Charlie Musselwhite, the veteran blues harp player and bandleader, said Mavis Staples saved him when he was suffering from tuberculosis in the late 1960s. “Listening to the Staple Singers — and the way Mavis went through me — healed me,” he recalled.
Bonnie Raitt remembered discovering the Staple Singers as a teenager. “Mavis Staples is a revelation,” she said. “The first time I heard her sing, I was gone.”
Rosanne Cash spoke effusively about Staples’ tireless, lifelong dedication to her craft and her unrelenting commitment to the civil rights movement, which was particularly poignant in a week where the undercurrent of political turmoil once again hung heavy in the air. “When I was a young girl, I thought progress went in one direction,” Cash said. “But progress requires devotion.”
The praise kept coming on Thursday, Jan. 30, at SFJazz Center’s annual gala, which this year honored Staples, 80, with a Lifetime Achievement Award before her two-night run at the venue.
Along with electric performances by Musselwhite, Raitt and Cash, the evening — a lavish fundraiser for the organization’s extensive educational programs — also included live tributes by the singer Lizz Wright, the SFJazz Collective, SFJazz High School All-Stars and others.
With Staples sitting in the front row at the venue’s 700-person capacity Robert N. Miner Auditorium, SFJazz founder Randall Kline told her, “This is the house that could not have been built without your spirit.”
That’s no exaggeration. Staples started singing in her native Chicago when she was 8 years old, as a member of the family band the Staple Singers, long before they became known for hits such as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.”
A two-time Grammy winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member, she marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., sang for presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, and staged an extraordinary comeback in recent years, performing at mega-festivals like Coachella and Outside Lands, and recording new music with the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Ry Cooder and Prince.
At Thursday’s glamorous fete, the performers played songs inspired by and honoring Staples’ incredible legacy, from Musselwhite’s solo take on “Sanctuary,” a tune offering refuge amid dark times, to Raitt’s all-hands-on-deck charge through “Turn Me Around,” a civil rights era tune she has previously performed live with Staples.
Cash and guitarist/husband John Leventhal revived “The Wayfaring Stranger,” a folk song from the early 19th century that she said she first heard through her father, the late Johnny Cash; while the SFJazz Collective offered a propulsive medley of Sly & the Family Stone covers plucked from 1969, the year Staples released her self-titled solo debut.
Wright delivered a powerful rendition of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “I Remember, I Believe.”
“I want to thank you, sister Mavis, for your leadership and your love,” Wright said. “I promise you from the bottom of my heart, no matter what anybody says or does, we won’t turn around.”
Toward the end of the concert, Staples and her guitarist Rick Holstrom made it out onstage for a pair of tunes from her recent catalog: “Change,” which was written by Ben Harper, and “You Are Not Alone,” by Wilco frontman Tweedy. Her voice sounded as exquisite and evocative as ever, even when she stepped away from the microphone to shout a few affirmations into the air.
“It has been a lifetime, and God is not through with me yet,” Staples said, accepting her award.
The main set gave way to a lively afterparty headlined by the San Francisco funk band Con Brio, which filled the dance floor with young revelers while desserts and sparkling wine flowed freely in the lobby. The Suffers, hailing from Houston, provided the funky, soulful tunes in the adjacent Joe Henderson Lab.
But Staples’ influence lingered long after she left the building.
Close to midnight, Robert Mailer Anderson, the trustee who led the $64 million capital campaign to get the SFJazz Center built in 2013, revived the ritual of wheeling a Victrola record player onstage to play a scratchy old 78 of Billie Holiday singing “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
“If democracy dies this week, let’s all meet back here,” he said. “The revolution will start right here at SFJazz.”
Staples would be proud.
Mavis Staples: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Jan. 31-Feb. 1. $35-$95. SFJazz Center’s Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St., S.F. www.sfjazz.org