“It just ain’t no stopping me, is it?”
With those defiant, triumphant words, Mavis Staples launches into “Reach Out Touch a Hand,” the joyous final track on her new album, Live in London. The recording caps a remarkable chapter in Staples’ legendary career—a decade that has seen her reach new creative heights and win ever-greater acclaim, even as she is now counting down the months to her 80th birthday.
“It’s kind of unbelievable to me that I’m still recording,” says the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Kennedy Center Honoree. “I never thought I would still be singing at my age, and people seem to really want to hear me, they know me, they give me love—I'm just overwhelmed, really. I thank God every night before I go to bed and then again every morning for waking up.”
Recorded at London’s Union Chapel (which she calls “the best place in the world to sing”) and produced by Staples herself, the live album reveals that the singer retains astonishing power after seventy years as a performer, and that while her repertoire continues to expand, her philosophy is unchanged since her days in the groundbreaking family group, the Staple Singers.
“It’s still the same message,” she says. “I’m still trying to bring us together and make the world a better place through songs. We need one another more than ever now—things ain't no better now that when I started seventy years ago.” Her sense of compassion and justice shoots through these performances, offering a voice of resistance that is more necessary than ever during these troubled times. “No Time for Cryin’ “ not only connects the timeless gospel image of “motherless children” to the modern-day refugee crisis, it also calls for action, just as Pops Staples and his children did during the Civil Rights movement.
For this project, Staples—who is still on the road almost 200 nights a year— welcomed the spontaneity and vulnerability of recording live. The album captures the spirit and energy, the commitment and intensity, that she brings to the stage every night. “I don't think about it being recorded, I’m just singing for the people and expressing my feeling through the songs,” she says. “I don’t try to do anything perfect for the record, I just sing from my heart. Pops taught me that years ago—what comes from the heart reaches the heart.”
Ironically, her last live record—2008’s Hope at the Hideout—was cut against the background of her fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama’s historic election, while the new album inevitably addresses the horrors of the Donald Trump era. Notably,
though the Staple Singers were responsible for such indelible anthems as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” Live in London delivers its own powerful sounds and formidable statements without including those classics. “Of course I still perform those songs,” says Staples, “but we didn't see any need for them to be on the record. This gives people a chance to hear what we're doing now.”
The focus of this collection is material she has recorded since signing with ANTI- Records (which has been home to such other revitalized legends as Merle Haggard, Solomon Burke, and Booker T.) in 2007. In recent years, Staples has had songs written for her by iconoclastic artists like Nick Cave, Neko Case, and Merrill Garbus (Tune-Yards); collaborated with modern rock powerhouses Arcade Fire, Gorillaz, and Hozier; and recorded multiple albums working with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco.
“I’ve stretched out—I’m singing songs that rock stars have written for me,” says Staples, “but they know me and the kind of songs I want to sing.” She points to the opening song on Live in London, “Love and Trust,” which was composed by Ben Harper. “I love that song, it’s a beauty,” she says. “I’ve been sending a message of love and trust since the Sixties, and I’m still searching for that.”
Mixed in with these newer songs (and “Let’s Do It Again,” which she notes is “the only secular song that the Staple Singers ever recorded”) are a few selections chosen just to bring the funk—Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” and “Slippery People” by Talking Heads. “We drop those songs in just to kinda spice things up,” she says.
Mavis Staples began her career singing with the family group in 1950. When she graduated from high school, the Staple Singers started touring, and—with their stunning harmonies and Pops Staples’ distinctive, chiming guitar tone—rose from popularity in the gospel world to become a central part of the soundtrack to the protest movement of the 1960s. The Staple Singers “freedom songs,” magnificent expressions of strength and empowerment, earned the group a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
Staples would go on to record two albums produced by Prince (one titled simply The Voice), and to work with Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and George Jones. In 2017, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in 2018 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Arts Awards.
“I must be the happiest old girl in the world,” says Staples. “After all this time, I still do what I love, and I think about my father and how he raised us and taught us.
“I just wish that more young people would speak up and write songs with a message of us coming together and loving one another,” she continues, emphasizing the need for artists to challenge the rise of division and hate stoked by politicians from the White House on down. “Music is powerful, it’s healing, and I would love to see today's artists give that message. I can't be the one to do it— I've been singing these songs all my life, and I’m gonna keep on as long as I'm here. That's what I feel like I'm here for.”
With the recent passing of her sister Yvonne and her dear friend Aretha Franklin (“the Franklins and the Staples were all like one family, so I felt like I lost another sister,” she says), Mavis Staples is one of our few remaining links to an extraordinary time when the gospel tradition and the fight for social justice were deeply and movingly entwined. As Live in London demonstrates, Staples continues to fight the fight—and to rock the house.
“I talk to them, and to Pops, most every day, and I tell them I'm going to keep it going,” she says. “I'm just a good ol’ Christian girl and I want everybody to be happy, to be nice to each other. Let's just take this world on out in a good place— I may not still be here to see it, but I'll be in there trying, pumping my fist, to make it happen.”