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Not My Job: Mavis Staples Gets Quizzed On Office Supples

BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: From NPR and WBEZ Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT ... DON'T TELL ME the NPR news quiz. I'm Bill Kurtis and here's your host at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco, Peter Sagal.


Thank you, Bill.


SAGAL: For this week, while we're taking a break from our jobs, we're talking to people who have great jobs. Just about everybody dreams about singing in front of a band.

KURTIS: Speak for yourself, Peter. I make all the music I ever need with this voice.


SAGAL: Speaking of voices, we spoke to one of the great singers in gospel and R&B, Chicago's own Mavis Staples way back in 2008. And man, I fell for her hard.


MAVIS STAPLES: Thank you. Thank you, Peter.

SAGAL: Mavis, thank you so much. Could we say on balance it's a great time to be from Chicago? On balance.

STAPLES: It is. Chicago is the most beautiful city in the world to me.

SAGAL: Yeah.

STAPLES: You know.


STAPLES: Yes it is. You know, Pops came to us one time and said, y'all know what they said if we moved to Los Angeles...

SAGAL: I'm just interrupt - this is Pop Staples, your father?

STAPLES: Pop Staples, yes.

SAGAL: Who led, of course, the great gospel group the Staple Singers.

STAPLES: Yes he did. You all know the managers are saying if we moved to Los Angeles we stand a better chance of making it, you know. And he asked u, do you all want to move to Los Angeles? And all of us in harmony said, no daddy.


STAPLES: We didn't want to move.

SAGAL: So it's true you started singing with your family when you were how old?

STAPLES: I was 8 years old.

SAGAL: You were 8 years old?

STAPLES: Eight years old.

SAGAL: And you were on the road performing at that age?

STAPLES: No, no. We didn't start - we were at home on the floor, you know. When we were rehearsing, we started singing. My aunt lived with us. She came through one night and she said you all sound pretty good. I believe I want you all to sing at my church. And we were happy, you know, that Sunday we were going to sing someplace other than on the living room floor.


STAPLES: And went to Aunt Katie's church and we sang the very first song tyhat Pops taught us. And that, you know - the people liked it so much, they clapped us back and we had to sing that same song over and over.


STAPLES: Because it was the only one he had taught us all the way through.


STAPLES: After that, they clapped us back so much Pops says, well, shucks, these people like us. We're going home and learn some more songs.


STAPLES: And the rest is history.

SAGAL: Yeah. I don't know if anybody's ever pointed this out to you, but you have a rather distinctive voice. Did you always have that? Did you always...

STAPLES: I've always had it. I've always - I used to have fights. You know, kids at school - you sound like a boy. You sound like a - and the a cappella teacher - I wanted to sing in a cappella choir, he would tell me always, Mavis, come out of the basement, you with the boys. You singing with the boys. You know, and I - Mr. Fintz (ph) - I'm not a soprano. My voice - I would wake up, sometime when we started traveling I called down for breakfast. The lady would say yes Mr. Staples.


STAPLES: So I just started to taking it.

SAGAL: Now you said you were traveling. So after a while, your family began going out on the road performing gospel music in other places.

STAPLES: Yes, yes.

SAGAL: And that's an odd way for a young woman to grow up, isn't it?

STAPLES: No, well, being with your family is fun. But actually, we didn't start traveling until after we made this record for Vee-Jay Records called "Uncloudy Day." And I was actually singing bass, you know. And people - we started getting letters from everywhere. Pops says, well, these people want us to come out. We drove - we would drive. And we get to these places and disc jockey said this is little Mavis Staples. Little girl singing this - people would actually bet that I was not a little girl. Yeah. There's got to be a man or a big, fat lady.


SAGAL: So you work with everybody in music. In fact, you work with Bob Dylan, we understand.

STAPLES: Yeah, Dylan. You know, we met Dylan like in '62. And his manager told him, I want you to meet the Staples. And he, said, oh, I know the Staple Singers. I've been listening to the Staple Singers since I was 12 years old. But he - he even quoted a lyric out of one of ours. He said Mavis be singing young to come little David with his rock and sling. I don't want to meet him, he's a dangerous man. And it just blew Pop's mind. But then he started singing his song. And Pop's said listen y'all, you hear what that kid is saying? And he was saying how many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man? And that - Pops could relate to that. So he said we can sing that song. And we did.

SAGAL: I bet you did.


STAPLES: Yeah, we came right home and learned it.


SAGAL: I got to ask, you, actually, and Dylan became quite close.

STAPLES: Oh, you know.



STAPLES: Oh, Dylan. Yeah, Dylan was - he...


SAGAL: All right. That's fine, Mavis.

STAPLES: We were good friends.


STAPLES: That dog on Internet. You know, one disc jockey said, well, I hear you and Dylan, you know, proposed a marriage to you. I said where did you get that from? The Internet.


AMY DICKINSON: Well then it must be true.

SAGAL: It got to be true.

STAPLES: Yes indeed.

SAGAL: And what was your response to this question then?

STAPLES: Well he just did it out of the blue. He proposed.

SAGAL: He proposed out of the blue?

STAPLES: Pops - what he told Pops. He didn't tell me.

SAGAL: Bob Dylan asked your father for your hand in marriage?

STAPLES: He didn't ask. He told Pops.

SAGAL: He told him.

STAPLES: Pops...

CHARLIE PIERCE: He's a lot braver than I thought he was.


STAPLES: Yeah, well, see...

SAGAL: What did he say to your father?

STAPLES: Pops, I want to marry Mavis. And Pops said, we'll don't tell me, tell Mavis.


STAPLES: That was during the time - it was lunch. Everybody heard him. We were in line, you know, to get our of lunch.

SAGAL: Wait a minute. You're standing in line at like some sort of buffet?

STAPLES: That's right.

SAGAL: And he's standing there behind your father and says, oh, by the way, I want to marry your daughter and can I have the potatoes?


STAPLES: He just shouted it. I guess it just came over him.

SAGAL: I understand.

STAPLES: Something got a hold of him.

SAGAL: I feel it now. I'm totally down with that.


SAGAL: Well, Mavis Staples, we are so delighted to have you with us. We have asked you here to play a game we are calling?

CARL KASELL, BYLINE: Hello, I'm looking for a dozen highlighter pens in a fluorescent green.

SAGAL: Which is a question we're sure you get all the time by the people who confuse you with Staples, the office-supply super-store. But since you are not a vast warehouse filled with office implements, we thought we'd ask you three questions about office supplies. If you get two right, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - Carl's voice on their home answering machine. Carl, who is Mavis Staples playing for?

KASELL: Mavis is playing for Henry Herman (ph) of Falls Church, Virginia.

SAGAL: Are you ready to do this?

STAPLES: I'm ready.

SAGAL: You can do this. You can handle any challenge, I can tell. We begin with the stapler.


SAGAL: This office device was invented strange as it may seem by whom? A - President Millard Fillmore, who frittered away his time in office trying to improve the efficiency of White House filing. B - King Louis XV of France who desired a way to affix gold metal seals to his documents, or C - Isaac Newton the great physicist who tried to market it as a toy?


STAPLES: I think I'll go with brother Fillmore. Did he do it?

SAGAL: I'm sorry, it was actually Louis XV of France who invented the stapler. I know, I'm sorry about that. He did want to put his little gold seals on his little documents. All right, we still have two more chances here.


SAGAL: Next office product - Scotch Tape. How did it get its name? A - it was named after the sound it makes when you tear off a long strip, like scotch.


SAGAL: B - it was first marketed during the great Scottish fad of the 1920s when all the products were being sold in tartan with kilts. Or C - it was a rude ethnic joke aimed at the owners of the company who were too Scottish and thus cheap to put more glue on the tape?

STAPLES: You know, that one you said - where he wearing the kilts - let's go with him.

SAGAL: You're going to go with that?


SAGAL: It was just a big scotch thing, everything needed to be cool like instead of like I in front of everything, everything was Scotch?

STAPLES: Right. Scotch.

SAGAL: It was actually an ethnic joke. I'm sorry. It was - I've never felt worse.


SAGAL: I feel terrible. Don't make it worse.

STAPLES: Peter, why you treat me so bad?


STAPLES: I tell you. I have been good.

SAGAL: What happened with the Scotch Tape - not that it's important - was that they were testing it and they gave it to the first people to use and they said, take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it. The name stuck and it became...

ROY BLOUNT: So that's not an ethnic joke.

DICKINSON: That's very offensive, don't you think, Roy?


DICKINSON: I don't even like to hear it repeated.


SAGAL: All right, last question. We bring you the adding machine. The first practical adding machine was invented by William Seward Burroughs in the 1880s, but it had a small flaw, what was it? A - if you added too many numbers too quickly, it would catch fire? B - the results you got depended on how hard you pulled the handle? Or C - if you wanted to subtract numbers, you had to disassemble the machine, a process that took two hours every time.

STAPLES: I like that.

SAGAL: You want to go with that? The dissembling?

STAPLES: Yeah, disassemble it. You know, and let's hang loose with it.


STAPLES: It take two hours...

SAGAL: To disassemble it, in case you wanted to take a number to subtract.

STAPLES: And what was this about?


SAGAL: It was about nothing of any importance whatsoever.

STAPLES: Oh, Peter.

SAGAL: No, it was about adding machines.

STAPLES: Did I win anything for?

SAGAL: Well, hold on. I should mention just in passing that in fact the right answer was B. But that's not important right now. Carl, how did Mavis Staples do on our quiz?

KASELL: Not too well, Peter. She needed at least two correct answers to win for Henry Herman.

STAPLES: Oh, Henry. Henry, oh, Henry.

SAGAL: Say his name in that voice of yours and I think he'll feel fine.

DICKINSON: He'll put that on his answering machine.

STAPLES: Oh, Henry.


SAGAL: Mavis Staples, thank you so much.

STAPLES: Thank you, Peter.

SAGAL: Thank you, Mavis.


STAPLES: (Singing) I know a place, ain't nobody crying. Ain't nobody worried. Ain't no smiling faces. No, no. Lying to the races. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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