There aren’t many voices as evocative of the civil rights era than that of Mavis Staples. When she was just 16, Mavis and her sisters offered up their gospel vocals for one of the biggest hits of 1956. Bob Dylan heard ‘Uncloudy Day’ on the radio the year it was released, later citing The Staples Singers as an essential influence on his style and describing Mavis Staples’ voice as like a “fog rolling in … I knew who Mavis was without having to be told. Her singing just knocked me out”.
Mavis and Dylan even courted for a time. As Staples recalled, “We would write letters back and forth, because we wouldn’t see each other until we were on a festival together. And we’d smooch!” Clearly taken with the smooching, Dylan proposed to Staples. Unfortunately for Bob, she turned him down – feeling she was too young to be married.
Before any of this, Staples spent several years on the road, performing in various churches – one of which turned out to be around the corner from Martin Luther King’s church in Montgomery, Alabama. As Mavis recalled in BBC Radio 6 Music’s The First Time: “I first met Dr King at his church in Montgomery, Alabama. We happened to be in Montgomery on a Sunday and we didn’t have to work until that night, like 8 o’clock that night. So pops be listening to Dr King on the radio, and he called us to his room. He said: ‘Listen y’all, this man Martin is here. Martin Luther King.’ He said: ‘I like his message. I’ve been listening to him on the radio and he has a church here. I wanna go to his eleven o’clock service, do you all wanna go?’ We said ‘Yes sir, dad, we wanna go.'”
So, the next morning, Pops and the Staples sisters got into the car and went down to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where they were ushered in and quickly seated. “Someone let Dr King know that we were in the audience. And he acknowledged us,” Mavis continued. “He said: ‘we’re glad to see that Pops Staples and his daughters are here this morning’. And we sit there and we listen to his sermon. And when he finished, he would stand by the door to shake the worshipper’s hands as they filed out. My sisters and I walked past – we shook Dr King’s hand. And when Pops came out, he stood there and talked a while. We waited for him, he finally came out, and when we got back to the hotel he called us to his room again. He said: ‘Listen y’all, I like this man. I really like this man. I like his message. And I think if that he can preach it, we can sing it.'”
And sing it they did. “We began writing freedom songs,” Mavis recalled. “‘Freedom Highway’ was the first. And, boy, when we got to a place where David king was, we would sing before he would speak. At this time, Pops wrote ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad?…and that turned out to be Dr King’s favourite. And he would always tell Pop: ‘Now Stape’ ( he called him Stape) ‘you gonna sing my song tonight right?’ And Pops would say ‘oh yeah, Doctor, we’re gonna sing your song.”