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Mavis Staples

SFJAZZ Gala 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award Honoree

Mavis Staples

by Richard Scheinin
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When you think about the great voices of gospel and jazz, you think about Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin. And you think about Mavis – Mavis Staples. She moans, she shouts, she rumbles, she preaches. With the Staple Singers, her family’s band, she created a soundtrack to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond: “Freedom Highway,” “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There.” 

SFJAZZ honors Staples for her lifelong contributions to the American musical tradition. 

Just as jazz and gospel music are constantly moving forward – traditions in transition – so is Staples, whose approach to gospel, soul and roots music has never stopped evolving. Raised in Chicago, the nation’s gospel capital, she and the Staple Singers scored one of the first million-selling gospel tunes, “Uncloudy Day,” in 1957. By the early ‘60s, they were constantly at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. With Mavis as lead singer, the Staples became a symbol of the civil rights struggle; much like King’s sermons, their voices carried the voice of the people. 

And their songs shared a musical language and a social commitment with blues and jazz. When Mavis sang “Freedom Highway,” Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach proclaimed “Freedom Now!” When Mavis sang “Respect Yourself,” Cannonball Adderley urged his listeners to “Walk Tall.” Let Freedom Ring! That’s still the message, as Staples takes you to a place of joy and freedom. No wonder so many have sought her out as a musical partner: Bob Dylan, Prince, The Band. More recently, Ry Cooder, Jeff Tweedy and Ben Harper have joined Staples’ bandwagon by producing a series of solo recordings for this iconic singer. 

Staples is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2011, she won a GRAMMY award for “You Are Not Alone,” named the year’s Best Americana Album. In 2016, she scored another GRAMMY for Best American Roots Performance by singing “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” a song composed by bluesman “Blind Lemon” Jefferson. Now SFJAZZ honors Staples with its Lifetime Achievement Award, acknowledging her seven decades of musical invention and reinvention – and for her commitment to social change, always bringing her message to the people. An inspired artist, Mavis Staples still takes us there.

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