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Son Little: Five Essential Mavis Staples Albums

Son Little (photo by Marc Lemoine, PR)

Son Little (photo by Marc Lemoine, PR)

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In the spring of 2015 Mavis Staples, this week's FUV Essentials artist, released the gem Your Good Fortune, an uplifting four-song EP produced by Son Little. It was an inspired collaboration between the mighty soul and gospel legend and Little, a fast-rising singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer who would eventually release his eponymous debut album later that autumn. Little's second album, New Magic, is now on its way, released via ANTI- on September 15.

Your Good Fortune offered two covers, by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Pops "Roebuck" Staples, songs that were already part of the Staple Singers' august canon, and two Little-penned originals, the title track and "Fight." The EP was a magnificent gesture of cross-generational understanding, intuition and admiration — and Little found himself with a Grammy for his work with Staples on her stirring version of Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean."

"Seemed like we were a team made in heaven," said Staples at the time and Little concurred: "Standing in the studio, holding her hand, I watched as each time she began a take. Everyone in the room jumped when we heard her voice. Chills. A metaphysical experience every time.”

Little, real name Aaron Livingston, has long revered the music of Staples and her family. The Philadelphia-born son of a preacher, he deeply appreciates the Staple Singers' bridge between the secular and the spiritual — something that's evident in his choices of these Mavis Staples and Staple Singers "Five Essential Albums" for FUV.

Son Little: Five Essential Mavis Staples/The Staple Singers Albums:

How do you pick five favorite songs or albums from someone who's career spans almost 70 years? Honestly, I don't know, but I gave it a shot. Full disclosure: this game is rigged. Mavis is not only one of my favorite singers, but one of my favorite collaborators on record. She is also the brightest star in the family band I think of as American music royalty, the Staple Singers. She is gospel, folk, blues, protest, R&B, and funk all rolled into a tiny package.

She's also got a voice that'll punch you right in the gut — in a good way. I couldn't help but make this a mash-up of Mavis's solo stuff and her work with the Staple Singers because, well, that's just who she is. Here's my five favorite Mavis Staples and Staple Singers albums.

Mavis Staples, Only For The Lonely (1970)
For all the attention and accolades she receives, I still feel like Mavis is underrated. As a solo artist, she never really got star treatment like some of her contemporaries had. This record from 1970 is an overlooked gem from Mavis's solo career. If "It Makes Me Wanna Cry" doesn't kinda make you wanna cry, something is wrong with you.

Mavis Staples, One True Vine (2013)
Mavis's records with Jeff Tweedy won her a lot of new fans, and energized die-hard fans (like me). Mavis and Tweedy really hit their stride on this one, her band sounds great on it, and they even cover "Can You Get To That" by another one of my favorite bands, Funkadelic. And of course, the title track is just beautiful.

The Staple Singers, Hammer and Nails (reissue of 1962 release)
The second time Mavis and her family changed my life, I was spending an afternoon digging through crates of records at Princeton Record Exchange (world's greatest record store), and I came across the Staple Singers. You could tell by the photo that it predated their '70s Stax hits and I'd never heard anything else they'd done. So naturally, I bought it and went home to check it out. What I heard was the rawest, toughest, most exuberant, soulful gospel music I've ever heard. Almost immediately I realized Mavis and Pops were two of my favorite singers (and Pops one of my favorite guitar players).

If you want to understand the essence of Mavis Staples, listen to this record. Actually this record is pretty rare, I think. Some of the songs were reissued later with the album title Hammer and Nails.

Mavis Staples, Your Good Fortune EP (2015)
And of course it would be unnatural for me to make a list of my favorite Mavis stuff without mentioning the EP I produced for her, Your Good Fortune. Naturally, this was the third time Mavis changed my life. I was pretty nervous at the start of the project, especially considering her previous producers were Tweedy, Prince and Curtis Mayfield (no pressure at all). I soon found out that Mavis makes everything easier with her ultra-positive energy and incredible talent. I tried to create a musical environment that felt fresh, but also touched on all the cool sounds from her past. I think I did alright. And the title track is one of the songs I'm most proud to have written.

The Staple Singers, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (1972)
OK, let's address the elephant(s) in the room: "I'll Take You There" and the song that introduced me to Mavis and the Staple Singers, "Respect Yourself." From the bass/electric piano intro on down to the last chorus where Mavis really lays into it, you can just feel that famous Muscle Shoals and FAME studios vibe getting under your skin. And Pops' first verse is maybe the smoothest thing ever sung on wax. This was the first time Mavis and the Staple Singers changed my life.

- Son Little
July 2017

Son Little will be part of Brooklyn's Afropunk festival on August 27.

Read all of FUV's Five Essential Albums and Songs.

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