Mavis Staples just celebrated her 80th birthday doing what she does best, performing with friends and collaborators in blowout performances across the country. The Chicago native has gone from performing with her family group The Staple Singers, to bringing her civil rights message to life in her solo career. She’s recorded with everyone from Prince to her frequent collaborator of late, Jeff Tweedy, performing classic freedom songs and original compositions to critical acclaim, multiple Grammy Nominations, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Let’s look at 6 essentials from Mavis’ storied, still-going-strong career.
The title track of the Staple Singer’s 1965 live record. The year that saw the march from Selma to Montgomery, Pops Staples was inspired, “From that march, word was revealed and a song was composed. And we wrote a song about the freedom marchers and we call it the ‘Freedom Highway’, and we dedicate this number to all the freedom marchers.” It has become a centerpiece of Mavis’ live set and has been covered by countless artists to date.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Originally a christian hymn dating back to 1907, The Staple Singers released their recording on their 1966 record Why. A true masterpiece of Gospel music, their rendition has been covered by Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and more and remains a seminal piece of Mavis’ catalog.
I’ll Take You There
Written by Al Bell and performed by The Staple Singers in 1972, the song is almost completely a call and response chorus led by Mavis. It imagines a world where the civil rights movement has succeeded. It was recorded at the famous Muscle Shoals studio and Rolling Stone’s David Fricke calls it the “epitome of the Muscle Shoals Sound.”
The Band’s famous The Last Waltz featured Staples on a rework of The Weight. “I’ve had a lot of great moments in my life and my career. But that is something where I could put my chest out and hold my head up and I can just be super proud.” Mavis says of the rendition. Since then, it’s become the closer of Mavis’ sets, and usually features a special guest. Last time she performed at OL, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler joined Mavis for the performance.
You Are Not Alone
In 2010, Mavis teamed up with fellow Chicagoan, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to release a record of re-imagined hits and original music. This began a longstanding partnership between the two who still record today, and this song remains a standout from their first foray. The inspiring tune combines the best of Mavis’ influences and history, and the pair have performed it together on special occasions.
Mavis’ latest record, 2019’s “We Get By” recorded with Ben Harper, continues her message of social change and activism. “These songs are delivering such a strong message, We truly need to make a change if we want this world to be better.” At 80, Mavis is still as inspired and active as ever.