Mavis Staples, the woman whose powerful voice graced such Staple Singers standards as "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There," is performing her tribute to Mahalia Jackson, the late gospel giant, on Friday in Bellingham, Wash.
"Her voice," Staples said of Jackson, "weeks after you went to hear her sing, you could still hear it ringing in your ears. She's just a beautiful, beautiful, wonderful person. And I admired her so much." Staples officially inducted Jackson into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the singer's fervent, contralto voice was honored as an "early influence" on rock 'n' roll. (Mavis has also been inducted, in 1999, as a member of the Staple Singers.)
Staples has made a career of walking the line between secular and sacred music. She recorded with Prince as her producer in 1993 and said she felt a vein of spirituality running through his performances.
"I always feel like the blues and gospel are first cousins. They're both telling the truth about something," Staples said. "The gospel, I feel, came first. And as people got down in the dumps, gospel music was a fixture of bringing you up, making you shout, and you get all your burdens off.
"But here come the blues, and they're telling the same truth about their lives. You know, 'I got the blues. My woman has gone and left me. I'm down and out.' You sing those songs and people can relate to them, because so many people have the same problem. And it lifts people up to hear a Bobby 'Blue' Bland sing 'Look at the People.' And 'I Pity the Fool.' "
Staples grew up in Chicago around blues musicians "Howlin' Wolf was my guy, too," she said of her then-neighbor and the woman she still respectfully calls Sister Mahalia Jackson was a friend of her mother. Staples recalls being shocked as a youngster when Jackson (19121972) would show up at the Staples family's Fourth of July barbecues wearing a sundress and sandals instead of her customary long, flowing white robe.
Staples recorded a tribute to Jackson, Spirituals and Gospel: Dedicated to Mahalia Jackson, for Polygram in 1996. Included on the album were such gospel standards as "Rusty Old Halo" and "Wade in the Water."
After this weekend's appearance, her next scheduled performance is on May 21 at the Doheny Blues Festival in Dana Point, Calif.
Mavis Staples appearances:
March 31; Bellingham, Wash.; Western Washington University
May 21; Dana Point, Calif.; Doheny Blues Festival
May 27; Exeter, UK; Bishopstock Blues Festival
June 4; Philadelphia, Pa.; Women's Jazz Festival