Mavis Staples To Honor Mahalia Jackson In Concert

Show will feature the lead Staple Singer telling stories and performing the late gospel legend's signature songs.

Contemporary gospel and R&B great Mavis Staples will honor late gospel legend Mahalia Jackson with a solo concert Saturday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

The lead vocalist in the legendary R&B family group the Staple Singers — whose hits include "I'll Take You There" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Respect Yourself" — Staples was introduced to Jackson's music by her father, group leader Roebuck "Pops" Staples.

"I was 11 years old when I first met Sister Mahalia," Mavis Staples said. "But I was only 8 when I first heard her sing. Pops played the old 78 records, and they were mostly male vocalists. One day, I heard a lady's voice that just drew me into the living room, where the record player was. To hear Pops tell it, I was just bobbin' my head and rocking along with the music. From then on, he would play that record every day for me."

Jackson (1911–1972), the leading gospel singer of her day, first came to wide attention in the 1930s and '40s. She was the vocalist who preceded Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963.

A Mentoring Relationship

Staples first met Jackson when the Staple Singers were asked to open a concert Jackson was headlining in Chicago. Their passion for singing brought them together in a relationship in which Jackson played the teacher and Staples the student.

In Saturday's performance, Staples, backed by organist Steven Smith , will perform many of the songs Jackson made famous, including "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "I Can Put My Trust in Jesus" and "Move On Up a Little Higher," a 2 million-seller for Jackson in the '40s. She'll also recount some of her experiences with her mentor and idol.

"During church when I was a child, we would always sneak in our jump ropes because after we was done singing, we would go outside and skip rope," she said. "One time, Sister Mahalia caught me on my way out the door and felt my chest and forehead, and says, 'You don't go outside like that after singing, all wet and sweaty, you gotta protect your voice, so you can be an old lady like me.'

"She told me to tell my momma to give me one of my brother's T-shirts to wear after we sang," Staples continued. "To this day, I still bring an extra shirt to my performances. The only difference is, now it's my shirt."

Jackson soon became a close friend of the Staples family, coming to annual Fourth of July parties and singing informally with the children. Staples holds dearly the memories of these times, when she got to know her idol as a person.

"When summertime would come around, Sister Mahalia would call up my momma to see if she was making her barbecued ribs," Staples said. "It was at these lunches that I would see her in a sundress and sandals instead of the flowing gowns she wore when she performed."

Staples patterned her performances after Jackson's, taking pride in her material and remaining composed while onstage.

A poignant memory for Staples was a Harlem Festival performance the two gave in 1967. Jackson, growing older and less able to perform, asked Staples to sing one of her songs. As Staples finished the first verse, a tired Jackson — who had to be helped up to the stage — picked up the following verse with practiced ease as the two settled into what Staples describes as one of the most wonderful moments of her long career.

The next year, Jackson sang "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" at King's funeral. She died in January 1972.

Proud Moment

Staples, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Staple Singers last year, said she was honored when she was asked to induct Jackson into the Hall in the "early influences" category in 1997. Staples said she takes pride when musicians such as Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and Prince cite her as an influence.

During Saturday's set, Staples will receive AfroSolo's Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award. Previous recipients have included gospel singer Emmit Powell and pianist/singer Charles Brown.

Jazz singer Paula West will open the show, which will conclude the monthlong, seventh annual AfroSolo Arts Festival — a series of concerts, art exhibits and workshops focusing on black artists.