Soul music survivors: Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette
Soul music singers Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette bring a rare maturity and authority to the age of 'American Idol.'
Chicago — Maybe the ultimate indictment of the contemporary pop music scene is that two of this year's most acclaimed albums come from two women who can qualify for senior discounts.
Two new albums by Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples are casting the spotlight back on both singers, whose lives and careers are deeply rooted in Detroit and Chicago, the soul music centers of the industrial Midwest where music became not just the soundtrack for, but also a prime enabler of, civil rights.
Their comebacks, more than 40 years after they recorded their first singles as teenagers, are not just the result of what happens when music is reintroduced to a new generation. Both albums are exciting listens because of the timing, nuanced tones, and unvarnished fiery exclamations of both singers.
Youth has always been sacramental to record companies as a tool to generate sales from what was perceived as their greatest base of consumers. But in the age of "American Idol," a generation of emerging singers is being conditioned to recycle postures and mimic emotional maturity, which eventually makes their performances feel flat or robotic.
That has become a roadblock for audiences who hunger for music by a singer who understands the gravity of the words and the feelings they may conjure.
For LaVette, who regularly tells audiences her age (she could retire) and that she is a proud grandmother, maturity is the essential ingredient that gives her singing such authority.
"A great deal of my success is due to the general mediocrity out there today, with my contemporaries resting on their laurels," she says. "And the new kids are just new kids. That's what they are. I don't care how many records they sell; they're just new."
LaVette was 16 when Atlantic Records released her first single, "My Man – He's a Loving Man," in 1962. Her story from there is a familiar one for many singers plucked off the street and ushered through the ranks of record companies. There were hits, but none big enough to make her a household name. She spent the next two decades jumping from label to label, following false starts and chasing left turns. "I would stay with anyone who was willing to record me. I had no room for attitude," she says now.
The years forced her to expand her talents as a performer. She learned to dance, did musical theater, performed jazz standards in clubs, and sang with a big band. The experiences broadened her job opportunities, but they also shaped what became a confident and consummate performer who didn't blink at any challenge. While many of her contemporaries landed on the oldies circuit or resigned themselves to past glories, LaVette still performed looking forward. Not being a star turned out to be the best credential for eventually becoming one.
"I was never fortunate enough to go on a stage where everyone knows who you are. I always had to go onstage in self-defense. It created a fierce artist and a well-rounded one," she says.
For Staples, stardom came early as well. She is a founding member of the Staples Singers, the landmark gospel-pop group from Chicago that was led by her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples. From the very beginning, the Staples were different from other black soul groups because their sound crossed over to white audiences, which meant they shared bills with stars like Bob Dylan and Stephen Stills at folk festivals and concerts.
The Staples enjoyed many hits (including "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself"), the legacy of which is associated with providing uplift during the struggle for black empowerment.
Staples says their long association with Dylan began after meeting him backstage at a television taping and hearing Dylan tell her father that he had been listening to their music since he was 12. He then offered them his song, "Blowin' in the Wind," the lyrics of which ("How many roads must a man walk down/ before you call him a man?") articulated her father's feelings about growing up in a divided South.
"Pops used to tell us stories about walking down the street in Mississippi, and if a white person came toward him on the same side of the street, he had to cross over," she says. "Pops said, 'I can sing that.' "
Pops Staples died in 2000, which led to a period of inactivity for his daughter. By that time, LaVette had largely stopped recording as well. A few years later, after both singers ended up releasing two separate albums on different labels that were both well received, they caught the ear of Anti, a Los Angeles label that, true to its name, was invested in bucking the trend of the recording industry by introducing veteran artists (Tom Waits, Merle Haggard) to younger audiences and working with emerging stars (Neko Case, Jolie Holland) who would appeal to older audiences.
LaVette's new album, "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook," a collection of reworked classics, illustrates her instinct for personalizing everything she sings. Her versions strip away the familiarities of the songs' former selves to present an embattled woman's point of view that, in performance, LaVette delivers in her rough-hewn voice and demanding stage manner.
Her version of "Love Reign O'er Me," performed in 2008 at a broadcast tribute to The Who at the Kennedy Center, became the breakthrough she had worked for since she was a teenager. After watching her, Pete Townshend said, "What she has done may not have been possible had she been more well known already. She is reinventing and reclaiming a soul singing tradition all at once."
"More people saw me that night than had seen me in more than 40 years put together," LaVette says. "Everything new is helping me – the new people, the new technology, the new record companies … young people now are so retro, they just think I'm the real thing!" she says, laughing.
Staples just released "You Are Not Alone," which was produced by Jeff Tweedy, the leader of the Chicago band Wilco. Tweedy wrote the title song, which Staples says she found rejuvenating after years of feeling lost following her father's death. "I would choke up singing this song.… I needed someone to tell me that I wasn't alone," she says.
Both women say they're not doing anything different from what they did decades ago, it's just the times that changed. "The music – it's still healing, it's inspiration, it still makes people smile and makes people cry," says Staples. "I still see music as being very instrumental in how the world goes today."