Many musicians, it is true, find interviews to be as pleasurable as doing their taxes. But for Staples, it’s quite the opposite. “I enjoy talking to people, meeting new friends like you,” she says in a phone interview from her home in Chicago. “It’s not a problem for me. I’m a people person, and I love to talk all the time.”
Staples says she is really looking forward to gigging with her old friend, Taj Mahal, at McCarter Theater, on Thursday, March 9. Mahal is the well-known guitarist and singer who infuses his blues with his Southern and Caribbean roots, as well as music from places such as West Africa, Hawaii, and India, with an ethnomusicologist’s rigor.
Mahal and Staples have known each other for years, and when she first heard that she was going to be touring with him, Staples was very happy. “I’ve known him since the ’60s,” she says. “We used to meet up at all the folk festivals, and the blues festivals. But we’ve been kind of spread out since. The last time I saw him a little while back, we were both playing in Australia. It was good to see him. We had a good talk over lunch. He is a walking, talking history book. I told him, ‘Taj, I remember when you had all those tubas (during the 1970s). I thought that was awesome.’ Whatever he’s going to be doing (on tour), it’s gonna be good.”
A member of the Rock and Roll hall of Fame, Staples spent most of the earlier part of her career, from the 1960 through the ‘80s, with her gospel-soul family band, the Staples Singers. She shared the band with her soul and gospel guitar-pioneer dad, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and her sisters, Yvonne and Cleo, and she was the soulful lead vocalist on several Staple Singers hits in the 1970s, hits such as “Respect Yourself,” “Let’s Do It Again,” and “Touch A Hand, Make A Friend.” At her McCarter show, she will appear with her sister, Yvonne, on backup vocals, Will Crosby on guitar, Tony Grady on bass, and Brian Parker on drums.
“We will be singing some of the old, and some of the new,” Staples says. She will sing songs from her latest CD, “Have A Little Faith,” as well as songs from her Staples Singers days. “We cannot get off the stage without singing the Staple Singers,” she says.
One of her most recent pieces of work was her contribution of three songs to “I Believe To My Soul, a compilation CD featuring Staples and prominent singers Ann Peebles, Billy Preston, and New Orleans musicians Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. Some of the proceeds from the record, which was produced by pop helmsman Joe Henry, were used to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The disc was recorded in Louisiana shortly after the tragedy. “It was like old times, making that CD,” Staples says. “Most of the time we were singing to tracks already put together. We fed off each other, just like we used to do years ago. We knew we were doing this for a good reason, so everyone tried to make the best of it as they could.”
Staples has collaborated with musicians as varied in approach and genre as Bob Dylan, George Jones, Ray Charles, Los Lobos, and Ludacris. Her collaborations with Prince (or the artist formerly known as Prince), were some of the most interesting and important. In 1989 and 1993, Staples recorded “Time Waits for No One” and “The Voice.” The first was not promoted because of Prince’s now-legendary conflicts with his record company. “The Voice,” however, says Staples, “was some of the best work I’ve ever done.” “That kid was writing. He wrote my life on that CD,” she says. “That’s how we communicated the whole time I worked with him.
“He was so, so, bashful. He would stand there and look at me and roll his big eyes at me and smile, but he wouldn’t talk to me! So a light bulb went off in my head, and it said, ‘Write him letters, Mavis!’ I told him stuff that had happened to me since I was a little girl, and and all that stuff on that CD had things on it that were in my letters. I told him how I could not wait to go to Sunday school every week, and that showed up in ‘Blood Is Thicker Than Time.’ I told him I had been married to an undertaker, and he wrote a song called ‘The Undertaker.’
Prince had a different way of dealing with Pops Staples, though. “Pops came down to Paisley Park (Prince’s studio), and he walked past Pops and said, ‘You gonna sing, Junior?’ Pops said, ‘What you call me, boy,’ and they set off running. He said, ‘Mavis, that’s a good name for him!’ Then he wrote me a song, ‘How Cool Is Your Dad.”
How cool was Pops Staples, who died in 2000? “I miss him with a passion,” his daughter says. “I am grateful that I can still listen to him, see him on videos, the footage of the group from years ago.”
Now, she says, she knows that what she does helps keep her father’s legacy going. “My music is about spreading joy, giving people inspiration, giving them a reason to get up in the morning and keep going. The message I am spreading is truth and good news, that is me — just an old-fashioned gospel singer who wants to do good and leave people with a good feeling.”
Taj Mahal Trio and Mavis Staples, Thursday, March 9, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Taj Mahal presents Caribbean, Hawaiian, African, Latin, and Cuban sounds mixed with folk, jazz, zydeco, gospel, rock, pop, soul, and R&B, while Mavis Staples sings gospel-rooted songs. $37 to $40. 609-258-2787.