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Posted on Fri. Aug. 22, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Singer still stirring the soul

Mavis Staples draws on youth in new musical ventures

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Gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples can still take you there.

Her voice, known for its raspy and soulful tone, is going strong after 60 years because she's been careful with it – although she admits her voice is hard to tame when she gets excited.

And with fans of all ages, there's plenty to be excited about.

“I'm an old soul – well, I'm old, too, but I can hang with the young ones,” she says, laughing.

Staples will perform at Foellinger Theatre on Saturday with a set list that takes fans from her gospel beginnings with the Staple Singers to her most recent solo effort, “One True Vine.”

“We have audiences from 8 to 80, and I just love it. We've gone through six generations, so to look out and see the young faces with the old ones, it's just beautiful,” she says from her home in Chicago. It's a short sabbatical for the 75-year-old after her European tour this summer.

“The younger kids are looking for what they've seen on YouTube, and then the flower children are still coming out after all these years – I can always spot the old hippies.”

The youngest of four, Staples began singing at a young age with her sisters and musician father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples. With Staples' mother dying while she was very young, Pops decided to move the family from Mississippi to Chicago for a factory job. He also joined a gospel quartet.

Frustrated with the band by the late 1940s, he decided to bring his girls into the act. Staples was 10 years old when her family found success on the Chicago church scene, signing their first record deal in 1953.

Although gospel in origin, the group has never been one for labels. By the '60s, the Staple Singers were known for their civil rights anthems, including “March Up Freedom's Highway,” “Washington We're Watching You” and “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” in honor of the Little Rock Nine.

Commercial R&B success would come in the 1970s, with No. 1 hits including “I'll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” and again in the '80s with a cover of Talking Heads' “Slippery People.”

Pops Staples died in 2000 after suffering from a concussion; his death was followed by that of Staples' sister, Cleotha, in 2013 after battling Alzheimer's for a decade.

“My father told songwriters years ago, don't cater to us. We sing music, we sing songs. Anything that's positive, informative and inspirational. That's what we do. I'm grateful for that. Pops would let the writers know, if you want to write songs for us, read the headlines,” she says.

Staples has also carried on a solo career since 1969, where she has been able to embrace rock, funk, gospel, jazz and R&B without being boxed into one genre.

Her most interesting collaboration to date has been with songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy, who is also the frontman of rock band Wilco.

Their first collaboration for 2010's “You Are Not Alone” is a mosaic of gospel and folk music, which brought Staples her first Grammy for best Americana album. The two met up again for Staples' darker, more resonant “One True Vine” in 2013.

“Tweedy was a challenge for me, and I like a challenge. When he came with 'One True Vine,' I did want to ask what he was talking about, so I just listened and figured it out. When I figured it out, I just lit up. I was so anxious to get in the studio and put it down,” she says.

“He's a beautiful person, and those songs help me on my way. I'm human and I need this, too. I'm still in the place where Pops put me – I like to sing songs that give you a reason to get up in the morning. I still want to sing songs that are meaningful, that tell a story.”

Looking to release a new project in the future, Staples says she has picked a few songs that she would like to record. She also continues to write, but she admits it doesn't come as easily as it used to. That's why she enjoys collaborating with musicians she finds exciting.

She certainly had fans talking this month when she tried her hand at hip-hop with the song “Give We The Pride” with former Public Enemy MC Chuck D.

“I'm all over the place, but it keeps it fun, and it keeps it interesting for me,” she says. “I just did a song with Chuck D. It's beautiful, it turned out great, and it's still what I sing about – it's about pride. As long as I'm not getting away from what I'm about and what my family was about, it's fun.”

So can we expect more hip-hop on the next album?

The question makes her erupt in a bout of laughter.

“Maybe if Snoop Dogg has a song, but it has to be positive,” she says.

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