Candi Staton: The lady is a soul survivor

Candi Staton has gone from gospel to disco and back again. She tells Phil Meadley about the twists and turns her life has taken
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The Independent Culture

Ask anyone over 30 if they've heard of the singer Candi Staton and they'll probably point you in the direction of "Young Hearts Run Free". As a disco singer best known for one solitary Seventies hit - and, perhaps, the Nineties club hit "You Got the Love" with The Source - it is surprising to hear that she's in London to sing with Jools Holland's Big Band for his annual Hootenanny. Surprising, that is, until you lend an ear to the 26-track compilation of her late Sixties and early Seventies work for Rick Hall's esteemed black soul label, Fame. This retrospective features some of the best raw and funky southern soul you are likely to hear this side of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Tracks such as "I'm Just a Prisoner (of Your Good Loving)", "I'd Rather Be an Old Man's Sweetheart (Than a Young Man's Fool)", and a sublime reworking of Elvis Presley's classic "In the Ghetto" (Presley liked it so much he sent her a gushing letter), are so full of cracked emotion and heartfelt outpourings, that Staton must surely be reappraised as one of soul's greatest voices.

Staton, who is residing in the ultra-plush confines of a five-star hotel, The Landmark, opposite London's Marylebone Station, seems bemused and extremely flattered that people are just starting to discover this early part of her career again. "When Bill Carpenter (her publicist in Washington DC) told me that they were getting ready to put out 26 old songs, the first thing I thought was 'How in the world did they get them from Rick Hall?' Because several times people have called my office asking if they can have six or seven tracks, and I always pointed them in the direction of Rick Hall. They would call me back with these horror stories about Rick saying he wasn't ever going to give anyone permission to put these songs out again."

Staton's relationship with Fame boss Hall began when one of the label's recording artists, Clarence Carter, heard Staton singing Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man", in a small club in Alabama. Carter liked her gospel-trained voice and offered her a chance to tour with his band. Even at that time Staton had a colourful past. Born Canzetta Maria Staton in 1943 in the small rural Alabama town of Hanceville, her upbringing consisted of helping to pick cotton and singing in the church choir. When Staton was 10 years old her mother moved the family north to Cleveland, to escape her alcoholic husband. Candi was sent to boarding school in Nashville, where she joined the Jewel Gospel Trio, and started cutting tracks for Nashboro Records, and touring with gospel stars such as Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers and Aretha Franklin.

At 17, Staton ran off to Los Angeles with the Pilgrim Travelers' singer Lou Rawls. They were due to marry, until Rawls's mother had her sent back to school. She returned to Alabama and was soon pregnant by the son of the local Pentecostal minister. "He was a jealous and insecure man," she reminisces. "I could barely get out of the door, and became a housewife for seven years." During this period she raised her four young children and the only singing she did was in church. Eventually her brother persuaded her to go to a club, which was where she met Carter, already a big rhythm and blues star in the South.

The final nail in her marriage came when her husband beat her for an imagined affair with a local radio DJ. She packed her bags, took her children and went to see Carter in Nashville; he instantly hired her to sing with his band. The relationship grew and they eventually married.

Staton quickly found, however, that her gospel background didn't help deal with club audiences: "When I started to do secular music I literally got booed off stage, because I didn't know how to do a show. In gospel all you have to do is stand there, look up, and sing. But when you get into a club you can't look up. Nobody had told me I couldn't do that! Luckily, Jerry Butler saw the show that night. He took me to one side and told me 'You've got to make eye contact, you gotta feel the people, you gotta have camaraderie with the people. Don't ever look up again.' " The next day Carter gave her four hours of rehearsal to enhance her stage presence. "That's all I needed," her eyes sparkle: "I went shopping, I got me some gowns, showing some cleavage and legs and all that stuff. I never got booed again."

When Staton moved from Fame to Warner Bros. it was during the transition from live rhythm and blues to the studio-based disco of the late Seventies. "When I was playing nightclubs, the audience would heckle you. They'd cause you not to have confidence in yourself, and you'd have to rise above that. But moving to disco you didn't have to deal with that kind of thing because everybody was dancing. If you didn't do anything but walk from one side of the stage to the other, smile, sing your song and shake your hair a little bit, then the audience would just love it. That was the difference between the two eras. Before, we were begging our baby not to leave us, and folks would be screaming, and that's what would bring the house down."

Nowadays, Staton's religious convictions prevent her from singing many of the songs from her early career. "I couldn't sing lyrics like 'I'm another man's woman, and you're another woman's man', because I wouldn't be true to myself. I'm not another man's woman and I don't condone adultery and fornication. If you don't stand for something then you fall for anything." Staton's conversion back to the church and a thriving gospel career began in 1982, after the strains of touring and record-label pressures increased her alcohol dependency. "My body was literally falling apart," she confides, despite now looking remarkably healthy and attractive for her 60 years. "I had pus on my kidneys, and my liver was getting infected from so much alcohol. I would be so inebriated I didn't even know what city I was in most times.

"But looking back it made me who I am. I don't deny that. It's a part of my life and I loved it, and I look back at it as my growth period. At the time there was a lot of begging like 'Please don't leave me baby. If you leave me, I'll die!' But now I won't do that. I'm going to make it. You can leave if you want to, but I'm going to survive... See you around."

'Candi Staton' is out now on Honest Jon's Records.