Very few bona fide female soul singers are still around. Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack and Patti LaBelle are a handful of soul songstresses who remain with us. Included in this exclusive and essential group is national treasure Mavis Staples.
Staples' music foundation began at Mount Zion Church on the Southside of Chicago. She and her three siblings and father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, formed the acoustic gospel-folk singing group The Staple Singers. Once they signed their first professional contract in the early ‘50s, there was no turning back. They would move on from gospel to a more secular sound, which was drenched in down-home, dip-the-hip rhythms, but they always embraced their gospel roots. Bob Dylan described Staples' voice as "deep and mysterious," which he equated life as being too. The Staple Singers had a series of hits before ending their performance run in 1994. Mavis continued as a solo and collaborative artist and fused a lot of her music with her civil rights activism, which The Staple Singers had also done. Her 2016 release Livin' on a High Note saw her step outside of her "freedom" and spiritual songs, capturing a more contemporary, indie-rock sound.
Her latest release If All I Was Was Black is reminiscent of her earlier solo and group work that addressed the social ills of the time. Unfortunately, what Mavis was addressing back in the ‘60s and ‘70s — issues of injustice and human and civil rights violations — are just as prevalent today as they were then. Produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy (who also helmed 2010's You Are Not Alone and 2013's One True Vine), the album is a blend of blues, country, soul and R&B that has a delicious throwback sound and is filled with definitive protest songs.
The ten tracks are a prognosis of the current times and offer some suggestions for a cure. The first track "Little Bit" is a real bop, with funky guitar riffs bolstering Mavis' molasses rich vocals. "Who Told You That," the third track, has the smooth groove feel of Boz Scaggs' "Miss Sun." "Peaceful Dream" is a melody you might hear at Sunday morning church service. Like Paul Simon's "Loves Me Like a Rock," it manages to be gospel, but also has a pop vibe. The last song on the album, "All Over Again," is a stripped-down paean to survival and is made all the more powerful by its sheer starkness. Every song has thought-provoking lyrics that are made easy to digest by Staples’ sweet, soulful voice.
A gilded songbird still singing wise words, Mavis Staples is a steady, reassuring voice in these chaotic times. If All I Was Was Black is the kind of album only a legend could put out. Music is a common denominator and she uses her voice to the fullest to connect, uplift and heal. She is certainly more than just her skin color, which the album title implies. She’s free, which she calls for us to be too.
Notable Tracks: “If All I Was Was Black” | “Little Bit” | “Who Told You That”