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Mavis Staples- If All I Was Was Black

December 13, 2017


I first “discovered” Mavis Staples in 1989 with her album Time Waits For No One. Because it was produced by Prince, I had to check it out. The notion that Prince would produce a mature soul/gospel artist was intriguing. It was a good album and it got me digging to find out more about Mavis Staples. I picked up a Staples Singers anthology and that sealed the deal – I became a Mavis Staples fan.

Prince was not the first Minnesota boy who fell under the spell of Mavis Staples – Dylan once proposed to her. In 2010 another member of my rock pantheon was bewitched by Staples: Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy produced Staples’ 2010 comeback You Are Not Alone. It was such a success that it won a Grammy.

Time Waits For No One is the third Tweedy/Staples project. Mavis Staples is the perfect canvas for Jeff Tweedy. Although Staples has an independent voice and point of view, she can fit perfectly into two very different distinctive artistic visions: Prince and Jeff Tweedy. Ironically, given she is ultimately a soul/gospel singer, the Tweedy (an alt country/alt rock guy) collaboration works better than the Prince (who is closer to Staples’ musical DNA) collaboration. In fact the more “Wilco” Tweedy makes Mavis, the more true to herself Mavis sounds. It is a bizarrely symbiotic relationship between Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples. But they are both Chicagoans and the Staples Singers had a bit of country in their groove. For example, The Staples Singers’ cover of The Band’s “The Weight” eclipsed the original.

On the first two projects, Tweedy wrote some of the songs and borrowed the rest. For this set, they are all written by Tweedy or co-written by Tweedy and Staples. Although, I loved the first two Tweedy/Staples albums, this one is the best of the three for me. All three projects share some of the same musicians (some of whom are in Staples’ road band), so maybe they are just approaching their 10,000 hours together. The big difference for me is this album has more cohesion – both in sound and in lyrical content. This is Tweedy’s most political set of songs. According to Tweedy:

“I’ve always thought of art as a political statement in and of itself—that it was enough to be on the side of creation and not destruction. But there is something that feels complicit at this moment in time about not facing what is happening in this country head on.”

Tweedy and Staples get so deep into this collaboration, that on their duet “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” you can barely tell their voices apart. They are not impersonating each other, it is synchronicity.


From → Music Reviews

  1. desertislandmasterpieces permalink

    Enjoyed your review! Take care.

  2. I’ve been sitting on this take (I come back and you have a wack load. Great). I have dug Mavis’s vocals since I was kid. Just smooth and no push. Appealed to the savage beast in CB. Seeing her and The Staples in the Last Waltz was a treat. I seen the doc on her and discovered the Tweedy connection. Made sense to me. Now to get to this record. On the play list it goes. Thanks for the push.

    Looking forward to your 2017 list.

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