The Commercial Appeal, Friday, December 04, 2009
By Bob Mehr
In 1968, Candi Staton found herself at a crossroads. “I was getting ready to go to college and become a registered nurse,” recalls Staton. “That’s what I really wanted to be.”
But, as fate would have it, the music business intervened, and Staton would instead launch one of the great careers in R&B music, scoring hits with classics like her Grammy-nominated version of “In the Ghetto” and “I’m Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin’),” earning her the title “The First Lady of Southern Soul.”
Forty years later, Staton is still singing her songs — though her journey has taken her from fame to obscurity, from gospel music to secular music and back several times over. Now, at age 69, Staton is, like so many of her veteran soul peers, enjoying late career renaissance.
On Saturday, Staton will be the featured singer at the Stax Music Academy’s “SNAP! After School Winter Concert.” The show will be Staton’s most extensive Memphis appearance in some 30-plus years.
Born in Alabama, Staton moved to Cleveland, Ohio, as a child after her parents’ split over her father’s alcoholism. “We just went through such hard times,” she recalls of her early life.
In the late-’50s, Staton and her sister were sent to Nashville’s Jewell Christian Academy. There, Staton’s gift for singing led to the formation of the Jewell Gospel Trio.
The group soon hit the road, touring the gospel circuit with a group of future soul stars like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. “I knew them long before they became secular singers,” she says. “We were like a family. I remember Aretha, just playing together with her as little girls.”
Staton grew up during the ’60s, marrying her first husband and having four children. With her career seemingly winding down by the end of the decade, Staton was ready to leave music behind for nursing school. But, then, an opportunity suddenly arose with producer Rick Hall of the Alabama R&B hit factory Fame studios.
Hall had just lost his star Etta James and was looking for another female artist. Through singer Clarence Carter — whom Staton would later marry — she was given a shot with Hall. After taking a pass at her first song, “I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than a Young Man’s Fool)” — coincidentally, a track originally written with Aretha Franklin in mind — Hall was sold.
“I sang the song, and Rick was so excited he got on the phone that night and called all the Muscle Shoals musicians to come to the studio and we cut three sides,” says Staton. “After that, it was a history of four or five years with Rick.”
The union with Hall — which lasted through the mid-’70s — would produce a succession of R&B hits. Later, Staton developed a career as a disco diva, with international smashes like “Young Hearts Run Free.” But, life on the road and in the record business soon began to take its toll.
“It’s so easy to go down the wrong road — like drugs and alcohol and illicit sex and all that kind of thing. Things you know you shouldn’t do ’cause you’ve been raised differently,” says Staton. “But you get caught up and just lose who you really are.”
“Also, I was so tired. I was tired of the competition. Tired of trying to have the No. 1 record on the charts … just tired of everything.”
Staton, who’d effectively left the church years earlier, found herself searching. “I’d had such a bad taste in my mouth from institutional religion, from the way people would judge you. That’s why I moved away from the church to begin with,” she says. “But one day I got started reading the Bible and I found out that God was a loving god. He doesn’t condemn and judge you; He protects and keeps you and wants to see you do right and do well. So I devoted my life back to God.”
In 1982, Staton re-emerged as a gospel singer and Christian television personality, earning Grammy nominations for her faith-based work and becoming a member of the Christian Music Hall of Fame — while still infusing the songs with her own distinct style. “I did put a little disco in gospel, so I called it ‘gosco,’ ” she says laughing.”
But, by the late-’90s, she began to feel another calling — that of her old R&B and soul songs. “All my life I was raised to believe you can’t mix (gospel and secular) music and I had to get peace about that within myself,” she says.
“In the church, we talk about love, talk about people divorcing, people getting together, hurting each other, leaving somebody. We talk about all these things in conversation, but we can’t sing about them. Well, why not? Soul and R&B, it’s nothing but a conversation set to music. So I decided I’m gonna do what my heart says and I’m going to sing the kind of songs that I want to sing.”
Staton soon returned to the gritty sound she’d become famous for. “I started doing it and it felt good, and I started pulling out all the stuff inside of me that I’d been suppressing for so many years,” she says. “You go through hurts and relationships that don’t work, and sometimes singing about it is better than lying on a couch talking to a psychiatrist. Trust me.”
In 2004, Staton’s career was given a critical reappraisal, when the U.K. label Honest Jons Record released a self-titled compilation of her ’60s and ’70s material. Strangely, in Europe, she’d been known more for her later disco and dance hits than her soul sides. “They didn’t really know I was a rhythm and blues singer, that I could sing that kind of music,” she says. “When the (compilation) came out all the reviews said that I should be up there with Aretha and Gladys and everybody else. That just spurred it to another level.”
The response to the compilation led her to record a new R&B album, His Hands. Released in 2006, it too was a critical and commercial success in the U.K., and relaunched her career in earnest. Since then she’s continued to record, putting out soul LPs like the recent Who’s Hurting Now? while also cutting gospel albums, like this year’s, I Will Sing My Praise to You. These days, Staton, who continues to perform at churches in the U.S, has become a festival favorite and headlining act in Europe. “They really have just embraced me,” she says.
Staton is about to bring her career full circle; she’s in pre-production on a new album with her one-time mentor, Rick Hall. “I think it’s going to be fun,” says Staton of the reunion. “Rick Hall is one of the most unique producers that I’ve ever worked with.”
Staton has also been recalling her early life for a book she’s just finished, called “Young Hearts Run Free,” which recounts stories from her youth and days traveling the gospel circuit. “Looking back,” says Staton, “even with all the ups and downs, highs and lows, my life has really been something. I’ve truly been blessed.”
The Stax Music Academy’s SNAP! After School Winter Concert featuring Candi Staton
Saturday, 7 p.m. at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, 1801 Exeter Road. Tickets are $10 each for reserved seating. They can be purchased at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 926 E. McLemore Ave., or by calling 901-946-2535.