My husband and I had the pleasure last Wednesday of attending the Mavis Staples show at the Mondavi Center in Davis, California. If you're reading this and you're not from around here -- here being Sacramento -- you are in for a treat if Mavis Staples comes to your town. Some of you of a certain age will remember the Staple Singers from the 1950s and 1960s, and already know what a treasure, a blessed honor it is to hear Mavis belt out her heart.
She's part soul (R&B), part rock-and-roll and part gospel. I am particularly attracted to her music because her roots in the Civil Rights movement remain strong. She was a friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, for crying out loud, and performed concerts for him; she's a walking American icon and integral to history in America.
Mavis opened her first show in 2009 in Davis, California, with "For What It's Worth," a 1967 song written by Stephen Stills and performed back then by the Buffalo Springfield. You know how it goes: "Something's happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear." She followed with "Down in Mississippi," and hearing those sultry Southern blues had me believing she was actually born in Mississippi. But I believe she was born July 10, 1939 in Chicago. Her father, "Pop" Staples, on the other hand, was born in Mississippi.
About halfway through the show, Mavis removed her shoes. It must have been difficult for a woman of her age and stature to stand in high heels for such a long time; I know I couldn't do it. She just laughed and said she felt at home on that stage, so it was OK to kick off those heels, and it was certainly OK with the audience. We were all mesmerized by her performance.
Then she plunged into her hit from the early 1970s, "Respect Yourself." From my perspective, it seemed a bit out of place, delivering that message to the mostly white, over 40, liberal crowd at Mondavi Wednesday night. But all of us need to remember that message at various points in our lives. In the middle of that number, Mavis spelled out the word r-e-s-p-e-c-t and then chuckled, "Oh, no, I ain't gonna mess with Aretha," as though Aretha Franklin might have been sitting in the audience and ready to grab the microphone away from her. But I know what she means, and I suspect you do, too.
Mavis brought along her sister, Yvonne Staples, for back-up along with Donny Gerrard and Chavonne Morris on background vocals. Three other guys rounded out the band: Rick Holmstrom on lead guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums. The most spectacular and talented by far absolutely was Rick Holmstrom. Holmstrom made his guitar sing on a level comparable to Jimi Hendrix. It blew me away.
One of my favorite protest songs of all time is "We Shall Overcome," and I would have traded the commission on my last two escrows to have heard her perform that song, but Mavis did one even better: "We Shall Not Be Moved." She talked about walking into a restaurant in the South in the 1960s with a group of friends and being ordered to leave. The waitress refused to serve them. But they locked arms and began to sing We Shall Not Be Moved when the police arrested them. It put a lump in my throat and brought tears to my eyes when the familiar refrain filled the Center for Performing Arts at Mondavi. Probably because these aren't just stories to me.
Did you know that the Staple Singers were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999? They were called "God's greatest hit-makers." One of the encore numbers had the audience standing, clapping and singing along to "I'll Take You There." It's one of those feel-good numbers that resonates.
Just like Mavis Staples. She crawls under your skin, ever so delicately, and reminds you that we're all part of the same world and responsible for passing on that message. Don't ever give up the fight for equality and human rights.
The Short Sale Savior, coming to a bookstore near you in February.
Photo: Mondavi Center for Performing Arts in Davis, CA by Big Stock Photo