Have a Little Faith (Alligator)
Appearing Sept. 24 at the Americana Music Association Awards
In the 1971 documentary Soul to Soul, Mavis Staples steals the show. About halfway through the movie, which was filmed in Ghana and released this summer on DVD, Staples has just finished singing "When Will We Be Paid" with her father "Pops" Staples and her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha. They've been performing behind a line of mic stands across the front of the stage, but when they begin "Are You Sure (Your Prayers Haven't Been Answered)," Mavis frees her mic, steps out front and away from her family, and the band quiets behind her. She's not really singing anymore, not in any strict sense, but she moans and cries, stretching one-syllable words into journeys of great pain and greater relief, in a way that remains supremely musical. And she's almost crying.
"He may not come just when you want Him, children," she tells the audience, her face a fierce grimace of sympathy. "He may not come. Just. When you want him. Ha!" But, she stresses, He did come for her when she needed Him, and right on time too. "And he'll surely do the same. For you...and for you...and for you." For these last lines, she's smiling and the tears are gone. She stretches her arm straight over the heads of the audience, pointing to different sections, at once administering a blessing and placing a comforting arm across a troubled shoulder. Then, without a word, she turns and once again assumes her place in the family line.
With that vintage performance as well as the Staples' numbers on the 30th anniversary DVD release of the 1973 concert film Wattstax; with her striking new solo album, Have a Little Faith; and with several other new recordings in the bins, Mavis Staples seems to be stealing the show just about everywhere these days. If the Grammy folks had any sense, they would immediately award her something like Most Absolutely Amazing Singer of the Year and be done with it.
Already in 2004, Staples has appeared on The Ride, the new album from Los Lobos, and on N'Awlinz: Dis Dat or D'udda, the latest offering from Dr. John. She's also paid tribute to a legend of American songwriting (contributing "Hard Times Come Again No More" to Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster) and a legend of honky-tonk (performing the title track on Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck). In each case, Staples provides the project not only with her predictably stunning and soulful vocals but with what's arguably the project's finest moment.
"I made it a point to get out there and be heard," Staples says, explaining why she's been so busy lately. "When someone asked me to sing, my first words were, 'Yes. When do you want me?' Because I need to be heard, I need to sing. I'm happiest when I'm singing."
Staples didn't sing much for a good while. She spent most of the last half of the '90s caring for her ailing father, the legendary guitarist and singer-songwriter "Pops" Staples, who died in 2000 at the age of 85. Her younger sister Cynthia died soon afterward, and Mavis fell into a long depression where singing, which had always been such a comfort and strengthin large part because it was something she did with her familybecame the last thing on her mind.
The Staple Singers are no more, so Mavis Staples has been singing her way back to health, on her own, for a couple of years now. Last year, she teamed with her old friend Bob Dylan (the two dated in the early '60s) on a Grammy-nominated recording of "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," and she also contributed a version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (one of several times she's recorded the song) for a Johnny Cash tribute disc.
But it's her new album that's really got her back on track. Have a Little Faith lets Staples testify to all she learned from her Delta-bred father about music. (Her version of the old blues "A Dying Man's Plea" was one of his favorites.) And about life generally, as on the catchy, acoustic funk of "Pop's Recipe," in which she offers her dad's disciplined and spiritual life as a model for the whole world to follow.
The record also lets Staples continue her family's tradition of recording message songs, numbers that address worldly concerns via gospel impulses. After Sept. 11, 2001, producer and songwriter Jim Tullio wrote a song, "In Times Like These," that a friend told him would be ideal for Staples. Mavis agreed, but the track wasn't released because the charity for which the proceeds were earmarked never came to fruition. The pair developed a friendship, however, and soon were recording an album for the Alligator label.
"I've already heard some people asking why I would go to a blues label? Well, why not? I feel safe with them," she says, "like I won't get lost in the shuffle. Everyone wants to see children today, they want teenyboppers, but here I feel like I'm with grown people."
"Really, this album is the one I think of as my first solo album," she explains. "The other albums I've done were always just me trying my wings, but I never had any thoughts of leaving the family. But now, it's a must that Mavis goes solo. I'm on my own."
On one new track, "God Is Not Sleeping," Staples addresses the reality of loss and perseverance head on. At first murmuring, then shouting, she repeats over and over and over that, "Everything I have is temporary / Only love is necessary."
"That's such a hard truth, really, you know, that you will lose it all," she says. "But, oh goodness, I know it's true. I believe it's true. And singing helps me believe it. What I hope is that my singing might help others believe it too."
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