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What You Don't Know About Mavis Staples and Her Music

Laura Fedele, via
Mavis Staples at Austin City Limits fest in 2011.

For a slightly younger generation, the Staples Singers evoke memories of avocado colored refrigerators and polyester pants. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but certainly not the reason you should know the name Mavis Staples

In the new book, "I’ll Take You There," music journalist Greg Kot connects the dots between modern American culture and the great migration as African-Americans moved from the deep south to Chicago. 

Mavis Staples is part of the fabric of Chicago, Kot tells Texas Standard'sDavid Brown.

"[She's] a cultural institution. Her family is a cultural institution," he says.

"I talked to people about Mavis Staples and you know, [they know] bits and pieces of her life," Kot continues. "Maybe they know 'Respect Yourself,' or 'I'll Take You There' from the '70's when the Staples were on top of the charts. Maybe they know some of her comeback records in the last decade that she's done with people like Jeff Tweedy and Ry Cooder. Some people know her and the relationship she had with Prince in the late 80's."

But they don't connect all the dots of Mavis Staples' amazing story.  

"Take it all the way back to the slave era," Kot says. "When'Pop' Robuck Staples, the patriarch of the family, was growing up as a Mississippi sharecropper, he knew his grandfather, who was a slave. And then you take that up to bringing his family north from Mississippi where he learned the Blues at the feet of Charlie Patton – only the founder of modern Blues! That's where Pop Staples learned to play guitar."

The story of Mavis Staples continues, through her friendships with Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahalia Jackson and even Bob Dylan, who Kot says developed a relationship with Mavis, "in his own head in some ways," through hearing her music on the radio. 

"They do a folk special for CBS in New York in early 1963," Kot says. "They're both on the show. They're down in the cafeteria during a break … Staples at the front of the line, Dylan at the back. All of the sudden there's this voice at the back of the line, 'Pops I wanna marry Mavis.' Walks up to the front, looks at Pop and says, 'Pops I wanna marry Mavis.' Mavis is giving him the cut sign like, 'What do you think you're doing? We hardly know each other.' And Pops is going, 'What are you telling me for? Mavis is right here.' Before there was dating, before there was romance, Dylan already has a marriage proposal in hand. But he was determined to get his girl."

And he was serious. "There was a story Jeff Tweedy told about being on tour with Dylan last year. And he said, 'By the way Mavis says hello.' And Dylan says, 'Tell Mavis she should have married me.'"

David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
Emily Donahue is a former grants writer for KUT. She previously served as news director and helped launch KUT’s news department in 2001.