Lift Every Voice and Sing

For people like me who consider themselves devoutly agnostic, for whom the prospect of pondering the Big Questions is about as appealing as consuming a steaming bowl of dog shit, true Christians are about as exotic and curious a breed as benevolent aliens from far-away galaxies. We're not talking about judgmental, squeezed-testicle, right-wing douchebags such as Jerry Falwell here; rather, I mean the special brand of Christians who seem kissed by an otherworldly, unspeakable bliss that can only be induced in most humans by the ingestion of psychedelic drugs.

Gospel singer extraordinaire Mavis Staples—who performs Tuesday at the Cerritos Center—has been to the top of that mountain that heathens like me shall never know. She has seen the Great Light; she has been touched by her god in ways that alternately creep me out and make me downright jealous. (I wish I could attain a Staples-like buzz without having to consume any pernicious substances!) Mavis is 62 years old but has the giddy, effervescent, optimistic outlook of an eight-year-old girl raised by particularly doting parents. She expects good things to happen, always. She punctuates her conversation with ready laughter and squeals of delight, even when the topic of discussion is the passing of Staples family patriarch Pops Staples a couple of years ago.

"Pops could really sing; his voice always relaxed me," Mavis says, without a trace of melancholy creeping into her voice. "And he played the most beautiful, bluesy guitar, and he was so cool. He would always show us different things, tell us stories about his daddy, how he come up, how to be a close-knit family unit."

Members of the Staples clan—Pops (born Roebuck) and siblings Mavis, Yvonne, Cleo and Pervis—began singing together in 1949. They started out harmonizing around the homestead but soon moved on to performing at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in their native Chicago. By the early '70s, the Staples had become the most successful gospel crossover recording group in history, with a trail of funky-but-spiritual mainstream hits such as "I'll Take You There," "Respect Yourself" and "Let's Do It Again."

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If Pops was the family anchor with his swampy, laid-back guitar grooves and understated but self-assured vocals, then Mavis was the family's town crier, flag-flapping in the wind. Her muscular, melismatic vocal style, punctuated by sensuous-but-churchy grunts and groans and flights into open-throated wails, is nothing less than a marvel of nature, something akin to Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Etta James in the throes of simultaneous orgasm.

Staples came to her style through the woman whom she calls her "idol," gospel icon Mahalia Jackson. Staples paid grand tribute to her hero on her most recent solo album, 1996's Spirituals & Gospel: Dedicated to Mahalia Jackson, and positively glows with delight when discussing her champion.

"I was about seven or eight years old when I first heard her voice," Staples recalls. "One day, I was back in my play area, and I heard this lady's voice on the record player, and it just drew me right out. Her voice was doing something to me; I was feeling something. And Pops told me that was Sister Mahalia Jackson. It was such a happy feeling to me! My skin tingled. It made my little heart feel happy, and it made me smile. After that, I liked her so much that Pops would have to play her records for me every single day."

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When Mavis was 11, the Staples Singers opened for Jackson at Tabernacle Baptist, and the legend encouraged her young protg to follow in her footsteps. Jackson remained a close family friend and performance partner until her death in 1972.

"When we first met, she looked down at me, and she just looked like a giant princess," Staples reminisces, seemingly ready to swoon all over again at the memory. "'Well, hello there, baby!' she said. And I told her I sing—'Oooh, you gonna hear me!' They called me the little girl with the big voice. And after we sang, she come up and told me, 'You a good little ol' singer!' She looked at me and said that, and I just melted!"

Another famous friend of the Staples family was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader was a fan of the band's music, while Pops admired King's work for humanity. The Staples marched with King all over the country in the '60s, and the experience had a profound effect on the group's music.

"We went from writing strictly gospel songs to doing protest songs," says Mavis. "We did 'March Up Freedom's Highway' for the march from Montgomery to Selma; we wrote 'It's a Long Walk to D.C.' for the march to Washington; we wrote 'When Will We Be Paid for the Work We Done?' and 'Washington, We're Watching You.' Pops wrote a song that turned out to be Dr. King's favorite, which was 'Why Am I Treated So Bad?'"

Sadly, Pops is gone now, both his musicianship and moral stewardship sorely missed by his brood, not to mention his fans. Yet Mavis is secure in the knowledge that Pops has gone on to a better place. Meanwhile, Amazin' Mavis carries on with her solo career, as she has done since 1969, but it seems Daddy is always looking over her shoulder.

"We'll still be feeling like Pops is up there when we're singing," she says. "Sometimes it's rough to look over there and not see Daddy, but we do it for his legacy."

Mavis Staples & the Staples Swingers perform with the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (562) 916-8501. Tues., 8 p.m. $45-$55. All ages.

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