On the phone from her home on the South Side of Chicago, Mavis Staples has something important to share. Her voice swings low, into that deep contralto that has distinguished a singing career now seven decades along, as she speaks, with precision, pausing at each punctuation mark.
"There's something happening here," she says. "What it is ain't exactly clear. There's a man with a gun over there, telling me that I've got to beware."
It's been 50 years since her family band, the Staple Singers, first hit the Billboard chart with their cover of the iconic Stephen Stills-penned Buffalo Springfield protest song "For What It's Worth." In explaining how the Staples, led by legendary patriarch Pops Staples, decided which songs to record, especially during the volatility of the 1960s, she lets Stills' evocative opening lines linger for a moment before breaking the silence.
"It's the lyrics. If they are telling a story, a positive story," she says. "Pops used to tell the songwriters, 'If you want to write for the Staples, you better read the headlines. We want to sing about what's happening in the world today. If it's something going bad, we want to try to sing a song to make it better.' "
It is that spirit that continues to sustain the 77-year-old Staples, whose ongoing career renaissance, with albums produced by Prince and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, includes the 2016 release titled "Livin' on a High Note." The Anti- Records album features production work from M. Ward and songwriting credits from Nick Cave, Neko Case and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver).
Staples' year of high notes has included a Grammy Award (in the Best American Roots Performance category for "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean") and a set at the famed Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, punctuated in December at the Kennedy Center Honors, the annual celebration of the arts in Washington, D.C., where the singer was saluted by President Barack Obama. Other honorees included Al Pacino, the Eagles, James Taylor and Argentine pianist Martha Argerich.
"Driven by Pops' reverb guitar, Mavis' powerhouse vocals and the harmonies that only family can make, the Staple Singers broke new ground … [with] anthems like 'Freedom Highway' and 'When Will We Be Paid,' which became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement," Obama told a star-studded gathering at the Kennedy Center Opera House, hosted by Stephen Colbert. "She still is singing for justice and equality and influencing a new generation of musicians and fans."
Staples, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Staple Singers, called the personal nature of Obama's salute "very humbling."
When Staples takes the stage on Sunday, Jan. 15, at the Sunshine Music Festival in Boca Raton, her objectives will be many. She plans to perform the popular material: songs from her new album and the 2010 Tweedy album "You Are Not Alone," along with classics from the Staple Singers discography, which includes such mainstream R&B hits as "I'll Take You There," "Let's Do It Again" and "Respect Yourself."
But a performance on the eve of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brings with it special responsibilities. It was a sermon by King at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where Pops Staples had taken his children after hearing the preacher on the radio, that inspired the family to move the gospel music they were known for into more socially conscious subject matter.
"We got back to the hotel, and Pops said, 'Listen, y'all, I really like this man's message, and I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it.' And that's what started us. We started writing freedom songs, and we joined the movement," Staples says.
When the Staples' cover of "For What It's Worth" reached the Billboard chart in 1967, it joined Pops Staples' "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)," a song inspired by the turmoil that greeted the first black students to attend segregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. It was King's favorite Staple Singers song, and Staples expects to perform it on Sunday. In King's honor, she also may perform another anthem from the era written by longtime friend Joan Baez, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around."
The Staples family marched with King and helped get Operation Breadbasket started in Chicago, where King told Pops Staples the unknown Jesse Jackson needed their appearances to draw food donations. Mavis Staples calls the "humble, soft-spoken" King "the most beautiful spirit I've ever met." She said the civil rights leader would be disappointed at the state of the nation today.
"That was the bad thing — Dr. King was assassinated before he could finish his work," she says. "I believe if he was here today, we'd be marching."
Staples is in the early stages of developing her next album, with rehearsals in Los Angeles later this month, and she's been combing through the Staple Singers discography for songs that might help inspire more unity in a nation "going backward."
"I think I should sing songs about love and coming together," she says. "We've got to love one another. We've got to be sisters and brothers and watch out for one another, because it's trying times. I don't know why in Chicago, as much as I love my city, we seem to be the worst. And it's black on black, a lot of it. So I don't feel so good right now."
Staples is optimistic, however, that a new generation of young performers will start to look to the headlines for inspiration, citing recent music by Chance the Rapper and young R&B musician Son Little, but wishing stars such as Beyonce and Taylor Swift would make their feelings known, as well.
"I've had a life that I'm proud of. I'm proud that I walked with Dr. King. I'm proud that I shook Obama's hand. I can't ask for any more," she says. "These are very trying times, but we're gonna make it. We're gonna make it."
The Sunshine Music Festival will offer music on two stages Sunday, Jan. 15, at Mizner Park Amphitheater, 327 Plaza Real, in Boca Raton. Gates open at 11:30 a.m. The lineup includes the Greyhounds (noon-12:45 p.m.), North Mississippi Allstars (1-2 p.m.), Railroad Earth (2-3 p.m.), Dave Mason (3-4 p.m.), Mavis Staples (4-5 p.m.), Joe Russo's Almost Dead (5-6:30 p.m.), Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers (6:30-7:30 p.m.) and the Tedeschi Trucks Band (7:30-10 p.m.). Advance tickets cost $59.95 (general admission), $99.95 (reserved seating), $129.95 (balcony general admission) and $229.95 (VIP) and can be purchased at SunshineMusicFestival.com.