Mavis Staples Comes to Cleveland for Rock Hall Tribute

Mavis Staples in a publicity shot with Mavis crooning into a vintage microphone for her early 1990s collaborations with Prince
Mavis Staples in a publicity shot for her 1993 collaboration with Prince [Rock & Roll Hall of Fame]
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The sultry, smoky voice that launched a string of soulful hits on the pop charts gets a special tribute this week at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A new series called Rock Hall Honors kicks off Thursday with a celebration of gospel great Mavis Staples, featuring a live concert by Staples herself. The singer began a six-decade musical career as featured vocalist for the Staple Singers, back in the 1950s. Staples and her family combined church rhythms and harmonies with a message of social activism, bringing a new sound to the popular music stage.

Mavis, Pops, Yvonne and Cleotha [Rock & Roll Hall of Fame]

Two decades before hitting the pop charts, the Staple Singers were well known in the world of gospel. Mavis and her siblings, Cleotha, Yvonne, and Pervis first performed at Chicago’s Mt. Zion Church in 1952 along with their father, Roebuck, also known as Pops.

Singing gospel on Chicago radio [Rock & Roll Hall of Fame]

A distinctive style could be heard from the very beginning, according to Jason Hanley, the Rock Hall’s vice president of Education and Community Engagement.

"The Staple Singers have their first massive gospel hit in 1956 with ‘Uncloudy Day,’” he said. “It features Mavis Staples singing the lead vocal in a voice that you almost can’t believe is coming from a 16-year-old woman at that time. Years later, Bob Dylan would tell people it was one of the most mysterious things he’d ever listened to in his life, and it encouraged him to become a musician.”

The roots of African-American popular music have often gotten short shrift, said Mark Burford, another music scholar participating in the Staples tribute. Artists who came from the gospel circuit were products of a sophisticated training ground that produced polished performers.

The Staple Singers dropped the last 's' from Staples for their group name [Rock & Roll Hall of Fame]

“It’s actually a lot of work,” Burford said. “It’s a field of production with people, with promoters, with artists who train and learn from each other. It’s a form of musical education that’s perhaps separate from the conservatory, but people are learning their craft. Artists take their craft very seriously.”

Music experts and performers will celebrate Staples this week, but the centerpiece of the tribute is a Friday night concert. The Rock Hall’s Hanley said the singer will deliver a career retrospective in song, interspersed with narration and video clips. The audience will travel with her from those early gospel performances in the '50s, through the pop hits of the '70s, all the way up to today.

Staples continues to push boundaries and use her voice in the name of social justice, Hanley said. 

“Look at the records she’s made in the last ten years with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Ben Harper,” he said. “These are albums that still have the courage and tenacity to speak out about where the world is today.”

This tribute marks the beginning of a series called “Rock Hall Honors,” a reimagined version of the Rock Hall’s signature public program, “Music Masters,” co-sponsored by Case Western Reserve University, which dated back to 1996, the year after the museum opened. 

For 20 years, the program celebrated a pioneering performer who helped shape rock and roll. Those early artists were often long dead, so the live concerts featured musicians who knew or were influenced by the honoree. Rock Hall CEO Greg Harris said the new emphasis will be on living performers.

“They have to be actively touring,” he said. “So, they have a band, they have their songs worked out. This is not something where you’re bringing someone out of retirement to take the stage for the first time.”

Mavis Staples [Rock & Roll Hall of Fame]

Daniel Goldmark, director of Case’s Center for Popular Music Studies, said mixing education and entertainment gives audiences a deeper understanding of the soundtrack of their lives.

“It’s one thing to bring folks attention to different artists by inducting folks in the Rock Hall every year,” he said. “But by actually getting to do a really serious examination of one artist or a genre or a time period, it gives us a chance to really understand what issues were at stake and why this music was significant." 

One of Mavis Staples' most memorable performances came as part of The Band's performance of "The Weight" in Martin Scorcese's 1978 documentary "The Last Waltz."

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