For Mavis Staples, performing “The Weight” with the rest of the Staple Singers on the Band’s Last Waltz film was, and remains, a career highpoint.
“That is something,” she once told the New Yorker, “where I could put my chest out and hold my head up and I can just be super proud. I don’t want to be gloatin,’ you know — but anytime I watch it, it’s refreshing. It’s like the first time. You never get tired of it, you know.”
The Staples — Mavis Staples, her father Roebuck (known as Pops), and sisters Cleotha and Yvonne — filmed the performance over three takes after the Band’s memorable Thanksgiving 1976 concert on Nov. 25, 1976, on an MGM sound stage for director Martin Scorsese in front of some 250 people. “The Weight,” already one of the Band’s best-loved, most-discussed songs, has never sounded more soulful and alive.
Fast forward almost four decades, and several moments still stand out for Mavis Staples — including Pops’ good-natured ribbing about the way she lets loose at one point with a hearty “Heeeyyyy yeeeeaaah!”: “Pops said, ‘Mavis! Baby, you shouldn’t carry it out so long like that,'” Staples remembers. “And I said, “Nah, daddy, that’s the good part. That’s what I feel.” He said, “O.K., do what you feel. That’s the best thing. Do what you feel.”
Then there’s a stolen moment at the very end, when Mavis — who continues as a force of nature today — offers her quiet appreciation for the just-finished take, clearly mouthing the word “beautiful.”
“I was surprised that was caught on tape, you know, because I thought I was whispering,” Mavis Staples admits. “It wasn’t rehearsed to go like that. It was just a feeling that brought that on. The excitement of being with our friends — [late Band members and fellow “Weight” vocalists] Levon [Helm] and [Rick] Danko and those guys were such good friends of ours — to be singing with them, and knowing that this is going to be on the big screen, the silver screen, it was just a moment in time for me. You could probably, had you been there, you would have heard my heart pounding.”
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