According to Rolling Stone magazine, "Mavis Staples is the most underrated diva of the century."
The soul and gospel legend began her long-running musical career in the '50s. And she's still performing today. Her first solo album was released in 1969, and in 2007, 38 years later, she's just released We'll Never Turn Back, a tribute to the long struggle for civil rights in America.
Ry Cooder, a personal all-time favorite, produced Staples' newest CD, which features spirituals such as "This Little Light of Mine" and "Jesus is on the Main Line" together with protest songs like "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "99 and ½."
Since learning Staples had worked with Cooder on this album, I'd been looking forward to hearing it. Staples' distinctive vocals coupled with Cooder's able production and skillful guitar playing would surely produce an instant classic.
That was not my impression on my first listen, however. The songs I was most looking forward to didn't excite me the way I expected. Staples stays true to her roots. She sings traditional songs in a traditional style while I was hoping for something more polished. Cooder's guitar work is present in a few songs, but always understated. Only on "We'll Never Turn Back" does his skill on the strings shine through. When I returned to the CD later, though, my reaction differed.
Upon revisiting this CD, I started to see that it would fit alongside any other early '60s soul/gospel release. Much of that is due to Staples' affection for the music she grew up with. And Cooder, a modern-day musicologist, knows better than to mess with that.
This is really a concept album, music with a message. Maybe I just don't have a strong enough understanding of Staples' genre of early '60s music to really appreciate the sounds that permeate this CD. Staples can, however, sing convincingly on what she herself lived through as she does in "My Own Eyes," one of two original tunes written for this release. It's work like this that help Staples earn her "underrated diva" designation. She's so focused on being a driving force for social change that her music may not be easily accessible to a younger generation of music fans. Subsequent listening showed that my tepid initial reaction was my problem, not hers.
She's got her priorities right. What she's singing for, fighting for, hoping for is more important than my reaction. I guess that's just the way it is with divas.