Singer-songwriter Mavis Staples is as objectively an American treasure as a human can be, as well as a “ray of sunshine,” according to her frequent tourmate Bonnie Raitt. Her voice shines from within; at the age of 82, she’s still making music that people adore; and she has a beloved back catalog of solo work in addition to that which she recorded alongside her siblings in the group The Staple Singers, including indelible ‘70s soul hits like “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.”
Staples is the well-deserving subject of a new New Yorker profile by none other than editor David Remnick. Remnick’s piece describes Staples like this: “Sly, sociable, and funny, Staples reminds you of your mother’s most reliable and cheerful friend, the one who comes around with good gossip and a strawberry pie.” That sounds like a nice person to be around! Staples is, in fact, “not eager to tell unhappy stories or engage in trash talk,” so that “you’re taken aback in the rare moment when she heads into scratchy territory—as when she discusses her relationship with Aretha Franklin.” Okay, now we’re talking.
Franklin, you may remember, had more beef than an abattoir. She had things to say about her fellow artists and she was not afraid to say them. Natalie Cole? “It’s really a compliment that she sounds like me on some songs.” Diana Ross? “It’s my turn.” Taylor Swift? “Great gowns, beautiful gowns.”
Regarding her treatment of Staples, with whom she went way back, Staples alleges to the New Yorker that Franklin disrespected her by turning down Staples’s vocal on a recording of a live 1987 duet of “Oh Happy Day” they recorded together:
When the recording was released, it became clear that Franklin had turned down the volume on Staples’s vocal track. Staples said she just shrugged and let it go. “I should’ve told her, ‘No, just don’t put the record out,’ ” she said. “But you know me: goody-goody Mavis.”
It gets better:
Franklin, she admits, put her temperament to the test. “I put up with her for a long time till I got tired, you know?” Staples told me. “She was very insecure. I tried my best to be her friend. She would call me and ask me to call her back. When I called her back, the number was changed. So, you know, she was weird like that.”
“Call me back,” only to get a, “This number has been disconnected” recording or—even worse—a stranger on the other line is absolutely diabolical. Send your very worst without saying a word! Master class.
Franklin’s insecurities are hardly a secret. When she beefed with Dionne Warwick in 2017, it was over next to nothing, and Franklin’s strategy involved sending faxes and granting interviews to the AP (“We’ve never been friends and I don’t think that Dionne has ever liked me,” said Franklin.) Legendary behavior.
Around that time, fellow soul legend Gladys Knight weighed in on the feud while on the red carpet for the 2017 Daytime Emmy Awards. “It’s just one of those things, you know, everybody got their little knick knacks going on,” said Knight. “Dionne’s gonna speak her mind, and she’s gonna tell the truth. Ree is gonna be sensitive and cause a whole lot of riff raff.”
It’s unlikely a coincidence that the extreme sensitivity Franklin gave to her work also made itself loud even when no music was playing at all.