people can’t afford it – although I don’t know. These kids, with all of their bling-bling. The kids have the money today. It really has been a switch, and the poor parents, they’re trying to find work.

WW: Trying to find work to pay for all of their kids’ stuff.

MS: Right. Trying to pay for those $100 gym shoes and all that. That’s another thing. The parents today are trying more to be friends to kids rather than parents. I’m so grateful that I was a kid at the time when I was a kid, because it’s hard today for these children to be kids. You don’t see little girls out on the street jumping rope or playing hopscotch or playing volleyball like we used to do. You don’t see that because the kids can’t go out there, because they might get shot. You’ve got these kids who call themselves gangmembers, and this is their turf. It’s a messed up world. So sad.

WW: As you were talking about your experiences, it made me think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have today’s kids live like you did for one day…” Is that what you hope your CD will do? To let kids who haven’t lived through what you did feel what you experienced through the music?

MS: Exactly. They can hear it, because it was what we sang back in the day: “Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” These were the songs we sang in the movement. But some of these songs were sung before the movement, that are on the CD, like “Jesus Is on the Main Line.” I think if they could hear these songs, it would put a wonder on their minds, and they would want to know more about, “What is she talking about? Why is Mavis singing these songs?” I wish to God I had gotten a rapper to rap on just one of my songs…

WW: I read that you did talk to Chuck D, and you didn’t like what he came up with very much…

MS: Well, it wasn’t something I could do. It wasn’t ladylike! (Laughs) Ry Cooder said, “Well, Mavis, I don’t know if you want to say these things.” And I said, “No, Ry! I can’t say that!” That’s against my image. The song he wrote was called “Freedom’s Got a Shotgun,” and I said, “Oh, no. I can’t do that.” We tried to kind of change it up, but we finally had to put it on the back burner. And someone asked me, too, “Mavis, if you had asked a rapper to rap with you, who would it be?” And I said it probably would have been Common or this little guy Kanye West. Because his “Jesus Walks” song, I sang that with him on the Grammys.

WW: That was wonderful, by the way.

MS: Oh, thank you. And Common is a member of my church, and Obama’s a member of my church.

WW: Common’s dad actually lives in Denver.

MS: Is that right?

WW: His dad played for the basketball team here – it used to be called the Denver Rockets.

MS: It’s a small world. Common’s always mentioning his father, so I thought he lived here. He’s always saying, “I talked to my father about it” in his interviews. Common’s things are positive – the work that he does, from what I’ve heard. I figured, if those kids, they could do a rap as soon as they hear it. They can repeat it. And if I could get these kids saying, “Freedom now” and “Eyes on the prize,” that would have been great. It would have been great even having the little warriors from our church do that. Our church, we have little kids in the choir.

WW: And they’re called the “little warriors”?

MS: That’s right, the little warriors. And if I could have those kids singing with me in their little voices, that would have been great. Someone told me, “Maybe you’ll have to do a remix,” and that would work.

WW: You mentioned Kanye West and Katrina, and he caused a lot of controversy when he spoke up during one of the fundraisers and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people…”

MS: Yes, he did.

WW: … and I remember wondering why so many people were criticizing him, instead of praising him for speaking out.

MS: Well, who was upset? I had a fit about it! (Laughs) I jumped up for joy and said, “Hallelujah!” My phone started ringing, and after I got done talking about it with those people, I started calling and talking to other people about it! I didn’t know anyone was upset about that. Black people, you mean?

WW: No, I meant George Bush’s followers.

MS: Well, of course. They should be upset! Kanye, here’s a kid who saw Katrina, and that’s what came out of his mouth. That’s not what he was supposed to say. He had a teleprompter in front of him, but he said he would’ve felt like a hypocrite if he had read what was on that. It must have been something positive about Bush or whatever. But I’ll never forget how Kanye said that. He didn’t know if he should say it or not, but it came on out, and I shouted for joy.

WW: Do you wish there were more current performers like Kanye West who were willing to come out and speak their mind about important issues like that?

MS: Oh, yes, I do. Yes, indeed. That would help immensely. Someone told me that Wynton Marsalis had done a CD similar to mine, but you wonder what is on our minds? Where are we going? What are we thinking about? We can’t get anywhere without being respected. So how far do you want to go? That’s the way it is today, and get disappointed in our people at times. The ministers are not stepping up. We don’t have any leaders. There are some so-called leaders; they claim they’re leaders. But they don’t show me anything. There was a time when the ministers made sure that things got right, that things were better. Not today. You have ministers today who are interested in mega-churches – these big churches where people have to watch a big screen to see the pastor. It’s about money, big money, with these ministers. They all have their big cars and their big houses. I’m telling you, it’s kind of like we have a lost world. The rich people, they’re doing just fine, but that’s their life. And you can’t blame them because they’re rich, because a lot of them are doing good. Bono and all these people who are helping in Africa. But let’s get together and come over here. I know how it is in Africa, and they need all of what you’re doing for them. But we have homeless people and poverty over here. Some places over here look like places in the Third World.

WW: That’s something Katrina really brought out…

MS: Yes, indeed. Someone asked Oprah Winfrey, why didn’t she build a school over here, and Oprah, she had a good excuse. I think she said something like, “The kids over here don’t want to read,” or whatever. But I think if it was put before them, and if they were given a nice place to go to school, you’d have plenty of them who’d want to read and better themselves. You can’t predict what little kids would want to do. But I can’t do anything but sing my songs. And I did let the president of my record company and my managers know that if the teachers wanted me to come to schools and talk about my CD and explain to the children what I’m singing about and what I’ve been through, I would love to do that.

WW: Have you done that around Chicago?

MS: Well, no one has asked me.

WW: No one has asked you? That’s shocking to me.

MS: No, no one has asked me! And school is out now. But they still have the camps and field houses where the kids go in the summer. No one has approached me to do that.

WW: Well, we’ll get the word out. I bet you’ll hear from some teachers now with that offer. I can’t imagine a teacher who wouldn’t love to have Mavis Staples talk to their kids.

MS: You know what? The only place I’ve done it was in Alaska. That was at a college in Alaska. That was the only place. Actually, that was before my CD was released, but I hit on some things they wanted to know about. I’m just grateful to be here. I’m just grateful to have been here in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the Lord has kept me, so that I can still be here, and that I can put this CD out.

WW: You mentioned Dr. King earlier, and about six months ago or so, I had the opportunity to interview Joan Baez, who was around Dr. King during that period of time, too, and she really emphasized that he was a real person. I think a lot of kids think of Dr. King as being like a historical figure from a long time ago, just like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They don’t realize there are people here who talked with him and spent time with him.

MS: That’s right. Yes, indeed.

WW: How can we make him seem more down to earth to kids?

MS: Oh, I have a lot of stories. We would sing before Dr. King would speak, and when people would go to the meetings, the men would be in a circle in the parking lot talking, and all of a sudden, you’d hear Dr. King’s laughter. I loved to hear him laugh, because he always looked so serious, and sometimes so sad. But when I’d hear that, I’d think, “Oh, that’s wonderful. Dr. King is happy.” And then he’d come over to my father, and he’d say, “Stapes, you going to sing my song tonight, right?” And Pops would say, “Oh yes, we’re going to sing your song tonight.” His song was, “Why Am I Treated So Bad.” That was his favorite song we would sing. Pops wrote that song after we saw nine children in Little Rock, Arkansas, being abused, not being able to board a bus to integrate Central High School down there. That went on for so long, and it finally came to a day where the governor of Arkansas and the mayor of Little Rock and the president of the United States said, “Let those children board that bus.” Pops was laying back in his recliner, and I remember I was on the floor, and when it came time for the kids to board the bus that day, there was a policeman there, and he put his billy club across the door. And Pops said, “Now, why is he doing that? Why is he treating them so bad?” And he wrote the song that evening. These kids would go every day. They never would look around. People would spit at them, call them names, throw rocks at them. Crowds of people. And the children would just keep walking with their books, and when they’d get up to the bus, they wouldn’t let them get on, and they’d just turn around, turn around. But finally, that next day after the policeman did that, they had to let them get on the bus. And they’re still around. They’re the Little Rock Nine. They’re grownups now, and every year, they have a reunion. The Little Rock Nine.

WW: You mentioned Dr. King’s laughter, and that’s something Joan Baez mentioned, too. She said there was often a lot of laughter in those meetings – and a lot of pie, too.

MS: Sweet potato pie, it must have been. I don’t know. I didn’t see the pie. But he had this jovial laughter. And then, the last time we were in a meeting with Dr. King, he asked Pops to meet him up on 87th Street here in Chicago, at a meeting place. And Pops asked me to go with him, and we went there that day. Dr. King and Coretta was there, and this particular day, he wanted to tell Pops, “Stapes, I want you and your daughters to go up on 51st Street every Saturday.” He said he had appointed Jesse Jackson to have this Operation Breadbasket every Saturday, and Operation Breadbasket was for people to bring food for people who couldn’t afford it. But Jesse Jackson was kind of new back then, and Dr. King said to Pops, “They don’t know him yet, but they know you and your daughters. And I know the people would come out there if you would say you’d be there every Saturday.” And Pops said, “Oh yes, Dr. King, we’ll do that.” And after that, the place was packed. We did it for about a year and then we kind of eased off, because people would come anyway. But Pops got it going for him, and now Jesse Jackson has changed the name of it to Operation Push. But it started out as Operation Breadbasket.

WW: In reading some of your recent interviews, you talked about some of your difficulties with the record business, and being paid what you were owed, and it occurred to me that you may have made more money from “I’ll Take You There” being used in a car commercial than you did from a lot of your albums. Is that true?

MS: Well, we did. “I’ll Take You There” was used for three years from Chevrolet. They did the commercials on TV. And back then, we should have gotten more money from our records. But any entertainer out here has been cheated by the record companies. I don’t remember us even getting any royalties from “I’ll Take You There” until Stax crumbled, and then Fantasy started paying us royalties. We didn’t get royalties from Warner Bros. or Epic or Universal. We were on about six labels before Stax. But now we do. We get royalties. Our songs from the ‘50s are still selling.

WW: They should. They sound just as good today as they did back then, I’ll bet.

MS: Well, I feel like that was our best music, because it was just us and Pops’ guitar. (A horn honks) I think that’s my ride, coming to get me. It’s a sign (Laughs). I guess it’s time to go.

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Crystal Preston-Watson