Mavis Staples reflects on luck, love, and a marriage proposal from Bob Dylan
They might’ve been Mr. and Mrs. Zimmerman. But Mavis Staples, an iconic gospel, blues, and R&B performer, turned down Bob Dylan’s marriage proposal in the early 1960s, she says.
The two legends — and onetime item — are on tour together this summer, with five upcoming New England dates, including one at Tanglewood on Saturday and another at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion July 14.
Born in 1939 in Chicago, Staples began making music at age 8 as a member of the Staple Singers, led by the late Roebuck “Pops” Staples. The family band covered Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963, and in 1964 both the Staples Singers and Dylan played the Newport Folk Festival. Staples, 76, and Dylan, 75, were nominated for a 2003 Grammy for their duet on “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”
Staples, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 2011, has been on a roll this year with the release of an HBO documentary, “Mavis!” — featuring many artists she’s influenced, from Prince to Jeff Tweedy — and a new album, “Livin’ on a High Note.” Reached by telephone recently, she talked about her days with Dylan, then and now.
Q. How did this tour with Dylan come together?
A. My manager called me one day and said, “Mavis, we got a call — Bob Dylan wants you to open.” And I said, You’ve gotta be kidding! I would love to do that!
This is a month-and-a-half-long tour — that’s long for me. The other day Bobby said, [uses gravelly voice] “You gonna be all right? Not too much for you, is it, Mavis?” I said, “If it’s not too much for you, it’s not too much for me!” Because Bobby’s a little younger; he’s 75.
Q. How’s the tour going so far?
A. I love it. This is just the best thing that could happen. My dear friend from way back! I’ve known Bobby since 1963. I was so glad to see him. He’s looking well. We two old-timers, doing a month-and-a-half tour. Can’t beat it. Everybody’s asking me, “Are you and Bob going to get married?” Maybe I’ll propose to him this time.
Q. Right, he proposed to you once before.
A. Oh yeah, he proposed to me way back when we first met. I told him I was too young. Now, if he proposed to me, we’d be pushing each other around in wheelchairs. [laughs]
Q. Were you two dating?
A. We courted for several years. We’d write letters back and forth to each other. And my family was doing a lot of folk festivals, and we’d see each other on the road. We dated for a while. This was back in the ’60s.
Q. Where’d you meet?
A. We were doing a TV show in New York for ABC, and we were all standing outside, and his manager said to him, “I want you to meet the Staple Singers.” And Bob said, “I know them; I’ve been listening to them since I was 12 years old.”
We talked; he talked a lot to my brother. After that day, he told my father he wanted to marry me. We met at Newport [Folk Festival] but I don’t think I should tell too much more about me and Bobby’s life. Because Bob might not want his business in the street. [laughs]
Q. Anything else you want to say about the tour?
A. Bob’s crew, everyone is so nice. He has so many people with him! He has a big organization, Bobby. . . we go to lunch; we go to dinner. He has a great caterer. I said to Bob, You gotta call me for another tour! And he said [uses gravelly voice] “OK, Mavis, I’m gonna call you for another tour.” [laughs] I just love to hear him talk, you know.
Q. Quite a list of artists wrote original songs for your latest album: Nick Cave, Neko Case, Valerie June, Ben Harper. How’d you pick them?
A. [Producer] Matt Ward, M. Ward, I’ve liked his music through the years; I like his personality. He has a little son named Abraham that I would like to steal. [laughs] He’s 3 years old and cute as a button. People I meet, I try to make them family, and that session was really, really beautiful.
[The contributing artists] wrote these songs especially for me — that’s a first for me. After they found out what I wanted, they went straight to their writing boards. It was so personal, you know.
Valerie June, she wrote “Living on a High Note,” and I got her song first. And I said, This is the title. Because I’m on cloud number nine. I must be the happiest old girl in the world right now. I’m just the luckiest old girl in the world. Next month I’ll be 77 years old, and I’m just floating along with the kids.
Q. An HBO documentary about you had its premiere earlier this year. How did that come about?
A. This young lady [Jessica Edwards] wanted to do a documentary on me. She said, “Oh, Miss Staples, it won’t be tiresome to you, I’ll go very slow.” I love the way it turned out. I think in a couple months, it’ll be on DVD and I’ll be watching it all the time, because I love seeing my father. I love seeing Pops.
Q. What was it like being a member of the Staple Singers as a kid?
A. My father, he used to sing with an all-male group, and these guys wouldn’t go to rehearsal. Pops would come home disgusted. He came home one night and took the guitar out and sat us kids on the floor in the circle, and said, “We gonna sing.” His sister came through and said, “Shucks, y’all sound good. You should sing at my church on Sunday.” We [did], and Pops said, “Shucks, people like us. We gonna learn some more songs.” I was so little — I was 8 years old. They’d have to stand me in a chair so people could see where the voice was coming from.
I’ve had a wonderful life. I haven’t missed out on anything. The Jackson Five, little Michael, he missed his childhood. I had a childhood — I’ve been singing all these years. Like I said, I’m living on a high note. I’m the luckiest old girl in the world.
MAVIS STAPLES WITH BOB DYLAN
At Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox, July 2 at 7 p.m. $37.50-$149.50. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org. At Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, July 14 at 7:30 p.m. $39.50-$129.50. Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. 800-745-3000, www.livenation.com
An earlier version of this story misstated the title of the song “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”