Book excerpt by Greg Kot
From longtime Chicago Tribune columnist and author (who's also written a Wilco bio, Learning How to Die) comes a bio of legendary soul singer Mavis Staples. As primary singer for the Staples Singers, Mavis grew up in public, singing gospel songs with her family and helping to make a name for themselves in that market. When the Staples came over to Stax Records, they were cutting more secular material and the label also had plans for Mavis herself, grooming her to be a solo artist in addition to recording with her family. Alongside with her father, bandleader/guitarist Pops Staples, the label also put another ace musician in charge of the sessions- ace guitarist Steve Cropper. Cropper was not only known as a founding member of Booker T & The M.G.'s but a presence on many other releases for the label, as a musician and also as a songwriter and producer. While Mavis would go on to make many great soul sides with her family and later on her own (continuing to this day), her first solo sessions was far from certain, as Kot details for us in this excerpt from the book, aptly titled I'll Take You There which is available to purchase for your reading pleasure.
The guitarist knew he was running a risk presenting Mavis with a set of secular songs that didn't have any of the gospel or message-oriented underpinnings favored by Pops and the Staple Singers. Whereas her first attempt at cutting a solo single, a cover of "Crying in the Chapel" for Epic, had some tenuous religious imagery, the tracks chosen for the Mavis Staples solo album were the sort of pop-oriented love and relationship songs that Pops typically shunned.
But Mavis was hardly insulated from the pop world as a fan and listener. She swooned over Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" the first time she heard it, and her cover of it on her debut album sounds wistful, as if she were singing both to a newfound love and to Cooke's memory. She took on Dusty Springfield's sultry "Son of a Preacher Man" because it struck a personal chord: She had "a little crush" on Reverend C. L. Franklin's son, Cecil.
Cropper coaxed her to try Otis Redding's "Security," which spoke to her self-doubts about going solo and breaking out of her family cocoon. "I don't want no money, I don't want no fame, just security," the song declared. The staccato horns ratcheted up her anxiety in one of the album's most spirited performances.
"I'd gotten to be a young lady and I wanted to sing songs about my life as a young lady," Mavis says. "Pops said it was all right as long as I believed in what I was singing. Reverend Franklin let Aretha sing secular songs, love songs, so that probably made it easier for Pops to accept." For Mavis, the biggest hurdle was taking on "A House Is Not a Home," the Burt Bacharach–Hal David ballad that had been a minor 1964 hit for her friend Dionne Warwick. Mavis adored the song, and it resonated more deeply with her as her marriage to Spencer Leak was falling apart. Warwick's interpretation suggested grace under pressure, as if she were trying to keep her heart intact in a home suddenly drained of intimacy. Mavis's performance in turn demonstrates just how much she'd grown as a vocalist, her voice projecting a quiet, understated dignity before building to a devastating final plea: "When I climb the stair and turn the key / Oh, please be there still in love with me." "When they started asking me what I would like to sing, the lyrics of ‘A House Is Not a Home' were so beautiful to me," Mavis says. "I make a movie in my head with lyrics I love. ‘A chair is still a chair, even when there's no one sitting there. But a chair is not a house, and a house is not a home, when there's no one there to hold you tight.' I could see all of it. When I heard Dionne sing it, I thought, ‘Oh, my . . .' "
But when it came time to sing it at the Stax studio in February 1969, Mavis nearly couldn't go through with it.
"Cropper, get out here, I can't do this by myself," she said, sending up a flare from the studio floor to the control room. The producer came out from behind the glass and stood next to Mavis, draped an arm around her shoulder, then grasped her hand as she poured herself into Hal David's lyrics.
"She made me stand there while she overdubbed the vocal, and it was like it made it okay for her to hold nothing back," Cropper says. "I'll always cherish that moment."
"I needed him because I was scared to death" to sing some of the songs Cropper suggested, Mavis says. "He had me singing, ‘I don't know what you got, baby, but it sure is good to me.' I liked the song [Otis Redding's ‘Good to Me'], but I thought if the gospel people don't like me singing these love songs, I'm done. Steve made me feel safe singing them. I don't know if I would've made it through that session without him."
"A House Is Not a Home" received airplay on stations in several big markets but was never released as a single and didn't crack the pop charts. In retrospect, Al Bell says, he wishes he'd pushed harder for that song. In contrast to Warwick's somewhat fragile, understated version, Mavis's interpretation amps up the air of desperation and the rhythm section puts some muscle into the backbeat.
"It's a masterpiece in my mind," he says. "It hit me later on when Luther Vandross did the same song [in 1981], and it started his career. I didn't think it compared to what Mavis did with it, especially since he modeled his version after Mavis's, not Dionne Warwick's. It hurt me. That should have been a hit on Mavis. She lived it."
Cropper looks back at his solo sessions with Mavis and realizes that the singer was in many ways growing up in front of the microphone. "We always agreed the day before what songs she'd sing, and she was prepared, spot-on, awesome," Cropper says. "But we didn't push her limits, and her confidence was not there yet. I could make the same record today and get twice the performance from her."
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