Starting Off the 70s with Mavis Staples

“Only For the Lonely”

Released in 1970, Mavis Staples’ “Only For the Lonely,” signaled the coming of a revolution in pop music. Women artists would take center stage. They’d tell stories about their lives reflecting the cultural and political power they were beginning to realize. From Roberta Flack, Carole King, Aretha Franklin and Carly Simon to Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Linda Rondstandt, Joan Armatrading, and Janis Ian, albums addressing a woman’s place in the world would become classics.

It was fitting for Mavis Staples to kickoff that new era. She had already established herself as a musical force. Staples was a central voice in the protest music of the civil rights and anti-war movements as a member of her family’s group, The Staples Singers. Mavis Staples was righteous and powerful in the urgent truth telling about inequality and the hopes for a fair and just society. On both her first solo album, “Mavis Staples” and on “Only For the Lonely,” her voice of protest and praise was just as meaningful and moving in expressing the pleasure and pain of love.

Staples’ take on the love ballad remains a potent statement on the genre. She transformed Brook Benton’s uptempo 1959 R&B hit “Endlessly” and the forever re-interpreted standard “Since I Fell For You” by Buddy and Ella Johnson. She found intimate sensual pleas in those songs no other singers have been able to unearth. Throughout “Only For the Lonely” Mavis Staples seduces the listener. A love song is only a suggestion until the right singer makes you feel like they’re whispering in your ear.

Mavis Staples also used the love songs on her album as an opportunity for self-discovery. In a tight 29 minutes, she opened space for a musical conversation other women artists would respond to and expand in their own voices throughout the 70s and beyond. Over nine songs, under the guise of love, Mavis Staples dug into a central idea- no matter what happened in life, a woman could ultimately come to terms with herself.

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