“‘You all are singing to get your just reward and you’ll get your just reward. It’s coming for you. So don’t worry about these awards,'” she remembers him telling her when the family’s act, The Staples Singers, would be nominated for awards.
But this year, she’s up for a Grammy in the Best Americana category, and Staples, who has never won the coveted trophy, says she wants to take one home at the Feb. 13 ceremony.
“Sorry Pops, I want to win,” says Staples, who is nominated for her Jeff Tweedy-produced 2010 album, “You Are Not Alone” in a category that features Roseanne Cash, Los Lobos, Willie Nelson and Robert Plant.
“But if I don’t win it, it will be OK,” she adds.
The 71-year-old gospel legend, whose husky voice defines Staples Singers hits like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” is on her fourth solo album since 2004’s “Have a Little Faith.” Before that, she went more than a decade without any new material.
The latest album’s genesis came in 2008 when Tweedy and his fellow Wilco members went to see Staples sing at a club on Chicago’s North Side. A few weeks later, Tweedy and Staples met at a restaurant near her home on the South Side, not far from the University of Chicago — but not too close either.
The pair, along with Staples’ sister Yvonne, sat and talked for hours about each other’s lives.
“I was sold on him when he was talking family and the way he talked about my father,” Staples says. “He loved Pops and he knew all of our stuff. I felt like I knew Jeff Tweedy when I left that restaurant.”
Staples had just finished her critically acclaimed album of civil rights songs, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” produced by Ry Cooder. Turns out Tweedy came along at the perfect time, because Staples had no clue what to do next.
“He said, ‘Well we’ll come up with something’ and that’s what he did.” Staples says. “I give him the credit.”
What Tweedy did was assemble a list that included songs by Pops Staples, traditional gospel hymns and a pair of original songs he wrote for Staples: “You Are Not Alone” and “Only the Lord Knows.”
“My skin was moving on my bones at the title, ‘You Are Not Alone,'” Staples recalls. “He had those lyrics and I just, I said ‘Tweedy this is too beautiful, so beautiful.’ My heart, I could see all of what this song would do for people. How it was needed in people’s lives. People are going through trying times and they’re losing their homes, losing their jobs and this song was so comforting.”
Tweedy said he mentioned the song to Staples during one of their conversations as they were trying to figure out where their worlds collided.
“I think we have similar philosophies,” Tweedy says. “And one of them was realizing that all music says the same thing, ‘You are not alone.’ Just to be comforted, have a friend there.”
The recording session lasted several weeks during the Chicago winter of 2009 into 2010. Staples said one cold day, Tweedy asked her to sing “Wonderful Savior” in a freezing stairwell so he could capture a certain sound.
Staples was reluctant.
“I said ‘Uh-uh, not me. I am not going out there,'” Staples recounts. “I said, ‘Tweedy it’s cold.’ It was 14 degrees. He said, ‘Mavis, the sound is so good.'”
Staples bundled up in a coat, hat and gloves and went outside with the backup singers.
“All of us were around one microphone,” she says. “You could see the vapor coming from our mouths as we sang this song. When we went in to listen I was the first to say, ‘Oh man, that sounds good.’ I said, ‘Tweedy I will never dispute your word again. Whatever you ask for I’m willing.'”
Staples describes the sessions at the Wilco loft as a “lovefest.”
“The Wilco guys would come through and bring their babies and their wives and puppies,” she says. “It was just beautiful.”
Tweedy feels the same way about her.
“She’s somebody that has an enormous spirit that is visible to all people and has managed to stay vibrant and relevant,” Tweedy says. “She has a special gift.”
Her friend and the author of the gospel music encyclopedia “Uncloudy Days,” Bil Carpenter, calls Staples one of the last surviving true soul artists. Carpenter said some of her current work updates her Staples Singers standards for a new generation.
“It’s almost like she has a foot in the past, but she has a foot into the future too,” Carpenter said. “You’re going into the future, but you’re not forgetting the past.”
Both Staples and Tweedy say they’d love to work together again, but there are no set plans.
“I’m hanging with Tweedy,” Staples said. “No need in us breaking up right now.”
These days Staples lives in an apartment that overlooks Lake Michigan. The walls are filled with gold and platinum records and a framed copy of “Cash Box” magazine from 1972 with The Staples Singers on the cover.
She spends a lot of time with her sister, Yvonne. Her other sister, Cleotha, lives nearby but is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
No matter where the future takes her, Staples said she will continue the civil rights work she started with The Staples Singers when they sang before Martin Luther King Jr. spoke.
“That’s all a part of my life,” she said. “I can’t let that go. Dr. King, to know him, to be close with him, to march with him, the great man that he was. Any way that I can continue, I intend to continue the movement because it’s still alive.”
And you can bet, she’ll be singing.
“I’ve been singing since I was eight years old,” she said. “I just don’t see no stopping. It’s what I love to do and I tell you they’ll probably have to come and scrape me up off the stage. I’m not going anywhere.”