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Whether you have a higher power or not, the raw, come-to-Jesus fervor of Mavis Staples’ voice will make a believer out of you. And perhaps the best example of the woman’s almighty skills exist in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s epic documentary of The Band’s farewell concert on Thanksgiving Day 39 years ago.
First, some backstory: Though the event featured Band fans like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young and Muddy Waters, as drummer/vocalist Levon Helm wrote in his memoir, This Wheel’s On Fire, the show was “too lily-white and missing something crucial.”
Enter The Staple Singers—“Pops,” Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis, the unparalleled family of R&B, soul, and gospel—who joined The Band some days later on an MGM soundstage. Dubbed “God’s Greatest Hitmakers,” they marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and provided the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement. Suffice to say the Staples took care of the “too lily-white” concern. The family’s rapturous harmonies on “The Weight” raise the musical bar heavenward, but radiant Mavis steals the show, utterly commanding the moment. She also has the last word, spontaneously whispering a simple, perfect coda: “Beautiful.”