If you’ve been fortunate enough to have seen the new documentary about Muscle Shoals Fame Studios, you might have noticed the lady with the voice like frayed velvet…soft yet with an edge.
If you didn’t see her in the documentary, you might have caught her on Letterman, accompanied by Jason Isbell and Civil War’s John Paul White.
Her name is Candi Staton and she was born on March 13, 1940, right around the corner in Hanceville. Until the age of 10, she was just an average little girl, playing in the backyard, running underneath the clothesline filled with clean-smelling sheets blowing in the wind, climbing trees and making mud pies.
Then her life changed drastically, and not always for the good. She will tell you now that even with the bad times, it’s been a wild ride, filled with joys and sorrows, but worth it in the end.
Staton moved with her mother and siblings to Cleveland, Ohio, at the age of 10. Her brother sent for them after establishing himself there. “He always promised my mother that he would send for us, and he did,” said Staton.
Within six months of the move, Staton was signed with the Jewel Christian Academy in Nashville. Because of her voice, she was singled out of the crowd to become one of a trio which included her sister, Maggie, and Naomi Harrison. They became the Jewel Gospel Trio, and traveled the traditional gospel circuit in the turbulent ’50s when the Civil Rights movement was getting under way.
The teenagers traveled with other singers of the day, including the great Mahalia Jackson. They recorded several records for the Nashbro lable, as well as Apollo and Savoy Records between 1953-1963.
“We were just three little girls in can-can slips and patent leather shoes with a four-piece rhythm section,” she laughed.
Her mother, who trusted them in the care of Sister Jewel, missed their teenage years. She was always adamant that they sing only gospel and not “the blues.”
“As soon as I was out from under her roof I started singing the blues,” she laughed.
It wouldn’t be long before those little girls turned into teenagers, touring with other singers, traveling in caravans for safety. Among the entourage was Sam Cook, one of the greatest voices of the era. To the young girls he was just Sam, one of the guys who ate lunch with them and joked and laughed with them — singing the blues.
By the time Candi was 19, she lived in Birmingham, had four children and was in an abusive marriage.
“I didn’t have much education,” she said. “I didn’t even know how to apply for a job; I thought I was stuck in that life.”
Then her oldest brother, Sam, moved back from Cleveland and found her in dire straights. He pulled her up by her bootstraps and got her back on stage, where she had always belonged.
He pushed her to learn the newest songs, then shoved her back in front of a microphone, where she drew crowds again. “He bought me three records and told me to learn the words,” she recalls. “They were “Do Right Woman,” “Tell Mama” and something I don’t even remember. I learned them all that day and that night, I tore that place up!” she laughed.
The owner of the club asked her to come in as a regular. In a couple of months he asked her to open for rhythm andblues blues legend Clarence Carter. “I didn’t even know who he was,” she admitted. “But I learned his songs and Clarence went crazy over my voice.”
Carter might have been crazy about her voice, but he was leery of her husband. “When you get rid of that jealous husband of yours, give me a call,” he told her.
Finally, Candi had found her way out of the vicious cycle of abuse. “Clarence offered me a job but it meant traveling with him on the road,” she said.
She left her family and her gospel roots behind and went head-first into the world of rhythm and blues, singing in nightclubs and honky tonks all over the country. Through Carter, she met Fame’s Studio head, Rick Hall, who would do more for her career than anyone thus far. Within six months she had signed a deal with Capitol Records.
“People thought I was Aretha Franklin,” she laughed. “The first record sold over 7,000 copies before they realized it wasn’t her.”
Staton was nominated for a Grammy for her rendition of “In The Ghetto.” She had done 51 songs for Hall at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals when Warner Brothers contacted her in 1975. They signed her for a seven-year deal in which time she recorded “Young Hearts Run Free,” which put her over the top during the disco years. It is probably her best known hit, reaching the number one spot on the American R&B charts, the number two spot in the UK Singles Chart, then the Top 20 on the Pop Hot 100, during the summer of 1976. It was remixed and re-released in 1986 reaching the UK Top 50.
She did some television appearances on shows like “The Midnight Special,” “In Concert,” “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand.”
By 1980, she was again divorced and had grown weary of the pressures of the road and all that went with it, so when the opportunity arose for her to make a move from California to New Jersey, she jumped at the chance.
“That life is filled with people who succumb to drugs and alcohol. It’s easy to slip into the habit of taking drugs to give you the courage to face a crowd of people every night and you never know what your voice might be like. It could be too husky or you could be fighting laryngitis, or just not up to par, but you have to get out there and every step of the way you are fighting the fear, ” she said. “It was a big responsibility.
“All of my friends in R&B and some in country music — well, you’ve seen the stories — when you become an idol you carry a big load. I guess I just got tired of fighting the record labels, fighting management, and the road, all of that hustle and bustle.”
So she came back to her roots. She moved back to Colony where she began, and went to church in Birmingham. She started over — again.
With the move she also made the decision to get back to her gospel roots and for the next 20 years she stayed away from the secular life that was so fast-paced and filled with vices.
During this period she worked with Jim Baker of PTL, recording her first gospel recording. There were many benefits to working with this group; for one thing they distributed her records under their umbrella, Trinity Broadcasting Company, which was huge.
She traveled again, doing speaking engagements and worked with lots of famous personalities, like Lou Rawls, who was her co-host. “Our show was designed to reach the unsaved,” she explained.
In the early ’80s, Staton became the co-founder of Beracah Ministries in Atlanta, with help from Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and PTL Ministries. She has since recorded eight gospel albums, two of which received Grammy Award nominations. She was also inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame.
She had remarried to a minister and for a time things leveled off. But her husband, who was a former drug addict, fell off the wagon and her life skewered back into turmoil.
Although she was back in the Christian arena, she was met with confrontation and rebuke when she divorced again. “You know, you can almost kill someone and be forgiven quicker than for being divorced in that world,” she said candidly. “I was shunned because of the divorce, Trinity Broadcasting dropped me, I couldn’t buy a church date because I was a divorced woman, even in the ’90s.”
Staton became severely depressed. Finally, she fell to her knees, crying out to God. “Please, you have to help me, God,” she cried. “I have to get out of this!”
For several years she’d had her own record label, two publishing companies, and a production company. They were getting ready to produce a new record and sign with a bigger label in Nashville. “I was so happy, but just as I was supposed to sign the publicist called and said that he didn’t know how to tell me, but because I was divorced the label had decided to drop me,” she said.
That was what Staton calls her “Ah, ha!” moment. “My eyes opened and I went to God again, promising Him that whatever door He chose to open, I would walk through.”
And the door did open. “That door was Europe,” she said. “I was scared of what the Christian community would say about me for singing secular music again, but the songs like ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ were about real life, about day-to-day living, and not some cheating, broken heart music.”
Once again, Rick Hall intervened at the perfect moment. The music that she had recorded with him in Muscle Shoals sold over 150,000 copies in Europe within six months.
That was 10 years ago, and Staton says that God has had her back ever since.
She still has family in Colony. With five children and 19 grandchildren, she has a rich, full life. One of her daughters and a grandson occasionally travel with her. Her daughter, Cassandra, often sings backup for Staton. “I come and go from the United States to Europe, but I’m much bigger there than I’ve ever been here,” she said.
Her work has taken her all over the world — to Belgium, Canada, India, Australia, Japan, the European continent and South Africa. “At my age it cuts out the boredom,” she laughed easily. “Whatever you don’t use, you lose.”
Back in Muscle Shoals, Rick Hall was gearing up for a documentary about his success with Fame Studios. “Rick and I had cut a lot of records together over the years,” explained Staton. “I had also done two back-to-back albums in Europe when Rick called and said, ‘I think we have another hit’.”
In a 2011 interview with Bill Carpenter, Staton commented on those times with Fame’s Rick Hall. “I thought all of the albums we did during those days were very, very good. We worked real hard. We put a lot in them. Rick went through the albums over and over and over again trying to make sure he got the right sweeteners. He put in the right horn lines — if not, then he changed them, or we did more background. It was like a baby, trying to teach the baby how to walk. That’s how he looked at his music. He didn’t send sloppy music out to the streets. He wanted the best he could get.”
Hall persuaded her to come back to Muscle Shoals. She eventually met with the producer of the recently aired documentary. Audiences were thrilled and excited to see the caliber of musicians who had passed through the doors of the little, nondescript studio in the Shoals over the past decades.
Staton says that she loved the cut she did with Isbell and White, called “You’re Not Easy To Love”. When she sang it on the Letterman show recently, the host walked up to the stage and with a half bow, kissed her hand in appreciation. “I never dreamed I’d be on his show. I’d never met him before that night,” she said. “He is really funny.”
The day following this interview, Staton boarded a jet bound for London. She is back in her element, singing and carrying the Muscle Shoals sound around the world. She is scheduled to have dinner with Tito Jackson next week to discuss more recordings.