She's been a diva of the decades but has yet to reach superstar status. Now, with her new album, Who's Hurting Now, Candi Staton talks to John Doran about overcoming her past and embracing the future That you've ever heard of Candi Staton at all is something. She has a history of coming good against the odds; hers is a narrative of redemption, struggle, recognition, obscurity and then rediscovery. That she has managed to regain her status several times, fighting against outrageous misfortune, speaks of determination, grit, a surfeit of raw talent and a sharp survival instinct.
This 66-year-old chanteuse from Alabama, is, to put it bluntly, one of the most consistently underrated vocalists in the pop/soul canon. This isn't to say that she hasn't achieved commercial and critical success in the past. But it feels like every time she is on the verge of attaining the kind of career that befits her talent, something prevents it. In the past, this has been because of problems with domestic cruelty, record label mismanagement or just fashion turning against her.
But none of this stopped Staton from scoring huge hits during the country soul era (Stand By Your Man), during disco (Young Hearts Run Free), during house (You Got the Love) and now she is back again with the second of her new albums for Honest Jon's Who's Hurting Now? which comes full circle by taking her back to her country soul/gospel past. She was born during the Second World War in the deep south of the United States and by the time she was 11, she was part of the Jewell Trio with her sisters, who gained great success playing gospel bills with the biggest stars of the circuit.
The softly spoken singer laughs when she recalls her early taste of the bright lights: "Oh yeah. We were in a gospel group and by the time I was 13 we'd made it to the major stages. In those days you probably didn't have to pay more than three or four dollars to get into an auditorium with 10,000 people sitting up there. "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 the chance to know each other. We had real rough times during those days back in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, North and South Carolina."
At a tender age she nearly eloped with the soul legend Lou Rawls but she was talked out of it and returned home. "We all knew each other and we were out on the road. I was quite young, though. Probably now they would put him in jail!" she says, laughing. "When I was talking to him I think I was about 15 or 16. He was already 20. We had a relationship and we were talking about getting married but it never happened. We nearly went to LA. He wanted us to get married in Las Vegas. But we were so young - his mother talked us out of it."
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 house and would only let her sing in church. She is magnanimous about her experience, however: "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."
After escaping that relationship, she 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. She had another notable fan at the time as well: Elvis Aaron Presley.
"Elvis wrote to me after hearing my version of In the Ghetto. I wish I still had that letter. I was living with Clarence Carter (her boss at FAME records) 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." After what many consider the peak of her career, the disco diva-esque Young Hearts Run Free in 1976, it would be another 15 years until she tasted big success again. But when she did, it was with the sublime You Got the Love, a house classic that sampled Jamie Principle's Your Love.
She continues, laughing: "Originally, we did the song for a video for a diet product. The video was about this guy who needs to lose weight. He was 900 pounds and needed to lose lots of weight. The video didn't happen because while we were waiting for the filming slot to come up, he lost nearly all of the weight before the shoot." But the London record label Honest Jon's, partly owned by Damon Albarn from Blur, has recently been responsible for bringing her to a whole new audience. An excellent, self-titled anthology of her country soul material has led to two more studio albums, His Hands in 2006 and, recently, Who's Hurting Now? The first of these albums was a heavy listen, dealing with issues ranging from domestic abuse all the way to salvation.
She agrees that her latest album is less grave. "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 lighthearted 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." She reveals that there is a very simple explanation behind the brilliant down home feel of the new album; it actually was recorded in someone's house. She adds: "Honest Jon's said to me: 'We've found you a producer in Nashville, Mark Nevers.' 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."
Here's hoping this time, she'll stay in the spotlight for good.