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Summit Insights | Mavis Staples

Endless Summer of Soul

Have you seen Summer of Soul, Questlove’s Oscar-winning documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival? If you’ve seen it, you are probably still buzzing from watching Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson team up to sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” It’s the most remarkable moment in an emotion-packed film. Even more remarkable is the fact that 53 years later, Mavis is still performing and taking audiences to new heights.

Summer of Soul shows Mavis as she had just turned 30, already a 20-year member of her family group, The Staple Singers. The group was still three years away from reaching the peak of pop music with their number one hit “I’ll Take You There, but were established gospel stars and heroes in the civil rights movement. Pops Staples, father and leader of The Staple Singers, was close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the group often accompanied King for rallies along what Pops described in song as the “Freedom Highway.”

It was on the civil rights trail in 1963 that Mavis met and fell in love with Bob Dylan. But when Dylan proposed marriage, Mavis turned him down. Over the years, Mavis has said that Dylan was the love who got away. They both performed (though not together) with The Band in 1978’s The Last Waltz.

The Staple Singers stayed active until 1994 and along the way Mavis developed a solo career built on excellent albums, including two written and produced by Prince and a couple with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. A new album, Carry Me Home, comes out in May. Mavis will turn 83 in July while on the road in Europe. The tour will return to the U.S. and Canada later that month, continuing well into December.

A recent show outside Washington, DC, found Mavis and her ace band in superb shape. As she led the audience from hand-clapping a cappella gospel, through a Talking Heads cover, to ending with “I’ll Take You There,” Mavis shared the same infectious joy and vocal power captured in her duet with Mahalia Jackson.

Here’s to an endless summer.


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