In 2007, Mavis Staples released the album We’ll Never Turn Back, an amazing collection of civil rights anthems, updated to reflect the current struggles and concerns of African Americans in a post 9/11 America.
I first discovered Mavis Staples as a member of The Staple Singers, a soul group that found fame in the 1960’s with songs like “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Mavis was the lead singer of this group that featured her father Pops on vocals and guitar, and her sister and brother singing backup. I will never forget the first time I saw them sing. They were featured in the Martin Scorsese documentary “The Last Waltz” about the last concert of The Band in 1976. A key segment of the movie features The Staple Singers singing with The Band on “The Weight,” a beautiful elegy about a drifter’s ongoing search for redemption and independence. Those careful watchers of the film notice that at the very end, after singing this classic rock song as if she was in church, Mavis can be heard quietly whispering “Beautiful!” as the scene fades to black.
Mavis Staples marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. She had a love affair with Bob Dylan, and turned down his marriage proposal. She has performed around the world, and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
We’ll Never Turn Back is a remarkable album, one that I found myself playing over and over again around our house in 2007. My wife Lynn and I both immediately fell in love with the album. My daughters, then only 12 and 9, suffered through repeated listening’s, and having to hear me tell them stories of The Last Waltz, and how Mavis was an important voice of peace and love during the 1960’s.
It was during this time that we returning from a family trip. Waiting for our bags at the airport baggage claim, Lynn overheard someone say “Please wait here Ms. Staples. We’ll get your bags.” Lynn told me what she heard, and before she had a chance to plead with me not to bother a celebrity who is just trying to get home, I walked over to this gentle, graceful looking 68 year old African American woman standing all by herself.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I am so sorry to bother you, but are you Mavis Staples?” She looked at me with a smile on her face and said “Yes.”
I smiled back and shook her hand. I told her how much I loved her music. I told her how much I enjoyed her new album, and how I first discovered her in the movie “The Last Waltz,” something I am sure she has heard thousands of times. She could not have been sweeter. She was warm, generous, and caring.
My daughters looked across the baggage claim area and saw me taking to an elderly woman who they did not know. Naturally, they were curious, and they walked over to stand by me.
I noticed them standing next to me. I looked at my girls, and I looked at my wife. I looked at Mavis.
“Girls,” I said. “I would like to introduce you to Mavis Staples.”
They each smiled a big bright smile, looked at each other, looked at me, and looked at Mavis. Mavis gave them each a hug, asked them their names, and said how beautiful and sweet they both were.
I suggested to the girls we say goodbye, and let Ms. Staples get home.
This is not a remarkable story, but I like to think about that moment I got to introduce my girls to this civil rights leader and musical legend, and I hope it is something they remember, and something they treasure in fond recollection with their children and grand children. I hope they continue to listen to her music.
“Take a load off Annie
Take a load for free
Take a load off Annie
And you put the load right on me
(You put the load right on me)”