‘We Butt Heads Like Hell’: Fathers, Their Children, and the Music They Make
Mavis Staples, Kevin Saunderson, Merle Haggard, and Justin Townes Earle share memories and insights
When did you first start singing with Pops?
The first my father started us singing and in 1949 and 1950, probably long before you were born. My father was singing with an all-male group, and these guys wouldn’t come to rehearsal so he got so disgusted. He went to rehearsal and there would be two, sometimes three (there were six guys in the group). Pops would be so disgusted. The last time he came home, he went into the closet and pulled out a little guitar he had bought at the pawn shop. The guitar didn’t even have all the strings on it, but Pops could make it sound good. He called us children into the living room, sat us on the floor in a circle, and told us we’re going to sing. He began teaching us to sing in voices that he and his brothers and sisters would sing in Mississippi, and when they heard our first record, they thought we were much older. We were kids!
My aunt Katie lived with us and one night, we were rehearsing, and she came through and she said, “Shucks, y’all sound pretty good. I believe I want you to sing at my church Sunday.” So we went to aunt Katie’s church that Sunday and we sang “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” That started our singing career.
It must have been something to learn how to make music from your dad, and then put out his posthumous album [Don’t Lose This]. It seems kind of like a role reversal.
I feel like my father started this and I wouldn’t dare try to stop unless the Lord stopped me, if I lost my voice or something. My father was always a hands-on father. When we were little kids, before we started singing, Pops would take us to movies on Saturdays and take us to Sunday school. We would always wait in line to get his peanut brittle [laughs], and he would make us popcorn balls. He would take us riding in the car.
When my father had gotten sick, my sisters and I moved to his house to take to care of him. While we were there we decided to make the last record for the Staples Singers. We thought Pops should make this record. He’d say, “Mavis, book this studio.” I’d book the studio, and when we’d get ready to go, he’d go, “Mavis, you call and cancel that. I can’t make it today, I don’t feel good.” Then sometimes we would get to the studio and he’d have to lie on the couch. But we finally finished it and Pops called me one evening and said, “Mavis, bring the music up here. I want to hear it.” After a while, when I felt like it had played all the way, I went back and I said “How you like it, Pops?” He said, “Mavis, don’t lose this.” I said “I won’t lose it, Dad.”
Yes! In fact, I was instrumental in them being together. Spencer’s mother didn’t want him to stay because he was going to college. We were all sitting there, and Spencer wanted to go tour with his father, and Susan said, “No, you have to go to school.” And I said, “Oh Susan, he can go back to school at any time. This is a chance for father and son to bond.” I didn’t have a big part in it, but I’m glad I spoke up right there. She said, “Well, okay, I’ll think about it.” I wouldn’t say the Staple Singers are the cause of it because Spencer’s been a musician since he was a tot. They had some tapes on him of beating drums when he was four or five years old. It’s a good omen that it did happen. We’re all family. The beat goes on!
So when you went on tour with Pops, did your mom not want you to go on tour with him?
My mother gave us to Pops because he loved being with his children. Back in the day, it was very seldom that a father just wanted be around their children. When we went on the road my father would have his room right next door to ours so he could watch over us. My mother would stay home and pray. She was our spiritual guidance. She was the best cook in the world. Different artists would come to Chicago, and they would call my mother and request what they wanted for dinner. Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin — brother Ray Charles, he loved her sweet potato pie. But my mom, you don’t want to hear her sing. I never heard anybody sing so off-key as my mother.