Right Stuff Award: Mavis Staples

by Madeleine Kolb

“The Right Stuff ” is a term popularized by author Tom Wolfe in his rollicking, uproarious, roller-coaster-ride of a book by the same name:  a book about the seven original astronauts selected for Project Mercury.

They were men who had what it takes to climb into a massive rocket loaded with explosive fuel and blast off into space. They had the Right Stuff.

In that spirit I’ll present awards from time to time to people with the Right Stuff. People who take on a challenge and triumph over obstacles. Or who suddenly, unexpectedly find themselves in a challenging situation and rise to the occasion quietly and competently. Those who demonstrate what a single person can accomplish if she or he has the Right Stuff.

And the fourth Right Stuff Award goes to Mavis Staples

Mavis started singing as a little girl when her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, taught her, her two sisters, and her brother to sing harmony, and the family began to perform in churches in the Chicago area.  Mavis was very young and so small that, as she recalls, “they used to have me stand on a chair, so the people could see where the voice was coming from.”

But even then,  Mavis had the most powerful, wonderful, amazing voice. People who heard her on the radio singing songs like “Hard Times Come Again No More” by beloved American song-writer Stephen Foster  couldn’t believe they were hearing the voice of a young girl.

As a child, Mavis spent summers in Chicago where she had been born and the rest of the year in a small, all-black town in Mississippi. It was on a trip with her grandmother to a larger town near home that Mavis first experienced discrimination. She tells about it in the song “Down in Mississippi.”

In 1963, Pops told his children one day that he wanted to go hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  at his church in Montgomery, Alabama. Afterwards, her father said,

I really like this man. I like his message, and I think that, if he can teach it, we can sing it.

And they did. The Staple Singers began writing and performing freedom songs, the first being “March Up Freedom’s Highway” about the  1965 March from Selma to Montgomery.   

Mavis is performing solo these days. And her voice is as thrilling and powerful and full of feeling as ever. Listen to Mavis Staples sing “We Shall Not be Moved.” Feel the goose-bumps?

Fortunately, Mavis has no plans to retire. She says, “I want to keep on, keep on keeping on.” Amen to that!

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