Hearing the opening bass licks of “I’ll Take You There” by The Staples Singers immediately invokes nostalgia for a time and place I’m not old enough to have experienced. If you’re anything like me, though, the song is the quintessential “retro black family montage music in any move,” and though it might be considered overused — no one ever gets sick of that soulful sound.
It is just that good.
If you’re also like me, you may be vaguely familiar with the group behind the song or even less so with its compelling lead singer, Mavis Staples. We were honored to be able to be in the presence of royalty and awesomeness, as we attended the premiere of her 2015 documentary, Mavis, which was directed by Jessica Edwards. The feature-length film will be premiering tonight in the United States on HBO and you should surely check it out or bootleg someone’s HBO GO.
Beginning with Mavis and her backup singers going through some harmony arrangements, to another artist this could have been a casual or unremarkable scene. Yet, for us, this initial moment is a pivotal moment that showcases that Mavis, at 76-years-old, is still a complete and utter powerhouse. This tiny woman with a voice so strong and enigmatic (to match the persona) gives all the feels to the flesh and soul whenever she hits the stage. It is in these impressive moments, which there are many throughout the film, that you can see why filmmaker Jessica Edwards chose Mavis Staples as the central figure for her film.
Mavis’ 65-year-long career is still counting and is a testament to the idea that true brilliance flourishes only in the exact medium through which it was intended for. It is not an overstatement to describe Mavis Staples’ voice as an instrument of God—even if you don’t believe in one—and that’s not because her family sang gospel music. The true story of Mavis Staples cannot be only extracted from The Staples Singers, the family outfit she spent the majority of her career leading vocals for. Buoyed by a string of hits in the 1970s, including 1972’s “I’ll Take You There,” the group had already been recording and touring the country for close to twenty years prior. Roebuck “Pops” Staples, patriarch of the family, formed the group in 1948 with his children singing and himself writing the musical arrangements and playing guitar.
Performing mainly as church singers, the specific lineup would change over the years due to the differing obligations as the children grew up. Life changes such as military service, marriage and starting new families meant that The Staple Singers often had a slightly rotating cast. As the youngest of the four Staples children, Mavis was a different story as her grit and maturity in her voice kept her fixed as the lead singer for decades to come. Even in the film, Mavis herself jokes around about responses to early Staples Singers’ recordings, saying that people couldn’t believe little 15-year-old Mavis was belting out notes like “either a man or a big fat lady singing.”
The Chicago-bred family left the closeness of the church circuit and quickly landed a record contract within a few years of working together. Pops’ guitar playing was heavily influenced by his rural Mississippi upbringing where he learned blues guitar from pioneers such as Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. His secular style of playing matched with Mavis’ unparalleled vocal power and gave The Staples Singers a sound both exciting and familiar to black audiences around the country. It was during that time where Pops, who had been listening to speeches on the radio, brought his family to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Swept up in the emotion, message and delivery — The Staples Singers music began to reflect that same energy. A friendship was even struck up by Pops and the Civil Rights advocate. As Mavis and her family witnessed the deep injustices and violences being perpetrated against blacks-and-browns in the Deep South, by the late 1960s, the group’s lyrical focus had shifted more directly towards fighting against social injustice and freedom songs. Whether it was “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad),” “Respect Yourself,” or the aforementioned “I’ll Take You There,” the group would become a touring and performing sensation, appearing on Soul Train on more than one occasion.
During such a visit in 1974, Don Cornelius asked Pops about The Staples Singers seemingly putting their gospel roots behind. Replying conscientiously and kindly, Pops said, “Gospel ain’t nothin’ but the truth, and we’re telling the truth in our songs.” It was embedded in how they carried themselves, the songs and the freedom that made The Staples Singers such a draw. Imbued by Mavis’ incredible voice and enigmatic presence, she continued to lead the group to new heights as one of the faces of the Civil Rights Movement and protest music. At this point, even other celebrities were not immune to the power of Mavis as an individual. In one of the best anecdotes of the film, Mavis recalls Bob Dylan trying to holler at (and even offering a marriage proposal to) her after meeting the Singers at a folk music festival.