“I asked, ‘Dizzy, do you know anybody here in New York that could give me some voice training?’ He cursed me out. I can’t say what he told me, he told me off so good.”
Yes, of course, Miss Mavis Staples — Freedom Rider, daughter of Pops Staples, the woman who was proposed to by Bob Dylan and never married him — was cursed out by famed jazz trumpeteer Dizzy Gillespie for asking about voice training. Of course.
“He said, ‘You already got it! What the hell you talkin’ about? You don’t need no voice coach, you already got it. You leave it alone,’” her laugh bubbled through the phone. “I’m going to do like Dizzy said, ‘Leave it alone, let it be.‘”
British mag New Musical Express declared in 2018 that “There is no sound on Earth more joyful than Mavis Staples singing, except maybe Mavis Staples laughing.” My God, how real that is. I have written and rewritten nonsense phrases about how warm and full and true her laugh is, but nothing I write will ever do it justice.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Staples in anticipation of her Feb. 15 performance for The Breakfast at St. Andrews, a program founded in the ’80s to help combat the economic recession. Volunteers now serve nearly 150 meals daily.
“Look at that! That‘s enough to keep anybody afloat,” she said of The Breakfast. “For you guys to be feeding the hungry, the less fortunate, every day since 1982, that‘s incredible. That is awesome. I’m coming over there and getting me a meal.”
“I’ve lost my family,” she said, “but I haven’t lost them. I still talk to them — I still talk to Pops, and different things I see remind me of my sisters, and I have our music. I can hear their voices, I have videos, I watch the tapes, and I smile. So, I get along fine.”
To live in the face of impossible grief, to trust yourself enough to not only carry on, but to create — I’ve never known faith that hard, that honest, that good.
“My family, we started singing gospel songs, and that’s telling the truth,” she said. “Gospel is truth.”
“There’s something happening here,” she dropped to Buffalo Springfield in her heavy vibrato. “You know, and these lyrics, they were dynamite to us … ‘There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I’ve got to beware’ … This is what we’re supposed to be doing, singing these songs.”
Her voice is honey on tough toast, milk in morning coffee. She disrupts the delusion that resilient people can’t feel scared or soft or sad. They just have to know who they are.
“My life is full,” she said. “I’ve been married, divorced, all that stuff. So, you know, I don’t want for nothing. I don’t crave for anything that I can’t have.”
I asked about the 2018 Newport Folk Fest, where she sang “The Weight” with the likes of Marcus Mumford, Brandi Carlile, Phoebe Bridgers and Maggie Rogers. For context: People (plural) texted me “Are you OK??” after the performance surfaced online.
“Those ladies that you named,” she said, “Maggie, Brandi, Phoebe — they are the future. They’re coming strong, they’re coming strong.”
“I love the young ladies that are coming along,” she continued. “They are so sincere in what they’re doing, and they’re good writers. They’re such good writers. This little girl, Kacey? Kacey Musgraves.” My gasp was almost shrill. “I love them to pieces.”
We talked about Norah Jones and Joni Mitchell and The Highwomen. She’s selfless without being self-righteous, honest but never mean. She told me about Madison Square Garden and her fitness center and at some point, I forgot I was talking to Mavis Staples and I asked her for advice.
“You’re going to be great in whatever you do,” she said. “Just tell yourself that … Believe in yourself and know that you are following the right trail, the trail that you want to follow.”
I could have cried (I did).
“Nobody else can tell you what you want to do, it’s up to you. And if you do that, if you believe — all things are possible if only you believe. All things are possible. So you carry on, and if you need some help, you call Mavis.”
Mavis Staples: A Benefit for The Breakfast at St. Andrews will take place Saturday, Feb. 15 @ 8 p.m. at the Michigan Theater.