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Queen Bubbles

from The New Yorker

The Gospel According to Mavis Staples

A legendary singer on faith, loss, and a family legacy.

By David Remnick

Mavis Staples sings with a group of people in her youth.
Staples once considered stepping away from singing to become a nurse. Her father said, “Don’t you know you’re already a nurse?”Photograph by Steve Schapiro / Corbis / Getty

Mavis Staples has been a gospel singer longer than Elizabeth II has worn the crown. During concerts, sometimes, she might take a seat and rest while someone in her band bangs out a solo for a chorus or two. No one minds. Her stage presence is so unfailingly joyful—her nickname is Bubbles—that you never take your eyes off her. Staples sings from her depths, with low moans and ragged, seductive growls that cut through even the most pious lyric. She is sanctified, not sanctimonious. In her voice, “Help Me Jesus” is as suggestive as “Let’s Do It Again.” When she was a girl, singing with her family ensemble, the Staple Singers, churchgoers across the South Side of Chicago would wonder how a contralto so smoky and profound could issue from somebody so young.

She is eighty-two. While singers a fraction of her age go to great lengths to preserve their voices, drinking magical potions and warming up with the obsessive care of a gymnast, she doesn’t hold back. Time, polyps, and a casual disdain for preservation have conspired to narrow her range and sand down her old shimmer, but she is not about to hum lightly through a rehearsal. A little ginger tea and onward she goes. Singing is what connects her to the world.

Sly, sociable, and funny, Staples reminds you of your mother’s most reliable and cheerful friend, the one who comes around with good gossip and a strawberry pie. Her cheeks are round and smooth; her hair is done in a copper bob; her resting expression is one of delight. “She is a ray of sunshine,” Bonnie Raitt, her frequent touring companion, said. “She’s never cranky. She has an abiding belief in God and His plan and believes the world is moving toward a higher and more loving world.” Staples has spent the past few decades lending her voice to a startling range of collaborators: Prince, Arcade Fire, Nona Hendryx, Ry Cooder, David Byrne. Anyone who has something to say, she’ll help them say it, in an inimitable gospel voice. One collaborator, Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, said, “All day long, Mavis is having a good time. She’s excited about making music and just being alive. I hope I have that energy when I’m her age, but the truth is I don’t even have it now.”

[ click to continue reading at TNY ]

Posted on June 28, 2022 by Editor

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