For Mavis Staples, The Music Of The Civil Rights Era Couldn't Be More Relevant Today The gospel legend is now a Kennedy Center honoree. She discusses developing an iconic voice at a young age, her family's confrontations with racism and why she's a big fan of Chance The Rapper.

For Mavis Staples, The Music Of The Civil Rights Era Couldn't Be More Relevant Today

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Finally, today, a guest who hardly needs an introduction. She is a musical legend whose soulful voice has been part of the soundtrack of many of the most important historical and cultural moments of the past half century. We're talking about Mavis Staples.


MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) Somebody help me now.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I'll take you there.

MARTIN: Born in Chicago, she was barely a teenager when she began singing with her father Roebuck Pops Staples and her sisters and brother as one of The Staple Singers. With Mavis' powerful vocals and her father's Mississippi-inspired blues guitar, The Staple Singers became one of this country's leading gospel groups. The Staple Singers became prominent figures in the civil rights movement, performing at marches and rallies. They were close to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And musically, they were also pioneers.

Their fusion of gospel, folk, soul and R&B won them a following across the musical spectrum. Mavis Staples won a Grammy for "You Are Not Alone" in 2011. She and her family have been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And just last week, she was celebrated by President Obama and her fellow artists when she received a Kennedy Center honor. You can see the program on CBS later this month. And she has a new album out this year called "Living On A High Note."

We were lucky enough to persuade her to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. And I started our conversation by asking about her iconic voice. She said when she started singing as a 12-year-old, many people didn't believe a girl as young as she could sing like that.

STAPLES: Our first record, I was singing a lady's bass. And so people would bet - the disc jockeys would say this is little Mavis Staples singing this part on "Uncloudy Day," you know, and people would actually bet that I was not a little girl. I had to be man or a big fat lady, and I was just a little skinny knock-kneed girl. So even at live shows when it came to that part, you know, we'd sing, (singing) oh, they tell me of a home where no storm...


THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) ...Clouds rise.

STAPLES: We'd sing all of that down in harmony. And then my part would come.


STAPLES: (Singing) Well, well, well, oh...

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Yes, so yes, they tell me.

STAPLES: (Singing) And all they tell me now...

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Yes, so yes, they tell me.

STAPLES: (Singing) I...

And you could hear people all over the audience saying, I told you that wasn't the little girl. I told you that wasn't - and the place would go wow.

MARTIN: As they say, you grew up in Chicago, but your dad was from Mississippi. And there was a point at which just to be on the circuit you would have had to start touring in the South. Do you remember what that was like? I mean, did your dad give you - I don't know, what's the word I'm looking for? - what did he say to prepare you for all this?

STAPLES: He let us know that now you're going to the South and everybody don't like you. You're going to see signs on water fountains and on doors. Just know that who you are, know that you're beautiful people, you know, don't get discouraged. He prepared us. But I tell you, certain things still, you know, we couldn't get over, you know, because we had several run-ins.

MARTIN: I heard there was a time that you all were arrested in Memphis.

STAPLES: Yes, we were. We had worked in Mississippi, and I drove 200 miles to Memphis. I was the night driver, and I stopped to get gas. I pulled in. Everybody had been sleeping. The guy came to service the car. When he finished, he came to the window to get his money, and I asked him to wash the windshield because bugs were all in the way, of course, you know. And he looked at me a long time, then he finally took the rag and he squashed around.

And he came for his money again, so I asked him for a cash receipt. That made him angry, and he looked at me a long time and he told me, if you want a cash receipt, n-word, you come over to the office. Pops heard and Pops said, Mavis, pull over there. And Pops got out and went in and he spoke to the guy. I'm sure he was asking him why would you call my daughter that word, you know. And I saw this young man shaking his finger in Daddy's face.

And just as he did that, Pops clocked him, and he flew across the room. And then he came after Pops, and they fought over into the grease part, you know, where they fix cars. Pops slipped down. This guy grabbed a crowbar and he headed back. Well, by this time, that's when I woke up my brother. I said, Pervis, they're fighting. And Pervis came from under the coats, like Superman, you know, coming out of that phone booth. He went in, and he went up in the air and came down.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, how did you all get out of there?

STAPLES: Well, they all got back in the car. They were huffing and puffing, and Pops said, Mavis, drive. And so, as I got a little ways, I saw these lights behind me, and I was on that bridge that divided Memphis and West Memphis, Ark. And when I got across the bridge, these three cars pulled around. Dogs were barking, and they had shotguns. They put the shotguns on us and had us a standing on the highway with our hands over our heads, you know. Then they went in our trunk where they saw - this was the killer - the people paid us with our money in a cigar box, you know, and he said, well, this is what we're looking for. The guy at the service station told them that we didn't pay for our gas and we robbed him.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

STAPLES: And they thought that was his money. They handcuffed us all behind our backs. They put us in these cars. I thought they were taking us to the woods to lynch us, you know. But I've never been so happy to see a jail. They took us to jail. Pops walked in, and this here's the black man mopping the floor. He looked up, he said, Papa Staples, what you doing here? And then he saw us come in. He said, and your children.

After a while, the chief come out and tell one of those policeman to take my sister to the car. They wanted to see this receipt that Pops went to get. Well, she came back with the receipt. It was all bloody, you know, because when Pops hit that guy, he bled pretty good. It showed that we had paid for our gas. Pops told him the whole story, and the chief finally came out and said, get those handcuffs off those people.

MARTIN: That's crazy. That is crazy.

STAPLES: That was my most frightening time.

MARTIN: Which kind of explains one reason "Why Am I Treated So Bad" got to be such a hit, huh?


THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Why am I treated so bad? Why am I treated so bad?

STAPLES: Yes. Well, "Why Am I Treated So Bad" was written for those nine black children in Little Rock. When they finally allowed them to go board that bus, a policeman put his billy club across the door. And that's when Pops said, now, why you doing that? Why are you treating them so bad? And he wrote that song that night. That turned out to be Dr. King's favorite.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with gospel legend Mavis Staples. She just received a Kennedy Center honor. You can see the program on CBS later this month, and she was nice enough to visit with us now. And people - you know, and so did you ever imagine, though, after going through things like that, where you couldn't even get a receipt without being treated disrespectfully, that you'd be honored by the president of the United States?

STAPLES: No. No, indeed. Never. I never - it never crossed my mind that I would be still here singing as long. You know, people that grew up with us, they still want to hear and have new people - you know, college students, kids, they want to hear what The Staple Singers were all about. And it just makes me so proud. It makes me feel so good.

You know, people ask me, Mavis, when are you going to retire? You've been singing a long - yes, I have been singing a long time, and I don't intend to stop. God gifted me.

MARTIN: I'm wondering if you have any thoughts for some of the artists coming up today who are singing about a lot of the same concerns that you had about being - you know, "Why Am I Treated So Bad," I mean, somebody could have written that today.

STAPLES: Yes, that's true. That's true. And I tell you, I watch the news sometimes and I think I'm back in the '60s. It's all happening all over again. And this kid, Chance the Rapper, he's very good at explaining what's happening in the world today. There are very few. I wish there were more - would sing songs like "Respect Yourself' and "Reach Out, Touch A Hand, Make A Friend" if you can. You know, I might have to go back and bring some of these songs forward again.

You know, but I don't hear many of the artists diving into this. You know, Pops used to tell the songwriters, if you want to write for The Staple Singers, read the headlines. We want to sing about what's happening in the world today. And if it's something bad, you know, we want to sing a song to try to fix it. I might have to start my career all over again. I'm trying to sing happy songs. That little guy Pharrell, when he came with (singing) I'm so happy (laughter) I said, oh man, that is the best song he could have - could sing, you know, because it made the world happy.

MARTIN: That's a good song. Well, what shall we go out on today on our high note? What would you like us to play as we regretfully say goodbye for now? Maybe you'll come back and see us.

STAPLES: We should play "Love And Trust."


STAPLES: That's the one. That's what we want. Everybody's trying to find some love and trust.


STAPLES: (Singing) Do what you can. Do what you must. Everybody's crying to find some love and trust. I walk the line. I walk it for us. See me out here trying to find some love and trust.

MARTIN: That's Mavis Staples, gospel icon, R&B icon. She's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and just recently, she received a Kennedy Center Honor from the president of the United States. You can see the whole ceremony on CBS later this month, and she was nice enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Mavis Staples, it has been such a pleasure speaking with you.

MARTIN: It's been my pleasure, Michel. We'll have to do this again.


STAPLES: (Singing) They say broken hearts make the world go 'round. Trading headaches for heartaches will only get you down.

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