Anyone who caught Mavis Staples shimmying out in the middle of the big musical number on Stephen Colbert’s recent Late Show debut knows that the 76-year-old gospel/soul singer’s still got it. In just the past five years she has released two albums — You Are Not Alone, which won a Grammy in 2011, and One True Vine — as well as the Son Little-produced Your Good Fortune EP back in April. Earlier this summer, she toured with Patty Griffin and Amy Helm, and then joined the Farm Aid 30 lineup alongside Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and Kacey Musgraves. On Sept. 25, she launches the Solid Soul tour with singer-songwriter Joan Osborne. The trek will run through Nov. 22, with an Oct. 2 stop at the Canyon Club.
Staples grew up singing gospel, rhythm and blues and soul with the Staple Singers. It was a family affair led by Roebuck “Pops” Staples that included her siblings — Cleotha, Yvonne, and Purvis. Their gospel leanings earned them the nickname “God’s Greatest Hitmakers,” but Pops’ camaraderie with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shifted their weight toward civil rights in the 1960s.
In 1969, Mavis issued her eponymous solo debut on Stax Records. In the 46 years since, she has worked with everyone from Curtis Mayfield and Prince to George Jones and Jeff Tweedy. And while she’s paid tribute to greats like Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Johnny Paycheck, Ray Charles, and others, a group that included Griffin, Tweedy, and Osborne, along with Emmylou Harris, Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt, and more recently offered their musical respects to Mavis at a big event in Chicago. Osborne says of the show, “I was so thrilled to be there and be one of the people who got to present how much I love her and be a part of paying tribute to her. Of all the singers that I idolize, she just has this special place for me. She has this incredible joy that she brings with her everywhere she goes.”
Growing up in Kentucky, Osborne was aware of the Staple Singers, but it was on a college road trip between New York and home that she picked up a cassette of their early Chess Records material and was blown away. “I put it on in the car and was listening to it, driving in the dark, these highways and back roads between West Virginia and Kentucky,” Osborne recalls. “Chills were going up and down my body. It was this incredible sense of being in an alternate universe, another time and another place. It affected me really, really deeply. You heard Mavis’s voice coming out of that beautiful stew of voices. You heard that she had something special, even among this special family. And you heard her insistence. You heard her passion. And you heard her soul. It was really, really powerful. That was probably how I first connected to her.”
The connection between the two singers runs as deep as it does wide. Both of them wield voices that transcend all the usual quantifiers and qualifiers, particularly genre. Soul, gospel, folk, blues, Americana, pop — it’s all covered. So what’s the secret to that transcendence? “I think it’s being able to mean what you’re saying,” Osborne offers. “Whether you started out as a hillbilly country singer and you’re singing gospel and blues or whatever, like Hank Williams would do, or whether you’re Mavis Staples who came out of the gospel church and can sing anything she puts her mind to. It’s really just about meaning it and allowing the song to come through you, allowing yourself to be the instrument that the song inhabits for the time you’re singing it.”
“No matter what she’s singing or what forum she’s in, she brings . . . an inclusiveness. You can look at her as being a great singer and admire her for that — and that’s wonderful — but you feel like she’s just a bringer of love and joy. It’s really amazing to be able to do that.”
Osborne, herself, is hardly a slouch when it comes to occupying center stage in a thoroughly delightful and engaging way. Because of the unique gifts that both Staples and Osborne bring as singers and performers, it’s safe to say that the Solid Soul show will be anything and everything but a trip down memory lane. “Mavis is not a nostalgia act,” Osborne insists. “She’s somebody who’s kept doing this and, because of who she is, writers want her to cover their material and musicians want to work with her. People want to keep what she has alive and current. That’s one of the great things about her. She’s not just, ‘Oh, remember what I did back in the day?’ She still has so much to give. It’s wonderful to see.”