One month before Mavis Staples began a six-week summer tour with Bob Dylan, which ended in July, she called into Rolling Stone to talk about how it might unfold. "Hopefully he won't hide from me," she said. "I might ask him, 'Bobby, if we get into one of these hotels that has a kitchenette, would you want me to cook for you?'"
Well, she never got the chance to cook him a meal, but the two old friends did get a lot of opportunities to hang out backstage. Dylan even gave her a new song he wants to record as a duet sometime next year. We talked to her about the whole wild, wonderful experience.
I saw two shows and really felt the joy coming off the stage.
We really had fun. It was a really good tour. What made it good was everybody was jelling. Everybody was friendly and loving. The ending of the tour was really kind of bittersweet since we enjoyed each other so much. I really wasn't ready for that tour to close down. When I first started I thought that was going to be too much for me, a month and a half, but it turned out it went so fast, was so fun, it just breezed by. I was so happy to see Bob again. We had a lot of good moments together. It will be with me for the rest of my days, that tour. I enjoyed myself so much. I've known some of the guys in the band for years – it was kind of like a family affair.
How were the audiences? It wasn't quite your usual crowd.
When I got out onstage I could tell I was going to have a good time because the people accepted me. They cheered when I came out. I had to probably work a little harder to get them to know me, though I'd say that quite a few of the people already knew me. I didn't have any problems. I was just happy to be singing to people I've never seen before and I delivered my songs and hoped that Mavis would stay with them.
I told Bob, "Bobby, they just told me that there were 18,000 people here tonight." He went, [Perfect, gruff Bob Dylan imitation] "Yes, Mavis. 18,000." I said, "You have audiences like this all the time?" "Most of the time, yes. Most of the time." I was so happy to see him. He said to me, "We're going to do another record together, probably next year." I said, "OK, just let me know." He said, "I have a song for us." I said, "OK, I'll be ready."
Lots of people that tour with Dylan say they didn't see him a single time offstage. That clearly wasn't your experience.
No. He would come to my dressing room and we would sit and talk and then I would stand onstage and see his show, and then we'd walk off. I'd catch up with them when he walked off. "Oh, there you are! What are you doing, little girl?" I said, "I've been watching your show, Bobby, and you are great. You are just great. You're singing some songs I haven't heard you sing before." He said, "Yes, Mavis. I can't sing the same songs over and over." I said, "Yeah, you have to keep the variety. I love those classics that you're singing. They're really, really romantic." He said, "Uh-huh, so you are hearing them right."
He was just so beautiful. He asked me about the family. He wanted to know how everybody was doing. He missed my sister Yvonne. These last times we'd see Bobby, Yvonne would talk to him more than I would. He wanted to know where Yvonne was and how was Pervis. I told him, "You're going to see Pervis when we get near him later in the tour." When we got there, Pervis was walking around saying, "Hey man, where is Bob? Have you seen Bob?" Nobody could find him, so Pervis didn't get a chance to see him. They were really good buddies, Bob and Pervis.
Did you ever hang out on Bob's tour bus?
No, but he came to my tour bus. I went in his dressing room. I felt like I didn't want to over-bother him. He does a much longer show than mine and I wasn't going to just drive it in the ground. I appreciated the times he would come looking for me. I'd be on the bus and my guitarist would say, "Mavis, Bob says for you to come out here." I'd go down and we'd walk and talk. When the tour first started this young man came up to me and said, "Hello, Ms. Staples. Someone wants to see you." I said, "OK." I kinda knew it was Bob. I stood up and here he comes walking in with his hoodie and sunglasses on. I says, "Oh, my goodness! Hello, Bobby! So good to see you!" And we embraced. I said to him, "I've been wanting to see you! Where have you been?" He said, [Dylan impression] "Well, if you had married me you'd see me every day." I said, "Oh, my God! Don't do me like that!"
It was really, really nice. He gave me a birthday party. They fooled me. I very seldom go to soundcheck. But the band said they wanted to rehearse this new song and told me I'd have to go. I said, "OK." I get around to soundcheck and everybody started signing "Happy Birthday." I had a cake and a present from Bob that I wore onstage. It was beautiful. There was a very cute card where he wrote, "You owe me a birthday card."
What was his present?
A beautiful, flowing top. I wore it onstage that night. I'll be wearing it from time to time. It's really something beautiful to remember the tour by, my present from Bob. I wrote him a thank-you card when we left and I wrote, "Yep, I owe you a card. I'll be waiting for your birthday." But it sounds like we'll be back together before that. His birthday is in May.
It's pretty amazing he's doing almost none of his old songs besides "Blowin' in the Wind" and a tiny handful of others.
Yeah. His band is awesome. I really enjoyed it. I told him, "Bobby, I love that 'Tangled Up in Blue.'" He says, "Oh, you like that?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "What is that you're singing about? That sloppy people?" I said, "It's not sloppy people. It's 'Slippery People' [by Talking Heads]!" He was saying some funny stuff. We'd crack up. I told him that I also like "Can't Wait." He said, "You should sing that." I told him I'd try to learn that. I saw it on YouTube. He didn't do it during the show.
You told me before the tour you wanted to cook Bob a meal. Did that happen?
No. [Laughs] His own chef was there. I didn't want to mess with that. We had lunches and dinners at the venue. Bob's chef, he would always have a place on the side and they'd build a little tent around it, not closed in, but over his head to keep him in the shade. He'd be wheeling and dealing. I figured he probably had special meals. I didn't know if he'd want turnip greens and cornbread, my specialties. We'd see the chef preparing, but we wouldn't peep in to see exactly what he's fixing.
Did you ever discuss the possibility of singing with him onstage?
Someone mentioned that, but those songs that he was singing … I did enjoy "Blowin' in the Wind." I asked him if he was going to sing "Hard Rain." I could have sang that with him. I could have sang, "Oh, where have you been …" That's the way the Staples Singers would sing it. But nope. It appeared to me that he had his show like he wanted. Now if we toured again, I really believe he would call me onstage with him since we will have done that song he wants me to do. But we didn't do any rehearsing towards singing something onstage together. I would just stand on the side of the stage and see his show. At times he would come out and catch my show. I didn't see him, but the guys would tell me, "Mavis, Bob was checking the show out."
I was so happy to be there to see him again and to hear his show, his voice. I told him, "Bobby, I really like that move you have onstage." He'd say, "Mavis, no one would notice that but you." I said, "It's so cool." "OK, alright. Alright." He's really shy. I asked him, "Bobby, before we leave I want to take a picture together." He said, "Alright, I'll take a picture." We did. The last day I came off and he was waiting for me. We got some good pictures.
Suzie [Pullen], the girl that's with him all the time, she says, "Mavis, are you planning on posting?" I said, "Oh, no, I'm not gonna post." She said, "That's good. Don't post." He's very private. I did get me a poster and I'm having it framed. His drummer [George Receli] had all the band members sign the top of one of his drums and they all signed a nice message for me. I have my memorabilia. Suzie gave me a Bob Dylan T-shirt. I also have a Dylan hoodie. I'm going to be Bob Dylan for a while now!
So he said he wanted to record a song with you next year?
Yes, he does.
"I used to think about how it would be if I married Bobby, but now I think about it even more because I miss him."
Did he tell you anything about it?
He gave me the song. I have it. But it's a secret. He gave it to me and said, "We're going to sing that on a record." I said, "OK. What do you want me to do with it?" He said, "Learn it. We're going to do it next year."
It sounds like you guys are closer than you've been in years.
Yeah. It was really, really great. I tell you, even now more ... I used to think about how it would be if I married Bobby, but now I think about it even more because I miss him. I enjoy so much seeing him. It goes through my mind from time to time, just where would we be if we were married?
Might you guys tour again? Maybe next year?
He did mention that. His people would say, "Oh, we gotta do this again Mavis. This is the best tour. It's perfect. You're the perfect opener for him. We have to do this again." I'd say, "That's fine with me."
It's amazing to think he's been doing about 90 shows a year for nearly 30 years.
Amazing. I know he goes to Japan a lot. He's taken care of himself. He looks good. His voice is strong. I love the way he cracks up when he laughs. I kept making him really laugh loud. His voice is really great.
I love those standards he's doing, like "Full Moon and Empty Arms."
They are beautiful, and the ladies in the audience go crazy. They love it. I'm just so happy that they invited me to open for him, and for such a long length of time. It was a tour I'll never forget. I'll cherish it and treasure it. I still think about the days, different things that happened. I remember you called me and I told you, "I want to cook for him." But no, that didn't happen.
What's next for you? Are you working on a new record?
Not yet. I'm sure I want to make another record. As long as I have a record out there, I'll have work. Andy Kaulkin at the record company said, "Mavis, we've got to see what's coming for you next." I said, "Andy, I don't know. The only thing I haven't done is some blues or country." It's really, really got to take some thought. I need to come with something. It will be next year. I'm super excited. I'm getting ready for the Kennedy Center. So many good things are happening for me. I'm just overwhelmed.
You'll get to go into the Oval Office, meet the president …
I have been with him twice already and I have pictures with him, but I've never been in the Oval Office. There are three functions. It's going to be a luncheon and then a dinner with John Kerry. I'll meet all the big cheeses. I'm just so grateful. I couldn't believe it. I've always enjoyed going there and singing for other people, but I never dreamed that I'd be the one honored. I'm just taken aback. I just had to shed some tears when my manager told me. I said, "Are they sure?" The president of the Kennedy Center came to a show in Washington with Dylan. She said, "Everybody is so happy you were chosen to be honored."
And you'll be with Al Pacino, James Taylor and the Eagles.
That's a great lineup. I really want to meet Al Pacino.