Mavis Staples’ Second Act
Mavis Staples is sitting in the lounge of her tour bus outside the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, telling a story about her current tourmate, Bob Dylan. The other day, Dylan asked Staples to rehearse a duet of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” a funky gospel rocker from Slow Train Coming that the pair re-recorded in 2002, earning a Grammy nomination in the process. But the rehearsal hit some roadblocks. First, they couldn’t settle on who has to sing the line “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” “He said, ‘You’re going to sing it this time. I did it for you last time,’ ” Staples recalls. “I said, ‘You didn’t do it for me. It’s your song!’ ” And with the song’s seven verses, Staples, 78, had trouble getting the lyrics straight. “I asked him, ‘Do you have a teleprompter?’ He says” – she drops her voice to Dylan’s guttural rasp – ” ‘I’m too cheap to buy a prompter, Mavis.’ I told him, ‘You can buy one for me, Bobby!’ ”
Staples may be one of the few people alive who can good-naturedly kid Bob Dylan. They first met on the set of a 1963 folk television special, back when she was the lead singer of gospel music’s most revolutionary group, the Staple Singers. Dylan had been a fan since high school; in 2001 he said listening to Staples’ voice on after-hours gospel radio “made my hair stand up.” He and Staples had a fling in the Sixties, with Staples famously rejecting his marriage proposal. Since reuniting on their first tour together, in 2016, they realized their chemistry never left.
The Dylan tour is the latest chapter of Staples’ remarkable second act, which has included five albums, a hit documentary and a Kennedy Center Honor. (She’s also become kind of an indie-rock go-to, singing on recent singles with Arcade Fire and Gorillaz.) It’s a series of events she didn’t foresee earlier this millennium as she reeled from the death of her father and musical mentor, Pops Staples, who steered the family group to success with early-Seventies hits like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” Around the same time, she quit the road to stay home in Chicago with her sister and bandmate Cleedy, who was suffering from dementia. Mavis wanted to get back to work, but labels weren’t interested. So she reached into her savings and recorded 2004’s Have a Little Faith, kicking off a productive streak that intensified when she met Jeff Tweedy, who got her back to her gospel roots while adding a modern, Wilco-ish twist on 2010’s You Are Not Alone. Tweedy went on to produce two more albums for Staples, including last year’s If All I Was Was Black. “It’s hard to be sad around Mavis,” he says. “She came to visit my wife when my wife was going through cancer treatment in the hospital, and it was a party. She just has an effortless ability to make people feel better.”
Staples hasn’t been so upbeat lately. Yvonne, her last living sister, is now suffering from dementia too. “I’m hurting…