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The Gospel According to Mavis

Dylan said that as a boy in Minnesota, he heard Randy Wood's show on Nashville's high-wattage WLAC. He "even quoted verses from 'Sit Down Servant,' said, 'Pops, you have this velvet voice and Mavis, you have this big, robust voice . . .

"We didn't know [Dylan], but that's when we started checking out his songs," Staples adds. "Pops said, 'This little guy, he writes some good stuff, we can sing some of this stuff.' "

Mavis Staples and family in the 1973 documentary "Wattstax," above. Mavis (far left) with father Roebuck "Pops" and sisters Cleotha and Yvonne at RFK Stadium in 1976. (Stax/fantasy Inc.)

For years, she kept the romantic element of the relationship private, though several Dylan biographies recount an episode at the Newport Folk Festival where Dylan yelled, "Pops, I want to marry Mavis!" To which Pops replied, "What you telling me for, tell Mavis!"

Laughing at the memory, Staples says, "I thought he was just jiving, but he was serious. For a long time, people asked, but I didn't want to put his business in the street. But Bobby and I are now up in age and movin' on so, yes, we courted for about seven years, and it was my fault that we didn't go on and get married. We had gotten with Dr. King and I was young and stupid, and I was thinking Dr. King wouldn't want me to marry a white guy.

"Finally I told Daddy and he said, 'Mavis, what is wrong with you? Do you see all the white people marching with us?'

"I just wasn't thinking, I just knew what our purpose was in the movement and thinking I'd better stay black. It was really too bad. I often wonder when I see Bobby's son Jakob [of the Wallflowers], how would our son have looked and how would he have sounded."

Dylan, she says, "was the love that I lost."

They remain friends and last year finally recorded together on "Gotta Serve Somebody," a gospel-focused tribute to the songs Dylan wrote during his born-again Christian period. Dylan sings a revamped blues-rock version of "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," kicking it off with rough vocals before interrupting the song to tell the band, "Why, look, someone's coming up the road, boys. . . . Hey, it's Mavis Staples of gospel's legendary Staple Singers."

A conversation ensues:

Dylan: "Mavis, I've had the blues."

Staples: "Oh, Bobby, don't tell me you got the blues."

Dylan: "Yeah, I've been up all night, laying in bed, having insomnia, reading Snooze-week."

Staples: "Snooze-week? That ain't gonna get rid of no blues. Let's do some singing."

Which they do, in fine, fiery style.

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