A VILLAGE VOICE critic once wrote that Candi Staton’s lovesick, country-inflected disco would have you “crying and dancing at the same time or you’re not human.” And it’s true: her past is all broken homes and broken marriages, and her voice has the cracks and imperfections to prove it. She was born in 1940 in rural Hanceville, Alabama, where she sang gospel in her teens even while her mama mocked her singing voice. She performed in a successful girl group called The Jewel Gospel Singers, and then went on the road to tour. In Nashville, she met and later married the musician Clarence Carter, known around his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, for his hit song “Patches” and his womanizing. Carter introduced Staton to Rick Hall of FAME Records, who would go on to put out some of her best discs—mulatto mixes of disco, country and r&b like “Too Hurt to Cry,” “I’m Just a Prisoner,” and a funky, bass-and-horn-heavy cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.”
Eventually, she left Carter and landed with a promoter named Jimmy James. But James turned out to be, in Staton’s words, “a gangster and a pimp and very abusive.” When she left him, she says, she had to hire Michael Jackson’s bodyguard to protect her.
One day, in 1975, she told her friend and producer David Crawford about the relationship with James. He wrote her a song to sing about the ordeal: “Young Hearts Run Free,” a jazzy, shuffling dance track that went straight to the top of the disco charts and made Staton famous. Good things come of the bad, Staton thought. But Crawford didn’t agree. He cut off all ties with the thirty-five-year-old singer. He was angry because he hadn’t sung the song.
In 1982, after getting caught up in the drug and disco scene for a few years, Staton left it all behind to return to gospel singing. “It was the happiest time of my life,” she says about the twenty peaceful years she spent living out of the spotlight in Atlanta, Georgia, attending mass, and hosting a religious talk show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. But unexpected events led her out of the idyll: In 2004, the owner of the small avant-garde and Americana label Honest Jon’s got the idea to reissue her early FAME singles. The collection was an unexpected hit, and, with EMI on board as a partner, sold 100,000 records in its first few months in stores. But once again, one of the men in her life stepped in: Rick Hall, who Staton hadn’t spoken with in years, now said he owned the songs and produced a batch of contracts to prove it. He sued EMI. They pulled Staton’s record from the shelf. Today it’s only available in the UK.
Still, the success of 2004’s CANDI STATON led to one of the best records of her career. 2006’s HIS HANDS is stunning. (As is, to a slightly lesser degree, the 2009 sequel WHO’S HURTING NOW?) On the title track (featured on our “Alternate Universe” mix), written for Staton by no-folk troubadour Will Oldham, she sings an extended double entendre about the hands of abusive men and the hands of God. “There were a lot of things in his touch,” she begins, in a voice that is weathered but never blustery. Behind her, you hear staccato strikes on a guitar, the misty groans of an organ, roiling triplets.
Sometimes the slightest whisper—ooh, it could hurt so much
I could feel him coming nearer
His little noises and such
Then my man would lay his hands on me.
The song is Staton at her best: taking the raw material given her by the men in her life and turning it, with the power of her breath, into something beautiful.
Recently, THE OA spoke with Staton by telephone to talk about her life and career.
THE OA: One of your earliest hit singles was a rendition of Tammy Wynette and Billy Sherrill’s “Stand By Your Man.” What made you want to sing that song?
Candi Staton: It wasn’t really my idea, it was Rick Hall’s. He was my producer at the time. He thought it would be a hit record. He said, ‘I got a song for you. If we ever get the country out, I think we’ll have a hit record.’ So we worked on it all day, trying to get the country out. So, finally, one of the bassists came up with the riff, the one you hear on the record. So they did. We ended up getting most of it out.
THE OA: What do you mean, “getting the country out?”
CS: The wang. You know, the waaaaang. He was trying to get that out of the music. ’Cause he knew I didn’t have it. I was gonna sing it soulful.
THE OA: Were you listening to country music at this point?
CS: I’ve always listened to country music. Country music is one of my favorite genres of music. That’s all we had to listen to [growing up in Hanceville, Ala.]. Ernest Tubb, Tennessee Ernie Ford, oh gosh, you name ’em, we had ’em all. We could only listen to two stations, and one was blues, and one was country. I liked the blues, too.
THE OA: And when did you start listening to other styles of music?
CS: Well, when I began to grow up and try to get out from under my mother’s wing—when I could get out with the other girls, I would listen to other music, and I liked it. But at that time, my mom told me it was the devil’s music. Any kind of music that wasn’t gospel was the devil’s music.
THE OA: And you sang gospel when you were young, too, right?
CS: Yeah, that’s what I started in.
THE OA: How old were you when you started singing?
CS: Around about five when I first started singing gospel music. We would go to church—we were raised in the church. So we would learn the songs from the church. So that’s how I learned the gospel music—gospel songs that my mother sung, I started singing them, and it was the most amazing thing. You know, I learned my voice, I curled my tongue and would imitate the stuff I knew from the gospel music we heard on the radio. Clara Ward and The Davis Sisters and The Blind Boys and Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls and all of those guys. And we learned how to sing from those guys. We just kinda mimicked them.
But my mother really didn’t think I could sing that well. She just liked quartet music. Most of the music that she really, really loved was quartet music. So she would always listen to the men singing it. When we were trying to sing like the other singers, she was like, “Girl, you need to be quiet ’cause you know you can’t sing!” And I was like, “Oh mama, yes I can!” “No you can’t.” And she used to mock me and made me real self-conscious of my—of the way I look when I sing. And that was her way of trying to discourage me.
THE OA: Tell me about Clarence Carter, a well-known Alabama musician in his own right, who you married in the ’70s.
CS: Well, before that point, I was in Birmingham and doing my own records. Clarence introduced me to Rick Hall. He took me to Muscle Shoals. Rick Hall was his producer at the time, and so he introduced me. Rick had just lost Etta James and he was looking for a female artist. And Clarence met me at a club in Birmingham. I was married [to her first husband] and had my kids there, and I was contemplating leaving my husband anyway. And I was doing little tidbits of performances in Birmingham at a little club called The 27/28 Club. And “Slip Away” [Carter’s hit record from 1968] had just come out. So I opened for him. I did a couple songs before he sung, and then they asked me if would I go on the road with him—at that time I was married. I said, “No, I’m not able to go on the road with you now. But if my situation changes, I’ll let you know.” And it did change. I left my husband and went to Nashville to live with my sister, and during the time when I was just getting settled, getting ready to go into Vanderbilt to become a nurse, I was gonna try to get my nursing skills together and graduate and become a nurse. Clarence Carter came through. He had a big show. “Slip Away” was a big hit then. He, Eddie Floyd and Albert King, and so many other guys were on the show that night. I went back to the dressing room, and I asked him was he still looking for a female artist, and he said yeah. I said, “Well, I’m free, I can go with you.” And so that’s how I got with him. And then right away, the night I met him at the auditorium, he told me that Etta James had left Rick, and Rick was looking for a female artist, and I told him, “Well, you know what? I’d love to meet him.” And so I met him a few days later, in Muscle Shoals. And I was introduced to Rick, and I did a demo for Rick, and we went in the studio that night, and we put down three songs. And in six months, we had almost a Number One record called “I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than a Young Man’s Fool),” and the rest is kind of history.
THE OA: What about Jimmy James, tell me about him.
CS: Well, Clarence and I were together five years. Then I ended up with this guy, Jimmy James. He was a pimp, and he was very difficult to leave. And he was very threatening and abusive. And I left him, and after I left him—just before I left him, actually, David Crawford [Staton’s producer] and I just had a long conversation. And I would notice that he was taking notes, and he said, “You know, I’m gonna write you a song. I’m gonna write you a song that’s gonna last forever.” Those were his exact words. And so he did. He wrote “Young Hearts Run Free,” and it’s been around for almost four decades.
THE OA: You’ve sung in so many different genres—what’s your favorite song you’ve ever recorded, and what’s your least favorite?
CS: Oh, Lord! I don’t know. I love them all. But I’m very biased toward my songs. I don’t think I hate any of them. If I dislike one song, it’d probably be the one song that I made on this last album that I did in Europe, and it’s called “Get Your Hands Dirty.” I can’t stand that song. I hate that song.
THE OA: Will Oldham wrote it, right?
CS: Yeah, I don’t like it.
THE OA: Why don’t you like it?
CS: I don’t know, I just don’t like it. You know, there are some songs that just don’t fit you? And that song just didn’t fit, and EMI—the guy that was producing it almost forced me to do it. He forced me, like, “If you don’t do this song, we’re gonna stop the whole production.” So I had to almost, it was like I was forced into doing it.
I don’t know what [Oldham] was talking about [in the song]. Quite honestly? I know Will Oldham is a good writer, but that song just don’t have it. Sorry. It just doesn’t have it.
THE OA: I want to ask you about your disco career. A lot of people think of disco as a vapid genre, especially maybe in light of your soul career, which, you know, right or wrong, people seem to think is more authentic. What do you think of your own disco music?
CS: I think it is authentic. I think I do a little different twist than most disco, if you would call it disco. I never went in to do a disco. I think that’s one reason why my music’s different. I never went in to say, “Oh, we’re gonna do a disco record.” No, we didn’t do that. We went in to do a good song. And it finally ended up in the disco genre of music. That’s how “Young Hearts Run Free” got into it and also “Victim.” We just did good songs that had great beats and before you know it, it was just Number One on the charts. In the disco genre of music. We just didn’t go out trying to do one. The one we did go out to do, it didn’t hit.
THE OA: What song was that?
CS: You know, “When You Wake Up Tomorrow.” We went in for disco. And it was minimal. It didn’t do a lot, but we don’t go in for that. It usually always surprises us. It always gets on the charts, and it’s just about having great songs.
THE OA: How’d you get into disco music?
CS: I’d started going to the clubs, and I’d started listening to the music. It was just one beat. You know, every song had the same beat. You’d never get off the dance floor. That’s the secret of disco: They don’t let you off the dance floor, because they don’t stop the beat—if the beat stops, then you stop. So they keep the beat going, and if it didn’t have that certain beat, then you didn’t fit. So I started going to discos, and I started listening to the music that they play there, and eventually I became—I acquired a taste for it, and I began to love it. It was kind of like a free type of freestyle. You could do whatever you wanted to do, everybody was a star, and you could do your own thing. You could create out there on the dance floor, you know. So it was fun.
THE OA: You’re saying the secret of disco is the consistent beat. The other open secret is probably the drugs and alcohol and all that. Were you—
CS: (Laughing) Oh, that was a staple. That was a staple. If you weren’t high, you just didn’t enjoy it anyway. You’d get out of there ’cause it was annoying. You had to be high to listen to it!
THE OA: And you got pretty involved in that, right?
CS: Oh yeah, I was right in the middle of everything.
THE OA: What happened with that? In 1982 or so, you left the disco scene and all that behind, right?
CS: Yeah, when I came out of the whole thing, I mean, I got tired, I got tired of the competition, tired of the same old beat, tired of being driven, tired of the image thing, you know. It wasn’t about the music; it was about the image. You had to portray a certain image to be in certain places. It was a rat race, to be honest. I just got tired, I wanted—I just wanted to rest. I just got tired of all of that stuff: the drug scene, the alcohol scene, the men, the boyfriends, the hanger-onners, all of the party-poopers, and all them people that are around you all day long, trying to get something from you. They’re not there for you; they’re there for them. And I just got tired, and I just decided to change my way of living. So I went to the church and began to go back to my roots. And it was the most peaceful period of my life, I can tell you that. I just didn’t want any part of it. Once you get the peace, you don’t want the noise anymore. It took me a while to come back to—and then I’m not really back to where I was in the ’80s, when I left.
THE OA: It was the 2004 reissue of your early FAME stuff that brought you back into the spotlight, right?
CS: Yeah, they did it as a compilation, and so many compilations have come out on me, and you know, a lot of other record companies that I’ve been with have put out compilations, or I was in a compilation, and they never really did that much. So I was not really excited about it. I was like, “Oh well, it’s just another compilation.” And it got to Europe. When Europe took hold of it—EMI in Europe put it out over there, and folks began to listen to my earlier music. They were only familiar with two records by me over there, and that was “Young Hearts Run Free” and then another record called “You Got the Love.” “You Got the Love” was a song that I did back in ’86 for Dick Gregory’s project, the Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet. It was actually a song that they were gonna do a video by, and it never did anything. And somehow it got to Europe, and one of the DJs over there heard the voice—they just took the voice, they didn’t have any music on it—just the raw voice. And they put it over beats. And they created kind of like a house-music song. And it went double platinum. And that’s all they were familiar with: “Young Hearts Run Free” and “You’ve Got the Love.” And when this song, these compilations came out—this compilation came out in 2004—they began to hear another side of my talent that they weren’t familiar with. That’s the blues kind of side. “I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart” was on that compilation, and “Stand By Your Man”—they were somewhat familiar with “Stand By Your Man.” It was released there in the early ’70s. And then “I’m Just a Prisoner” and “In the Ghetto” and I mean, just so many songs came out. I was getting five stars everywhere you looked, write-ups were comin’ from everywhere. People were surprised. They were saying, “We didn’t know Candi Staton had it in her.” “Oh my God, she’s as good as Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight.” “Where has this talent been? We are not familiar with her. We want to hear more.” And the records started selling, and that’s how I began to do tours over there.
THE OA: And that momentum led you to put out HIS HANDS, in 2006. You played The Bowery Ballroom in New York for the first time in twenty years in support of that record. What was that like? What was the hardest part after such a long absence?
CS: It was nervy. I was actually nervous. I hadn’t done a secular show in so long. I didn’t know how to do a show like that, you know, I had to get back into it, and I didn’t even know what they were doing. That’s a couple of decades! You’re out of it for that long, and then you come back to a packed house, and you don’t know what to do with the people. So I just sung one song behind the other one until I could get the feel of them. They loved every song, though. And so I didn’t have any problem with it. I did some songs and announced the title, and went right into it, and they just loved it, and they were screaming “more” when I left the stage. So I thought I must be doing something right.
THE OA: You’ve said about the song “His Hands”—I read this in another interview—you said that, in that song, “You’re trading the hands of an abusive man for the hands of a loving God—that song is basically my life.” I’m just curious what the effect that these rotten men and God have had on your life and your music.
CS: You know, it’s like everybody else’s story. Abuse is just brutal. It made me more sensitive to women that are hurting. People, period, that are hurting in abusive relationships. Relationships are the hardest things in the world to get a handle on. You’re trying to live with somebody that you really don’t know, and then you start having difficulty in communicating. And before you know it, you hate each other. And then abuse starts. And you start talking to each other really bad, you know, and like, disrespectful, and then the abuse starts. I think a lot of times it’s low self-esteem, people put you down, you think you’re doing okay, and the very person you really want to compliment you and love you is the one that treats you the worst. And it doesn’t matter if anybody else say that you look cute, or that you’re beautiful, and that what you’re doing is great. If that person in your life doesn’t do that, everybody else’s compliment don’t count. You know, you say “Oh, thanks, great, thanks,” but you’re waiting on that special someone to say the right words, and when that doesn’t happen, and you put that person down, you know better than that. It makes bad blood between you, and in that way, it does affect your music. It affects the way you think, it affects the way you write. I think most of the people that’ve written sad songs have been sad.