Candi Staton: That heart still runs free

A career marked by alcoholism, abuse and some great music. Gavin Martin talks to Candi Staton
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The Independent Online

Eating her lunch in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Camden, north London, Candi Staton - the 63-year-old survivor, heroine and sexual avenger of American deep soul - has made herself at home.

Staton is a small, voluptuous woman, with the vitality you'd hope for in the lady famed for "Young Hearts Run Free", a British hit three times over. That's a distinction shared by her most recent chart entry, "You Got the Love", a collaboration with The Source.

She's had her struggles, but her new album, His Hands, shows that her voice is still a marvel of brooding, quivering intensity. As she talks, her eyes sparkle; she speaks in warm, husky tones, full of zest, as she pours out her life story.

Canzata Maria Staton was born in 1943 in Hanceville, Alabama - just in time to live through the pre-Civil Rights days of supremacist terror. "I was always afraid. A black man near us was castrated. I was worried for my brothers," she says. "With my own eyes, I've seen the Ku-Klux-Klan coming through our neighbourhood, carrying torches, with the white sheets on. I was frightened all the time.

"In our hometown they had a sign saying, 'Read This and Run, Nigger. And if You Can't Read - Run Anyway.' They only took it down about 15 years ago," she recalls.

A child gospel star, Staton was whisked out of cotton-picking poverty, first to Cleveland, then to the all-black Jewel Christian Academy in Nashville. With the Jewel Gospel Trio, she recorded for the Nashboro label and hit the gospel circuit, travelling with the likes of Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin.

"It was a great escape from the poverty of a little country town, to bring me out of that was thrilling. But we couldn't stay in any hotels; they didn't have black hotels so we'd stay in places where they had prostitutes. It was very, very nasty and it did affect my life."

Financial, physical and spiritual exploitation began when she met Lou Rawls, who died recently. "I was 16 when I met him; at 17 he asked me to marry him. I said yes and was looking forward to it. But I was so country. I was so naive and I believed every word he said. That lasted for a long time in my life - all the deception and abuse."

The pattern continued with her first husband, a minister's son with whom she had four children. If nothing else, the pain and heartbreak of their relationship enabled her to bring purpose and insight to secular music, a world she now entered.

She was performing Franklin's "Do Right Woman" the night Clarence Carter, king of the soulful cheating song, heard her in an Alabama nightclub. "He said, 'Can you go on the road?' I said, 'No, I got four children and a jealous husband.' He said 'What you gonna do about that?' I said, 'I'm gonna leave him.'" Within six weeks, she and her husband had "a knockout fight", a divorce was filed, her kids were put in care and Carter took her to Rick Hall, at the Muscle Shoals Fame studio. Over the next four years, they made some of the greatest recordings of the soul era.

As a live performer, little Canzata had to make the transition from gospel show to the chitlin circuit. "The venues were like modern-day rap clubs. I didn't know how tough the audiences could be, but I got tough."

To learn how to carry herself on stage, she watched porn films - this, of course, in the days when there were no home videos. Staton giggles: "I'd wear dark glasses and a hat. One time, I was the only woman in this porn theatre on 42nd Street in New York. I was scared, but I had to learn how to be sexy, to have that come-on thing."

Around the time she cut her memorable version of Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man", she and Carter married. She'd never drunk before, afraid of becoming like her father, an alcoholic bootlegger who was "a sad, frustrated and unhappy man". But her discovery of Carter's infidelities drove her to the bottle, and fuelled songs such as "Mr and Mrs Untrue". "I did them for revenge. I was angry Clarence had done me so wrong chasing women. We could be walking down the street and they'd come and hug him. I sang them to get back at him."

A much more dangerous relationship followed when she was romanced by a promoter she'll only call Johnny: "A gun-toting, coke-snorting gangster and pimp - everything you could name." He wanted to snare her, control her as an artist. Once married, the abuse turned violent. During a Las Vegas residency with Ray Charles, matters came to a head. "He took out a gun and says he's going to kill me. Then he picks me up and has me hanging over the balcony 23 floors up.

"When you got a maniac hanging you out the window, you have to think rationally. I said, 'I don't know how you think you'll get out of this hotel, because it's Mafia-run. If you destroy one of their acts, they're going to look you up and kill you.' That got his attention." Her account of the marriage inspired the producer Dave Crawford to write "Young Hearts Run Free".

By 1982, she was free of Johnny, but Staton's alcoholism had reached crisis point. "I'd been on a bender all weekend, Johnnie Walker black and soda. I looked so haggard, looked at myself in the mirror and said this isn't me. I prayed: Lord take it away. I went on a fast from everything - food, water and alcohol - for three days. Then I was free. I've never desired it since."

His Hands was made at the home of Lambchop's Mark Nevers. On the autobiographical title-track, she mines the border between eroticism and fear, another stand-out performance.

The seamless link-up with alt.country mavericks is typical of her willingness to try something new. "I'm always open to anything that's going to put me on another level." She has a new life now, with a retired professor. They have written a book, Hitchhikers: Men Who Ride for Free, which draws on her relationships. It will be followed by a detailed autobiography.

Staton may not sing the cheating songs any more, but music is still her refuge. "It was an escape when I was a child. I'd get lost in song, listening to the radio, and when the blues and gospel stations stopped, the country stations came on. I loved it all. But I never wanted to sound like anyone else. If I felt I was like Aretha or Gladys Knight, I'd quickly go back into myself and pull out me. I wanted to find my own expression in song; that's why I always stuck with me."

'His Hands' is out now on Honest Jon's

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