With a big, soulful voice that left audiences awestruck for several decades, the name Mavis Staples came to signify gospel music. Born in Philadelphia and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Staples's music career started in the early 1950s when she, her father, and three older siblings, began performing gospel songs at local churches throughout Chicago. They called themselves the Staple Singers, and by the late 1950s the family group had scored a recording contract, as well as a hit song, "Uncloudy Day." After a chance meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, the family devoted their act to more topical material, with songs like "March Up Freedom's Highway" and "It's A Long Walk to D.C." becoming anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to maintaining a regular touring schedule with her family, Staples also released several solo albums throughout her career, including the Grammy Award-winning You Are Not Alone. Although she had been nominated a few times prior, it was the 72-year-old singer's first Grammy, lending even further credence to her already cemented status as one of the most transformative voices in American popular music.
Staples's love of music was passed down to her by father Roebuck, who went by the name "Pops." Pops played guitar and sang in a gospel quartet, but grew frustrated with his fellow bandmates for their lack of seriousness. Mavis was only eight years old when her father gathered her and her three older siblings into the family's living room to inform them that they were his new bandmates. The Staple Singers soon began performing gospel songs at churches all across Chicago. In 1953 the group signed with the Chicago-based gospel label, Vee-Jay Records. Since Mavis was the youngest member of the group, the family decided to wait until she graduated from high school before they took their act on the road full-time. Mavis turned 18 in 1957, which was also the same year the group recorded their first major hit for Vee-Jay, "Uncloudy Day." More hits followed, including "This May Be the Last Time," a version of which was later recorded by the Rolling Stones.
The early 1960s saw a dramatic shift in the type of songs Mavis and her family began to record, which was ignited by a post-concert meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Almost immediately, the Staple Singers moved away from the soulful gospel songs of their earlier years, and started recording material that was imbued with the forward-thinking themes of the Civil Rights Movement. Songs like "Why Am I Treated So Bad" and "Washington We're Watching You" were transfixed in the moment and powerful. By the early 1970s, the tide that had sparked the Civil Rights Movement had largely passed, and another shift in direction, into pop-oriented soul, gave rise to the Staple Singers' most commercially successful period.
After the release of her self-titled debut solo album in 1969, the first half of the 1970s saw Mavis and her family record eight Top 40 hits, including the soulful classics "I'll Take You There," "Respect Yourself," and "Let's Do It Again," thus catapulting the Staple Singers into chart-topping superstars. Their music fell out of favor in the late '70s, as new genres like disco and punk started receiving heavy airplay on radio stations and in clubs across the country. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Mavis continued dividing her time between touring with the Staple Singers, and recording solo albums. But despite glowing reviews from critics, none of her solo albums from this era were a commercial success. In 2004, however, four years after the death of her father, Mavis Staples released the bluesy gospel album Have A Little Faith. The album marked a late career resurgence for Mavis Staples, which reached a highpoint in early 2011 after she won a Grammy Award for Best Americana Album with You Are Not Alone. In 2013, Staples reteamed with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who produced You Are Not Alone, to record her 13th studio album One True Vine. The album was released to rave reviews in June of that year.