The Gospel of Mavis

With a little help from Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples returns to her soulful, spiritual roots

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CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 6: Mavis Staples performs as part of Lollapalooza 2010 at Grant Park on August 6, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.

Mavis Staples' walls don't have to talk. The photos and mementos that line her tidy apartment on Chicago's South Shore are one long tribute to the varied career of one of the world's mightiest gospel pop singers. Brittle branches in a flowerpot remind her of the time her grandmother flayed young Mavis' legs after she sang a pop song — the devil's music — at a school talent show. A painted portrait of the Staple Singers, along with gold records for their two biggest hits, "I'll Take You There" and "Let's Do It Again," recall her five decades in the family group whose silky gospel strains energized folk festivals, dance clubs and the pop charts. A photograph of Bob Dylan brings back memories of the time in the '60s when, according to Staples, he asked her to marry him. ("I was thinking, What would Dr. King think if I married a white man?") A tambourine adorned with Prince's now abandoned unpronounceable symbol recalls her failed comeback attempt on his Paisley Park label, while a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award attests to her endurance.

Staples' most recent souvenirs sit on her kitchen counter: six small toy figurines of the members of alt-country band Wilco. "I saw these at the studio, and I said, 'I want these!'" the compact 71-year-old exclaims. This month, Staples will release her 13th solo album, You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy. It's a project that's been in the works since 2007, when the artists' managers flashed on the idea of having them collaborate. Tweedy, a fellow Chicagoan, had been a fan of the Staple Singers (the s was dropped to make the group's name more easily enunciable) since he heard their music at the record store in which he worked in the '80s. Roebuck "Pops" Staples, a Chicago construction worker, started the group with his three daughters and one son in 1948. On the back of his bluesy, fluttery guitar and youngest daughter Mavis' throaty exhortations, the Staples rebooted gospel music with covers of Dylan and Buffalo Springfield, funkier rhythms (they signed with the Memphis soul label Stax in 1970) and atypically glamorous attire. "Most gospel singers wore robes," Staples proudly recalls. "My sisters and I wore long gowns."

Tweedy's idea was to take Staples back to her roots. "My favorite records of theirs are still the ones where it's just her father's guitar and her family," he says. "I wanted to get as close to that as we could. If you've got a voice like Mavis has, I don't know what else you need to do."

Staples, who'd heard Wilco on the radio and says they reminded her of the Band (with whom the Staple Singers performed on The Last Waltz), didn't need convincing. Tweedy assembled a blue-chip mix of material: obscure gospel songs, Staple Singers classics, Little Milton's 1965 tough-times hit "We're Gonna Make It" and a handful of tracks by Randy Newman, John Fogerty and Tweedy himself. He then set them to pared-down arrangements, from intimate folk to gritty R&B, that recall the way the Staples family made gospel music funky, welcoming and universal. Add in Staples' voice — a grainier, lived-in but still commanding version of her husky growl — and the result is an album that stands with the best music she has ever made.

The Staples' hits ended with the advent of disco ("The word was right — it was disco-nnected from everything," Mavis says), and her life since has been a bumpy ride: a divorce from her husband, in 1973, followed by the collapse of Stax and a slump so bad that Pops enrolled his daughters at Second City, Chicago's renowned improv troupe to broaden their career options. The two albums Staples recorded under Prince's supervision (in 1989 and 1993) failed to make the charts. After her lowest moment — the death of her beloved Pops in 2000, from a heart attack — she finally began recording again. In 2006, Staples signed to Anti-, the indie label home to salty vets like Tom Waits and feisty newcomers like Neko Case; her first album for the imprint, 2007's collection of civil rights anthems We'll Never Turn Back, was heralded as one of the best albums of the year by the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

Staples knows that much of the civil rights struggle is over. Whites in hotels no longer tell her or her sisters they need towels ("My sister Cleotha would say, 'Well, I do too!'"), and she marvels at the sight of a black President who attended her church in Chicago. But the Tea Party movement is an unpleasant reminder of the past ("I see the '60s all over again," she sighs), and time has ravaged her family. Her voice still lowers when she talks about Pops; Cleotha, stricken with Alzheimer's, lives next door. (Her other sister, Yvonne, 74, sings backup in Staples' band.) You Are Not Alone doesn't have an overt theme like We'll Never Turn Back does, but her hardships imbue heaven-turned spirituals like "In Christ There Is No East or West" and "I Belong to the Band — Hallelujah." At first, Tweedy says, she struggled with Randy Newman's "Losing You," thinking it was about a romantic relationship: "I said, 'Every time I talk to you, you talk about your dad. He's obviously a big presence in your life every day.'" After that, Staples nailed it. "She feels every word she sings," Tweedy says.

Her Baptist faith and passion for music continue to fuel her. Last month, Staples performed at Chicago's Lollapalooza festival as part of a bill with indie rockers the Black Keys and the New Pornographers. Her only regret: missing Lady Gaga, who played later that night. "She just cracks me up," Staples says. "I want to see what she's gonna do next. And," she adds, "she can sing!" It's not hard to imagine a photo of the two women as the next keepsake on that living-room wall.

This article originally appeared in the September 27, 2010 issue of Time magazine.