Mavis Staples Is an American Institution. She’s Not Done Singing Yet.
Entertainment

Mavis Staples Is an American Institution. She’s Not Done Singing Yet.

Pervis broke the news of Prince’s death when she arrived to perform at Coachella. She wanted to go home, and cried until her set the next day. She delivered an ebullient monologue onstage, calling him “the most beautiful spirit that I have ever met” before teasing a bit of “Purple Rain,” the crowd clapping the rhythm. “It helped,” she said. “I have had a lot of hard times, good times, but I make it through. Things don’t seem as hard as they used to.”

She meant this only for herself. Though many conditions have improved since the days of “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” or “Respect Yourself,” she lamented that progress was not linear. She scowled about the end of Roe v. Wade, was vexed by a string of women recently sucker-punched in Manhattan, and lamented the Black mother and daughter in Georgia accused of voter fraud. She once thought singing could change the world, but she now believes that’s naïve.

“I’m singing for me, too, to set my soul free and to feel better about how I’m living,” she said in a rush. “If y’all don’t want to hear it, get you some earmuffs. I’m going to sing for as long as the Lord allows me. I ain’t coming easy.”

IN A CROWDED backstage room at the Los Angeles venue YouTube Theater in mid-April, Staples hovered above a birthday cake emblazoned with her face, wielding a chef’s knife. For three hours, a dozen stars — including Raitt, Jackson Browne, Norah Jones, Chris Stapleton and Michael McDonald — had paraded onto the stage, mixing Staples’s songs with stories about her. Though she won’t turn 85 until July 10, her team had planned this birthday fête when retirement appeared imminent. She’d had some cognac, so she was holding court.

“Eight-five might be the new 35,” she said. “But I tell you, I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life. I got work to do, and I’ll take all of y’all with me.”

She started talking about her parents and how they’d picked cotton near Mound Bayou, Miss. When a voice echoed that tiny town’s name, she knew it was Taj Mahal, the blues legend seated feet away in a wheelchair. They began flirting, singing childhood love songs back and forth and talking about getting spanked with switches. Staples and Mahal are two in a diminishing pool of performers still working in their 80s. The acolytes watched in stunned silence. “This has been the best birthday out of all of my birthdays,” Staples said when the reverie broke. “And right now, I will cut this cake.”