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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