Mavis Staples: “I’m still doing what I love to do”

Credit: Myriam Santos

Credit: Myriam Santos

The R&B and gospel legend plays the Rialto on Feb. 11.

She sang at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and in Barack Obama’s White House; marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival and at Bonnaroo; and inspired Bob Dylan and Prince.

Mavis Staples’ unparalleled career started when she was a teenager in 1954 and brings her to the Rialto Center for the Arts on Feb. 11.

Credit: Akili-Casundria Ramsess

Credit: Akili-Casundria Ramsess

Staples has been inducted into the Blues, Gospel and Rock & Roll halls of fame, and received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2016. She had deeply soulful radio hits like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” in the 1970s with her family group The Staple Singers and has continued to evolve and tour as a solo act in her ninth decade.

She was interviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution via email.

Q: You participated in so many important events of the 20th century and knew so many iconic figures. Do you spend much time reminiscing about the past?

A: For me, my thoughts go back to memories of my father, my mother, and my family. I always think of my family and smile, and I still talk to Pops, I do. I feel he is still with me. I imagine my father and my sisters and brother are still hearing me sing, and they know that I am carrying what we all did forward, all these years later. And I feel that they know I am still out here for them, and I am still connecting with people.

Q: You knew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. What is your favorite memory of him, maybe in a private setting?

A: My father, Pops Staples, he got to spend the most time with Dr. King, but I always liked to hear him talking and laughing after we had sung and before he would go on up to speak at the microphone. His laugh was so rich and warm. It was just the best sound when he would laugh.

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Q: Are your audiences today mostly older fans who remember the Staple Singers playing on the car radio or singing at rallies, or younger fans?

A: It’s really a mix at my shows, from older hippies or church folk to youngsters and rock and rollers who know me from Gorillaz or Arcade Fire; there’s also people who have had a baby and named her Mavis, and sometimes I get to meet them. Nowadays I also get young people saying to me “My grandmother has all your albums and now I’m a fan, too!” I never heard that one in the ‘60s and ‘70s! Mostly I just feel blessed that I am still here to bring my family’s music to people and have new generations of people who will listen.

Q: You once said Atlanta’s own Kelly Hogan, who is one of your backup singers, is one of your favorite young singers. What makes her so special that she would make your list?

A: I love all of my band members. They’re all special to me, I love to travel with them. Kelly has that spark, Saun [background singer Saundra Williams] is silky smooth, [guitarist] Rick [Holmstrom], “Pops Junior,” is my right-hand man and my rhythm section of [bassist] Steve [Hodges] and [drummer] Greg [Boaz], they bring the rumble. Those guys will mix it up!

Credit: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

Credit: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

Q: Your Wikipedia entry starts out “Mavis Staples (born July 10, 1939) is an American rhythm and blues and gospel singer, actress, and civil rights activist.” Are you satisfied with that being the first sentence or would you like it to say something else?

A: I wish it said “born in 1969!” But those bios tend to go heavy on the facts, they’re for the history books, and they overlook the personal. I’m a daughter, a sister, a friend. They never talk about how many people we make smile or dance or who could forget their problems while our music plays. For me, that’s where it’s at.

Q: I hope this isn’t a stupid question, but if your last name is Staples, why was your family group called the Staple Singers?

A: Pops dropped the “s” because it was one too many of them in a row to leave it be. But when you say it out loud with Singers, it still sounds like the “s” is still in ‘Staples.’ And folks used to call Pops ‘Stape’ for short, so he was used to his name being shortened without the “s”.

Q: Not to be morbid, but if you had to choose just one song to be played at your funeral what would it be and why?

A: I was going to say “When the Gates Swing Open” but since it’s Grammy time, I’ll go with a song I won one of my Grammys for: “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” But I hope that’s a ways off still; I feel that I have more songs in me, and I want to keep on the road, to keep singing for people.

Q: Do you respect yourself?

A: Yes. I can hear Pops’ voice saying that: Respect yourself. I do. You know, I’m up there in years and I’m still doing what I love to do. I’m happiest when I’m singing. I’m just grateful that people still want to come see our show and hear my family’s music. But I feel like my voice is my gift and using it is what God put me here for. So I am going to keep on keeping on.


Mavis Staples

8 p.m. Feb. 11. $59-$120. Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University, 80 Forsyth St. NW, Atlanta. 404-413-9849,