There are few living musicians who can lay claim to being the voice of America’s conscience, and even fewer who continue to make vital music. As both a solo performer and with the family group she is so identified with, the Staple Singers, Mavis has managed to transform herself as she goes, yet never alter. From the delta-gospel sound she helped create in the 1950s, to the engaged protest of the civil rights era, to Number One hits and a riveting cameo in ‘The Last Waltz’ in the 1970s, to her Prince-produced albums of the 1980s, to her Grammy Award and guest turns with a new generation of artists in the 2010s, Mavis has carried on, her warm embrace of a voice the only constant.
While Mavis has cemented her legacy as one of the most distinctive voices of the past sixty years, appreciation for her contributions to American music has been growing. In 2013, she performed along with Justin Timberlake and Queen Latifah at a White House tribute to Memphis Soul, and in early 2014 she sang with Zac Brown, Mumford & Sons, the Alabama Shakes and Elton John in a show-stealing Grammy Awards tribute to the life or her late friend Levon Helm of The Band.
Her life has been the subject of a 2014 book (“I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom’s Highway,” by Greg Kot), and a forthcoming HBO Documentary (‘Mavis!’ set to air in February 2016), but at age 76 Mavis is still creating new music and reaching new audiences. Over the past decade, she has recorded one album with Ry Cooder and two with Jeff Tweedy, including 2013’s quietly stunning ‘One True Vine’ and her Grammy-winning 2010 effort ‘You Are Not Alone.’ In April 2015 she released a new, critically-acclaimed four-song EP, ‘Your Good Fortune’ (ANTI-), and 2016 will see the release of another new full-length album.
“I was put here to sing,” says Mavis. “I was put here to spread the word. To bring ya’ll a message. To inspire you. To motivate you. You know, that’s what I’m about. That’s my life. Ain’t no stopping me–I will sing. I will sing until I die.”
Mavis Staples was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, was awarded an NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award in 2006, and was listed as one of Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time in 2008. In 2007 Mavis was awarded the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award, co-presented by the Americana Music Association and the First Amendment Center, and in 2015 she won the second-annual Woody Guthrie Prize, given annually to the artist who best exemplifies the spirit and life’s work of Woody Guthrie by speaking for the less fortunate through music, film or other art forms and serving as a positive force for social change in America.
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