I’ve been on a journey with Mavis.
Mavis is Mavis Staples. Is there any other? She’s 76 year-old gospel and soul singer and all around purveyor of good vibrations. She was the youngest daughter and singer in the Staples Singers a gospel group lead by the patriarch, Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Their music and presence was an instrumental part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s performing at many of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speeches.
The good news of their gospel, heavily influenced by Mississippi delta blues and soul, included the liberation and freedom from oppression of all people. The Staples Singers repertoire eventually expanded beyond pure gospel to more soul and r&b music, but always with a positive, and uplifting message. Mavis’ solo career has continued with music that matches her positive and hopeful spirit. Her music continues her “march up freedom’s highway.”
While I feel like I’ve always been aware of Mavis, I took particular notice of her with the release of her 2010 album “You are Not Alone.” This album drew me in to her voice and her charm. As good as that album is, I was even more drawn to her previous album with Ry Cooder “We’ll Never Turn Back.” Something about that that music and that voice found a Mavis shaped home in my soul.
Mavis has a wonderfully rich low voice. She’s had it since she was a teen. Like an overdriven guitar amp, her voice moves from a low rumble to a thick and warm tenor. There are times when she sings what feels like it’s a hug from the divine.
I remember watching an online video of Mavis when she was touring with Billy Bragg. She called Billy onto the stage and then greeted him with a big hug. A switch suddenly went on in my heart: “I want a hug from Mavis.” What should have just been a fleeting thought stuck with me, “I want a hug from Mavis Staples.”
Having a “bucket list” was never something I considered, but after that moment I started telling people that the only thing on my bucket list was a hug from Mavis. I said it with no real expectation of accomplishing this, and no plan on how to accomplish it. I just liked thinking about the idea of hugging Mavis, and liked the image of me it created for others.
My wife and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary and jumped at the chance to celebrate by seeing Mavis in concert at the Kalamazoo Community College. We decided o make a special outing of it by staying overnight at a nearby hotel.
The concert was everything I expected. Mavis was as much the beautiful soul that I expected. She sang, told stories both funny and serious, laughed, and exuded warmth. As a hobby guitarist I’m also a fan of her guitarist, Rick Holmstrom, and was pleased to be close enough to watch him in action. It was a glorious evening and I returned to the hotel aglow.
The next morning I made my way to grab my complimentary hotel breakfast of a bagel, yogurt, fruit and coffee. As I sat down I looked across the table and saw a gentleman. I was certain, mostly, he was one of last night’s backup singers. As he stood up I excused myself and asked if he was a backup singer for Mavis Staples. Yes he was. I thanked him for the wonderful show. He smiled and said, “Yeah, it was a good audience last night.” And went to dispose of his dishes. “Mavis may be in the house” immediately raced through my mind.
A few giddy minutes later my wife joined me and I told her of my encounter. She then spoke up, “There’s the guitarist.” I looked over, saw him in the breakfast area, and without a pause I immediately walked up to him. “Excuse me, Rick Holmstrom?” “Yes?”
I thanked him for the wonderful show and how inspired I was by his guitar playing. I told him I appreciated how his playing paid homage to Pops Staples, but was still his own. We talked a bit about guitar gear and he seemed genuinely please at my words of appreciation.
I returned to my seat and “debriefed” with June, when she suddenly blurted “There she is. She’s leaving. Go, Kev.”
I looked up and saw her nearing the exit. “No” I said.
“Go” she insisted.
So, there I went, briskly walking out the door calling “Ms. Staples, Ms Staples.”
She was standing at the open door of her car and looked my way. Her assistant said “It’s cold, she needs to get in the car.” So she sat in the back seat but left the door open for me to approach.
I said “Ms. Staples, thanks so much for the show last night and I just want to thank you for a lifetime of singing the good news.” Then I added. “You know how people have bucket lists? Things people want to do before they die?”
“Bucket lists. Yeah.” She replied seeming a little bit puzzled about where this guy was going.
“Well, I only have one thing on my bucket list and that is a hug from Mavis Staples.” She showed her big smile, threw her arms wide and I leaned into the car for a big hug from Mavis. As I pulled back she added “I hope that takes your there.”
“Oh yes it does. Thank you so much.” And off I went.
Any moment the following week when I wasn’t giving attention to something else, I was relishing in the high of that weekend. I’m still not certain why this idea of a hug from Mavis became such a significant. I am just so grateful to be on the receiving end of her hope and faith-filled generosity.