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A Quietus Interview

The First Lady Of Southern Soul: Candi Staton Interviewed
Simon Price , October 16th, 2014 10:39

Candi Staton, the legendary Queen Of Southern Soul, is back with an Americana-influenced, Muscle Shoals-made new album - she tells Simon Price about Elvis Presley, Bobby Womack, how America's gun culture has killed childhood, how to escape a hellish marriage and, most importantly, how to pronounce her surname

If, when you hear the name 'Candi Staton' (and we'll get onto exactly how you should hear that name in due course), you only imagine the disco diva responsible for the immortal anthem 'Young Hearts Run Free', the sublime Source remix of 'You Got The Love' and maybe, at a push, the Barry Gibb-penned 'Nights On Broadway', then the idea that she's just released an album, Life Happens, which features collaborations with eminent alt-country stars like Jason Isbell of Drive-By Truckers and John Paul White of The Civil Wars might seem somewhat surprising.

But it shouldn't. Not only has she been this way before with 2006's rightly-acclaimed His Hands, Staton's return to secular music on Ladbroke Grove-based Honest Jon's Records, produced by Lambchop's Mark Nevers and featuring covers of songs by Merle Haggard and Charlie Rich with a title track written by Will Oldham, but her connection to what would now be termed Americana goes way back.

As the morning sun rises over her home on the leafy outskirts of the small Georgia town of Madison, the Queen Of Southern Soul confirms that she's always been a little bit country.

"Exactly! I've been making country music way back to recording 'Stand By Your Man' by Tammy Wynette, and even beyond that. So to me, making this record and working with people like Jason, John and Mark feels like the most natural thing in the world."

The evidence of that fertile cross-pollination in Candi's past is all over the 2004 compilation Candi Staton (also released by Honest Jon's). It was there all along. But that isn't the only sense in which Life Happens marks a return to Candi's roots. Three of its tracks were recorded with legendary producer Rick Hall, at his hallowed FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, where she recorded four albums between 1970 and 1974. The reunion was a long time coming, but always on the cards.

"I'd come and gone, come and gone over the years. I'd been back through FAME several times, including the Muscle Shoals documentary film, but not to record. I did a festival near there last year, and that's when Rodney, Rick's son, asked me if I'd ever been inducted into the Alabama Hall Of Fame. And when I said I hadn't, they asked me why, and I didn't know. And he said 'Well, I'm a part of that. And I'm gonna make sure that you get inducted. Because you deserve it.' And he worked very hard to make sure I got inducted this year, and it was a wonderful night."

To actually record at FAME again was, one imagines, a special experience.

"Oh my god, it was like a homecoming. It brings back so many memories. How many times have I walked through that hallway? How many times have I stood in that office? How many times have I sat there in that conference room, where we sit and chat? How many times have I been in the control room, or one of the little music booths? I can't count them. And it's like coming home and nothing's changed. Rick hasn't remodelled or done anything, so it was like I'd never stopped going there. And as I go in, I can picture faces of musicians and singers, people that I've worked with that have already gone onto... you know, gone on. I can picture, so many times, the keyboard player Barry Beckett (founder member of the venerated Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, played on landmark albums by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon) sitting at the piano. He was so, so good. He was on His Hands. And the last time I saw time I saw him, in Mark Nevers' studio in Nashville for that album, he was moving at such a slow pace, and I knew in my heart that he was on his last round. He was playing the organ, and I said 'I would sure love to see you play again, Barry', and he said 'Well, my fingers don't move as fast as they used to...' And when he stepped off the porch that evening, he turned around, and I'd already hugged him inside, but I just felt this urge to run and hug him again, because I knew I was hugging him for my last time. And he did too. And I'll never forget that look as he smiled and waved, and I said in my spirit, 'I won't see you no more'. It was so sad. I was so teary, because we were like family. And the next year he died."

These bittersweet moments must be happening to Candi, now aged 74, more and more frequently. Her good friend Bobby Womack, for example, phoned her the moment he left hospital for the last time.

"Oh yes, and I saw Bobby in January, just before he passed. And there was Bobby 'Blue' Bland as well. There's such an urgency now. They were playing together a couple of years ago, and I said to my oldest son, who lives with me, 'I gotta go, I've gotta see Bobby'. Both Bobbies. And Bobby 'Blue' Bland passed, soon after."

She pauses for a moment, then adds, with a big, raw, throaty, life-affirming laugh, "I hope I'm not bringing you down, ha ha ha..."

Fighting through hard times and coming out the other side is, broadly, the subject matter of Life Happens. Specifically, several songs are directly inspired by the break-up of Candi's short-lived marriage – her fifth – to now-disgraced former Atlanta Braves baseball player Otis Nixon (who was arrested in 2013 for possession of rocks of crack and a crack pipe).

"Yeah, that was really like therapy for me. Music is my spirit and my soul, and I can use it to release emotions. And it was a really bad, bad, extremely bad marriage, the whole eighteen months. I don't know why it even lasted that long, because the first week of it, I knew it wasn't gonna last. I knew athletes were trouble, but I guess I had to see for myself. It's in athletes' nature to be competitive, and I didn't really believe that until I got involved with one. Whatever it is that they're in, they're trying to win. It was that fight that I had to put up with, and I'm too old for that. Y'know, maybe at 20, I could have dealt with it, but at my age, no! I want relaxation and peace. We did everything quickly: we got together quickly after meeting each other, and bought a house, and in three months we were married. So there was a lot of property and money involved, and we mixed things so fast, until it was impossible to get out of."

It was only Candi's sense of timing which helped her extricate herself.

"I had to time my move even to reap any benefits from the marriage. And thank God I did: I got the house. If I had just walked out, he would have kept everything. Because he's so well-known, and so well-liked, and so looked-up-to. You know how they look up to athletes! Judges love 'em, attorneys love 'em, everybody loves an athlete. And if I had walked into the courtroom when he had a good reputation, I would have had no chance, because I didn't count. But because he got caught with drugs and was all smeared over the papers, and his reputation was at an all-time low, I walked in with perfect timing. Again, just like my perfect timing of walking into Muscle Shoals. I walked into the courtroom when he was at his lowest, and was able to get everything. People were very angry at him. He threw his kids under the bus, and they were very angry about that. He got caught with crack-cocaine, and pretended it was his son. He told police it belonged to his children and he was taking it to them. How dumb! A father, taking crack-cocaine to his son?! Give me a break. And that didn't go over real good with the papers and the evening news, so the judge thought 'Whatever she wants, give it to her.' That was worth waiting on!"

There's a huge irony, of course, that on arguably Candi's best-known song, "Young Hearts Run Free", she was the thrice-married voice of experience advising the young never to do it, but she went on to repeat the mistake another two times herself.

"Yeah! Yeah... It's amazing. I guess we travel so much in this business, we can't keep a marriage together. So I'm done. I've made up my mind that it's not for me, unless I just do what Tina Turner did and just quit, and find a guy that's already settled, and give up the music business. That's probably the only way I could make a good marriage work."

A lot of singers who become heavily religious (hello, Prince) struggle to reconcile their beliefs with the topic of sex in their songs. Candi, who spent two whole decades releasing gospel records on her own Beracah label and even set up a ministry with the support of controversial televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, doesn't have a problem singing about makin' love...

"No, it's a part of life! As long as you don't get vulgar with it. Sex, it's a 'life' thing. And none of us would be here without it. Ha ha ha... I mean, when you put it in perspective, if you don't flaunt it and you don't talk nasty and you don't get really explicit, I think it's fine to mention it once in a while."

To be fair, it's hard to imagine Candi going to the XXX-rated extremes of, say, her friend Millie Jackson.

"Ha ha ha... No, no, no. I would never do that. I will always be classy, for sure."

Sexual scenarios in Staton's songs are often just a key for unlocking something deeper. On Life Happens, for example, there's a break-up post mortem song called 'Where Were You When You Knew' which asks "Were you making love to me the moment that you realised...?", itself an inverted throwback to the taunting of her self-explanatory Seventies classic 'He's Making Love To You (But He's Thinking Of Me)'. Both songs employ a similarly dark and twisted approach, digging beneath the usual veneer of the love song, and finding out what's really going on, psychologically...

"Right, right. We can be in several places in our mind at the same time. We're just wired like that. And a lot of the time, people fantasise. They're with you, but in their minds they're with someone else. It all happens. And I love that song because, in the midst of all the problems I was having in the marriage, my husband would go out and stay [away] for days, and I wouldn't see him, and he'd come home and be very abusive. Because when he walked in the door, he knew he was guilty. And so, when Rick Hall played that song to me, it was like 'I have to say that. I gotta do that song. I need to express that emotion in me that is hurting right now.' When I would hurt, I'd play that song, to listen to it. I play it even now. That's the way I can get through, to the next level."

For a record which sounds so vintage, the lyrical language of Life Happens is full of consciously modern touches, with lines like "we're living in a digital age now", and references to surfing the net and watching DVDs.

"It's because we are here and now", Staton explains. "It's a digital world. I can't go back to 1970. They don't know what 4-tracks and 8-tracks are. I wouldn't have any listeners, haha! 'What is she talking about, Mom?' But when you bring it home, and talk about Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all that stuff, kids readily know what you mean. Everybody's got their iPhones out, and you've got a computer in your purse, so why would you go back to the Seventies? I had to bring it into today's market."

Candi doesn't always take a positive view of technological progress and its social effects. On 'Have You Seen The Children', she sings "video games and movies have saturated their minds, evil is lurking at every corner in every rhythm and every rhyme..." If this sounds, on the face of it, like a case of an out-of-touch old lady making a conservative-minded call for censorship, the song was actually inspired by Staton's horror at the recent shootings of black youths by white authorities.

"You know what, we had such a march in Ferguson, when police killed this child Michael Brown, and also Trayvon Martin in Florida, who was shot dead by a security guard because he was dark-skinned and he had a hoodie on, walking home with his bag of Skittles, and the guard thought he was getting ready to break into someone's house and he shot him in cold blood. And he walked away. He got away with it. Then there's this guy who's on trial in Florida right now. Four black teenagers were at the gas station playing their music loud, and he walked over and began shooting in the car, and killed one of them because they were playing their music loud. What can we do? There's nothing we can do. The world has gone nuts. Evil is lurking everywhere. Evil is lurking on TV. And you've got ISIS cutting people's heads off, no reason. There's no compassion, no heartfelt sympathy for anyone. 'If you don't believe like me, I'm gonna kill you.' That's what that song is about."

Another lyric in the song runs "they're trying to be sexy at five years old, little boys shoot guns and take them to kindergarten". Childhood, Staton argues, is a concept that barely exists any more.

"There are no more children! Kids don't even do what they used to do when I was growing up. We were actually children. We would jump rope, and play outside, playing baseball games in the yard, hopscotch, shoot marbles, play with dolls and make doll houses out of straw... children things! But now, every kid you see is on their iPhone, doing their iPhone thing. You can't even talk to one. 'Hey baby, how you doing?' and he says 'I'm doing fine', but he's texting. They're there, but they're not there, they're not present. Have you seen the children? There are none. Where are they?"

Candi's own childhood, however, wasn't all hopscotch and dollhouses. Born Canzetta Maria Staton in Hanceville, Alabama in 1940, the young Candi spent as much time labouring on farmland and singing in the choir.

"My mother made us work. This was instilled in us as babies. We had chores. We had a work ethic, and that stays with me today. If I have a project I need to finish, I'm gonna get it done. I learned to do things on time. People don't have any respect for time any more! You say they gotta be there at 8, they show up at 9.30 and say 'Oh, sorry...' You know? But if I say I'm gonna be there at 8, then unless there's a catastrophe, I'm gonna be there at quarter-to."

One of Candi's chores was picking cotton, an activity with indelible associations with the South's darker days.

"We weren't in slavery when I was coming up, but we were still segregated. We basically had our own land. My grandmother left all of her land to my mother. We had like, 40 acres..."

A hangover from the '40 acres and a mule' promised to freed slaves at the end of the Civil War?

"No, it wasn't that. My family bought it. My grandfather bought 80 acres, actually. And he sold 40 acres to one of his cousins. That's how we ended up with 40. And my father worked the land. We worked the fields, we planted and had our own cotton, and we took it to the gin (machine that separates cotton fibres from their seeds) once a year, and we planted our own fields of greens and corn and sweet potatoes and white potatoes and pinto beans and black-eyed peas, and we didn't have a deep-freeze, so my mother would 'can' them, in fruit jars. And that's what we lived off of in the wintertime."

It seems like a whole different world, even though it's not that long ago.

"It's not that long ago. And I feel so privileged to have lived in both worlds, to be able to compare the old with the new. I'm writing books to try to capture it all and leave some kind of legacy here. I'm updating my autobiography, and when I get off the road a little bit, I'm gonna finish it."

One of my favourite stories in Candi's book is the one about how, as a small child, she was freaked out at how emotional the timbre of her voice made grown-ups in church.

"Oh yeah, cos I was used to it and they weren't. Ha ha ha! It was a surprise to them. I was wondering why they were jumping and shouting and running and throwing pocket-books. That didn't compute, in my little 5-year-old brain. But I look back on it now and remember my voice, and think: no wonder they were excited."

No wonder, indeed. And if one musical genre matched the effortless excitement inherent in Staton's vocal cords, it was Disco, to which there's an affectionate nod on Life Happens in the shape of the barnstorming 'Three Minutes To A Relapse'. Nevertheless, one wonders whether Candi, originally a rootsy gospel-soul singer, welcomed the disco craze instantly, or embraced it somewhat reluctantly.

"I loved Disco! Because I'm an outgoing person. I'm an extrovert. I always try to get into something and do something. I was always the life of the party. I love laughing and all that stuff. I love having a good time. And when Disco happened, I was in the Chitlin' circuit (collective nickname for entertainment venues catering for African-American audiences in the era of segregation), which was very depressing. The Rick Hall records put me onto that circuit, and we had all these old drunks, and people heckling, they wanted you to do one song and if you didn't do it immediately they would start a commotion, even if you had to do it twice that night, once now and once at the end of the show. We all had to go through that. They were very disrespectful, they hadn't paid a lot to see you, and you didn't mean that much to them. They didn't honour you as an artist. I was so tired of the tobacco smell, and the alcohol smell, and the old stale smell of the Chitlin' circuit clubs, and all the graffiti on the walls. And when disco came in, it took me to another level. Everything was beautiful. People were dressed up, and they weren't heckling you, they were there to have a good time. I played Studio 54, and the Garage, a big gay club in New York, and lots of other gay clubs. All I had to do was bring my tracks, and get up there and sing. Didn't need a band, made a lot of money!"

Nevertheless, Candi recently Tweeted one of her Disco tracks with the disclaimer "From back in the day when the execs at Warner Bros. told me to try and sing like Donna Summer who was the hottest...", implying that Disco acceptance came at a certain price.

"Oh, well you know, they had me singing like Mavis (Staples), when 'I'll Take You There' came out, and I did do it – 'In The Name Of Love' – and it didn't do anything, cos that's Mavis' style. And people like to jump on a bandwagon, especially producers, if a record's out and they see that it's big, to maybe get a little taste of that success. But I always liked to be myself. You can't beat it."

A major element of Candi Staton's live repertoire is a pair of killer Elvis Presley covers, 'In The Ghetto' and 'Suspicious Minds'. Despite both hailing from the Deep South and their careers overlapping, Staton and Presley never actually met.

"I didn't know him personally, but I was a fan of his. I loved his music, I loved his energy. And at that time you weren't allowed to express yourself in those ways. They showed him from the waist up, not the waist down. I mean, he was a little sexy guy! And I liked that. I was a little kid, but I asked 'Why won't they show all of him?' He would wiggle all the way down, and the girls would be screaming, and when I saw him on TV, I would be screaming too! And I loved the way his hair would shake when he got so emotional, you know? And I loved his voice: he had that fast vibrato that was so nice. So when I got the chance to do his music, I welcomed it."

Presley, of course, is a controversial figure to much of black America, with Public Enemy's 'Fight The Power' famously voicing the widespread rumour that Elvis was a racist. It's an urban myth which didn't bother Candi.

"It never troubled me, because he wrote me a note. I don't have it now, I was divorcing Clarence Carter, and my stuff ended up all over the place so I don't know what happened to the note, but... he told me he really, really, really loved my version of 'In The Ghetto'. And I was on a radio station called SiriusXM in Washington about four months ago, and the presenter said 'This is gonna blow you away'. He pulled out a recording of the same identical track I did, but with Elvis singing it! He'd redone it and did my version! I'm gonna see if I can get me a copy of that. I would love just to do it in my show, get the soundman to play a little bit of it. That would blow people away, wouldn't it? 'I want you all to hear something'... And maybe then they'll believe me that he really loved it, cos he went back and did it over, in my style!"

If it came to a namedropping competion, Candi, though too classy to compete, could out-cool pretty much anyone on earth. As a small child she met Mahalia Jackson, as an adult she could count Bobby Womack and David Ruffin among her closest friends, she opened for James Brown, and she recently participated in the Throw Back Thursday internet meme with a frankly awesome photo of herself with the aforementioned Clarence Carter in 1968.

"Ha ha ha! It was so funny. We looked a mess. But it was when I first met him. Oh my God, that was a fun night..."

Sometimes, her knack for surrounding herself with famous people catches even Candi by surprise. For instance, her current keyboardist Mick Talbot who, unbeknownst to Staton, is quite a big deal to British men of a certain age.

"Mick is very good, he's a great keyboard player, I love working with him. And you know what, I wasn't familiar with his work in The Style Council. We were in, I think it was Scotland, or maybe it was Dublin, and we were coming through the backstage door, getting out of the car, when I really realised how famous Mick was. There were people shoving albums at us, and I was thinking they were mine, ha ha ha! And I'm getting ready to autograph them, but they're saying 'No no, they're Mick's albums!' And I said 'Excuse me?!' Ha ha ha! It was amazing. I've gotta admit, it was funny."

The biggest surprise at any Candi Staton show, however, is probably the moment she says her own surname. It is, it turns out, almost as widely mispronounced as David Bowie's.

"Well," she confirms once and for all, "my mom and dad, we were Stay-tons. Daddy was Ersey Staton, mom was Rosie Staton, and we said it 'Stay-ton'!"

And Candi Stay-ton laughs that big, raw, throaty, life-affirming laugh, one more time.