Born: July 10, 1939 Primary Instrument: Vocal
With her bold new album,”You Are Not Alone,” this legendary vocalist adds a remarkable new chapter to an historic career. Mavis Staples is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and a National Heritage Fellowship Award recipient. VH1 named her one of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll, and Rolling Stone listed her as one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
This project which is being released more than sixty years after she began singing with her ground-breaking family group, the Staple Singers is the follow-up to “We’ll Never Turn Back,” her acclaimed 2007 collection of songs associated with the civil rights movement, and to 2009’s Grammy-nominated live album “Hope at the Hideout.” It stakes out surprising new territory for Staples by matching her with producer Jeff Tweedy, a fellow Chicagoan who also happens to lead Wilco, perhaps the most respected band working in America today.
Tweedy first saw Staples and her band in 2008 at Chicago’s the Hideout when they recorded the live album Hope At The Hideout. After seeing that performance Tweedy knew he had to work with Staples. A little over a year later Tweedy, Staples and her band: Rick Holmstrom, guitar, vocals; Jeff Turmes, bass, vocals; Stephen Hodges, drums; Donny Gerrard, background vocals entered the studio to record You Are Not Alone.
Some of Tweedy’s choices, which would form the emotional core of “You Are Not Alone,” took Staples all the way back to her earliest memories. She recalls her father, the pioneering guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples, playing such traditional gospel songs as “Creep Along Moses” and “Wonderful Savior” on “those big ol’ 78 records” for the family. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Those are songs I grew up with, I never thought I would be recording them.”
In addition, the singer and the producer settled on a few songs that were composed by her late father. Singing “Don’t Knock” and “Downward Road,” she says, transported her to the formative days of the Staple Singers, decades before such classics as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” topped the pop charts.
Along the way, songs by blues and soul icons (Allan Toussaint, Little Milton, and the Reverend Gary Davis) and by pop master craftsmen (Randy Newman and John Fogerty) were added to the mix. Staples expresses special fondness, however, for the original songs that Tweedy wrote for her during the recording of You Are Not Alone. “He would listen to my conversations, my words, and then feed off that,” she says. “The songs he wrote take me places I wouldn’t normally go. I wasn’t used to singing this way, but it felt really good.”
She shed some tears singing the title track, and pours her soul into “Only the Lord Knows,” a Tweedy composition that was the last song they recorded. “That was our political song,” she says “You talk to this one, listen to that one, pick up the paper, but you can’t get any answers. The White House, the church, I can’t get any straight answers to the things I want to know. So for now, we’re on our own, and we have to go to the Lord. He’s the only one who knows.”
“You Are Not Alone” caps an incredible decade for Mavis Staples, a resurgence that saw her receive Grammy nominations in blues, gospel, folk, and pop categories. She claims, in fact, that she has done so much diverse work recently that, until Jeff Tweedy helped guide the way, she wasn’t sure of her direction.
“After the We’ll Never Turn Back” CD, I didn’t know which way to turn,” she says. “Did I want to do a country record, a gospel record, or what? So I needed a sound like this something that fit my message, but flowed in a different direction from where I would normally take a song so it wasn’t just the same old same old. “I wanted to make an album where every song had meaning,” she says, “where every song told a story and would lift you up and give you a reason to get up in the morning. And I know it’s going to feel really good singing these songs on stage.”