B.B. King once told an interviewer questioning how long he could continue to record and tour, that “the Blues do not retire.” The King, who died at 89 may have actually kept performing a few years after “The Thrill (Was) Gone,” but at 80 he still had a lot on the ball. And, at 78 Mavis Staples could just as easily say, “Gospel music does not retire,” and she could point to her 2017 tour opening for Bob Dylan, and her new album with producer Jeff Tweedy, If All I Was Was Black, as her proof. As she sings in the new song, “No Time For Crying”: “we’ve got work to do.”
And for Mavis, Gospel music had started early and has stayed strong. She had her first breakthrough at the age of 16, singing “Uncloudy Day” with her family, The Staples Singers, led by her father, Pops. The Staples managed to have No. 1 singles with “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again,” while earning a reputation for civil rights activism working with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his political rallies and church services. The Staples performed with The Band in their movie, “The Last Waltz,” and Mavis went on to duet with Dylan on “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” and in the 80’s worked with Prince for two of her solo albums. In 2010, she worked with producer Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco, Uncle Tupelo fame), on her album You Are Not Alone, which won Staples her first Grammy Award, for Americana Album of the Year.
Staples has continued to work with Tweedy, producing One True Vine (2013), then after working with M. Ward last year on Livin’ On a High Note, she has returned to Tweedy’s Chicago studio to record If All I Was Was Black. The songs here, all written by Tweedy and inspired by his trip with Staples to D.C. when President Obama presented her with the Kennedy Center Honors, her experiences in the civil rights movement and similarities in the current political climate. From the album’s title track, to “Build A Bridge” with its reference to Black Lives Matter, brings Mavis’ uniquely positive spirit to anthems of resistance to racism and other demeaning realities. Borrowing the phrase from Michelle Obama’s DNC speech, when they go low, “We Go High.”
If All I Was Was Black opens with “Little Bit,” framed around a light funk guitar riff that harkens back to Pops’ writing and playing in the Staples Singers early days, while the title track follows with a soul shuffle that asserts that “I’ve got love” with a chorus of sisterly vocals supporting Mavis’ rougher lead. It’s like Staples is revisiting past glories, with new inspirations. Instrumentally, Tweedy keeps to the basics, funky licks on guitars, Hammond organ, background chorus, and a laid-back rhythm section, so that the pace suits the more reflective mood of the songs. Tweedy joins Mavis on vocals for a duet about true friendship, “Ain’t No Doubt About It.”
Staples here is driven by a “Peaceful Dream” of a better, more just, more loving world, in a song that feels a bit like a back porch sing-along. You almost expect her to sing “The Weight” next. The closing track is an intimate reflection, where Mavis asserts, even though she has regrets she’d do it “All Over Again,” and we’re all better for it, her voice is a light in the face of the world’s darkest times.
President Obama captured her true spirit, saying “she still is singing for justice and equality and influencing a new generation of musicians and fans.” I don’t think Mavis Staples will be stopping any time soon.
Brian Q. Newcomb
For more of Brian Q. Newcomb’s music reviews, check out The Fire Note
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Mavis Staples: Live in London – music review
- City Music by Kevin Morby – music review
- Soul of a Woman by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – music review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television