Tracing the Life and Career of Chicago Icon Mavis Staples

By Adela Skowronski |

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Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples in 2007 (Photo: Jalylah Burrell Brooklyn, NY, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Humble. Thoughtful. Legendary. After more than 70 years, Mavis Staples' personality is greater than any single word. The husky-voiced Chicagoan spent decades soothing hearts in The Staple Singers and carved an incredible musical path of her own. Along the way, she sang for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., educated audiences about roots music, and served as a tireless advocate for Civil Rights.

Mavis Staples has collaborated with many of music’s biggest stars: from Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan, Prince to David Byrne, and Hozier to Jon Batiste. Soon, she will add the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to her list. Before the legend sings at Symphony Center on February 4, let’s take a look back at her one-of-a-kind musical career.

July 10, 1939

Mavis Staples is born in Chicago.


Mavis Staples begins singing with her family band, The Staple Singers, at the age of 11 years old. The group was led by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and featured all of her siblings: Yvonne, Cleotha, and Pervis.

Early 1960s

Staples meets Bob Dylan for the first time. Both Bob Dylan and The Staple Singers appear at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, and over time, Dylan becomes drawn to Mavis as well as her brother Pervis Staples. Dylan would eventually propose to her, but she turns him down. Despite that, the two remained close over the years, recording the occasional song together and backing each other up on tours. Most recently, they performed together on Dylan’s Never Ending Tour in 2016.


The Staple Singers record Freedom Highway live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church. The album features many spiritual and gospel classics and would go on to influence many Civil Rights era activists. In 2008, on the day of election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, Mavis Staples sang the album's title song.

Also in 1965, The Staple Singers released one of Martin Luther King’s favorite protest anthems – “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)." The moderate popularity of a cover by Cannonball Adderley in 1967 renewed interest in the original Staple Singers recording as well.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invites The Staple Singers to sing at 87th and Vincennes as a way to harbor interest in Operation Breadbasket events. Led by Rev. Jesse Jackson, the breadbasket events were a success, resulting in over 2,000 jobs being created for Black Chicagoans. 


Mavis Staples releases her self-titled debut solo album with Stax Records.

Cover artwork for 1969 album 'Mavis Staples'


Mavis Staples lands her first solo hit: "I Have Learned To Do Without You."


The Staple Singers release Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. The song Respect Yourself, a commentary on gang violence, peaks at second on the Billboard R&B chart and twelfth on the general Billboard Charts. The album also includes one of their greatest hits to this day: the soulful, funky I’ll Take You There.”


The Staple Singers team up with The Band to film and record a version of the folk-rock outfit’s seminal song, “The Weight.” Their performance is included in the legendary 1978 Martin Scorsese concert doc The Last Waltz.


Mavis Staples works with Prince to co-produce her album Time Waits for No One. This sparks the beginnings of a friendship with the fellow music legend that would last until his untimely death in 2016. Prince would also record and produce Staples' 1993 album The Voice.


Mavis Staples releases Spirituals and Gospels: A Tribute to Mahalia Jackson – an album tribute to her close friend and role model Mahalia Jackson


The Staple Singers are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame


Mavis Staples duets with Bob Dylan on the tune “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” The song gets nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Pop Collaboration

Also in 2003, Mavis Staples performs at Soul Comes Home, a concert celebrating the opening of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, alongside many former Stax recording artists.


As a member of The Staple Singers, Mavis is presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.


Mavis Staples receives the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the highest honors in the United States for folk arts music.

Mavis Staples performing during the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert

Mavis Staples performing during the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert


Staples' album We'll Never Turn Back explores the strong connection between gospel music and the civil rights movement.


Mavis Staples is featured in Rejoice and Shout, a documentary about gospel music and the Black community. The Staple Singers are a focus of the film, as are Chicago legends Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson.


Mavis Staples receives an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music.


Staples performs alongside fellow former Stax Records artists in a documentary that brings legends of music together with rising stars. The movie Take Me to the River is followed by a tour around the United States of both concert venues, and classrooms, teaching about American roots music.


Mavis!, a feature-length documentary about the life of Mavis Staples, is released.


Staples is recognized as a Kennedy Center Honoree at the 39th annual gala.

The 2016 Kennedy Center Honorees

The 2016 Kennedy Center Honorees. Back L-R: Joe Walsh, Don Henley, and Timothy B. Schmit of The Eagles; Front L-R: Al Pacino, Mavis Staples, Martha Argerich, James Taylor


Staples is inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.


Staples collaborates with Hozier on the single “Nina Cried Power,” which references many great Civil Rights icons of the past including the song's namesake Nina Simone


Mavis Staples celebrates her 80th birthday with the “Mavis & Friends” concert run. Proceeds go to benefit the Newport Festivals Foundation and music education for young folks. 


Staples collaborates with rap super-duo Run the Jewels on “Pulling the Pin,” featured on the album RTJ4.


Staples collaborates with Jon Batiste and others on the album We Are, which goes on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.

You can catch Mavis Staples, with special guest Celisse, in concert at Symphony Center on Saturday, February 4. For music, tour information, and more, visit