“Soul to Soul” is the documentary that keeps on giving. A generation after the 1971 movie was shown in theaters, it had a transforming effect on Prince.
In 1987, LaBelle singer Nona Hendryx recorded one of Prince’s songs, “Baby Go-Go.” The backing vocals in particular made Prince’s ears dance. “That’s Mavis Staples? Wow!” he thought. He wasn’t unfamiliar with the Staple Singers, but they’d been off the radar for a decade. Now he was inspired to dig back into their career to listen to and watch whatever he could find on the veteran gospel-soul group.
Prince dug up a copy of the “Soul to Soul” movie, primarily to see what, if anything, the documentary might have on the Staple Singers’ performance at that epic 1971 festival in Ghana. He got more than he bargained for.
At the time, the Staples had risen from the gospel circuit to become civil-rights icons and soulful message-music ambassadors with hits such as “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” As they took the stage in Ghana on March 6, 1971, they were the epitome of African-American cool, with Pops in the role of a dapper village elder, black horn-rimmed glasses framed by gray hair and sideburns. His daughters — Mavis, Yvonne and Cleo — embodied Aquarian hipness in blue, red and purple tie-dye dresses, with aqua-blue eye shadow and glorious Afros. The group’s songbook was tailor-made for this moment, and its set connected the struggles it had experienced firsthand in the American Civil Rights Movement with Ghana’s ongoing fight for freedom in its rocky post-colonial era.
The Staples roll into “When Will We Be Paid,” and the final verse becomes a shared commentary on not just the broken promise of their homeland, but the precarious fate of their host’s country: “Will we ever be proud of ‘My country, tis of thee’?/Will we ever sing out loud, ‘Sweet land of liberty’?”
The Staples briefly peel away the surface goodwill of this festive Pan-African celebration to look at the deeper reality of what it meant to be of African descent in this world.
Mavis raises her left hand as she and the family join voices for the final chorus. Despite the idyllic, star-lit setting next to the Atlantic Ocean, the Staples briefly peel away the surface goodwill of this festive Pan-African celebration to look at the deeper reality of what it means to be of African descent in this world. Even in the motherland, freedom is still not a given.
As the family slips into the sanctified over-drive of “Are You Sure,” the camera focuses on a boy in front staring wide-eyed at Mavis with a mixture of reverence and wonder.
“Raise your voice high and the Lord will hear you,” Mavis declares. The group was rooted in gospel, but the reason they connect with such a wide audience is that their music addresses not just the promise of the afterlife, but the hard truths of trying to follow a spiritual path in the real world. The band falls silent, until only Pops’ guitar rings out against Mavis’ voice, a throwback to the group’s earliest days performing in churches on Chicago’s South Side. Mavis’ eyes glisten as she peers above the crowd, as if focused on something beyond the horizon. She begins to speak her heart, Pops’ guitar answering each line.
“My Lord, my Lord, my Lord, it may not come just when you want it…but I can say he will be right there.” A voice in the background responds, “Yeah!” Then Cleo and Yvonne bring the hand-clap rhythm rolling back, the family restarts the song, and determination gives way to exuberance.
Years later, Prince would watch and rewatch that moment. In a 2012 interview at his Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis, his eyes got misty as he recalled the impact it had on him.
“I’ve been in love with Mavis since I saw that movie,” he told me. “I would watch her, and the part where they sing a cappella, it’s like when you see someone possessed. They get the Holy Ghost in them and they’re overtaken by something. My grandmother would pass out (at church services) because she’d be overwhelmed by that Holy Ghost feeling. It’s like you can call something into existence, and Mavis can call that up just like that (snaps fingers). Just like that. I look at her and I wonder if she is that...she goes somewhere else, becomes what she sings about. When I saw that moment in ‘Soul to Soul,’ I thought, ‘This is my mother.’ When I met her, we recognized each other. After all these years I’d finally met this person, and it’s like I’d known her all my life. That’s how deeply that music, her voice, her presence affected me.”
‘I felt the spirit. I was getting my praise on.’
Mavis understood. “I know exactly what Prince saw and what he felt, because that’s what I was feeling,” she said when I relayed Prince’s quote. “I never forgot what Pops told me, to sing from my heart. There’s a part in ‘Are You Sure’ where I’m just telling the truth about myself. I felt the spirit. I was getting my praise on. We would sing that song every night, and it would be different every time. I got into a little preaching thing, a little sermonette. The background stops and they let me have it for a few minutes. I’m standing up there and I could see these Africans, just as I’m looking out over Lake Michigan right now from my apartment, and they were as far as I could see. And I wanted to reach them, but at that moment, honestly, I was thinking about the song. I wasn’t thinking that somebody is going to make this into a movie. I was singing from my heart. That’s what Prince got.”
The moment resonated and in many ways allowed Mavis to start reinventing herself as a solo artist apart from her family group. In 1988, Prince asked Mavis to join him on the “Lovesexy” tour in Paris, and she dueted with him on the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.”
Prince signed Staples to his Paisley Park label, and wrote and produced two studio albums for her, “Time Waits for No One” in 1989 and “The Voice” in 1993. In between, Mavis played and sang the role of Melody Cool in Prince’s 1990 movie, “Graffiti Bridge.” The movie was a commercial and critical flop, but Mavis came out of it with her profile raised and her reputation enhanced. “The Voice,” with songs based on personal letters Mavis had written to Prince about her life, represented her strongest work since the Staple Singers’ ‘70s heyday. The seeds for that comeback were planted decades before, on a stage in Ghana.