When Mavis Staples and Levon Helm met for some final music

·3 min read

NEW YORK (AP) — In the summer of 2011, two American iconic musicians met and jammed up a storm. Very few people heard what they created — until now.

The 12-track live album “Carry Me Home” is the long-awaited record of what happened when Grammy-winning soul and gospel star Mavis Staples visited her good friend Levon Helm, the Grammy-winning drummer and singer of The Band.

“We were very close friends. We were like family,” said Staples, 82. “Every song was just a jewel to me. I just got so full of joy.”

It would be one of Helm’s final recordings before his death, the next year.

Staples and her band spent five or six days with Helm and his band in Woodstock, New York, playing music and telling stories.

“We started singing and someone just said, ‘Why don’t we record it?’ And we started recording and we didn’t have anything planned. As we would sing a song, someone would yell out another song,” said Staples. “It just turned out so beautiful.”

The visit culminated in a concert held in Helm's studio on June 3, 2011, which included spirituals, civil rights anthems and tunes made famous by the likes of The Impressions, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

There are the gospel classics like “Hand Writing on the Wall” and “Farther Along,” protest songs like “This Is My Country,” an electric “You Got to Move,” Buddy Miller’s “Wide River to Cross” and “When I Go Away,” a Helm’s favorite. Staples' sister Yvonne sang and so did Helm's daughter, Amy.

“Getting to join that choir was truly one of the highlights so far that I’ve ever done for any singing I’ve ever done,” Amy Helm said. “And of course, to see my dad that happy and to get to spend time with Mavis, who is like a godmother to me.”

Staples loved it when someone suggested “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” a song Nina Simone made famous. “I hadn’t sung that song since I was a little girl,” she said. “We started singing that, I just felt so good.” But then she balked.

“I told them, I said, ‘Wait a minute. Nobody comes behind Nina, you know?’ And they said, ‘Mavis you can do it.’ ‘You can do it, Mavis.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll try, but I don’t want to be slapped in the face by Nina.’”

The album's release was delayed while officials in each camp debated which record label should release it. “If it had been left up to me, it would have been out there a week after we recorded it,” Staples said. The album is being released Friday.

Staples recalled that her Woodstock visit started, appropriately enough, with music. When she and her band arrived, it was raining hard and she ran from her vehicle to Helm's porch. Together and impromptu, they started singing the spiritual “Didn’t It Rain.”

Staples recalls the visit included walks in the countryside and the sharing of stories. At one point, Helm started playing one of his grandson's toy drums. She remembers one of Helm's two dogs was jealous when her owner got close to Staples and would bark until the drummer interceded on Staples' behalf; the barking immediately stopped. She recalls Helms showing up every day in a crisp shirt.

The two were old friends, having met during the filming of The Band’s 1976 documentary “The Last Waltz.” Staples' father had been impressed by The Band's song “The Weight,” with its opening reference to Nazareth, a special gospel reference. Helm, for his part, revered Staples and invited a camera crew to archive that his hero had come to collaborate.

Staples only got a listen to what they had accomplished a few months ago. “Each song would lift me up even higher because I had forgotten some of that stuff,” she said, thinking “Let’s get the record out there so that people can hear how much fun we were having.”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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