The first time I heard Mavis Staples sing was on The Last Waltz. At the pinnacle of her musical ability in 1976, she and the Staple Singers joined The Band for the most glorious version of “The Weight” ever performed and, lucky for us, Martin Scorsese captured the whole thing on film.
Four decades later, at the age of 76, Mavis Staples still performs that song at nearly every one of her regular solo concerts. And now she is the star of her own documentary, simply titled Mavis!, which is set to premiere on HBO Monday night.
The film, directed by Jessica Edwards, chronicles the long arc of Staples’s exceptional life, from her start as the teenage lead singer of her family’s gospel group through the ups and downs of a solo career that never quite made her the global superstar many believe she deserved to be, despite various collaborations with figures like Prince and, more recently, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
During a Black History Month that has already seen Beyoncé’s defiant “Formation” video and subsequent Super Bowl performance as well as Kendrick Lamar’s transcendent Black Lives Matter-inspired performance at the Grammys, the story of Mavis Staples is more relevant than ever.
Just as those contemporary artists have faced backlash in recent weeks for mixing racial politics with popular music, the Staple Singers came under fire from even their most ardent fans when they began to sing about injustice against African-Americans beginning in the mid-1960s.
One friend of the family interviewed for the film describes The Staple Singers as “gospel pioneers” for the way they embraced the Civil Rights Movement before any other groups in their genre. Mavis Staples tells the story of her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, bringing the family to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his weekly sermon during a tour of the South. If King could move people to action with his words, Pops thought the group could do the same with their music.
That experience was the genesis of songs like “Why (Am I Treated So Bad),” which was hardly a forceful demand for change, but was nonetheless radical for its time. “You know I’m all alone, while I sing this song,” they sang in harmony. “Hear my call, I’ve done nobody wrong, but I’m treated so bad.”
During an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert this past week, Staples said that song was Dr. King’s favorite. In the years following their first meeting, the group would travel the country with King, singing their freedom-fighting gospel songs before he spoke to crowds of supporters.
“Pops wrote that song for the Little Rock Nine,” Staples told Colbert, referring to the group of nine African-American students from Little Rock, Arkansas who were blocked from entering a segregated high school in 1957.
“We would watch these kids—they were my age, I was in high school at the time,” Staples said, “and they would walk every morning, proud, heads high, with their books, and they would walk into a mob of people throwing rocks at them, spat upon, calling them names, but they’d keep on walking.”
As the Staple Singers strode into the 1970s and signed with Stax records, they moved away from gospel and towards soul, especially on suggestive songs like “Let’s Do It Again.” Even the biggest hit of their career, “I’ll Take You There,” included a political message about racial harmony in the realm beyond. The song is about leading people to the Promised Land where “ain’t nobody cryin’, ain’t nobody worried.” This transition caused major controversy among church-going listeners who thought they were “singing the devil’s music.” But as Staples has insisted ever since, “The devil ain’t got no music.”
The documentary also chronicles Staples’s short-lived relationship with Bob Dylan. In 1963, Dylan and the Staple Singers both appeared on WBC-TV’s aptly titled Folk Songs and More Folk Songs! When Pops Staples heard the line “How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?” from Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he thought of his own youth in the South and the indignities that he faced. According to Mavis, Pops believed Dylan possessed a unique understanding of what it was like to be a black man in 1960s America.
After that, the Staples became one of the first black groups to cover songs like Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” And in 1964, they became the first black artists to play the Newport Folk Festival.
By that point, Staples and Dylan had been “courting” each other and had “smooched” a bit, according to the singer. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Dylan announced that he wanted to marry her. She ended up rejecting his offer, maybe because she felt she was too young, or just couldn’t imagine marrying a white man at that time. But as she recounts the story in the film, Staples appears to express some regrets about what might have been.
Who knows? Maybe if Dylan and Staples had gotten married then, they could have become a civil rights power couple in the mold of Jay-Z and Beyoncé today. Seeing the two of them together would have inevitably angered a lot of people, but it may also have given the country a vision of what America’s future could hold.
Mavis Staples makes a point to highlight that her new album is titled “Livin’ on the High Note” and not “Leavin’ on a High Note.” She intends to keep singing until she can’t sing anymore, and continues to take chances, partnering with contemporary artists like Jeff Tweedy and M. Ward, who produced the new record, which contains songs written by Bon Iver, Nick Cave and Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards.
It shows an artist who is not ready to slow down or stop taking chances, and represents a third act that someone like Beyoncé can aspire to. As Pitchfork’s Stephen M. Deusner points out in his review of the new album, 43 years before Beyoncé sang “I like my Negro nose and my Jackson 5 nostrils,” Staples sang, “I like the things about me that I once despised.”
“Livin’ on the High Note” ends where Staples began, with a track called “MLK Song” that uses King’s final sermon as its source material. “And in the march for peace, tell them I played the drum when I have to meet to my day. In the crawl for justice, I helped somebody run,” Staples sings. “In the walk for the hungry, I fed someone. And in the march for peace, tell them I played the drum when I have to meet my day.”