- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Don’t let the gray hairs fool you. Mavis Staples still sounds as fresh today as she did back in 1950, when the then-11-year-old contralto made her debut as part of the Staple Singers.

That doesn’t mean that the intervening years haven’t counted — or that she’s forgotten where her take on life got its start.

“My first memories were listening to my father play 78 gospel records,” says Miss Staples, who will be appearing at the Birchmere tomorrow.

Miss Staples’ soulful sound recently helped to spur the boys from Beantown. “I Believe in You,” a track from her current album, “Have a Little Faith,” was adopted by the Boston Red Sox as their theme song for the team’s playoff run.

The singer learned her craft in Chicago, another town with a bit of a baseball bogey of its own. Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls lived in the neighborhood, the “dirty thirties” of Chicago’s south side. She remembers church concerts and “battles of the quartet singers” when most of the neighborhood children would cram into Hopewell Baptist Church to hear some of the best music around.

“I had a wonderful childhood,” she says. “I didn’t miss out on anything.”

Her father was legendary bluesman Roebuck Staples, “Pops” to his friends, family and fans. Mr. Staples died in 2000 at the age of 84, but his legacy lives on. And it’s a lot more than simply a love of music.

“He taught us how to carry ourselves, how to gain respect, and how to live a certain way,” Miss Staples says. “He was a hands-on father. He brought us books, took us to the movies, made us peanut brittle, everything.”

Then there was the day that Miss Staples heard a totally new sound coming from the record player. She was 8 years old at the time.

“It was a lady’s voice,” recalls the singer. “I had never heard anything like it before. That’s when I fell in love with music and Sister Mahalia Jackson.”

Mahalia Jackson became a guiding force for Miss Staples, who recorded a tribute album, “Spirituals and Gospel: Dedicated to Mahalia Jackson,” in 1996. She still remembers the first time the two shared a stage. Back then, she thought “Sister” was Miss Jackson’s first name, since everybody referred to her as Sister Mahalia Jackson.

“I was so excited when I found out that we would be opening for her that I just couldn’t keep still,” Miss Staples says. “I kept walking around the house all that weekend — we were to open for her on Monday, and we found out about it on Friday. My father had my sisters watching me in the dressing room so I wouldn’t embarrass anybody.

“It didn’t work, though. I still jumped right up when she came through the door. I went over to her and said, ‘Well, hello, Miss Sister Mahalia Jackson. I’m a singer, too.’ ”

Over the years, the singer has moved easily from gospel to blues to pop and back again. The current album, “Faith,” features them all, including “In Times Like These,” penned by co-producer and friend Jim Tullio in memory of two friends lost on September 11.

And then there’s “Pops’ Recipe,” a tribute to the advice meted out by her father: “Accept responsibility, don’t forget humility. Be the best that you can be.”

So it’s no surprise that a traditional gospel tune closes out “Faith,” her first solo effort since 1993.

” ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ was the first song that Daddy taught us,” Miss Staples remembers.

• • •

Meanwhile, the Battle of the Blues Bands heats up in earnest on Saturday at Chick’s Surf Club in Bladensburg. Six currently unsigned bands will vye for the coveted prize, a chance to compete at the International Blues Competition in Memphis in February.

Past winners of the local competition, which is sponsored by the D.C. Blues Society, include Robert Lighthouse and Rick Serfas and the Soul Providers featuring Jesse Yawn. This year’s competition will be fierce: Acme Blues Company, Badabing Blues Band, Blu Lou and Friends, Blues on Board, Jonny and the Stingrays, and The Shakers.

Last year, more than 90 local blues organizations sent winners to the national competition.

For more information about our own local blues organization, the D.C. Blues society, see their Web site at www.dcblues.org or call their hotline at 202/962-0112.

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