An exclusive interview with
Regina Havis


Conducted by Scott Marshall


Regina McCrary Brown (known as Regina Havis previously) has been singing most of her life. Being the daughter of "the singing preacher," the late Rev. Samuel McCrary of the Fairfield Four, gospel songs are familiar terrain for Regina. On December 2, 1978, in Nashville, Tennessee, Regina auditioned for Bob Dylan while he was in town for a concert. Five months later, she contributed to Slow Train Coming (1979), and the rest, as they say, is history. Regina also collaborated with Dylan on Saturday Night Live (October 20, 1979), the Grammy Awards (February 27, 1980), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). Additionally, she toured with Dylan for over 150 concerts from 1979-1981, opening most of these shows (along with other female singers) with a handful of gospel songs. She shared vocals with Dylan on songs such as "Ain't No Man Righteous, No Not One" and "Mary From the Wild Moor." Regina also sang solo at these concerts on songs like "Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man from Galilee" and "Till I Get It Right." And Dylan himself in the liner notes to his 1985 release, Biograph, complimented Regina as he reflected on the gospel tours: "Regina McCrary played with me for a while. She's the daughter of Preacher Sam McCrary from Nashville who used to have the old gospel group the Fairfield Four. Anyway, she would open these shows with a monologue about a woman on a train, she was so incredibly moving. I wanted to expose people to that sort of thing because I loved it and it's the real roots of all modern music but nobody cared." During his 1999 tour, Dylan debuted a number of gospel cover songs, one being "Somebody Touched Me," which he sang on ten occasions–a song that Sam McCrary and the Fairfield Four recorded back in 1953. Today, Regina works as a drug counselor in a Christian ministry and sings for the largest gospel TV show in the USA, the Bobby Jones Gospel show, airing twice on Sundays from Nashville, Tennessee, via cable channel BET.

 

Twenty years have passed since the recording of Slow Train Coming. How did you become a backup singer for Dylan (along with Carolyn Dennis, Mona Lisa Young, and Helena Springs; and later Clydie King and Madeline Quebec–mother of Carolyn Dennis)?

Carolyn Dennis is like my sister, I’ve known her since I was 7 years old. She called me and told me about Dylan’s coming to town and that he was looking for a singer. She’d mentioned me to him so when he got to Nashville, I auditioned for him.

Were you familiar with Bob Dylan’s music before this?

I knew two or maybe three of his songs. "Blowing In The Wind" and "Lay, Lady, Lay" were the main two songs I knew. But I didn’t know who he was.

Do you remember hearing in the national press that he’d become a believer in Jesus?

I was hired, then a few months later he announced that he was a born-again Christian, and it hit the papers.

What are your memories of the Saturday Night Live show when you performed a few of those songs for the first time?

That was exciting. My first and only time doing the Saturday Night Live show. I felt privileged to help make history in that part of Bob’s life because of the stand that he was taking, and because of the stand that I take in being a born-again Christian. It was an honor to be able to make that stand with him. And also it was awesome just to be able to meet all of the cast.

After Saturday Night Live you opened the show/tour at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater with the story about an old woman, her son, and a train–where did you first hear that story?

The first time I heard the story was in church. My father, Reverend Samuel H. McCrary was a pastor. They called my father the "singing preacher" because he was one of the original, famous Fairfield Four, a quartet group. He traveled on the road with the Fairfield Four, and he also was our minister. As a little girl growing up to a woman I would hear him at different times tell a story about this woman who had faith in God in spite of her circumstances–she didn’t have money to visit her son who had been hurt at war.

Was it Dylan’s idea for you to tell this story?

Yes, Carol, Helena and I had rehearsed about five or six songs to open up Bob Dylan’s show. We rehearsed every day, getting those five to six songs together. And Bob said that his show was ready. When we got to San Francisco, for the first time, I realized how big Bob Dylan was. I didn’t, you know, it still hadn’t registered to me who he was or what he was about. But when we got off that van at Market Street to go inside of the auditorium [we were overwhelmed by] all the people that were screaming and hollering; women were crying and people reaching for him. I realized then that I was singing with somebody who was very, very, very important to a lot of people.

We walked in and we did sound check. It was about 20 minutes before it was time to go on stage when he said he thought something was missing. He didn’t know what, just something was missing. He really didn’t feel right about the beginning; the opening of the show.

We were all in the dressing room putting on makeup and I was acting silly when he came into the dressing room to talk to all his backup singers. He said something just didn’t feel right, something was missing that he needed to open the show ‘cause he didn’t want people to think this music was just a gimmick. He wanted them to know that he was for real about confessing that Jesus Christ was his Lord and Savior. He wanted people to know that this was not a fad, or a phase he was going through. It was for real.

So me, I’ve always been silly, I love to laugh, act silly and have fun. I turned to him–and I was acting silly, I was not serious at all–and I said okay, look, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna walk out on the stage and I’m gonna tell this story about this old woman trying to get on the train:

She’s trying to get on this train because her son was hurt in the war and they said they didn’t think he was gonna make it. She got this letter from him saying, "Mama, come and see me, I don’t think I’m gonna make it." The woman didn’t have any money. She got on her knees, she prayed to God, and an angel appeared and told her to go to the train station. She went down to the train station...

I went on and I told the whole story about when she got on the train:

The conductor saw her and he walked to her and asked her if she had her ticket. And she said no, she didn’t have a ticket. And he told her, "I’m sorry old woman, I’m gonna have to put you off." He put her off the train and the woman started to sing as she stood next to the railroad train, "Father, I stretch my hands to thee, no other help I know." Meanwhile the conductor was pulling on the string for the train to start but it wouldn’t move.

The woman kept singing and praising God, "Father, I stretch my hands to thee, no other help I know." And when the conductor looked out, he saw the woman praising God and singing. He looked at the woman and he realized that she was the reason the train wasn’t moving. So he went to the old woman and he told her come and get back on the train. She got on the train, and the train slowly started to move...

I said now after I finish telling that story, then I’m just gonna go into "If I got my ticket Lord, can I ride?"–‘cause that was the first song that we were opening up with anyway.

Bob Dylan looked at me like I had lost my mind and he left out of the dressing room! I was laughing, and the other women were laughing, we were all laughing. We went on back to getting our make-up on and getting dressed.

Bob came back in the dressing room a few minutes later and he had Spooner Oldham, Fred Tackett, Jim Keltner, and Tim Drummond with him. I’m looking out the corner of my eye like, What’s up? And he said, "Tell them that story."

Now I’m looking at him kind of funny ‘cause I’m thinking, "I was just playing and having fun with him!" But I go on and I tell the story again anyway.

Then he looked at me and he said, "That’s how we’re gonna open up my show."

And I said, "Oh, uh, I was just playing. I was just playing. I can’t do that. I don’t...uh-uh. No. I can’t do that."

And he said, "You are a professional. Yes, you can."

Fred Tackett’s wife is an actress and she was there. I became very nervous and I said "Look, what do I do? How do I do this?"

She said "Well, you play all the characters on stage–you be the narrator, you be the old woman, you be the son’s voice when the letter’s being read. You just do it."

But I still wasn’t feeling good about it. I mean, I was nervous. So I called my father long-distance. And I told my daddy, "Daddy, you know how you always told me I was gonna get in trouble with my mouth? Well, guess what?" I told him, "I was playing and acting silly and now Bob says that’s how we are gonna open up the show. And I can’t do this!"

My daddy said "Yes, you can."

I said "Daddy, I’m not a preacher, I can’t tell that story."

And he said "You already told it. Now what you need to do is pray before you walk out on that stage and then, if you get nervous, look into the spotlight. Just stare into the spotlight. Inside of that spotlight you’re going to find the spirit of God. And you’re gonna feel my spirit. I’ll be there."

[So with very little planning and no rehearsal] I walked out on that stage and I told that story. The women stayed off the stage while I was telling the story. As I got to the part where the conductor told the old woman to get back on the train that’s when the other women started to slowly walk out and get into position. By the time the old woman says, "Conductor, you said if I didn’t have a ticket I couldn’t get on the train." And the conductor says, "Well, Jesus got your ticket. Come on and get on board"... By that time, the keyboard player [Terry Young] was making a brroomp, brroomp sound with the piano like the wheels of the train beginning to move.

Then I say, "The old woman got on the train and the train started to move." and I’d start singing "Yes, I got my ticket Lord."

And the women were already in position at the mic and they came in with "Can I ride?"

Those other five or six songs, did Dylan leave it up to you to decide which songs to do?

Well, we all worked on the songs that we wanted. It was maybe eight songs, and he chose five to six that he wanted.

But the beginning of the show was his way of giving us an opportunity to showcase our talent and also to be able to sing the anointing of the Holy Spirit into the room. And there were many times that people would pay that money to come hear Bob Dylan do "I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more," and they got "Slow Train Comin’." Some people that were there came in high, ready to just rock ’n’ roll and they ended up being saved.

I am happy...I am blessed to have not known who he was when I auditioned. Because some people make the mistake of when they meet a person of Bob Dylan’s caliber, they tend to not see the man. They tend to see the fame and fortune; what he’s done and what he’s accomplished. I’m glad I didn’t know all of those things about him because what I saw and who I saw was a man. A man who had an awesome gift from God, even down to his other music. When I got still and I listened to the words to some of the songs that he wrote before I joined him, it was awesome. God has been using him and his songs and his lyrics for a long time. And he’s been speaking out against the wrong and standing up for the right for a very, very long time. So when he did Slow Train Comin’, Saved, and Shot Of Love he only brought everything that he’s been doing to a full circle to let people know that he’s been serving a live and a living God, all his life.

That’s what I saw. And that’s what I believe. There are lots of people who can sing, but they don’t have the anointing of God on them. I can truly say that Bob Dylan has the anointing of God on him and it comes out through the lyrics that he writes. It comes out also because of the way he cares about people.

To you he was an ordinary person, yet so many people view him as someone who’s more than human somehow.

Yeah. That’s what I saw. But my father taught me: don’t just watch what people say, watch how they live their lives. The walk has to match the talk. I watch that in people, period. And I saw that [consistency] in Bob Dylan. I was glad I saw it in him because for me to be out on the road with him all those years... I couldn’t have been out on the road with him–I didn’t care how much money he was paying–if I felt like what he was doing was a lie, especially because it was about God. I couldn’t be out there with him if what he was singing about was one thing and then what he was doing off stage was something totally different.

I watched him not only walk the walk but I watched him talk the talk, sing the talk, and write about it. I grew to have a lot of love and respect for him.


You’ve just read an excerpt of the interview with Regina Havis. The complete interview appears in On the Tracks issue #18 and is available from Rolling Tomes.









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