Globally renowned Candi Staton is a rhythm and blues/ disco star, gospel singer, and secular soultress, who has made herself a queen of reinvention and rejuvenation, and her set is likely to be a major highlight of this year’s Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul festival. She rose to prominence in 1969 as an R’n’B singer with I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than a Young Man’s Fool). Over the next five years she racked up 16 hits in the American R’n’B and Pop charts, including her Grammy-nominated versions of In the Ghetto and Stand by your Man, and the swamp boogie I’m Just a Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin), from her debut album I’m Just a Prisoner. And, in 1976 her first foray into disco really made her name in the UK when Young Hearts Run Free became the sound of that year’s summer, and many more summers afterwards.
In the 1980s, Candi Staton founded a ministry and began to record gospel music, notching up two more Grammy nominations for her albums. Then, in 1991 she returned to the mainstream charts as the vocalist on the Top 10 track You Got the Love, which has been rereleased and covered frequently since. Throughout her magnificent and multifarious career, Candi Staton’s live shows have always been experiences to treasure and even now at the age of 72 she absolutely wows her audiences. Reviewing a recent show of hers in London, The Telegraph called Staton ‘a beaming disco diva, careworn but imperious’ and of her show at the Manchester International Festival in 2011, The Guardian said ‘for sheer enjoyment and booty shaking abandon it’s hard to look further than Candi Staton’.
Born and raised in a poor family in rural Alabama, Canzetta Maria Staton moved to Cleveland with her mother in order to avoid her father. She began singing gospel music after seeing the success other women had doing so at church. But after returning to live in Cleveland, marrying for the first time in 1959, having four children, and then divorcing, she turned to Rhythm and Blues. In early 1968, she was singing at a club in Birmingham (Alabama, not this one sadly), where she met soul star and producer Clarence Carter, with whom she toured and later married. Carter introduced her to his producer Rich Hall, the owner of Fame records, and Staton’s first three albums were released by Fame and produced by Hall. From these albums, her 16 hit R’n’B singles helped to create the rough-edged sound of Southern Soul and, of working with Hall, Staton said, in an interview with Soul Express, that ‘he made me sing songs over and over and over again. He wanted me to get that hoarseness in my voice’.
Staton’s vocals are an elegant mix of smoke and honey, and within her songs she gives a voice to feelings of pain, heartbreak, and stoicism that, after four failed marriages and a bout of alcoholism, she has had plenty of first-hand experience. Her fantastically emotional back catalogue from this period includes versions of songs by Elvis Presley, among others. But it’s her performance of Tammy Wynette’s Stand by Your Man that many find most memorable. The song is often considered an ode to female subservience, but Staton’s version is all about strength and understanding. In her post-feminist update she sings “He’s yours, yes, all yours”.
Staton moved from Fame to Warner Brothers before releasing her fourth album Candi in 1974. By this time, she was in her third marriage and she began speaking about the abuse she was receiving from her husband to David Crawford, who was producing at Warner. “He was a con artist, he threatened my life many times and did a lot of dirty things to me” she told Crawford over lunch. He Crawford went away and wrote Young Hearts Run Free for her.
Young Hearts Run Free and the album named after it were huge successes and were followed by two more successful collaborations with Crawford, Music Speakers Louder than Words and House of Love. But two albums later, after Chance (1979) and the eponymous Candi Staton (1980), Staton found herself without a contract: “Warner Brothers had really lost interest in me. They had other people coming in. I wasn’t really doing anything with them. So I asked for my contract back, and they gave it to me”. She then turned to drink.
She married for a fourth time in 1980 to a drummer called John Sussewell and together they sobered up and found religion. In 1982, they formed Beracah, a gospel label, and through it they released twelve successful Gospel albums and one Christmas recording. However, after eight years of marriage, Staton and Sussewell split up. “He depended on me to work. He sat back and played video games. As fast as I would make money, he would spend it”, he told Soul Express.
Obviously in need of money, it was during this period in the 1980s that Candi Staton agreed to record a track for a video documentary about an obese man who was trying to lose weight. The video producers actually had very little cash with which to pay her, so instead they gave her half the publishing rights to the track, You Got the Love. However, alongside everything else that was going on at the time, Staton didn’t really notice when UK-based Source Records put out a version of the song in 1986.
Staton was still unaware that she was involved with the song when Source re-released it and it reached the top 10 in 1991. “They were calling my house saying I had a number one record in England”, she told The Guardian. “When they told me it was You Got the Love, I said I’d never made a record called that. Then I got off the phone a realised it was the one from the diet video!” Despite its spiritual lyrics (“Sometimes I feel like saying Lord I just don’t care, but you got the love I need to see me through”), You Got the Love became the soundtrack to thousands of raves around the world.
Q Magazine says Candi Staton has “just about everything real soul music needs”. So, this July, the Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul festival with have that too.