How Prince Found a Way to Channel Mavis Staples on ‘The Voice’
Mavis Staples met Prince when she was at an emotional ebb. When they had trouble immediately connecting, mostly because an admiring Prince was so painfully shy, she started writing him letters. That provided the fodder for a series of songs on his Paisley Park label, culminating with the Aug. 24, 1993 release of The Voice.
It's easy to portray this studio effort as another Prince album, with vocals simply tacked on by Staples. He wrote or co-wrote eight of the 12 tracks on The Voice, served as executive producer and occasionally – as on "Melody Cool," their first collaboration for 1990's Graffiti Bridge – plays all of the instruments on several occasions.
But the thoughts, the stories and the sentiments, belong to Mavis Staples. That gives this record an intuitive feel, with a depth of feeling that struck Staples. In fact, at one point, she called The Voice the best album she'd ever made.
"I opened for him on the Lovesexy tour," Staples told the Capital Times in 2016. "We did a show at the Shrine Auditorium [in Los Angeles]. He came out to meet me before the show. I did all the talking. He just stood there, smiling with those big eyes. I had to actually write Prince letters to let him into my life."
Staples would write to "make sure I was eating properly, taking care of myself. When I got the first one, I thought it was so sweet. Then she wrote another and another. They were all so encouraging," Prince said in Greg Kot's I'll Take You There. "She was telling me about herself, so I could write songs for her, but she was helping me. When you get so much discouragement from the world, to read her words was so valuable to me. She sustained me."
The feeling was mutual. They met in the wake of her beloved mother's sudden death. Oceola passed at age 69 in the south suburban Chicago home she shared with Staple Singers patriarch Pops. Mavis' parents had been married more than 50 years.
She referenced this loss during their introduction that night at the Shrine Auditorium. Staples said "'Prince, let me kiss you for my mother.' And he said, 'Kiss me on this side too, Mavis,'" Staples told the Baltimore Sun in 2016. "So, I got two kisses for Mother."
That initially broke the ice, as they both apparently tried not to swoon. "When I see him, I'm going to be really cool. Here come Prince, coming towards me. White suit, Lucite cane and some white boots," Staples later recalled. "Then he got up on me, and I just screamed. Cool went out the window, y'all!"
Prince signed her to a new deal at Paisley Park. "She had more music in her," he said in I'll Take You There. "I could hear that and feel that."
Watch Mavis Staples Perform 'The Voice'
Unfortunately, he had his own issues. Prince's relationship with Warner Bros., his label and distributor for the Paisley Park subsidiary, was falling apart. Ultimately, they'd split before The Voice had a chance to find its audience. By then, however, a sturdy friendship had been forged between Prince and Staples.
"It turned out to be a wonderful experience. He's the most beautiful young man, very humble and very spiritual," Staples told Jonathan Takiff of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He was so bashful he couldn't even talk to me, face-to-face. I'd write him long letters – 14, 15 pages long – telling him things from my childhood. On every song on my album The Voice, I hear something out of my letters."
Roebuck "Pops" Staples, her protective father, was a more difficult person to convince. Everyone, by then, was familiar with Prince's more scandalous escapades, but he was moving toward a deeper relationship with his faith – and Prince and Mavis connected on that level.
One time, she and her dad were listening to "Blood is Thicker Than Time" from The Voice, which includes the lines: "As sure as Moses' staff parted the water, as sure as Cain had to pay for his crime, as sure as no one wants to be broken hearted – that's how sure I am that blood is thicker than time." "Pops said, 'What does this little old guy know about Cain and Abel?'" Mavis later told Chris Richards of the Washington Post. "I said, 'Pops, the Bible is one of the kid's favorite books!'"
In a call back to their earliest days, The Voice included a cover of "Positivity" from Lovesexy. They released the title track and then "Blood is Thicker Than Time," but without the label support that had helped "Melody Cool" become a Top 40 R&B hit a few years before. Both singles sank like a rock, as Paisley Park folded.
At that point, Staples and Prince had begun speaking in person. She started to think of him as a son, describing Prince as "my Earth angel" in the liner notes for The Voice, while adding "Heaven must have sent you."
"He started talking later," Staples told the Capital Times. "Oh, we had fun. I told him, 'Prince, I'm adopting you. I know you have a mother and father, but I'll be your other mother.' He said, 'Okay, Mavis.'"
She eventually settled into a successful stint on Anti- Records, working with producers Ry Cooder and then Jeff Tweedy, while Prince broke away as an independent artist. But Staples always looked back on their time as label mates with a deep affection. "He seems to have needed me for something back then," she told the Washington Post. "He looked at me with love in his eyes. He admired me for the person that I was."
They stayed in touch through the occasional phone call until Prince's sudden death in 2016. Still processing the news, Staples said she felt fortunate to have known him: "I was on Prince's label, Paisley Park, for seven years," she told the Daily Press a day later. "During that seven years, I adopted him. He was the most beautiful spirit I ever met."