Listen to this track by message music maven and one-time Staple Singer Mavis Staples. It’s “Fight” a brand new single as taken from her 2015 EP Your Good Fortune. The EP was produced by none other than Anti-Records labelmate Son Little, also an artist with a feel for music with a message. This song is a kind of artistic mobius strip, with one artist who followed in the footsteps of another making footsteps of his own for her to follow. Saying that, there is more than just a turnaround between two artists with a similar set of motivations.
“Fight” seems to capture the anger related to any number of systemic aggressions against black people specifically and poor people in general as perpetrated by those who’s job it is to protect them. These events have alerted us to a social crisis that is not isolated to a few areas in our society. Songs about struggle and rage are appropriate in 2015 to say the least. I think essential may be the more precise word.
Here’s a clip of country-pop songwriter Eddie Rabbitt and gospel-soul first lady Mavis Staples with a version of “Suspicious Minds”, bringing together at least three disparate elements of music I love – soul, country-without-hats, and Elvis – yet in very strange packaging. This is seemingly taken from an Elvis Presley tribute show, and Rabbitt starts the clip with his song ‘Kentucky Rain’, a hit song he wrote for Elvis in 1970. And then (oddly) Mavis joins him from the middle-eight of “Suspicious Minds”. Still, any excuse to hear Mavis sing…
I suppose in some ways it’s not entirely strange to see these two together, although I still think this is a great example of unexpected musical collaborations. Still, Mavis’ solo material often bordered on country (‘A House is Not A Home‘), and Rabbitt’s often bordered on smooth R&B (‘Suspicions‘). And because this is an Elvis tribute, I suppose the idea was to show just how blurry the lines are.
Ultimately, this kind of an odd musical pairing reveals that classifying music into genres shouldn’t be the be all and end all of understanding where the music actually comes from.
Read this article from Clash Magazine with legendary soul singer Mavis Staples. It was written by a guy I know from my music geek community. And note: the question about her finding her own identity while in a group with her family was my contribution!
The article talks mostly about her early days in the Staple Singers, and growing up during the civil rights movement. Apart from the history of the music, it’s an interesting window into an era that ushered in what we now have come to accept as a more civilized society where racial relations are concerned.
Mavis’ voice has always been an instrument which has affected me on an emotional level. From the film the Last Waltz, her verse in “The Weight” when she sings “HEY CARMEN” always lays me low. And when I saw her perform in person, with sister and fellow Staple Singer Cleotha singing back-up, I got equally choked up when she hit that very same note in the same song. It’s like hearing the voice of God to me. She had a cold that night, with the deep rumble beneath her soulful, alto voice even more resonant than usual. She was quoted as saying “I was once Beyoncé!”, and proceeded to knock us all out.
The person introducing Mavis that night revealed that Bob Dylan (“Bobby” to Mavis) had romanced her in the early days of the civil rights era, with her dad Pops Staples giving his blessing. What might have resulted from such a union, I wonder?