He was a folk singer from New York via the Iron Range whose songs became an integral part of the civil rights movement. She was a gospel singer from Chicago with Mississippi roots who was already singing her way down the freedom highway.
Bob Dylan’s and Mavis Staples’ paths first crossed 55 years ago, and if he’d gotten his way they might have been tied in marriage. The two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers have been circling back ever since, with a joint tour coming to Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday.
Dylan, 76, and Staples, 78, once “courted,” as Mavis put it in a 2005 Star Tribune profile, when she also talked about working with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Prince, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson and George Clinton (suffice it to say it’s one of this writer’s favorite interviews ever).
“Oh, man, it’s out now,” she said with a hearty laugh. “It was on the internet that we had courted, so when I was asked, I didn’t deny it. I don’t want to put Bobby’s business on the street. But it was before he was married. Bobby doesn’t mind. We’re older now. We had our time. That was the great love I lost, I think.”
While she may have been a personal pick by “Bobby,” Staples is a shrewd choice as opening act. Her popularity has enjoyed a revival over the past decade, thanks in part to Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who produced two prior albums and co-helmed her latest, “If All I Was Was Black,” due Nov. 17. Still, Tweedy has a long way to go before he shares as much history with Staples as “Bobby” does. Here’s a recap:
Late 1950s: Dylan first heard the Staple Singers while listening to Southern radio under his bedcovers at night in Hibbing. In a 2001 interview featured in the HBO documentary “Mavis!” he recalled her father, Pops, having a “kind of a gentle voice. But then this other voice came on, which I found out was Mavis. One of the first songs I heard that made my hair stand up on end was called ‘Sit Down Servant.’ That just made me stay up for a week after I heard that song.”
Sept. 7-8, 1962: Dylan meets the Staples family at a gospel concert in New York. “We were just shocked this little white boy — and he was little — knew our stuff. And then we’d hear him sing and Pops would say, ‘Wait a minute, y’all, listen to what the kid is saying,’ ” Mavis told Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot in his first-rate Staples biography “I’ll Take You There.”
March 1963: Dylan and the Staples tape a Westinghouse TV special with other folk acts, ending with them singing “This Land Is Your Land” together.
June 1963: The Staple Singers record Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” on their album “This Land,” the first time any act outside the folk world recorded one of his songs, and the first of many Dylan covers by the Staples.
August 1963: Dylan and the Staples each make their debut at the Newport Folk Festival. Kot’s book recounts how Dylan had “an instant crush” on Mavis and famously told her dad he wanted to marry her in the festival dining hall. “Pops says loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Don’t tell me, tell Mavis,’ ” she told Kot, admitting they shared their first kiss there.
1968: The Staple Singers record their definitive version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and perform it on tour, including a famed Fillmore West concert.
1978: Dylan and the Staples appear in the Band’s concert film “The Last Waltz.”
1980: Dylan releases his first of three Christian albums, “Slow Train Coming,” showing a heavy Staples influence.
2003: Staples gets Dylan to join her for a playful re-recording of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” for the excellent tribute album “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan.”
2004-05: Dylan happened to be staying across the street from Staples in Tokyo and tried to get her to come to his hotel room to hear his new album. “I said, ‘Bobby, I can’t come out,’ ” she told Rolling Stone. “ ‘It’s after 1 a.m. in the morning. I can’t come out by myself in Japan.’ ”
2016: Dylan first invites Staples on tour, resulting in a long-overdue, warm reunion backstage (but no pairings on stage). As she told Rolling Stone, “We embraced. I said to him, ‘I’ve been wanting to see you! Where have you been?’ He said, [Dylan impression] ‘Well, if you had married me you’d see me every day.’ I said, ‘Omigod! Don’t do me like that!’ ”