*With all the world watching as Janet Jackson makes her chains-breaking return to the stage dancing free of Muslim law restriction, Rihanna launches her wildly successful Fenty Beauty make-up brand and Beyoncé turns the birthing of twins into a goddess act of Madonna proportions, it is more necessary than ever to acknowledge our African American soul singer queens that are still out here raising plenty of sand doing what we expect most of them: SANG!
That’s precisely what Chicago Gospel-Soul maven Mavis Staples and her piano-less trio did in a plum opening slot for English rocker Steve Winwood at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, September 13. (Note: The previous time Staples played Los Angeles, she was opening for Bob Dylan).
At the Bowl, Mavis delighted the audience and her pint-size self with a top hits survey of songs that spanned her wide sphere of influence.
We’re talking “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” – bone and marrow soul classics she made famous with her daddy, Roebuck “Pops” Staples and her sisters in The Staple Singers – the quartet’s surprise cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” the pained soul spiritual “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” (recently rerecorded by Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater in her back-to-her-birthplace Soul Music excavation Memphis…Yes, I’m Ready) and, most impressively, the title track of a forthcoming album entitled If All I Was Was Black (in-stores 11/17)- proof positive that Mavis is still serving up soul food for thought in heaping high portions.
And when she pulled the mic away from her mouth and sang for just under a minute to the sprawling outdoor theater sans amplification, she also made it crystal clear that she can still raise up a whole lot of sand. Sister Mavis, we salute you.
Two weeks later on Thursday, September 28 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Detroit’s own R&B lioness Bettye LaVette feistily took the stage steppin’ and shimmyin’ in a black jumpsuit with buttons up the front of the legs – half of them undone – as sole billed headliner of her own show…and had no problem letting it be known who was running said show!
She stopped her quartet of keys, guitar, bass and drums a couple of times to start songs over at the tempo she required – with humor yet firmness. Though one would be hard-pressed to call any of LaVette’s songs “hits” in the chart-scaling Billboard magazine sense of the word, her material is nevertheless custom-tailored to suit her aching alto. These numbers swung from a tear your heart out take on “Nights in White Satin” to Lucinda Williams’ infectious “Joy,” and her a cappella encore of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”
Recently honored with two Grammy nominations and the honor of a Pioneer Award from The Rhythm and Blues Foundation and a W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for “Comeback Blues Album of The Year,” LaVette is a singer hard to pin down to any box or category except maybe soul scorcher. She also co-authored (with David Ritz) one of the leanest meanest tell all autobiographies in music, 2012’s A Woman Like Me – the same year as her 50th anniversary of music making.
And she don’t stop. From The Broad Stage, Bettye announced she will have a new album in 2018 inaugurating a new label affiliation with Verve/Universal.
So, the next time you think roof-raising soul music packed up and left town when Tina Turner married and retired to the French Riviera, check in on your sisters Mavis and Bettye. They’re still going strong!
A. Scott Galloway covers music and culture from his post in Southern California. Contact him via: [email protected]