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A Quietus Interview

We Want Candi - Soul Legend Candi Staton Interviewed
John Doran , February 24th, 2009 06:40

Candi Staton is, to put it simply, one of the most consistently underrated female vocalists ever. This is not to say that she hasn’t had various moments in the sun over the years, but it feels like every time she is on the verge of gaining the critical and commercial success she deserves something prevents it. Usually one or other of her several bugbears will step in and put paid to it. Alcoholism. Domestic cruelty. Record label mismanagement. Fashion’s fickle finger.

She was born in 1943 in Alabama and by the time she was 11 she was part of the Jewell Trio with her sisters, who gained great success in the South playing gospel bills with such luminaries as Aretha and The Staples Singers. At a ‘tender age’ she nearly eloped with soul legend Lou Rawls but she was talked out of it and returned home. It may sound bad form to suggest it but she might have been better off with Rawls. Instead she married the son of a preacher who was not only violent towards her but was so jealous that he kept her a virtual prisoner in her own house and would only let her sing in church.

After escaping that relationship she first started to make waves in the 1960s as a proponent of (what we would now call) southern soul - a mix of country, blues and soul - just in time to see the genre fall into critical disrepute, despite her turning in some of its benchmark songs. Anyone with heart needs to own her cover of 'Stand By Your Man' or 'He Called Me Baby'. In the 70s she was re-launched as a disco diva ('Young Hearts Run Free') before Warners fumbled the ball, and despite turning up as one of the defining vocalists of house on The Source's 'You Got The Love', by the turn of the century it seemed she was destined for the soul memory hole.

A lovingly compiled self-titled anthology of her early material put out by Honest Jon's in 2004 seemed to pull her back from the brink however. The unexpected success of this led to the confessional Southern Soul album His Hands in 2006 and now, the seductive and more upbeat Who’s Hurting Now? On the eve of a much anticipated UK tour, we catch up with her.

The last time we heard from you on record was when you released His Hands on Honest Jon’s. And I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn saying that it was quite a heavy record dealing with all kinds of issues, from domestic violence all the way to salvation, as it were. Would it be fair to say that Who’s Hurting Now? is a much lighter record?

Candi Staton: “I think so. I think the words are much lighter. Some of the songs are quite heavy but not like on the other record. I didn’t really like the heaviness, I’m pretty much a light hearted person and you can tell by my past records ‘Young Hearts Run Free’, ‘You Got The Love’, ‘Stand By Your Man’ and stuff like that. It was sort of like the record company, Honest Jon’s. They wanted that kind of record so I went along with it.”

You’ve reignited your collaboration with Mark Nevers and it’s obviously a fruitful partnership with two excellent albums coming out of the song writing collaboration. How did you meet him and how do you work together?

CS: “Actually Honest Jon’s came across him. They said to me ‘We’ve found you a producer in Nashville’ and when they told me his history I said ‘Heck, why not?’ We drove up to Nashville, met him and did the first record up there. Beach House Studios is really just an old house – it’s amazing – in the living room are the keyboards and the big piano and in the dining room is the mixing desk! Then they have a little area where the sideboard used to be where he has all of his computers and equipment. In the kitchen there’s more equipment and one of the bedrooms is just full of microphones for the vocalist. And in the other room is where he puts all the rest of the band! He puts all of the bass and the guitars and the drums back there. It’s really an interesting little house! I was like ‘Wow!’ But the sound is good and it’s got that homey atmosphere.”

Also on the album is a fine track called ‘Get Your Hands Dirty’ which is another side written for you by Will Oldham. And you two make something of an odd couple if you don’t mind me saying . . .

CS: “We do!” [laughter]

I guess I shouldn’t really say this but I much prefer listening to you singing his songs than him singing his songs . . .

CS: [laughing] “Well, OK! Thank you very much!”

Out of all the songs that you recorded for the album which do you enjoy singing the most?

CS: “Well, when we come to Europe will be the first time we’ve ever played these songs live out of the studio but I really like is a make-over of Mary Gauthier’s ‘I Feel The Same’. I guess I’m just an old blues singer! So that just fits me. I like singing ‘I Don’t Know’, ‘Cry Baby Cry’ and ‘Dust On My Pillow’. I wrote that one. I like ‘em all but one in particular is called ‘Lonely Don’t’ it’s a little self-deprecating. Yeah, yeah, yeah poor old me all lonely! Actually the lady who wrote that song (Connie Knapp, a school bus driver) told me she thought she might as well stop writing because she thought that she just can’t write that well and she was so overjoyed that it got included on the album.”

How old were you when you first started singing in gospel choirs and where was this?

CS: “I think I was about eight years old and that was in Alabama.”

So you got a lot of experience in a very short amount of time. For example I believe that you sang with, amongst other people, Aretha Franklin and The Staples Singers.

CS: “Oh yeah. We were in a gospel group and by the time I was 13 we’d made it to the major stages of gospel. In those days you probably didn’t have to pay no more than three or four dollars to get into an auditorium with 10,000 people sitting up there. I wish I still had some of those fly cards. You don’t think to keep stuff. The Jewel Trio, that was our name we played with Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, The Staple Singers . . . many artists who went on to be major and we were right there with them. So when they went big it wasn’t that big a thing. Aretha would walk in your dressing room and say ‘Hey girl, what’s up?’ So we were like family. We got chance to know each other. We had real rough times during those times back in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, North and South Carolina.”

So it was on one of these tours that you met Lou Rawls. Was he your first boyfriend?

CS: “Yeah, we got together. We all knew each other and we were out on the road. I was quite young though. Probably now though, they would put him in jail! [laughs] I was nothing but a teenager. When I was talking to him I think I was about 15 or 16. He was much older than me. He was already 20 when I started talking to him. We had a relationship and we were talking about getting married but it never happened.”

This was when you almost eloped to LA?

CS: “Yeah, we nearly went to LA. He wanted for me to come to LA and then we were going to go to Las Vegas and get married. But we were so young, his mother talked us out of it. She said ‘You guys are too young and this girl needs to finish school.’ I went back to Nashville and finished school.”

So I’ve got to say, there must have been a big difference between Lou Rawls and a preacher’s son.

CS: “It was a big difference. Lou had a career and my ex-husband was just a common labourer. He was a good man except he had some hang ups with jealousy and he was very controlling. I stayed with him for as long as I could until it got so unbearable that I knew I had to either just leave or just rot away. So I decided to leave. But until then I did no singing. I just worked and was a mother because he wouldn’t allow me to do anything. I was just at home. You know the song I’ve got ‘I’m just a prisoner?’ It was like I was a prisoner. He would come home three times a day checking on me making sure I didn’t go anywhere. He expected me to have his food ready and have all his clothes ready. I was just a housewife really. I had a nervous breakdown. Well . . . I was watching Jim Carrey on Oprah yesterday and he don’t call it a nervous breakdown he calls it a nervous breakthrough. So I had a nervous breakthrough. I was sick and my doctor said to me ‘Whatever it is that is eating away at you. If you don’t get it fixed it will really destroy you. I just made up my mind that I couldn’t live like that so I left him. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was just a high school graduate. I got pregnant before I could take advantage of my college scholarship so I didn’t know what to do. In a way I was forced into the music business. So I started singing in this little nightclub that my brother took me to and I started earning a little bit of money and that’s how Clarence Carter. He came through and took me on the road with him. He took me to a studio and the rest is just, you know, history. I started making records. That’s how I survived.”

Is that how you ended up on FAME?

CS: “Yeah. Etta James had just left and they were looking for another girl. We drove down to Muscle Shoals and I started to sing. George Jackson was there and he said: ‘I’ve got a song for this girl to sing’ and he showed me the first verse of ‘I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart Than A Young Man’s Fool’. Clarence Carter played it on his guitar, we finished it and on the same night we went and recorded it.”

That’s a great song – one of my favourites. And every time I hear it I can’t help imagining what the dance 'the camel walk' looks like!

CS: “I can almost do it! I think I know how to do it. I may do it when I get to London!”

Is it true that Elvis wrote to you after hearing your version of ‘In The Ghetto’?

CS: “Yes he did. I wish I still had that letter. I was living with Clarence Carter and when I divorced him, I don’t know what happened to that letter. You know when you’re getting divorced your mind is on other things. He complimented me though. He said he loved my version.”

I’m glad that you still do ‘You Got The Love’ live – how did that awesome record that you originally did with The Source – one of the all time classic house songs - come about?

CS: “We did it in Chicago originally for a diet product. It was about this guy – the video was about this guy – losing weight. He was 900lbs and needed to lose lots of weight. The video didn’t happen because he lost nearly all of the weight but was still 300lbs. Everything stopped and I just thought it was over until I heard that it was in the top ten in Europe. I was like ‘Oh my God!’ At first I didn’t even know how to sing it! I didn’t even know when to come in on time! It was confusing but we mix about two or three versions together when we do it now and everyone seems to be happy with how we do it now!”

If you want to see Miss Candi Staton do the camel walk, she is in London tonight (more dates below) and her album Who’s Hurting Now? is out now on Honest Jon’s.

FEBRUARY
24 London – Shepherds Bush Empire
25 Hove – The Old Market
27 & 28 Glasgow – The Ferry

MARCH
1 Dunfermline – Carnegie Hall
04 Peterborough – The Cresset

Book on 0871 424 4444

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