Sharon Jones & Mavis Staples: Voices from Heaven

Sharon Jones & Mavis Staples: Voices from Heaven


Georgia native Sharon Jones was born Sheron Lafaye Jones on May 4, 1956, and though her family moved to Brooklyn soon after, she made regular visits to Augusta, where the music and moves of hometown hero James Brown were already making an impression. Raised in the church with the emotive power of gospel, as a young teenager she pursued her love of music through secular channels as well, performing in funk bands and talent shows. But before she became Sharon Jones, the “Queen of Funk,” she struggled many years to make a living as a singer. Between infrequent session work and wedding gigs, Jones took on a myriad of day jobs, including one as a prison guard at New York’s infamous Rikers Island.

In 1996, Jones’ sax-playing then-boyfriend recommended her to the fledging Desco Records, which needed three singers to back up soul legend Lee Fields. When the two other girls didn’t show, Jones stepped forward and recorded all the parts herself. Her talent made a big impression on label co-owner, musician and engineer Gabriel Roth, AKA Bosco “Bass” Mann. Through Desco, Jones recorded singles, sang backup and toured internationally, backed by Desco house band the Soul Providers. Her explosive stage presence earned her the title, “Queen of Funk” in the burgeoning UK deep funk scene, yet her success couldn’t save Desco, which folded in early 2000. Jones and Roth secured a regular summer gig in Barcelona, and set about to record Jones’ first full-length album Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Sold only at the band’s gigs, the album wasn’t commercially released until months later, as the 2002 debut album on Brooklyn’s new Daptone label.

As the sun in Daptone’s musical universe, Jones continues to produce successful releases, including her last, the critically acclaimed 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007). Jones’ striking vocals also appear on the new Daptone Gold album, but nothing tops the live show. As road warriors filling venues throughout the world, this not-to-be-missed act tours relentlessly, but they’re gearing up to record in 2010.


Mavis Staples was born July 10, 1939 in Chicago, Illinois. Roebuck “Pops” Staples had fathered a family singing group, and Mavis, the youngest, stepped right to the lead, alongside Pops.

The Staple Singers were trailblazers in the 1960s, bringing gospel and rock together. Their soulful versions of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and their own “Marching Up Jesus’ Highway” became part of the Civil Rights movement’s soundtrack, as well as such message songs as, “Long Walk to D.C” and “When Will We Be Paid?”

Mavis quickly took over lead vocals for the Staple Singers, and her rich, raspy voice perfectly complemented Pops’ songwriting and southern-styled guitar as well as her siblings’ backup vocals. Their first album, Uncloudy Day, was a hit, but the band really took off after signing with the Stax label, where their music took on a decidedly funkier sound. With Stax, the Staples ran off a series of Top 40 hits, including, “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom),” “Respect Yourself” and their biggest hit, “I’ll Take You There.”

Starting in the late 1980s, Mavis recorded the acclaimed solo albums Time Waits for No One and The Voice, both produced by Prince. She appeared in the movie Graffiti Bridge, TV’s The Cosby Show, and sang the theme song to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Her 2004 album, Have a Little Faith, was a Number Five hit on Billboard’s Top Blues Album chart, and 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back charted on each of Billboard’s R&B, Top 200, Gospel, Independent and Internet albums. Her next album, Live: Hope at the Hideout also charted. In recent years she has recorded with Bob Dylan (with whom she was nominated for a 2003 Grammy for “Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals”), Natalie Merchant, John Scofield, Dr. John and Delbert McClinton, among others.

In 1999, the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. With the Staple Singers, Mavis worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was the first black artist to record a Bob Dylan song. She remains an outspoken voice for social justice, and continues to draw on her spirituality for inspiration, as the Staple Singers always did.


Sharon Jones & Mavis Staples albumsElmore: What are you listening to right now?

Sharon Jones:I listen to the radio. As far as strong voices, Jennifer Hudson’s got a very strong voice, Beyonce’s talented all the way around…Jill Scott, Macy Gray, Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys—she has an older mature soulful voice. I don’t even have an iPod yet, I’m embarrassed. It’s gonna have a bunch of old songs.

Mavis Staples: Right now I’m listening to songs for the next CD, demos so I can get familiar with the melody, mostly. I’m not straying too far from that. I do like Jill Scott, John Legend, and Mary J. Blige. I really love Taylor Swift; she sounds so innocent and so pure, and she’s a kid. I listen to Cannonball Adderley, Nina Simone.

EM: What was the first record you ever bought?

SJ: I bought 45s back in the day, but I can remember, with my own money from the first summer job I had, probably the Jackson 5. I got the Supremes and Patti LaBelle way before I bought them; they were out before the Jacksons.

MS: Etta James’ “All I could Do Was Cry.” It was a 45, and I was 15 or 16. I didn’t get a whole lot because I didn’t have a whole lot of money.

EM: Where do you buy your music?

SJ: I don’t buy anything anymore. The record stores are still out there, the vinyl’s still going. Daptone, my record label, we print vinyl. I think we can get more people out there to get more turntables.

MS: There aren’t many record shops. The last CDs I bought were from Target. I got Maxwell, Whitney Houston and the last Prince CD. He’s stopped sending me CDs. My brother will go to Best Buy for me, because it’s out there in the suburbs.

EM: What was the first instrument you played?

SJ: My mother bought one of those those little (humming) “hee, hee, haw” organs they had in the ’60s. I played that and one of those little toy drum sets made out of paper, a trumpet, a bass guitar, and then I got in church, and around 13-14 years old, someone said, “Go play the piano,” and I started playing the piano. I was just listening; I’ve never taken a lesson but that’s how I play anything, you know, by ear.

MS: My father played guitar and I saw a lot of guitarists, but I didn’t know that ladies played guitars back then. I saw Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing that guitar. I mean she was getting down. I told Pops, “Daddy, I want to play guitar.” So he bought me a training guitar, had me cut off my nails and he started trying to teach me. Pops, he never had any lessons or anything, he tried his best. I remember it very well. He tried to make charts for me, and show me where to put my fingers. Back then Pops was a young man, and he was still frisky, and he would get bored. I was about 11 years old.

EM: Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?

SJ: I really just gotta get back into writing some more. I gotta get that inspiration again. You know, over the years, when you’ve been turned down and you think you got something and then someone tells you, “You don’t have it”—and I mean from my early 20s up until I turned 40—you gotta be inspired again. I want to do like a gospel album, and I asked Mavis Staples, told her I want to do something and she said, “Oh, no writing,” but she would love to sing, so maybe we’ll pull out an old gospel classic and do it together, who knows? I know she’s still touring ’cause I met her over the last few years in Europe and at these festivals, but we gotta think about doing that in the next year or so.

MS: I used to write when I was much younger. I got so disappointed. Pops taught me, “Always get 100% of your publishing.” I wrote a couple of songs for a solo album I was doing for Stax. When the record was finished, the big man over the publishing at Stax, he called me and asked for half my publishing of those songs, and I said, “No, I only have two songs on the LP, and I want my full 100% publishing.” He talked to me just like that was going to happen, and when the record came out, those two songs were nowhere to be seen. I was so disappointed. That stopped me from making solo albums over there at Stax, because they didn’t even put my two songs on there, let alone the publishing.

EM: What musician influenced you most?

SJ: My influences was just being born. I was born in ’56 so in the ’60s, you had Motown and Stax so I could just start naming: James Brown, Aretha, the Temptations, the Supremes, the Marvelettes, just on and on. Thank God for Daptone. We would have been lost if Gabe [Roth] hadn’t started doing vinyl, putting out singles, and trying to make people think that they were done back in the day. They stuck to doing that, and that’s why I’m where I’m at now.

MS: Curtis Mayfield, his style of playing, his guitar, and of course my father. He taught me to sing with authority. And to sing plain. “Mavis, make it plain. Make your lyrics plain. People want to know what you’re saying.” And he taught me to be sincere, and to sing from my heart. “If you sing from your heart, you’ll reach the people in the audience, because what comes from the heart reaches the heart. You won’t need any gimmicks, you don’t need to clown, you don’t need to sing at the top of your voice. Sing from your heart.”

He taught me to look at the lyrics, and make the song your own. You picture yourself in it. I do that. When I sing a song, I kind of like see a movie in front of me, what’s happening. Make it so the people know what you’re talking about.

EM: What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?

SJ: When they put that little halo and angel wings on me in church and I did “Silent Night.” I was like between five and eight years old. At church, people were, “Ooh, that little girl can sing!” Vocally, I just knew God had given me that gift ’cause I would sing with the choirs and my voice would be so strong and powerful. Coming up, I used to imitate everyone. My older sister was singing and my other sister and I used to back her up, trying to be the Supremes. I think as kids you should push that. I guess music was in me.

MS: The moment was after our first record, Uncloudy Day, and we started travelling. I planned on singing up to the point where I graduated high school. I felt like I was just singing with my family, and I was enjoying it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do—I wanted to be a nurse. I was always doctoring on people, always finding a way to make them feel better.

We recorded Uncloudy Day on Vee-Jay Records and it was a hit. Vivian Carter called Pops and said, “Staples, this record is selling like an R&B!” With that record, we were making money to the point where my father told my mother, “Ossie, I think me and the children can make a living with this singing.” And she was telling him, “Roebuck, don’t you quit your job!” When I finished high school, Pops said, “OK, we’re going on the road, everybody can quit their job.” I said, “Daddy, I don’t want to do that. I want to go to college. I want to be a nurse!” Pops could always say things to me to make me go forward, if not totally change my mind. He said, “Mavis, you are already a nurse. You heal people through your music. Music is medicine, it’s healing.” I started thinking, OK, you’re a nurse already, and from that point, on, I was a nurse, singing my songs. I was 17 years old.

EM: Who would you like in your rock ‘n’ roll heaven band?

SJ: I’d have to pull a few people back out. Yeah, guitarists man, there’s so many good guitarists gone on, like Jimi Hendrix. James Brown, I would just have loved to been able to do something with him. Sammy’s [Davis Jr.] had his own different style, I would have loved to have met and do some little classical stuff; me and Sammy could have hung out together. Some of the old blues singers and guitar players, even Elvis, I mean Elvis alone. Can you imagine me meeting up with Elvis and doing something?

As far as musicians, you know Rick James, he was a talent, he was just getting himself back together and Boom! And Prince. It was Prince’s 20-somethin’ years of being, whatever, and they had all these indie bands doing covers and we did his song “Take Me With You,” which we did so funky. I want to hear what he has to say, I’m curious. Who knows, maybe he would want to do something?

MS: I would love to sing with Aretha. Aretha and I come from the same church. Not literally. All these years, I’ve been trying to get us together. We did sing together on one of her records. I feel like Aretha and I could really, really sing some songs to bring the world together. Ruthie Foster, I would love to sing with her. Well, Mahalia Jackson, my idol, now that I have grown up, ’cause I sang with her as a kid. I would have loved to sing with Nina Simone.

As far as musicians, I think I’ve had some of the best. I’ve had geniuses. Curtis Mayfield was a genius, Dylan, Prince, Ry Cooder, I’ve had some of the best music under my voice that I could ask for.

Curtis Mayfield’s music was some of the most soulful…you could feel his fingers on his guitar. Bob Dylan, playing some folk songs on a guitar, like “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Ramsey Lewis would be the keyboardist, with Phil Upchurch and Donny Hathaway on bass; they used to play bass for us. Phil’s one I really don’t feel’s gotten his props. And now I need a drummer…Steve Jordan—he’s my guy! Ooh! I forgot John Mayer. That would be it.

EM: What’s your desert island CD?

SJ: Probably a gospel since I’m stranded. I’d be wanting to have something spiritual just be playing around there over and over. There’s so many gospel singers. I’d want a compilation of many different gospel groups, especially old gospel like Shirley Caesar, Dorothy Norwood, you know. I’m being truthful to you.

MS: If I’m stuck on a desert island, I would want Mahalia Jackson with me, because she would sing songs that would lift me, and inspire me to go on. “You can make it on this desert island, Mavis.” She would give me strength to forget about water and food, and go on.

I’d want “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” That song is saying what you would need. “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, and let me stand. I am tired, I am weak and I am worn. Through the storm, and through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, and lead me home.” e

Got something to say?

4 Responses