There are southern soul voices and there are southern soul voices. Raw and ravaged, Candi Staton’s is one of the signature sounds of the genre. It’s a voice with a tear in it, the cry of a woman wounded by life, by men, by woes turned inwards.
On her new album His Hands for Honest Jons/Astralwerks, it’s also the voice of a gospel singer returning to the music that first made her name: the country soul songs presented by the same labels on the 2004 compilation Candi Staton, twenty-six tracks of Muscle Shoals magic.
“I hadn’t done that type of music in so long,” says the woman who over 20 years ago went back to the church in the darkest hours of alcoholism. “I just closed my eyes and began to get off into it. I missed it, I honestly did. I missed singing those love songs, because my life doesn’t just consist of the church.”
For those who regard Candi’s Muscle Shoals recordings as a high-watermark of country soul, her return to the secular side comes as a blessed relief. Two decades plus of spreading the Word through her Beracah ministry led many to assume she would never again sing songs of love and pain - let alone record songs written by Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Charlie Rich and even Will “Bonnie Prince Billy” Oldham.
Written by Americana maverick Oldham, the title track of “His Hands” will go down as one of the bravest, most chilling performances of Candi’s career. Asked by producer Mark Nevers to write a song for the album, Oldham penned a distillation of Staton’s traumatic experiences as an abused and terrified wife.
“It’s kind of a gospel song and it’s kind of not,” says Staton. “It ends up pointing you to the Redeemer, but it starts out telling you about a normal, natural man and what he would do to you in an abusive situation. I enjoyed singing that because it’s so much like my life. I’ve lived through every line of that song.” When Nevers played the finished version to him over the phone, Candi’s performance reduced Oldham to tears.
The idea of making a new secular Staton album took shape after the release of Candi Staton. Mark Ainley, who’d overseen the compilation, talked to Candi about his plans after a show at London’s Jazz Cafe. “We didn’t want to strain after the old sound, but we didn’t want a contemporary R&B record either - something more open but still authentic,” he says. “I’d worried about it for ages but that night I talked to Candi about Mark Nevers and his home studio, the Beech House, a few hours from her place in Atlanta. Mark’s a founding member of Lambchop and Will Oldham’s producer, so it’s not really Candi’s world, but right away she was up for trying something, that’s her nature.”
“Mark’s place was very nice, very calm,” says Staton. “He has every room in his house rigged for recording, so as I’m going in I’m thinking, ‘Where’s the studio?’ He’s like, ‘You’re in it’. So I just made myself at home.”
Work began in Nashville in June 2005, employing an intriguing crew of musicians, including various Lambchoppers, Candi’s son Marcus Williams on drums and daughter Cassandra Hightower on backing vocals, and Muscle Shoals legend Barry Beckett (coming out of retirement to participate) on the trusty Hammond B3 organ.
Staton hadn’t seen Beckett since those legendary sessions at the Fame studio. Barry had been a core part of the Muscle Shoals unit assembled by producer Rick Hall, playing on such classic Candi tracks as “I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart” and “I’m Just a Prisoner (of Your Good Lovin’).”
“I hadn’t seen Barry in thirty years, not since we’d done our last record with Rick,” says Staton. “He says his fingers aren’t as fast as they used to be, but he still has his little fills. It was such a blessing seeing him.”
Aretha Franklin’s abortive 1967 visit to Fame had produced both “Do Right Woman” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” paving the way for a succession of Chess soul sisters who came to the Shoals to get the Rick Hall treatment: Etta James, Laura Lee, Irma Thomas and more. But if Staton followed in their footsteps she was clear about being her own woman. “When I was a child I was very adamant about not sounding like anyone else,” she says. “When everybody else was trying to sound like Aretha I tried not to sound like her. I wanted to have my own style.”
There was a pleading urgency, and vulnerability, in Staton’s Fame sides that not even James or Lee ever quite touched. Whether taking a bluesy leaf out of Aretha’s “Chain of Fools” on “I’m Just a Prisoner,” funking up country staples such as “Stand By Your Man” and “He Called Me Baby,” or just tearing the innards out of the harrowing “Heart on a String” and “You Don’t Love Me No More,” Staton never gave less than her all in the studio. “In my mind I’ve never forgotten any of those songs,” she says.
Candi’s most famous recording came about several years after she left Muscle Shoals. Following producer Dave Crawford out to California, she made her third marriage ‑ to Tyrone Davis’ former promoter, and commenced a period of domestic misery and abuse (not her first). Crawford’s song “Young Hearts Run Free” was inspired by the painful stories that Candi told him about life with James.
“We would sit down and I would tell him the horrors I was going through in the marriage I was trying to get out of,” Staton remembers. “I would bring David incidents, and little did I know he was making mental notes and writing all that stuff down.” A masterpiece of marital grief - “You count up the years/And they will be filled with tears” - ‘Young Hearts’ also placed Staton in the middle of the disco outbreak of 1976. The following year she recorded the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway.”
By the early ‘80s Staton was in limbo, and drinking heavily. “I had such low self-esteem when I started in the entertainment world,” she says. “I had no one in my family to show me any confidence. Alcohol enabled me to get out there in front of all those people and sing. I couldn’t even think of going onstage without being at least a third drunk.”
She was also coming to terms with the patterns of abuse and subjugation in her life, tracing them back to the experience of growing up with an alcoholic father. “Your real role model is not an artist or an entertainer, it’s your parents,” she reflects. “And what you see them do, usually it comes down through the generations. I saw how my father would drink and abuse my mother and they would fight all the time. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t right, but you pick those same kind of men. I’ve married the same man over and over again. He just looked different and wore different clothes.”
In 1982 Staton saw the light, and knew she had to quit drinking. “I had allowed alcohol to take my life over,” she says. “I was destroying everything in my body. One day I just went cold turkey and said, ‘I’m not gonna do this anymore’.” Instead she returned to the church of her childhood, forsaking soul music for the gospel of her formative years. In time she established her own ministry and television show. How, one wonders, will the gospel faithful view her reconciliation with secular music on His Hands?
“There will be some religious folk that will come against me, and even maybe some DJs,” Staton says. “They’ll be disappointed maybe that I’m singing love songs. But I call them life songs. Just because you go to church you’re not alienated from life.”
A third wind in Staton’s secular career came in 1991 when club act The Source sampled a gospel track she had recorded for comedian Dick Gregory. “You Got The Love” has twice been a UK hit for Staton, giving her a whole new profile on this side of the Atlantic. “When the song didn’t happen in America, I thought, ‘Oh well, another one bites the dust’,” she admits. “And then I got a call from London saying the song was on the charts. The good thing was, they couldn’t pay me so they gave me half the publishing!”
Staton has the publishing on four of the songs on His Hands, all of them concerned with the sorrows of love gone wrong. “‘It’s Not Easy Letting Go’ was about my son, whose wife just one day walked off and left him with two kids,” Candi says. “I realized it’s not easy letting go, even of someone who’s treated you so bad. ‘I’ll Sing A Love Song to You’ is about somebody who had a crush on somebody that didn’t know they had a crush on them. ‘How Do I Get Over You’ came from me watching a movie one night. ‘In Name Only’ is about watching people in church that were having difficulties with their husbands or wives, and they were just sitting up there in the church in name only. You knew them as a couple, but they weren’t really a couple anymore.”
Pooling her compositions with the other, sometimes hard-fought nominations, Staton set to work at the Beech House. The results, arranged simply with room for her voice to stretch out, feel like a musical rebirth.
“At first I thought, ‘What kind of record is this?’, but the more I listened to it the more I began to love it,” Staton says. “Mark is not your everyday producer, but you get the whole feeling with him. I’ve always believed that less is more in the studio. Let the artist sing the song and just give enough instrumentation to make it sound good.” Only Nevers’ use of such unorthodox effects as the “underwater violin” (in her words) was disconcerting.
“She came back after I’d done some overdubs,” Nevers recalls. “I had some of my space stuff up too loud and she said, ‘What’s all the woo-woo and the wang-wang?!’ I said, ‘It’s not gonna be that loud, don’t worry’. I think I kind of freaked her out a bit.”
The use of pedal steel, played by Patti Loveless sideman Pete Finney, also threw Staton. Unlike those of Bettye Swann, another Shoals country-soul queen, Staton’s Fame sides held back from employing that emblematic Nashville instrument. “I thought she had had steel guitar on her records before,” says Nevers, “but it turned out she never had. So that kind of freaked her out too!”
The only real stipulation Staton made, though, was refusing to sing the kinds of cheatin’ song she specialized in at Fame: “Sure As Sin,” “Mr. and Mrs. Untrue,” “Another Man’s Woman, Another Woman’s Man.” “I couldn’t do that,” Candi says. “I’ve been hurt too badly in that area, and I have feelings for wives, and about women who go around singing ‘I’m gonna take your man’.”
With His Hands, Candi Staton breaks your heart without resorting to songs about adultery. Mark Nevers for one will never forget the experience. “Having that kind of voice in this house, my God!” he exclaims. “She just slayed us.”
Before disco caught on and Candi Staton became known for the Number One dance smash “Young Hearts Run Free,” she had begun her career in the stellar Jewel Gospel Trio in the 1950s. After her big run as a secular star in the 1970s, she returned to her gospel roots in 1982. Since then, she has developed a reputation as a Charismatic praise and worship leader, a sensitive psalmist and the person who first infused gospel with funk through her “gospco” songs such as “Dance” and “Sing a Song,” which merged disco rhythms with gospel lyrics. However, Candi is equally known for her sweet ballads such as “Sin Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “Mama” as she is for her more high-energy material. Whatever she does is sweet and that’s why she’s called the Sweetheart of Soul.
Candi is currently in the studio working on her first gospel CD since 2002’s Proverbs 31 Woman, which featured the smash radio singles “Hallelujah Anyway” and the bluesy “When There’s Nothing Left but God.” In the summer of 2006, Shanachie Records released all of Candi’s best-known gospel hits on a specially priced thirty-song 2-CD set entitled, “The Ultimate Gospel Collection.” The project features all of Candi’s classics such as “Mama” and “The First Face I Want to See.” It also includes four brand new songs and previously unreleased material, such as her rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and a club remix of “Hallelujah Anyway.”
Born Canzetta Maria Staton in Hanceville, Alabama, Candi was from a farming family. When they weren’t harvesting crops or picking cotton, they were in church. As a child, Staton sang in the choir. “The crowds would get very emotional,” she recalls. “At the time I didn’t really know why they were crying so much…Once I remember, the audience got so emotional, throwing their pocket books at my feet and so on, that I got really scared and ran off to my mother.” Staton’s father was a hard drinker and a little prodigious with his money. Mrs. Staton took the kids and moved the Cleveland where her oldest son lived. His wife took them to her church, which was pastured by Bishop Jewel and asked if the Staton kids could sing a song. They sang every song they had ever heard that night and for the first time, a band backed them. Impressed by their obvious talent, Jewel asked Candi (then ten years old) and her older sister, Maggie, to sing with her group. She added Naomi Harrison to the line-up and they became the Jewel Gospel Trio.
The trio was an immediate hit with the church audiences. They recorded several singles for Nashboro Records such as “I Looked Down the Line (And I Wondered)” and “Too Late.” The trio toured extensively, even overseas spots such as the Philippines. They appeared on bills with the Staple Singers, the Soul Stirrers, and Aretha Franklin among others. Mavis Staples remembers, “Canzetta was something. I remember at one place in Shreveport the stage was real high. Back then, gospel singers liked to go out into the aisles and work the crowd up. Well, that stage was so high that none of the guys tried to jump down there that night; but Canzetta sure ‘nuff jumped down there and got them worked up.”
When she came of age, Candi left the group. “We were taken advantage of and I left because of the misuse,” she says. Instead of pursuing a career, Candi pursued marriage and motherhood. However, after seven years of matrimony, she had grown tired of her husband’s jealousy and physical abuse. So when her minister made a pass at her, she just snapped. “I said forget you, forget church, and forget everybody. I’m through with God. Bye! And I said, ‘I’m gonna sing the blues,’ just like that.” The big break soon followed. Her brother had dared her to sing on amateur night at the 27/28 Club in Birmingham. She went up and sang “Do Right Woman” and won a booking to open for Clarence Carter, her future husband. He liked her and asked her to open for him on the road.
After hooking up with Clarence, Candi enjoyed smash Top Ten R&B hits such as “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than To Be A Young Man’s Fool),” “Sweet Feeling,” “Stand By Your Man,” “He Called Me Baby,” “Mr. & Mrs. Untrue,” “Too Hurt To Cry” and “In The Ghetto,” which won a Grammy nomination and a personal letter of praise from Elvis Presley. After 1976, Candi became a princess in the disco field with hits like “Young Hearts Run Free,” “Victim,” “Nights on Broadway” and “When You Wake Up Tomorrow.”
After a series of personal traumas, Staton became a born-again Christian in 1982. Her initial gospel album, Make Me an Instrument, peaked at Number Seven on the Billboard gospel charts and garnered her third Grammy Award nomination. In the intervening years, she recorded a dozen other gospel albums and hosted the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) weekly series “Say Yes” (originally “New Direction”) from 1986 to 2004.
In 1991 Candi became the British dance rage as a bootleg of a song she recorded in 1986 entitled “You Got The Love” was remixed and became a Top Ten British hit and sold two million copies. The song was reissued in both 1997 and 2006 and charted in the British Top Ten again each time. After witnessing so many divorces in the church, Staton decided to go into the studio and record a relationship music CD entitled His Hands (Astralwerks/Honest Jons) that was released in spring 2006.
“In the church we sometimes focus so much on the spiritual things that we neglect the natural things,” Staton says. “That’s not balance. While we’re eon earth, we have to take care of our spouses and our kids and be there for them. We can’t be in worship all day or we won’t be doing what God has called us to do, so that project talks about issues that everyone goes through - including Christians. The songs point to things that you should see as signs of a problem in your relationships. I know some in the church still won’t understand it, but I have Biblical scriptures to back me up and if they want to argue with scriptures, that’s their choice.” The gospel according to Candi Staton and the Bible.