Mavis Staples and Joan Osborne Are Bringing Solid Soul to Proctors
Story and interview by Don Wilcock
On Friday (November 6), Mavis Staples and Joan Osborne will perform in two separate sets and a joint finale backed by Staples’ touring band at Proctors in Schenectady as part of their 34-date cross-country Solid Sound Tour that began September 25 at the Fillmore in San Francisco and ends November 22 in Clearwater, Florida.
So many African American singers get their edge from the church and then cross over into secular music. Staples spent much longer in the religious realm woodshedding as part of her daddy’s band, the Staple Singers. Like the Holmes Brothers, Ray Charles, Bobby Rush and few others she criss-crossed between the two genres effortlessly and continuously with apologies or concessions to neither in favor of one.
Her solo career is like a stone rolling down a mountain. The further she goes, the faster the momentum. She was born 76 years ago in Chicago, the youngest of four children born to a mother who died when Mavis was very young and Pop Staples, a guitar master who worked the infamous Dockery Farm cotton plantation in Drew, Mississippi and learned guitar from blues archetype Charley Patton.
Mavis was the lead singer in daddy’s Staple Singers band and began touring in 1954, 10 years before the federal civil rights legislation. The Staple Singers recorded their first hit “Uncloudy Day” in 1957 for Vee Jay Records, the label that spawned Jimmy “Bright Lights, Big City” Reed. They followed up with subsequent hits “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and “This May Be the Last Time,” later covered by the Rolling Stones.
The group became the soundtrack for their friend Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement, first meeting him in 1963. Their civil rights songs included “March Up Freedom’s Highway” (about 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches), “Washington We’re Watching You,” “It’s a Long Walk to D.C.” and “Why Am I Treated so Bad.” Their biggest hit was 1971’s “I’ll Take You There,” followed by “Respect Yourself,” and “Let’s Do It Again.”
Staples recorded her first self-titled solo album in 1969, but really didn’t come into her own until after her father died in 2000 recording Have A Little Faith in 2004, the first solo album to start her late career renaissance. In 2011 she took home a Grammy Award for Best Americana Album for You Are Not Alone produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. In 2013 she recorded One True Vine, a mix of old and new songs from George Clinton, Alan Sparhawk (Low) and Nick Lowe.
This year has been one of the busiest in her career. In January she took home the Woody Guthrie Prize at the Grammy Museum, given annually to the artist who “best exemplifies the spirit and life work of Woody Guthrie by speaking for the less fortunate through music, film, literature, dance or other art forms and serving as a positive force for social change in America.” In April HBO premiered “Mavis,” a documentary that includes conversations with Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm and Chuck D that premiered at the South by Southwest Music Conference.
I’ve seen her at blues festivals several times, and yet every time I witness one of her performances I’m always pleasantly surprised by how commanding her stage presence is. Her timeless legacy is a clear channel through 60 years of African American history. Other acts in the 1950s like Sam Cooke on “A Change Is Gonna Come” addressed civil rights issues in code, language that had to be translated like the field hollers, their message a kind of civil rights double entendre. Not the Staples Singers. In the ’50s, they were nearly as powerful as Martin Luther King Jr.
Putting Mavis Staples on the same bill with seven-time Grammy nominee Joan Osborne presents all kinds of possibilities. A generation younger than Staples, Osborne is white, Staples is black. But Osborne woodshedded for years with the Holmes Brothers, a church-based blues band that, like Staples, crisscrossed between blues and gospel effortlessly. Also like Staples, Osborne dives into her material with the energy of a toddler. She has a deep respect and intimate knowledge of the Staples legacy and is understandably thrilled to be on the same bill as this woman who is a mentor.
“We’ve been talking about a few things,” said Osborne four days before beginning the tour. “I think people are expecting to hear something like ‘The Weight,’ and we’re gonna work that up as well, but I’m at Mavis’ service in that regard. Whatever she wants to do, whatever she wants.
“Because this is being booked as the Solid Soul Tour, I think I’m going to dig a little bit – go a little bit further back in the catalog. I’ll certainly do something from Love & Hate because it’s the most recent thing and ’cause I still love playing those songs. But I’m also gonna go back and do some things that are maybe more from the Bring It On Home record, and some things from earlier in my career. There’s one song called “Light of This World.” I think it’s from The Wild One record. I think it’s gonna be perfect in this show because it’s like a gospel song. So, I’m going to be picking form a lot of different eras.”
About Staples, Osborne says, “She’s somebody I’ve admired and wanted to emulate for a long, long time. You can probably say that part of her influence on me is to know wherever you are at whatever moment you’re on stage, it’s your job is to reach out to whoever is there and to connect with them because you just never know what’s going to happen next. Seize the moment.”
The best veteran singers make it all look so easy, as if performing their repertoire comes as naturally as breathing. Mavis Staples does that, but then pushes herself beyond the song, possessed by the meaning and determined to channel her family, church and civil rights legacy into each and every person watching. If blues is all about call and response, Staples takes that interaction up several rungs in the ladder. It’s going to be wonderful to see Mavis Staples and Joan Osborne together.