Just a few months ago, Mavis Staples' manager called her with some unexpected news: Bob Dylan wanted her serve as the opening act on his summer tour. "I was very surprised," says Staples. "And it was a month and a half long. I've never done a tour that long. I've done a month before. I guess I can make a month and a half. I was very excited to see that my old friend wanted to work with me again. It's a good feeling knowing I'd see Bobby every day for a month and a half."
Dylan and Staples have known each other since the early 1960s, and at one point they grew so close that Dylan even asked if she'd marry him. We asked Mavis about that infamous proposal, along with her plans for the summer tour and what she expects will happen when they hit the road together.
What did you first think when you heard about this tour?
I was happy that he hadn't forgotten about me. I think the last time we worked together was a European tour, but we were on different stages at the same festivals.
You also duetted on "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" in 2003.
Yeah. I thought that maybe I should learn that song again because he may want to do that. He may want us to do it together. I remember in the song there's a line that says, "I'm so hungry that I could eat a horse." I said to Bobby, "I'm not singing this." He goes [gravelly voice], "OK, Mavis, I'll sing that." I don't think I've ever gotten so hungry I could eat a horse.
Have you spoken to him since the "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" sessions?
Oh, yes. I spoke with him while I was in Japan. I think this was 2004 or 2005. Bob was there. I was working at the Blue Note. I kept getting this message that this lady was calling me. I didn't know the name he uses to check into hotels. I kept saying, "I don't know this person." When I got back to my hotel his name was there and I went, "This is Bobby!" It was late. We had two shows. It was after 1 a.m.
He was sleeping when I called him. He went, "Oh, Mavis, I've been trying to get you. I want you to come over here." I said, "Where are you?" He said, "My hotel is right across the street from you." He said, "I want to hear your opinion on my new album." I said, "Bobby, I can't come out. It's after 1 a.m. in the morning. I can't come out by myself in Japan." He goes, "Mavis, it's just right across the street." I said, "I know, but that's spooky! You come over here!" He goes, "I gotta be up early." He had to catch that fast train to somewhere. He said, "OK, Mavis. I really wanted you to hear my album. I really wanted your opinion." I go, "Aw shucks, Bobby. Why didn't you call me when you're back in the States?" I gave him my number, but I never heard from him. It was good to hear from him, though.
The name he used at the hotel was a crazy kind of name. I wish I had written it down to remember it. It was funny, comical. I just said, "I don't know that person." That was the last time I talked to him. I tried to wait for him at one of those festivals in Australia. We were over in Perth. I had gone on. It was so hot. I tried to wait for him. I spoke to his band. I spoke to his crew. Then I told them, "Please tell Bobby I tried to wait for him." They told me they would let him know. But haven't talked to him anymore since that.
Are you gonna do your standard show on this tour, or might you change it a bit for the Dylan audience?
I think I'm just gonna do my standard show, which is some of the old and some of the new. We sing some of the songs that my family sang. Then I sing a couple of Stax songs. Then I'll probably sing a couple of songs from my latest LP. I don't change it up. I just do what I do. I don't really know what his audience wants anyway.
Do you look at it as a challenge since some people in the audience may not be all that familiar with your work?
I thought about that, but then I put that out of mind. I said, "If he asked me to come open for him, he trusts that his audience will accept me." All I can do is give them what I have. I kind of think his audience and my audience is the same. We've come a long way down the same road. We started at the Newport Folk Festival. I've done a lot of folk festivals. The folk audience seems to like my work. I really did think about that, how Bob's audience would accept me. I hope they go easy on me. I hope they are friendly with me. I'd hate to come offstage in tears.
Are you hoping Bob will want to sing some songs with you during the tour?
I don't know, not necessarily. The only thing I think he might want to sing is "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" or "Gotta Serve Somebody." Hopefully he won't hide from me. Hopefully I'll get to see him. I think he just wants me to open his show and set up the stage for him and be grateful that he's asked me to do that.
Bob does often hide from his opening act, but I think you're a special case. You guys go back so many years together. He famously said he wanted to marry you.
I've thought about that quite a few times. I often wonder how it would have been had Bob and I had gotten married. We would have had some little crumb-crushers and probably right now we'd have a nice stable of Dylan-Staples singing children. I have often thought about had I married Bob, how it would have been. But I was absolutely too young. Both of us were too young. We were still teenagers. I said, "Bobby, I'm too young. I can't even cook yet!" We had fun though. We enjoyed each other, and we loved each other. We were young love. Too young.
On his current tour, he's doing mainly newer songs or standard songs associated with Frank Sinatra. He's only doing two songs from the 1960s in his whole show.
Is that right?
But he does "Blowin' in the Wind" at the very end. He's doing "Autumn Leaves," "Melancholy Mood," "I'm a Fool to Want You."
That's interesting. I'll get to hear that then. I'm certainly going to be sitting around waiting for his show. That'll be fun.
What's the number one song you'd want to sing with him?
I would think "Gotta Serve Somebody." But I love his songs. I love "Lay Lady Lay." But I don't know the lyrics to all his songs. I don't know any of them all the way through. I just know parts of them. But I'll probably know every one when I leave this tour.
I'd love to hear you guys sing "Blowin' in the Wind" together.
I do know that one. The Staple Singers recorded that. That would be great! My family first met Bob in New York. We were going to do a special for ABC. Bob's manager said, "I want you to meet the Staple Singers." He said, "Oh, I know the Staple Singers. I've know them since I was 12 years old." Pops said, "How you know us?" He said, "I listened to WLAC." That was a station out of Nashville, 50,000 watts. Everybody could get WLAC. He said to Pops, "Your voice is like velvet. But Mavis, she gets rough sometimes." I said, "Oh, yeah!"
When the show started, he sang "Blowin' in the Wind." Pops said, "Listen, all. Listen to what that kid is saying." He was singing, "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" And Pops literally lived that. He would tell us stories about when he was in Mississippi and all of a sudden there was a white man coming towards him on the same side of the street – Pops would have to cross over. It's saying, "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" Pops said, "We can sing that." We went home and we bought that record and we learned it. "Blowin' in the Wind."
It's amazing to think of how much talent this little kid had back then.
It was amazing, a little kid. He was putting together lyrics like that. I'm just so honored to know Bobby, especially that he has invited me to open his shows for him. It's really an honor.
You're playing so many amazing venues, like the Greek Theater and the Santa Barbara Bowl.
Yeah. It's gonna be fun. 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?"
What meal would you cook for him?
Bobby is probably a vegetarian by now. I just don't know. I'd tell him to make up the menu, whatever he wants; that's what would I would fix for him. He might want kale!
I'm really hoping you guys do reconnect.
I'm gonna try to get pictures, conversations. I'm gonna try with every breath I take.
You hear stories he goes right from the tour bus to the dressing room.
I'm gonna grab him. I'm not gonna be on the tour for a month and a half and not have any conversation with Bobby. He's gonna talk to me.