Doctor Mavis Staples

[photogallerylink id=125660 align=left]Yesterday, my dream came true. I have been an instructor at Columbia College Chicago for over 30 years. The college of rock and roll knowledge. For the past few years I’ve been begging everyone with a title I’ve met to see if they could help me get an honorary doctorate degree for Mavis Staples. Finally I met Michelle Passarelli from Alumni Relations and she connected me with Mark Kelly, Vice President of Student Affairs, and on Sunday at the Chicago Theatre it happened. And I got to do the honors of introducing Mavis. Mavis spoke to the graduates and led us all in a rousing version of I’ll Take You There. No one in that theatre will ever forget that magical moment. Congratulations to Dr. Staples and all of the graduates! Mavis and I were impressed by some of the shoes the grads wore, but as they filed by with their diplomas, Mavis and I were moved by each individual that walked by. All these young men and women who had worked so hard to get these degrees, going off to begin their careers and adult life. Mavis made a difference. Now it’s the class of 2012’s turn. Get busy and good luck.

Here’s my introduction for Dr. Staples (love the sound of that…Dr. Staples!)

Over 60 years ago, on the south side of Chicago, Pops Staples taught his family how to sing, and Cleo, Pervis, Yvonne and their little sister Mavis formed the Staple Singers, and they became one of the leading gospel groups in the United States. Pops became interested in the preaching of a young minister in Montgomery, Alabama. A young man named Rev. Martin Luther King Junior. Doctor King and Pops became friends, and Pops was inspired to take his family in a new musical direction. If Dr. King can preach it, they can sing it. Pops, Mavis and the family began recording songs for Stax records in Memphis, Tennessee, they combined the popular contemporary rhythm and blues sound with the civil rights message. Respect Yourself. I’ll Take You There. Mavis and her family gave us music that informed us and inspired us, while we were groovin’ on the dance floor. Love how that worked.

In 1976 the Staple Singers sang “The Weight” with The Band in their film The Last Waltz. You want to see soul and spirit…watch that performance.

Mavis and her family were frequent guests on Soul Train, all the way back in the day when it was broadcast right here in Chicago. They performed at the legendary Wattstax music festival to help rebuild the neighborhood of Watts in L.A.

Mavis and The Staple Singers are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mavis is a woman who knew Mahalia Jackson. Who was friends with a young Bob Dylan. Johnny and June Carter Cash. Who can remember the sound of Dr. King’s laugh.

Long after most people collect their gold watches and retire, Mavis Staples played Lollapalooza. And Bonnaroo. And the kids got it. Two days ago she performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Next month she will headline the Chicago Blues Festival. She has recently released some of the best music of her career. Her album “We’ll Never Turn Back” taught a new generation about the struggles of the civil rights movement, and where we still need to go. Her latest, a collaboration with Chicagaoan Jeff Tweedy that won her a Grammy, is a beautiful album called “You Are Not Alone”. Like her father, Mavis continues to bring hope to a hopeless world.

There’s a lot I love about Mavis. I love that she has lived an amazing life and achieved much success, but she doesn’t have a diva bone in her body. She has traveled through jim crow laws and grief and sorrow, but she has no time for cynicism. What a role model for our students. For us all.

She lives the gospel….of the new testament…of Dr. King’s ministry. It’s the gospel of love. She has let her light shine.

After all these years, Mavis continues to take us down freedom’s highway, lovingly embraces us with her deep faith, and gets our backfield in motion.

I am so proud of her today. She so deserves this recognition, especially in sweet home Chicago. The city she lives in, the city she loves. The city that loves her back.

Ms. Mavis Staples, for your outstanding contributions in the field of music, Columbia College Chicago is honored to award you the degree, doctor of arts, honoris causa, with all the rights and privileges appertaining hereto.

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  • Kate

    As much as I love Mavis, giving her an honorary doctorate is an affront to those who toil to earn that title through vigilant, comprehensive study. There are other industry-related awards more appropriate for an accomplished, lifelong career in music. As always, Terri’s heart is in the right place but the accolade is misdirected.

    • Thomas Dunning

      Kate, really? You begrudge an honorary doctorate being bestowed on an 80 year old woman of colour when she has influenced, inspired and healed countless of your fellows? Really?

      • Thomas Dunning

        Correction: Dr. Staples is a spritely 72 years of age.

    • Sarah D.

      I feel so sorry for you Katie. Hope your toiling academia someday make you feel the joy that Dr. Staples has shared with so many of us.

  • It's OK Terri,

    they just made Perry Farrell a Patron Saint!

  • Paul Cebar

    Honorary doctorates are just that, HONORARY, and there are few among us more deserving of honor than dear Mavis. Her journey has been nothing if not vigorous, vigilant and comprehensive and the achievement that is honored is world’s beyond the mere, music industry. It is for achievement in artistry.

  • Thomas Dunning

    @Kate, it’s not a doctorate degree, it’s an honorary doctorate. Recognising that Mavis has gained an education in the arts through life experience which Columbia could never provide in a classroom. Your comment is an affront and you should request it be removed.

  • Katie A. Jones

    Response from a different Kate… I was THRILLED to hear that Mavis Staples was to be saluted with Columbia’s honorary Doctor of Arts May 6! This hometown legend – with The Staple Singers and solo – has given us not only great music but a dynamic, socially conscious education over many years. Education through music and other arts is not limited to the halls of academia. In fact, does not art thrive best where not confined by walls of any kind, among all of the people? Mavis, through her music and sheer force of a generous personality, has for many years been an evangelist of musical joy and social consciousness that has reached many more ears and minds than could ever be possible in a classroom. Her honorary degree does not diminish the hard work of others or the value of traditional education. It does represent a milestone along one individual’s unique path along our collective human journey. CONGRATULATIONS, MAVIS!!!

    Terri, congrats to you too for your work in making Mavis’ honor reality. You clearly were as over the moon as Mavis was at that Columbia podium – it surely must have been an incredible moment personally. The photos of you together showed two beautiful, glowing, rare Chicago birds indeed. Gotta bring this up… Is Doctor Terri Hemmert out of the question? I bet Mavis would jump at a chance for a replay!

    Love the additional Mavis photos in the WXRT Gallery posted 05/16:

    — Katie A. Jones, Aurora, IL (

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