As the world counts down the days until the start of a new decade, living legend Mavis Staples has already entered her eighth one on Earth. The singer, whose indelible voice soundtracked the Civil Rights Movement as a member of the Staple Singers, turned 80 years old this past July.
That's hard to believe given her robust touring schedule, and the fact that she makes time for multiple interviews on the day she happens to be speaking with New Times — the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. But Staples says that six decades after she gained national prominence with her family band, she's more resolute than ever to continue spreading her message of "love and light and all of the good news." She's outlived all of the members of her musical family and many of her best-known collaborators, including Prince and the Band's Levon Helm. Now, she's singing for them too.
"I think of that often," Mavis says regarding her late loved ones and associates. "When I lost my last sister, I said, Well, I'm the only one left here. I'm the only one still here. So I must be the messenger."
Staples' sister Yvonne, who sang background vocals for the Staple Singers, died in 2018. Two years prior, Staples' devoted collaborator Prince suffered an untimely death in April 2016. That came three years after her sister Cleotha's death in 2013 and four years after Helm, her collaborator and dear friend, succumbed to throat cancer in 2012.
It's been a brutal decade. But Staples is in great spirits when she reflects on memories of times spent with her departed friends and family. And fortunately, her sense of humor remains intact. "I'm a Golden Girl," she says with a hearty laugh, "But I still have my health and I still have my voice, and I'm just so grateful that the people still want to hear me."
Staples and her family first entered the public consciousness in 1956, when their recording of the gospel song "Uncloudy Day" became a national hit. The family band, helmed by patriarch and guitarist Pops Staples, began touring once Mavis graduated high school shortly after the song's release. They played auditoriums around the country on bills with other popular gospel groups of the day. Staples says her fondest memories of Miami date back to that time.
"The memories I have about Miami was when I was singing with my family," she says. "And we had some shoutin' good times."
Staples will return to Miami this Friday for "Ain't No Stoppin' the Blues," a collaborative concert with bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, as part of the Arsht Center's ongoing Jazz Roots series. The singer's tour closes out a decade that came with great personal losses, but also produced a remarkable career resurgence marked by collaborations with modern luminaries including M. Ward, Ben Harper, and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who produced three of the five albums Staples has released since 2010. In conversation, Staples also name-checks Maggie Rogers and Brandi Carlile, both of whom she's shared the stage with in the last year.
"It just didn't have to be," says Staples of her storied career. "I'm just so grateful. I had a chance to stand by Dr. Martin Luther King. I've been blessed, I have been truly blessed."
Mavis Staples. 8 p.m. Friday, December 6, at the Knight Concert Hall, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $45 to $125.
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