Her mix of gospel, sex and soul is unprecedented in any genre, her unique voice a sexy growl that sounds like it has more to do with the nether regions than celestial reaches. With her sisters Cleo, Pervis and Yvonne and her father, Pops, on guitar and vocals, the Staples Singers conquered all of the charts–from gospel to rock–with their soul-saving messages set to a funky backbeat.

Pops is gone now, having died in 2000 at age 85. Staples is a solo artist, but her sound is still the same. Her last album, Have A Little Faith, released on Alligator Records in 2004 , won three W.C. Handy Awards for best blues, soul blues and female soul blues artist. The title track, written by co-producer and bassist Jim Tullio and guitarist Jim Weider, won for best blues song.

But it is gospel music that has been the lifelong passion for Staples. “My main lady was sister Mahalia Jackson,” Staples says by phone from her home in Chicago. “She was the first female voice that I heard.”

Staples recalls being so enthralled with Jackson’s recorded voice as a child that she’d be standing by the record player when Pops got home from work so he could play it for her.

“I never tried to sound like her,” Staples says. “Nobody could sound like Mahalia. But I give her a lot of glory.”

She gave back some glory by recording Spirituals & Gospels, a tribute to Jackson, in 1996. She wanted to do “Move on up a Little Higher” and “In the Upper Room,” but the hired help that day wasn’t up to the task. “Lucky Peterson was playing with my accompanist on that record, and he didn’t really do his homework,” Staples says. “So he started trying to play. I said ‘No, man.’”

She pulled the songs on the spot. “I couldn’t deliver the song like I wanted to. If I had had Billy Preston, I wouldn’t have had to worry about that, because he was a church guy too. Lucky Peterson is great–he just didn’t rehearse the stuff,” Staples huffs in her throaty chuckle.

It’s not that Staples is a diva. She just couldn’t understand why her high standards and musical values were no longer in demand in the music marketplace. The family had begun work on a Staples Singers record before Pops passed, using their own money to make the record because nobody wanted to sign them. “We felt bad. I said, ‘Daddy, don’t they realize we’re still here? We still have our voices,’ she remembers. “And he said, ‘Well, Mavis, that’s just the way it is. They want these youngsters.’”

After Pops passed, she wanted to continue singing, to keep his legacy alive.

“He started it all,” she sighs. “So I went on to the bank.”

She procrastinated a bit in making Have a Little Faith, she admits, because it was the first time without her father’s guitar and her sister’s voices. Guitarist Jim Weider, who she says plays guitar similiarly to Pops, and local producer Jim Tullio joined with her. Alligator head Bruce Iglauer snapped the result up. Although she had a reunion last year with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section who backed the Staples on most of their great R&B-flavored records, she couldn’t afford them this time.

That gets her to thinking about the great records she made on Stax with those guys and the reaction she got from the gospel community when “I’ll Take You There” first came out. “That was when the church people went wild,” Staples recalls. “‘That Staples woman is singing the devil’s music!’”

The whole family did a pile of interviews trying to explain the record.

“I would tell them, ‘Devil ain’t got no music. All music is God’s music.’ If you listen, we are singing, ‘I know a place/ Ain’t nobody worried/ Ain’t nobody cryin’/ Ain’t no smiling faces/ Lyin’ to the races.’ Where else you think we’re gonna take you? We’re talking about taking you to heaven,” she cackles. “It just happens that the song has a beat.”

The Staples had just gotten that rhythm section because they had been singing with just her father’s guitar for years, and they wanted to reach young people. “Pops said, ‘Now listen y’all, I think if we get us a rhythm section, those kids’ll hear that beat, and they might hear what were saying.’”

Instead, the church folk said the Staples were singing the Devil’s music, and they no longer wanted them in the church. “When we were invited back to church, the very first request was “I’ll Take You There.” Man, and when Pops hit that guitar–‘Bomp bomp ba dom ba dom bom bomp’–them church folks just hit the floor,” Staples whoops. “I said, oh man, this is really something. We’ve been in church all our lives, and these folks have tried to kill us putting us out of
the church.”

But Pops was no stranger to controversy. He had been part of the folk/protest movement. The Staples were heavily involved in the civil rights movement. Pops wrote “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. liked so much he often asked Pops to sing it at his church. They had also recorded “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “For What It’s Worth.”

“Pops had a young mind,” Staples says. “And he would hear these songs and he would say, ‘Listen y’all, we can sing these songs. These songs have meaning, they have truth.’ Anything we felt was informative and positive and could uplift someone, we would sing it.”

When it felt like things were improving socially, the Staples moved on again with message songs like “Respect Yourself” and “Reach Out and Touch a Hand.” “We still sing folk songs, we still sing gospel songs and message songs,” Staples says, adding that, since being signed to blues label Alligator, she’s being called a blues singer.

Questioning that label got her in trouble with Etta James when they were on the same bill. “She told me off,” Staples chortles. “Said ‘You been singing them so-and-so blues all your life!’ And it’s Etta James. You know I ain’t goin’ up against Etta.”

She won’t be going up against Prince either, with whom she worked on 1993’s The Voice, a project she labels as some the best work she’s ever done. “I have tried to talk to him,” she laughs nervously. “I don’t know if we can do something together. He’s really deep into the Jehovah’s Witness thing. Every time I talk to him, he starts preaching to me.”

The record has never been heard due to Prince’s contractual affiliations, but Staples says she may go back and pull a couple of her tunes from the project and record them again.

Plans for a new project are not firmed up yet, but Staples is sure of the pathway. “I can’t get too far away from what my family has been doing for this last 56 years,” she says. “That’s a good thing. If you’ve got something good, if it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it.” x

Mavis Staples, with her sister Yvonne, plays The ArtsCenter with Mamadou Diabate on Saturday, March 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $39.