Yes, it's true, according to Mavis Staples: Many years ago, Bob Dylan asked the iconic gospel singer's father for her hand in marriage. Sort of. The way she tells the story, it happened when they were lined up for lunch during a television taping.
"We were in the front of the line and Dylan was at the back," Staples said in a recent interview. "Suddenly we hear, 'Pops, I wanna marry Mavis!' So Pops looks back and says, 'Don't tell me, tell Mavis!' Everybody laughed. But we started talking and we courted for a good while, four or five years. We'd write letters, talk on the phone -- I tried to keep those letters but they got lost when we moved -- and we'd meet at folk festivals. We were childhood sweethearts. He was real cute with his curly hair and I was kinda cute, too. I often wondered what it would be like if we'd gotten married. There'd be a lot of little Dylans and Staples. We'd have us a nice little group going now, yes indeed."
The mind reels. For more from Staples about her terrific new album and tonight's show in Durham, see the interview in Friday's paper. And while I'm at it, below is an interview with Staples conducted in 2006.
Sharing her 'gift from God'
By David Menconi, News & Observer
March 17, 2006
For years, Mavis Staples was an under-utilized resource. One of the great old-school soul singers, both on her own and with the Staple Singers, she still sounds as fantastic as ever -- for proof, just take a listen to her 2004 album, "Have a Little Faith" (Alligator Records). Yet there was a long stretch of the 1990s and well into this century when Staples was not heard on-record at all.
But Staples, who sings Saturday at the Carrboro ArtsCenter, is making up for lost time. "Have A Little Faith" was a splashy re-entry, coinciding nicely with a lifetime-achievement Grammy Award the Staple Singers were given last year. She also stole the show on last fall's "I Believe To My Soul" (Work Song), a super-session featuring Staples as well as Billy Preston (her Godson), Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint and Ann Peebles. And recent years have found Staples on high-profile tribute albums to Stephen Foster and Bob Dylan, among others.
Just one thing, though: Don't call this a comeback.
"Yeah, a lotta people say that," Staples says, calling from her home in Chicago. "But I prefer to say it's finishing what we started. We also had a really slow period in the late '70s, when disco arrived and no one wanted to hear good music for a while. But our music, songs and sound continued to live, people still wanted to hear us. We just weren't recording, but we were working."
One reason for Staples' recording hiatus was the circumstances surrounding her last solo album, 1993's "The Voice," which was produced by Prince -- who Staples calls "that little genius." She still thinks it's the best record she's ever done, and Prince was just as enthusiastic. But it was not to be, thanks to the outbreak of hostilities between Prince and his record company.
"'Mavis Mavis Mavis,' he'd say -- he could never say my name once, always three times -- 'Mavis Mavis Mavis, we're gonna be triple-platinum with this,'" she recalls with a laugh. "But then I got all caught up in Prince's arguments with Warner Bros., and they would not let it be played. I tell you, if it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all.
"But I'm moving forward," she adds. " 'Have a Little Faith' did very well, and we spent most of last year on the road. Got the Grammy Award, some W.C. Handy Awards. I tell you, I was grinning so much last year you almost had to peel it off my face. I still am. But whether you're up or down, Pops taught us that things will get better. You just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep on moving."
Ah, yes, Pops Staples -- the other reason for her hiatus. Pops was the legendary patriarch of the Staple Singers, who took soul-gospel to the mainstream with "Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There," "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" and other hits in the early 1970s. He died in 2000 of complications from a concussion. By way of explaining what her father meant to her, Staples tells a story.
"My voice has always been my gift from God," she says. "I don't play an instrument, I don't even know what key I sing in. I was in L.A. once to sing the national anthem for the Lakers, and the organist asked, 'What key would you like, Ms. Staples?' Good question! So I ran and called Pops: 'Daddy, what key do you sing the national anthem in?' He said, 'Wait a minute, let me get my guitar. Now sing where you think you want it to be.' He started playing and I started singing, and when we got to the highest point it was too high for me. He hit a string and said, 'Start there. Now you go back and tell him you want to sing it in the key of A.' And that was a good key for me.
"Then when Pops passed, I said, 'You left me here and I don't know what key I sing in!'" she continues. "So when I got started on 'Have A Little Faith,' I told the co-producer, 'You've gotta work with me because I don't know keys.' 'Just start where you think you'd want it to be,' he said, and we'd figure out if we needed to bring it down half a step. So that's the way I got my keys for 'Faith.' Yeah, I'm a problem child."
Pops may be gone, but he's still very much on his daughter's mind. "Have a Little Faith" closes with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a longtime part of the Staples' repertoire. And it also includes "Pops Recipe," a tribute to the great man: "He said, accept responsibility, don't forget humility/At every opportunity, serve your artistry/Don't subscribe to bigotry, hypocrisy, duplicity/Respect humanity, that's Pops' recipe, y'all."
"We worked, prayed and sang together for over 50 years," she says. "I really do miss him, but I'm grateful I can still hear his music and his voice and see him in videos. I'm just grateful that I know he was smiling when I started recording 'Have a Little Faith.' Pops wanted me to continue singing and I knew it had to continue, but it took me a while. I had sung solo before, but I could always say, 'I'm not leaving my family. That's home, I still sing with the Staple Singers.' I can't say that now. My father's gone, my older sister Cleotha has Alzheimer's. So it's just me."
Her initial efforts at being the only Staples family member on a stage did not go well, however.
"After I finished the album, my other sister Yvonne said, 'Mavis, you go on and sing, and I'll take care of the business for you,'" she says. "So my first concert like that, I was onstage listening for voices, Pop's guitar, things I'd always heard coming through before. I tried that for about three concerts, and then I told Yvonne, 'You are gonna have to sing with me. I need at least one other Staples voice on that stage.' So she sings background with the band."
A happy ending.