25 years of Chicago: Amplified
1983 1993 1994 2001 2003 2004 2005 2015
Civil Rights Singer

Mavis Staples

Explore the moment.
Legendary Chicago musician and Civil Rights icon Mavis Staples started singing as a little girl, alongside her dad, brother Pervis, and sisters Cleotha and Yvonne. The Staple Singers' music spanned genres including R&B and soul, but they were known for their gospel music and their influence on the Civil Rights movement. When WBEZ Host Richard Steele spoke with Mavis Staples in 2004, they talked about her relationship with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and musicians from Dizzy Gillespie to Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan and The Band.
They used to call me the little girl with the big voice.
1m 36s
Richard Steele:

How did the Staple Singers get involved in social protest music?

Mavis Staples:

Back in the early sixties we were in Montgomery, Alabama. Pops called us all to his room. He said "Listen, y'all. This man, Martin. Martin Luther King. He's here in this town. He has a church here and I wanna go to his eleven o'clock service." And we all went to Dr. King's church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He acknowledged us. When service was over, Dr. King would stand at the door and shake all the worshippers' hands as they filed out. And we noticed Pops stood over there talking to him for a while. Then he came on back to the hotel and called us to his room again. And he said, "Look y'all. I really like this man's message. And I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it."

4m 34s
Mavis Staples: The last time I saw my friend Mahalia Jackson was at a Gospel festival in Harlem. I would always scramble to sit next to her. And I sat next to her that day, and she leaned over to me and said, "Baby, Haley don't feel too good. I need you to help me sing this song." I didn't even ask her what the song was. But as soon as her accompanist started, I knew what it was, being a church girl. So she told me, "You go on, Baby. You start." I started singing this song. By the time I got to the bottom of the first verse, someone helped her up to the microphone. And there I was, standing here with this great lady on the same microphone. When she didn't feel like saying a verse, she would put the microphone over to me and let me say that line. I'll never forget it as long as I live.
13m 15s
Richard Steele:

You've had a musical relationship with a wide variety of artists - Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan. What do you do musically that fits in with all these creative geniuses?

Mavis Staples:

I'm really blessed that the Lord gifted me with my voice. It's an unusual voice for a lady.

15m 00s
Pops told me years ago, "Mavis, be sincere when you're singing these songs. Sing from your heart. What comes from the heart reaches the heart. When you touch somebody's heart, they'll always be there for you.
18m 52s
Looking Back: Richard Steele

When I got to Parker High School as a freshman in 1956, I think Mavis was a junior. In the halls, there were a few people who stood out and Mavis was one of those people.

The Staples Singers performed at my church at a benefit when I was younger and everybody was very excited. I knew who she was, as did many people. She was Mavis Staples, the Staples Singers family member who did those incredible lead solos.

I left Chicago after high school in 1960 and came back in 1970 to do radio. From about 1970 on, I would run into Mavis and we'd talk. I cherish that friendship. She's got great stories. Bob Dylan asked her to get married one time. She's always been a very regular person. What you see is what you get. No phoniness, nothing contrived.