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Mavis Staples shares her Chicago memories

The gospel giant once sneaked secular music through a blues club’s door.

Beginning in the late ’40s, guitar-playing stockyard worker Roebuck “Pops” Staples would bring his children, including youngest daughter Mavis, to South and West Side churches to perform gospel music as the Staple Singers. Though Mavis, 71 and still a South Side resident, has come a long way (the group became R&B superstars in the ’70s and last year she released the Grammy-winning, Jeff Tweedy–produced solo album You Are Not Alone), she fondly recalls her days jumping double Dutch in the vacant lots near 33rd and Rhodes, a section of Bronzeville once known to residents as the “Dirty Thirties.”

On riding with Lou Rawls
“I grew up on 33rd Street. My neighbors were Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls; all of us went to Doolittle Grammar School. When we lived in the ‘Dirty Thirties,’ I was fortunate enough to see the horses and wagons…the iceman, the coalman, the ragman. They would each have their own songs. My brother and Sam Cooke would work on the watermelon man’s wagon and they would sing a song like, ‘H-e-e-y-y-y watermelon here, get your red, ripe, juicy watermelon, man.’ ”

On sneaking peeks of the blues
“Then we moved to the West Side, 14th and Ashland. Over by Maxwell Street is where we would go shopping and get Polish sausages and pork chop sandwiches—all of that’s gone now. My sisters and my brother and I, we would sneak down to 12th Street and peep in the cracks and see the blues singers at the club [most likely Club Zanzibar]. We could actually peep through certain cracks in the door and you’d see Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and those guys. Pops didn’t have secular music in the home—we couldn’t even have cards in the house—so peeking in that club was the first time I heard the blues.”

On purse-tossing church ladies
“My good times were in church seeing gospel singers that came in town, like the Blind Boys, Dixie Hummingbirds, the Davis Sisters—I remember noticing Ruth Davis had a heavy voice like me. If it was a package, three or four groups, churches would have it at DuSable High School. I would love to see the church ladies jump up and shout; when they got happy, sometimes they would throw their pocketbooks!”

On the Bible as backup
“When we started playing, the ministers wouldn’t let Pops in some of their churches with his guitar, and he had to show them in the Bible where it says, ‘Praise Him with strings’ so they had to back off. It used to be that the church would raise an offering and you would split the offering with the minister; I think the very first money we made was $7. When we started making records, we were what was called professional singers, so they would sell tickets to see us. Chicago was good for what we did because of all of the churches—storefront churches, big churches—Chicago had more churches than anyplace!”

On the world’s best music city
“I consider Chicago the best music city in the world because we have it all. Chicago is the home of the blues, the home of gospel…we had the Caravans, the Soul Stirrers! For R&B we had Curtis Mayfield, the Chi-Lites. People come from Europe, from all over, going down to Buddy Guy’s, hearing music at Millennium Park. We have folk singers, we even have country singers…you can go over to FitzGerald’s and hear any kind of music, you can’t beat it! Chicago is the music city.”

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