At 83, Mavis Staples still regularly graces stages across this country and the wider world – a living, breathing, crooning gift to those invested in the history and ongoing journey of American popular music. “I’ll sing until I can’t sing anymore,” Staples says in the 2015 documentary Mavis! She had been on the road for more than 60 years at that point, but couldn’t see herself doing anything else.
That number is closer to 70 years now – yet still Staples remains on the road, her voice a little raspier but as rich and powerful as ever, a throughline between the traditions of gospel, blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. That voice returns to the Monterey Peninsula on Feb. 15, when she performs at the Sunset Center in Carmel.
Staples burst on the scene as a teenager in the 1950s as the de facto frontwoman of her family gospel group, The Staple Singers, which was anchored by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, on guitar. By the mid-’60s, Pops had struck up a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and pivoted the group toward protest music, with songs like “Freedom Highway” and “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” becoming the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.
While they were embedded in the traditions of church music, Pops’ guitar betrayed his training under Mississippi bluesmen like Charlie Patton, imbuing their music with a swing atypical of most gospel groups. That was borne out in their subsequent mainstream success; after signing with legendary soul label Stax Records in the late ’60s, the Staple Singers delivered the chart-topping “I’ll Take You There,” while maintaining a conscientious streak with anthems like “Respect Yourself.”
But beyond their indisputable place in the canon of Black American music, it is the impression the Stapleses made on their folk and rock contemporaries that speaks to the breadth of their genius. They left a mark on Bob Dylan, who described their rendition of “Uncloudy Day” – featuring a 16-year-old Mavis’ uncannily deep, world-weary vocals – as “the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard.” Admirers included Dylan’s old backing group The Band, who enlisted them for a show-stealing rendition of “The Weight” in their seminal concert film, The Last Waltz.
Fittingly, Staples is now touring in support of Carry Me Home – a collaborative album with the late Band drummer Levon Helm, which was recorded in 2011 a year before Helm’s death but only released last year.
MAVIS STAPLES 8pm Wednesday, Feb. 15. Sunset Center, Carmel. $65-$99. 620-2048, sunsetcenter.org
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