The title track of the great Mavis Staples' new album, If All I Was Was Black, is a stunning song. Over a raw, gritty R&B track that hearkens back to the early 1970s heyday of Al Green and Sly Stone, Staples, still a strikingly powerful voice at the age of 78, rides the song's infectious groove, asking "If all I was was black/ Don't you wanna know me more than that?"
"All the love I give," she continues, "I've got natural gifts/ Got a perspective/ Might make yours shift."
It's the kind of positive but urgent social message that the Grammy Award-winning Staples has delivered for decades, both as the lead singer of the Staple Singers, where, backed by her father, guitarist Roebuck "Pops" Staples, she belted out immortal hits like "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself," and as a solo artist with 15 albums to her credit.
So it's not surprising to hear Staples still fighting for racial equality and peace with a mighty voice and a positive spirit. What is surprising is who wrote the title track and, in fact, the entire album, along with producing it: Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
That's right: Jeff Tweedy wrote a song for Mavis Staples called "If All I Was Was Black." And he presented it to her with some understandable trepidation.
"When Tweedy came in with the song, he said, 'Mavis, I don't know if we should call it that,'" Staples says with a laugh. "I said, 'What do you mean? That's the title of the song! Why did you write it if you didn't want to call it that?' He said, 'Mavis, we might get some backlash because people will say, who does he think he is? He's not black! How can he write a song about being black? He's a white boy!'"
But Staples, with a little assist from Tweedy's wife, Susie, was quick to help him feel at ease.
"I told him, 'Tweedy, you are black!'" she says, laughing again. "I've been hanging with you a while, and you're black now! His wife came in the room and he turned to her and said, 'Susie! Mavis says I'm black! 'And she said, 'If Mavis Staples says you're black, you're black.'"
As Staples indicated, she and Tweedy have been collaborating for a while now, starting with her 2010 album You Are Not Alone. The two seemingly unlikely partners first met at the Hideout club in Chicago, where Staples was recording a live album.
"The whole band, Wilco, came to that show," she says. "Tweedy came upstairs to meet me, and we laughed and talked and took some pictures. But I didn't know Wilco. After that meeting in the dressing room, about two weeks later my manager called and said 'Mavis, Jeff Tweedy wants to produce your new album.' And I said, 'Well, I'll have to get to know him. Maybe we could have lunch or something.'"
Tweedy arrived for that first lunch with a serious case of nerves, so much so that Staples thought he was afraid of the locale.
"Both of us lived in Chicago, but he lives on the Northside and I live on the Southside," she says.
"So we set up lunch on the Southside of Chicago. I thought it scared him! When he first came in, he didn't want to talk! I didn't know if he was nervous to be on the Southside or just bashful. And I think that I came to that conclusion that he's shy. Not as shy as Prince (whom Staples also collaborated with), but I had to crack a joke so he'd laugh. So we laughed at something, and right after that he broke loose."
It turns out that Tweedy was a lifelong fan of Staples and her family, going back to their stripped-down recordings in the 1950s.
"He started telling me how much he loved the Staple Singers, and that he'd heard all of our music," she says. "When he was 18 years old, he used to work at a record shop, and he said he would play the Staple Singers all day. He loved my father's guitar, and he had music that was just us singing with my father's guitar. And so we talked, and he let me into his life and I did the same. We told stories to each other. We talked for maybe two-and-a-half hours, and when we left that restaurant, I knew that he and I could make good music."
That's a bit of an understatement. Over Staples' last three albums, Tweedy has become a perfect partner for her, keeping the production as raw as possible, creating the kind of gospel and R&B backdrops that allow Staples to navigate the tracks with her ageless, intense performances, and not least of all, writing great songs. The title track of You Are Not Alone, a slow, subtle song with a heartfelt message of friendship during tough times, still stands as one of Staples' favorite songs of Tweedy's.
"I watched him write that song," she says. "I hadn't ever sung a song so beautiful. I said, 'Tweedy, how are you doing this?' He kind of put me on hold, though. He stopped writing. I asked him what was the matter, and he said, 'I can't finish it. I'll have it for you tomorrow morning.' When we went into the studio the next day, it was finished, and we put it down. It came out so beautiful."
Staples says the secret of their collaboration is simple: "We're kind of like Siamese twins," she says. "We have the same feelings about life today."
Interestingly enough though, Staples was almost without her Siamese twin for the new album, and she initially wasn't sure why.
"For the third album, we got separated and I didn't know what was going on!" she says. "I didn't know why he wasn't producing me because we were still friends, we talked all the time, his wife and I are close friends. I think something happened with the budget. So I told the record company, 'Y'all shouldn't charge so much for me! You know I'm not selling that many records!' And that's when Tweedy came on in and we got started. And I'm so glad. I love this album so much."