Just in time for Black History Month, audiences at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook will have an opportunity to experience 60 years of living history when the legendary gospel/rhythm and blues singer Mavis Staples takes the stage of "The Kate" on Saturday, February 16.
A native of Chicago, Mavis joined her father, Roebuck “Pop” Staples and her siblings Cleotha, Yvonne and Purvis, in the early 1950’s as part of The Staple Singers, which became the most popular and influential spirituality-based singing group in the United States. In the early 1960’s, through their close association with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., they became a leading musical force in the civil rights movement. The Staple Singers were also instrumental in popularizing the burgeoning folk music revival of the period, championing the work of such up-and-coming artists as Stephen Stills and Bob Dylan, who once asked for Mavis’ hand in marriage. (She declined.)
In 1965, “Pops” wrote the song “Freedom Highway” for the historic march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery. Mavis today explains that she is “still marching that highway.”
The inspiring and moving music of The Staple Singers struck a chord with the country’s young people who were coming of age in the late 1960’s. Their songs made the top 40 charts eight times between 1971 and 1975, hitting number one twice and seeing their popular holiday song, “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas” reach number two. They continued recording through 1984 with their final album, “Turning Point,” which featured the group’s last top 40 hit, a cover of the Talking Heads’ ‘Slippery People.” The group was embraced by a new generation after their song “Respect Yourself” was used by Spike Lee in his film, “Crooklyn.” In 1999, Mavis and the family were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A year later, however, following the unexpected death of “Pops” Staples, Mavis gave up singing. It was her devoted older sister, Yvonne, who encouraged Mavis to return to her music in 2004, which started one of the most productive, creative and acclaimed periods of Mavis’s entire career, which continues up through the present day. Not only has she released four albums of gospel, spiritual and civil rights songs since then, including one produced by Ry Cooder, Mavis Staples has been invited to record with any number of artists from a wide range of musical genres. As a result, her voice can be heard on albums by such diverse artists as Salt ‘N Pepa, Ray Charles, Nona Hendryx, George Jones, Natalie Merchant, Los Lobos, Dr. John, Delbert McClinton and Johnny Paycheck. Her duet with old pal Bob Dylan, “Gotta Change My Way of Thinking,” was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals category.
She continues to tour with her own band, which includes as a back up singer, her supportive and talented sister, Yvonne. It’s not unusual for established musicians such as Bonnie Raitt to climb up on stage to perform a number or two Mavis is so respected by her peers that she served as a judge for the third and seventh annual Independent Music Awards which recognize outstanding independent artists. She was invited to perform at the Kennedy Center Honors in tribute to Sir Paul McCartney and sang at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, D.C. Folksinger John Gorka, when he recently appeared at the Kate, performed his song, “When You Sing,” that he wrote to celebrate the great joy and love of Mavis’ music.
Mavis won her first Grammy in 2011 in the Best Americana Album category for “You Are Not Alone,” her groundbreaking collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, which not only harkens back to Mavis’ work with the Staple Singers, but contains original compositions by Randy Newman, Allen Touissant and Tweedy himself.
At age 73, Mavis Staples continues to excite audiences and receive rave reviews. She’s recognized as being at the peak of her talents and has been called a performer who delivers “wall to wall joy.” Her appearances never fail to bring her audiences to their feet due to her infectious enthusiasm and riveting spirituality.
The Kate better secure the roof for the night of Mavis’ appearance, because Mavis and friends are going to make every effort to blow it away. For tickets, call the Kate's box office at 877.503.1286 or visit www.katharinehepburntheater.org.