For the Love of Mavis

Three May shows, including a date at the Ryman, honor legendary singer Mavis Staples

Photo: Chris Strong

Mavis Staples is celebrating her eightieth birthday this July, and she appears to have no plans of slowing down. One of music’s most iconic voices, the singer continues to tour (including several dates in the South), and in May, three special performances will commemorate her lasting impact on music. Titled “Mavis & Friends: Celebrating 80 Years of Mavis Staples,” the trio of Newport Folk–produced concerts will take place in New York (May 9 at the Apollo Theater), Nashville (May 15 at the Ryman Auditorium), and Los Angeles (May 22 at the Theatre at Ace Hotel).Tickets for all three go on sale today, February 15, at 1 p.m. Eastern. At each, Staples will perform with a slate of special guests, still under wraps for now. “You’ll see young and old, legends and up-and-comers,” says Newport’s marketing and creative director, Christopher Capotosto. “It’ll be a complete mix of incredible musicians coming together to celebrate Mavis.” 

The Chicago native got her start in 1950 as the lead vocalist of the Staple Singers, a gospel outfit with her father and sisters. The Singers soon became a key musical voice in the Civil Rights movement, elevating them to national prominence. Staples made her debut as a solo artist in the late sixties and has since released more than a dozen albums while working with everyone from Bob Dylan to Prince to Jeff Tweedy. Just last week, she released Live in London, a collection of songs recorded over two nights at London’s Union Chapel, and her voice and spirit remain as powerful as ever.

Proceeds from the three May concerts will support the Newport Festivals Foundation, which in addition to putting on the annual Rhode Island music fest, works to further music education across the country. Funds from the shows will benefit a number of education initiatives in each city, helping provide the next generation of musicians with a strong foundation.

For Staples, things have come full circle—she has long been a fixture at folk festivals, and Newport was the first she ever played, as part of the Staple Singers in 1963. “There’s a lot of love between Newport and Mavis,” Capotosto says. “She has such a long history with the festival. When Mavis comes back, it’s like she comes home.” And the feeling is mutual. In a statement about the upcoming concerts, Staples says, “I must be the happiest girl in the world. After all this time, I still do what I love. I never thought I would still be singing at my age, and people seem to really want to hear me. They know me. They give me love.”