Mavis Staples reigns as a gospel-soul icon. Yet the 76-year-old singer continues to embrace opportunities to collaborate with younger musicians.
She’s enlisted such producers as Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who guided her Grammy-winning 2010 album You Are Not Alone, and hip-hop savant Son Little, who joins her on her recent EP Your Good Fortune. She sang alongside Tweedy, Lucius and Lake Street Dive at 2014’s Newport Folk Festival. And on September’s debut of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, she led a largely young cast that included Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard through Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.”
So it’s not surprising that Staples has teamed with Joan Osborne for the Solid Soul tour that hits the Berklee Performance Center on Nov. 7. “I’m up for trying new things,” says the Chicago native, who toured with the North Mississippi Allstars on a Solid Blues bill in 2007. “I’ve been working since the ’50s, but feel young though. And these partnerships keep me that way. It keeps it fresh.”
Staples grew up with collaboration as a member of the Staple Singers, a church-bred family group that she shared with her siblings and her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples. He befriended the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the group gave a musical voice to the civil rights movement of the ’60s. “That’s what the Staple Singers have always been about, singing songs of inspiration, being informative and positive,” Staples says. “We want to give you a reason to get up in the morning—something that can help the world and help the people.”
Staples says she tries to uphold that legacy as a solo artist and cites her father’s words: “What comes from the heart reaches the heart. So if you sing from your heart, you will reach people.”
Osborne was one of those people. She recalls driving home to Kentucky from her college in New York and hitting a truck stop where she bought a cassette tape of the Staple Singers’ early gospel music. “It had this ethereal, hypnotic quality to it,” Osborne, 53, says from her Brooklyn home. “Driving through the night on these twisting roads in West Virginia with the music on, it was like being in a trance.”
Now Osborne gets to sing with her hero. After separate sets backed by Staples’ band, the two singers unite—usually for Staple Singers classics or standards such as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” or the Band’s “The Weight,” which Staples famously sang in the concert film The Last Waltz.
“It’s just been a joy,” Osborne says of working with Staples. “She’s like a force of nature. She gets out there and rocks the house every night.” And the admiration is mutual. “Oh, we have been having big fun,” Staples says. “Joan is my soul sister.”
Osborne also has traversed blues, rock, pop and country across her career, which now includes the band Trigger Hippy with Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman. She’s still best known for her 1995 hit “One of Us” (featuring the lyric “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us”) and sings it every night to fulfill audience expectations. “If you’re going to have one pop song to be identified with, that’s a pretty interesting one,” she says. “It’s better than a shake-your-groove thing.”
For her part, Staples still performs Staple Singers favorites “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” And she again quotes her father’s advice: “You don’t need to dance and jump around or sing as loud as you can,” an easy proposition with a husky, instantly recognizable voice like hers.
“I’ve always had a heavy voice,” Staples says, noting that back in the ’50s, “People would actually bet money that the part wasn’t no 15-year-old girl. That either had to be a man or a fat lady. Now my voice is still strong, I think, as I am singing in a lower key. But I do need to rest my voice after flying or on the day of a show. And I drink my tea and use honey loquat too—especially in Boston, where it’s cold!”
Celebrity Series brings Solid Soul: Mavis Staples and Joan Osborne to the Berklee Performance Center on Nov. 7.