Candi Staton: A Life Full of Happenings

Music Features

For a poor small-town girl from Alabama—a real-life coal miner’s daughter—Candi Staton has been at the center of some of the greatest music of the last century. She grew up harmonizing with her sister on gospel, country and—when their mother wasn’t listening—blues songs. She went on to forge the beginnings of a career in gospel music before a gig opening for Clarence Carter led to the secular world discovering her voice, in the person of Rick Hall of FAME Recording in Muscle Shoals. Staton’s records helped build the already booming reputation of FAME, and she went on to a successful career as a soul singer. The ’70s brought yet another turn to her career, as she had one of the biggest hits of the disco era with the classic “Young Hearts Run Free.” Staton is still going strong, too, with her release last month of her newest record Life Happens. We sat down with her recently at her home outside Atlanta.

Paste: It was great to meet you and to hear you sing at the Muscle Shoals premiere in New York.

Staton: Yes.

Paste: And now your new record is out!

Staton: Life Happens, doesn’t it? Every day. [Laughs]

Paste: [Laughs] Life Happens. It is well-titled!

Staton: Yes it is! [Laughs] When you’ve gone through the changes and stuff that we go through in life, you got a song for every incident, so that’s about it.

Paste: You worked with Rick Hall again. Tell me about that little reunion.

Staton: That was great. It was about three years ago when one of the songs came out that we did with EMI for Honest Jon over in Europe, and Rick came to one of our shows in New York—we did a promotional tour of the record, and he came to visit one night and he stood up the whole time I was on stage. After the show was over he came up, and I got dressed and came out, and he says, “Candi, we gotta do something together. I don’t think we’re finished.”

Paste: Oh, that’s great.

Staton: He said, “I think we got another song.” I said, “You know what Rick, you could be right.” He said, “I want to get you back in that studio.” I said, “Okay, we’ll talk about it.” And so he never let me rest. He just kept calling and we’d talk for a while and he’d call back and we’d talk again. Then one day he said, “Let’s just stop this calling and talking! Let’s just set a date!” I said, “Okay we will! Let’s set a date!” We set a date and I got in the car and I went up. We picked out some songs and then we got the guys together and I came back up to do the actual recording, and it was really the old Rick Hall/Candi Staton thing all over again! We’re just a little older now. [Laughs]

Paste: Like putting on a pair of old shoes. [Laughs]

Staton: Oh, yeah! [Laughs] You know how we do it!

Paste: Of course there are several really, really great songs on the record, but you have a dynamite lead single.

Staton: Yeah.

Paste: “I Ain’t Easy To Love”. For the people that have seen the documentary, they’ve seen a little bit of you recording that song. So they know a little bit about what it sounds like, but you had a couple of very special guest stars that came on and lent you a hand on that on too. Tell us about that.

Staton: Yeah. We were doing the Dave Letterman show. I was invited—actually Muscle Shoals was invited, and Dave Letterman just fell in love with the documentary and he wanted us to come in, and I guess he wanted me to do the song. So we came in and we did the song. Paul Schaffer was there and Felicia Collins and all the guys there. Somehow—don’t ask me how they hooked it up cause I don’t know—but they hooked up John Paul White and Jason Isbell to sing with me, which was amazing! I’d met John Paul in Nashville, but I had never met Jason. I went up online and looked up some of his stuff and said, “This little boy can sing!” [Laughs] Oh, yeah! You know, I’m older than they are so I’m entitled to say things like that.

But anyway, we got there and we went over it in the room, in the dressing room. We’d never sung it together before at all. That was the first time we ever sung it—when we sung it on Dave’s show. We went over it quickly with the band. We did a mic check. We were supposed to already know the song. So there we were mic checking and practicing at the same time and then when we were called on, we just did it. And then I said, “How would you guys like to be on the real record? Would you be down for that?” They said, “Yeah, yeah! We’d love it! We’d be honored.” So somehow Rick and I got together and everybody joined hands and we came in and they came in and did it with me, which was just amazing. I was so pleased. I was so honored.

Paste: It sounds great! I mean, it sounds like it could’ve been recorded in 1967. It’s got that great throwback feel.

Staton: You know a lot of the songs on Life Happens have got that. [Singing] “Gotta get my hands on my emotions. Said I’d never fall again.” That one too. That’s truly a ‘60s feel.

Paste: Yeah, yeah. I know the one you’re talking about.

Staton: “I like where I’m at. I like where I’m at.” It’s like you’ve gone through all of this hell with all of these guys and now all of a sudden your best friend shows up and he’s been in love with you for years and you didn’t even know it. You know, you kind of liked him but you didn’t really. You know, ‘cause you didn’t want to mess up a good friendship. So that’s what that song is about.

Paste: Well, now that we’ve come all the way up to the present, let’s go all the way, all the way back to the past.

Staton: Oh my goodness. [Laughs] I’m going on another journey, huh?

Paste: Right. We’re going to hear about how life happened with you.

Staton: Yeah.

Paste: Now you were born in Hanceville, Alabama. Tell me about Hanceville. Where in the state is it? It’s a small town, I’m assuming.

Staton: It’s a small town. It’s between Birmingham and I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Cullman, or Decatur.

Paste: Oh sure, sure.

Staton: It’s in that little interim between there. Now it’s renamed—our little community is renamed and we’re incorporated now with a mayor and the whole nine yards. It’s called The Colony. We always called it The Colony even when I was growing up. It was like, “We’re from The Colony.” And everybody was like, “Where is that?” But Hanceville was the actual city we lived in, so we incorporated, got our own mayor and everything there now. My mom still owns property there. Our old home place is still there. I was born there and raised there till I was eight.

Paste: How small was it when you were growing up there?

Staton: Oh my goodness, less than 500 people.

Paste: Okay so growing up in this small town in Alabama, what did your father do? What did your mother do? Tell me about family life growing up.

Staton: My dad was a farmer, and he was a miner as well. In the wintertime, he was a coal miner. So I’m a coal miner’s daughter.

Paste: Did he go down to Birmingham for that or were there coal mines in that area?

Staton: No, there was a coal mine in The Colony. He’d walk up the road. It was on the mountain where—up on the mountain—where they had coal mining. He’d go there, and he’d work all day. Then he’d come out and sometimes the only thing you could see were his eyes cause he was black. Coal dust would be all over him! He made a living. He was a hard worker.

In the summertime, he would farm. We raised our own cotton and our peas, and greens, and beans and we had everything we needed. My mother would can. She would do all the canning for winter. She made some of the best vegetable soup you ever tasted in your life! I’m telling you. All we’d have to do on the cold winter nights when the wind was sweeping around the corners of the house was go in there and they would make a fire on the old stove-you know, the wooden stove. We didn’t have electricity then. We had lamps. We would go in there, and she would make a fire. She would put that soup on and make some corn bread and boy we would sit there and just enjoy life. My mother was such a good cook!

Paste: That’s fantastic. All that fresh produce growing right in your backyard basically.

Staton: Right in the backyard, yeah.

Paste: That’s fantastic. That’s fantastic. By the way, have you ever covered that song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”?

Staton: No. I would be telling the truth! [Laughs]

Paste: Exactly! Need to get you and Loretta doing a duet on that song.

Staton: Come on! Lets do it Loretta! [Laughs]

Paste: I know that you started singing gospel at an early age, and your mother was a big gospel music fan.

Staton: Oh yes.

Paste: So were a lot of the records that were around gospel records? Or do remember what those were?

Staton: We had an old battery radio. It was the biggest battery, like a car battery. It was that big, and then the radio would be sticking on the side of it. That’s where we got our music. We would buy, a battery for it when we could afford it, and then the battery would start to go down and we’d have to let it re-power. We had three stations we listened to, which was a gospel station, a rhythm and blues station—we had to slip away and do that—and the country station. Mama didn’t mind us listening to the country station, but she would not let us listen to the blues station.

Paste: It was a little too grimy, huh?

Staton: Yeah. (Singing) “My baby left me…” [Laughs] She would not let us-“You turn that mess off,” she would say.

Paste: Devil’s music, right?

Staton: Yeah, that’s the devil’s music, but the country music, she’d let us listen to. You know, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Ernest Tubb and all them guys, you know, so we listened to all that stuff and that’s why I’m tri-part gospel, country and blues. That’s where my style came from.

Paste: Yeah, yeah. It is really interesting for an African American artist to have a career that’s been so influenced by country music.

Staton: Right, right. I love country music. You go in my car now and you’ll probably hear me playing the country radio station. [Laughs]

Paste: You’re a very fair-complexioned African American. Do you know what your family’s origins are from way back?

Staton: Yeah. Yeah, my grandmother was Italian. She was an Italian woman that migrated to Alabama. Somehow—I don’t know. I never met her. I never met anybody, but they say she was like Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies. She carried her shotgun everywhere she went and she had a whiskey still and she would have parties all weekend long! This is how my dad got to be. She would just have parties and stuff and she would get pregnant and then she’d have babies and we would come in all colors. The police didn’t even bother her. She would keep that shotgun ready for you.

Paste: Wow! [Laughs]

Staton: She would tell you, “Don’t come around my house. Don’t you come here no more!” And if you did—my dad told me one time she burnt the bridge down. Yeah, yeah. People would have to come by her house to go to town and she said, “Don’t come through here no more.” Cause she was selling whiskey. She was making whiskey, and she didn’t want to get caught. So she burnt the bridge down!

Paste: She wanted to stay undercover. [Laughs]

Staton: That’s the legacy of my grandmother! She was a bad-mama-jama! [Laughs]

Paste: Well you can see where part of your gumption comes from.

Staton: Yeah! Oh yeah!

Paste: Man, it takes that kind of gumption to be in an interracial marriage in Alabama at the time when she was…

Staton: Oh, I don’t think she ever married anybody.

Paste: Well, interracial couple.

Staton: Okay! Coupling! [Laughs] But you see, she was the kind of person who didn’t care. She didn’t see color, and she just didn’t care. I wish I could’ve met her! You know, I met my mom’s people and my grandmother on her side but never met my dad’s family.

Paste: She sounds like a character. And brothers? Sisters? Small family? Big family?

Staton: Yeah, there were six of us. I have three brothers. All my brothers have passed away and my oldest sister passed way. The only two left are my sister and me. Maggie, who used to sing with the Jewell Trio.

Paste: Are you the youngest? Are you the baby?

Staton: I’m the youngest, yeah.

Paste: That’s great. Not uncommon among performers. When you’re the youngest, often times, you’re the entertainment for your brothers and sisters. I’m remembering a story where your mother used to tell you that you couldn’t sing. So tell me about that.

Staton: Yeah!

Paste: What did your family think about you singing?

Staton: They would pick at me. It took the audience, it took the world to recognize I had a voice because my family—if I had waited on them to validate me, I would still be waiting. No way! “If you don’t shut up!” [Laughs] Oh my goodness. Finally my brother though, my oldest brother, after my first failed marriage he came in and introduced me to the secular music industry. I was total gospel before then. He took me to a little club in Birmingham and introduced me to his friend who had a club by the name of the 2728 club. It would hold about 150 people. He took me down, and he said, “My sister can sing. You need to hear.” He said, “Man, I love you, but I’m not going to take—this is my living! If this girl can’t sing, I’m going to be totally embarrassed.” He said, “I would not bring somebody down here who can’t sing.”

So he made him let me sing. He forced him. I got up on the stage, and I did “Do Right Woman.” I only knew one song. The band knew that song. It was real popular at the time. I sung it and got a standing ovation. The claps never stopped. They were just clapping and clapping. I didn’t know nothing else so I just did it over, and then he hired me to come every weekend.

I know I’m going forward, but Clarence Carter was coming in a month after I got on as an entertainer there on the weekends, and we would be packed out—folks all outside. Cause it was only 150 people and they would come to hear me sing. Clarence came in that weekend. The club owner’s name was OJ and he says, “Well I’ll tell you what Clarence, I know you bring your own revue, but my girl is going to sing. She’s going to open for you.” He says, “No she’s not! I have my own revue.” He said, “Don’t argue with me Clarence. You’re gonna want to hear this one.” Clarence said, “Well, man I’ll take your word for it.” He called me up, and he said, “You’re going to open for Clarence Carter.” I said, “What? Oh my God OJ, what am I going to sing?” He said, “Think of something.” I said, “Okay.” [Laughs]

Paste: I don’t know, but you better bring it. [Laughs]

Staton: Better think of something! So I come in for rehearsal. I drive down there and come in for rehearsal. Clarence is sitting there and he’s counting his fingers as usual. You know Clarence sits there and counts and plays with his fingers and shakes his leg. He said, “So you the singer, huh?” I said, “Yeah I’m the singer.” He said, “What do you know?” I said, “Well do you know a song by the name of “Tell Mama”?” He said, “I think I can manage that one. What else do you know?” I said, “Well I can do “Do Right Woman” again.” He said, “Okay, alright. We can do them two. You don’t have to do but two.” I said, “Okay.” Never dreamed he wrote it. [Laughs] “Tell Mama.” He wrote it for Etta James.

Paste: He was like, “I think I know that one.” [Laughs]

Staton: Yeah, “I think I know that one.” Cause he had put it out first as “Tell Daddy” and then switched it around. Rick did that for her, changed it to “Tell Mama.” I was up there just singing, and I said, “Man, they can play. They sure catch on fast.” That’s just how dumb I was coming into the secular industry. I didn’t know about nothing much.

Paste: Well it’s so ironic that the two songs you sang were two songs that are so, you know, loom so large in the history of Muscle Shoals music.

Staton: Yeah.

Paste: And then Clarence—well, first of all, before we get to that I didn’t even know that you were married to somebody before Clarence. You were married before that.

Staton: Yeah, I was married and had four children. I tried to make it work, but he was just so extremely jealous. He was insanely jealous. I was just blessed not to get killed, not to get really hurt, you know.

Paste: That’s a bad mix, a jealous husband with a pretty girl singing on stage.

Staton: Whoa, yes. When I was singing for OJ in Birmingham, he would come by with his gun in the back of his pocket. I would be singing, and he’d just be marching in front of the stage. He’d go to the door and stand over there a little while and come back and stand over here a little while. People would be like, “Just sit down man!” People would start heckling and stuff. He would get mad and he’d look around. I’m like, “Oh my goodness, I’ll never have a career with you. I know that. I’ll never have a career.” And that’s what I really wanted to do. I’ve always been a singer since I was five years old. I couldn’t let nobody take that away from me.

Paste: Sure.

Staton: Even though I had four children to raise, I took the chance and divorced him. Clarence hired me to come on the road with him, and that’s how I got with him.

Paste: What did your family, especially your parents, think when you made the switch from singing gospel music and sometimes listening to secular music, to now you’re making your living singing the devil’s music?

Staton: Oh God. I went through it not only with my family but with my church. Everybody was like, “Oh you’re going to hell. You’re just bad. What’s wrong? What has happened to you girl? God’s gonna get you for this!” All that stuff. God didn’t even care. He didn’t. Cause we’re only talking about music that we live everyday. Life, we call it life music. Al Green and I coined that expression. One day he called me and he said, “Candi, what’s wrong with ‘I’m So Tired of Being Alone’?” I said, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Aren’t you tired of being alone?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well you’re telling the truth.” He said, “It’s nothing but live music.” I said, “I call it life music.” I coined that expression for music that we do. It’s about life. It’s like everyday we meet somebody, we think we love them, we see one side of them, and we don’t see the other three sides that they have that we don’t see until we get married.

Paste: Sometimes you don’t want to see.

Staton: Yeah, you really—and then they start coming out and one by one you’re just like, “God who is this masked man? I don’t know who you are no more.” Then things start messing up and you just don’t know. So this is just life music. It’s music that we live every day, stories that we tell about what happened to us. Hopefully, somebody else that hears these stories won’t have to take that same road that we took. We can kind of steer them away from it. You know, I got one in there called “She’s After Your Man.”

Paste: Yeah. “Beware, She’s After Your Man.”

Staton: “Beware Girl, She’s After Your Man”! I wrote that one at the Glastonbury Festival in Europe. There was like 50,000 at my stage that night. It was amazing! I’ve been there twice. This chick came out, and my band was getting out of the bus. She didn’t have nothing on, and she was drunk. You know, everything hanging out. I just spoke, and I said, “Beware girl, she’s after your man!” We went on to the dressing room.

Paste: And you’re like, “Hey that sounds like a song.”

Staton: I went in there and wrote it! [Laughs]

Paste: That’s awesome! [Laughs]

Staton: That’s how songs are birthed.

Paste: Sure.

Staton: Yeah. Incidents take birth like that. But it’s fun.

Paste: We talked about gospel being a big part of your life growing up. What about church in general? Were you a religious person from the beginning? Did you find your faith early on?

Staton: Yeah. Since I was born. I guess when I was six weeks old my mother took me to church, and I’ve been going ever since. I listened to them sing even in my mother’s womb, because she was a devout Christian. She was a woman of God. She loved the Lord. All of her life, she had that certain thing about her. She was so kind and giving and loving. She was a lot like the Lord.

Paste: Yeah, when parents can model that for their kids, it’s really a pretty amazing gift.

Staton: Yeah, it is. It really is. At five years old, I stood on the stage—well, a chair. They pulled a chair up for me and stood me up there. I’d been hearing the songs in the church, so I learned them as a five year old and stood up and sung my first solo behind the pulpit and the church went wild. I’ve been singing ever since. The pastor started taking my sister and I—we would harmonize at night. We had no TV. We barely had a radio so we’d just harmonize and we’d sing. What we just took for granted, everybody thought was wonderful, you know, but we were just doing stuff to entertain ourselves. We would listen to the radio. We’d learn songs. We’d sing country sometimes, we’d sing gospel sometimes, and we’d go way in the back and sing the blues so mama couldn’t hear us. Some nights she would tell us, “Shut up and go to sleep girls!” We would start—we’d just be singing in the bed, harmonizing in the bed.

Paste: I just interviewed Rick Hall a couple of days ago in Muscle Shoals and—I’m sure y’all have had this discussion—but he told me something similar. Basically, that the way he got started as a musician was, you know, they were so poor. They didn’t have money for entertainment. They didn’t have the TV. They didn’t have the whatever, so they would harmonize with each other and that was the start for him too.

Staton: Yeah. We just entertained ourselves, you know. Us country people are so creative. You have to make things happen for you so you learn early how to do things in life.

Paste: Yeah, yeah. So that night opening for Clarence turned out to be a pretty monumental night for you in a lot of ways.

Staton: Yes.

Paste: He then hired you to go on the road with him? To open for him?

Staton: Well yeah he told me—but he said, “If you ever get rid of that crazy husband of yours, give me a call.” [Laughs]

Paste: I was wondering which came first, the chicken or the egg. [Laughs]

Staton: I said, “Okay.” Oh my God. That was my way out! When he said, “If you ever get rid of that crazy husband of yours, give me a call.” Okay, I got it now. I know what I’m going to do. I’m leaving him. I got a job now. I don’t need anything. I’m leaving him!

Paste: So it was professional and personal all at once from the beginning.

Staton: Yes! I was so glad, because see, before then I had no way out. I didn’t know how I was going to make it without him, which is so true with abusive relationships. Most of the time, the woman is a housewife. She has no more income. She has no income except the income he brings in and you’re stuck. But that was my way out. So immediately—it was in a month that I left him.

Paste: Like Andrew Young always talks about the Lord making A Way out of No Way. [Laughs]

Staton: A Way out of No Way! Yes He did! He made a way.

Paste: So God chose an unlikely instrument in Clarence Carter to come and be your Way out of No Way.

Staton: Yes. He sure did. First we went to Muscle Shoals. He invited me to come because Etta James had just left and she was gone—I think she went with Atlantic—and Rick was looking for a female vocalist. Clarence called him up and said, “Rick, I found a gorgeous female vocalist.” He said, “Well Clarence when can I meet her?” He said, “Well she’s coming—what are you doing? What night? Give us a night. We’ll come and meet you there at the studio. I want you to meet her.” He said, “Alright.”

We made the date and my brother-in-law and my sister Maggie drove me from Nashville to Muscle Shoals. I was living at their house at the time, because I’d already left my husband. I had put all my kids in different family’s homes—relatives’ homes—until I could get on my feet. I had four kids. I had my baby girl in Nashville with me. That way I could get on the road with Clarence. So we got to the studio that night and he said, “So this is the girl.” Rick looked over and he said, “Clarence you sure this girl can sing?”

Paste: [Laughs] What made him say that?

Staton: He said, “She’s mighty pretty.”

Paste: He thought maybe there was another reason Clarence was bringing you in. All right, all right I can see that.

Staton: He said, “Well why don’t you just get somebody on the piano?” I said, “I play.” I play the keyboards a little bit. I got down there and I was playing “Do Right Woman”. Rick said, “Do you know something else?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I recorded that on Aretha.” In my mind I was thinking, “Oh my God what have I gotten myself into?” I had no idea. I was so dumb when it came down to the secular side. I knew everybody on the gospel side, nobody on the secular side! But I knew Aretha cause I knew Aretha long before she became a secular singer because she was on the road with me doing gospel.

Paste: Because she did lots of gospel early on, yeah.

Staton: Yeah. So I knew her and I was like, “He did Aretha!” She was hot as a firecracker at that time! I mean her records were everywhere! And I’m like, “Oh my God.” I really got nervous. Then I said, “Well…” He said, “Do you know something you just…just sing anything.” So I made up a song on the spot and played it.

Paste: Wow!

Staton: It was called “To Hear You Say You’re Mine Would Mean Everything To Me”. It was a little—I didn’t finish it. It was just a little chorus. [Singing] “To hear you say you’re mine. Just say you’re mine. It would mean everything.” And I was playing along with myself. He said, “You do have a nice voice. Man, we got to put you down!”

George Jackson was there that night. Earl Cage was there. They were songwriters for Rick at the time, and they had a song that George had already written for Aretha. It was called “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart Than To Be A Young Man’s Fool”. So George sits down on the piano. He played too, so he started playing the song. [Singing the beat] He was just waiting on me. I took the paper, and I started singing it. He sung it over one time for me and I started singing it and Rick said, “Call the guys. We’re going to put this down tonight.” It was around 9 o’clock. He called Jimmy Johnson and all the guys. David Hood and everybody came in. That group right there. [Points to picture] Everybody looks younger. Look at Rick. [Laughs]

Paste: [Laughs] They look a little younger in that picture. And I should say what the inscription says, “To the greatest singer I’ve ever produced, your friend forever Rick Hall.” Now that’s after he produced Aretha, by the way.

Staton: Oh, that is true. Oh my goodness! We did that one, “Never In Public” and “For You”. We put those three songs down, and I went back to Nashville and I waited. First of all, I signed a contract. He made me sign the contract that night before I put the songs down. You know, Rick is business.

Paste: Yes he is. [Laughs]

Staton: So I signed the contract. We did the sessions and he said, “We’re going to look for a distributor.” We got Capitol within, I guess, eight months. We had Capitol on board, and I opened their R&B section. I opened the R&B section for Capitol.

Paste: That doesn’t surprise me at all [Laughs].

Staton: You know, Lou Rawls was there and Nancy Wilson and all those people, but they didn’t have a Rhythm & Blues section, so I was the Rhythm & Blues opener. I stayed with them for a couple of years with Rick, and then after that Rick and I moved to United Artists. I was moving everywhere he went [Laughs]. We did United Artists and did “In The Ghetto” and songs like that and the repertoire kept going up and up, and I stayed with Rick Hall for eight years just doing Rick Hall stuff.

Paste: That’s great! So at what point during that did you and Clarence get married?

Staton: Clarence and I got married about three years into that. I had been with him for a couple years and going into the third year we got married. We had a little baby on the way so we had to get married. [Laughs] We went and got married and the baby was born and we stayed together for about three more years then went our separate ways.

Paste: [Laughs] Nice, nice. Obviously Clarence is an amazing artist and everybody I talk to about him talks about what a nice guy he is and what a good guy he is…not the most ‘settling down and lets make a home for the rest of our lives’ kind a guy.

Staton: [Laughs] He still loves to Slip Away. ‘Cause he’s Too Weak to Fight. That’s how he got so many Patches. Oh my goodness, that’s funny! Oh boy.

Paste: [Laughs] Wow! Well, tell me how you felt at that time when you and Clarence split up because it had to be a complicated time for you. Professionally, everything was going so well and yet here—especially for someone who had always been religious the idea of now a second marriage not working out had to sort of weigh on you a little bit.

Staton: Well, during that time, it wasn’t that hard. The first time is the hardest always because I had the most kids, but I was already making money so it wasn’t a problem.

Paste: So you knew you could provide for the kids.

Staton: I could provide. I could do it on my own. I knew I was well on my way. That’s why it wasn’t that bad. It was the hurt that was within the marriage. All the infidelity I had to deal with, I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take that, and I didn’t think I deserved that so I just walked away from it. I told him, “You know what, I can’t deal with this any longer. I got to get out of here.”

Paste: What was his reaction to that?

Staton: Well, we had a big fight. My attorney came over, and he sat down and talked to me and Clarence. He said, “You have too much to lose. If I were you, I would try to work it out.” And we tried staying together about another six months, but it didn’t work. Once you have that kind of a rift in a relationship, it’s never going to—sometimes it can’t be repaired. So I stayed around for a little while, and I just finally ended up getting a house. I went and bought a house. He didn’t even know that I went and bought my own house in Atlanta. Moved out of the house with him because I knew he wasn’t going anywhere. I stayed in a suite until my house closed and the divorce was final and then I moved in my home. That’s how I got away from him.

Paste: I assume at this point, you were touring on your own, right? And having records out and everything professionally seems to be going well. Tell me about some of the career highlights for you of that part of your career.

Staton: Yeah, yeah. Oh my God, there are so many! So many! I met all these wonderful people. I did shows with Al Green and Teddy Pendergrass. You know, Luther Vandross was a friend of mine and before we even started singing, the background singers called him F360 and Fonzie, one of his close friends, was singing with us. It was two girls and Fonzie. Luther Vandross used to be on the bus with us, eating up all of our food. [Laughs] And I didn’t even know he could sing! I’m like, “Who is this guy?” Fonzie said, “Candi, that man can sing!” I said “Yeah right, when he stops eating!” [Laughs]

Paste: [Laughs] How can he sing with a sandwich in his mouth?

Staton: I said, “Well he eats all the time. He should be able to do something.” You know, this is the kind of relationship we had. He’d be on the bus. He’d walk up and down the bus and we got to be great friends. Many times in New York-I’d come to New York, I would always see Luther walking the street. As soon as I got out of the car, here would come Luther. I said, “Luther, why every time I come to New York, I see you?” [Laughs] Those were some wonderful, wonderful times. Ashford and Simpson—great times. I had such great times with them. They had the white party, and they would invite everybody to come up, and we had such a great time with them. The DJs and everybody—it was just a wonderful time in my life. BB King was special too. BB and Bobby Blue Bland. They were such great friends.

Paste: Wow. It had to be an exciting time.

Staton: It was.

Paste: For a little small-town Alabama girl.

Staton: Yeah! A little country girl.

Paste: You did all right.

Staton: Did pretty good. [Laughs]

Paste: Then, of course, later on in the ’70s your career had an interesting transition. For someone who grew up and then had the start of her career—the whole first part of her career doing kind of more blues, country kind of stuff—then disco hits! All of a sudden, everybody wants to hear disco all the time!

Staton: Oh my God, yeah. That was a dancing era. This was the most exciting time, I believe, of my whole career. When disco was out and “Young Hearts Run Free” came out and it was number one and Studio 54 New York, it was just—it was glamorous, to say the least. Before then, the country and the gospel blues things I was doing like “I’m Just A Prisoner” and all that stuff was taking me to the chitlin circuit.

Paste: Sure, sure.

Staton: I would end up in these little nightclubs where the fights break out and all of the smoke is in there and you can’t see and everybody’s cursing each other out and unless you’re singing their favorite song, they’re talking. You don’t want to tell them to shut up because that’s going to start a fight. Anyway, those were the kinds of atmospheres that I had to deal with, and I learned how to deal with them well. You remember my grandmother?

Paste: [Laughs] You channeled her?

Staton: I dealt with them. When disco hit, that was a relief. I’m like, “Okay, I don’t need a band. First of all, all I need is my tracks and a club and I’m good to go.” It was good money! They paid well. You could do three shows a night. You could leave one club—I had a thirty-minute set. I would leave one club, go to another club, and then go to another club and make three monies in one night and then go back to the hotel and go to sleep and do the same thing over and over and over every night. And this was money—oh my God the money was just pouring in! And no band to pay, no per diems, no flights, no rooms, just me and my—I just carried it in my purse. My band was in my purse every day. I loved it! [Laughs]

Paste: That’s awesome! [Laughs]

Staton: I’d go in the club and hand it to the sound man. Here’s my band. [Laughs]

Paste: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] One of the things about a movement like Disco is when seemingly everybody in the world fixates on one style of music, you have a hit in that style—it’s one thing to have an R&B hit in the late ’60s when people listened to all different kinds of music, but if most everybody is only listening to one kind of music and you’ve got the number one song in the world, I mean that’s got to be, like, as far as the number of people who know who you are, it just pushes you into a different stratosphere, right?

Staton: Oh yeah, yeah. It was great.

Paste: You’d become a true celebrity, right?

Staton: True, really. You know, in Europe right now they still play “Young Hearts Run Free” at least three or four times a week on BBC.

Paste: Wow.

Staton: And the new song—I have a song over there that went double platinum. It’s called “You’ve Got The Love”. So they play that. Those are my staples when I go there. I mean, I can pull big crowds with just those two songs alone.

Paste: Tell the story about hearing the second song and recognizing it and asking the shop—do you remember the story?

Staton: Oh, that was here! That was in Atlanta! That was in Perimeter Mall. I’m walking down the—I mean I’d had a bad day. I just wanted to get away from the house.

Paste: What era was this? Around what year was this?

Staton: This was in the early ’90s. You know, right after the song came out. It came out around that time in the ’90s. I’m walking down the hallway, you know, just window-shopping, and I wasn’t looking that good. I just walked out of the house without even caring about how I look because I wasn’t having a great day that day. I stopped in front of a little shop, and I heard it. [Singing] “Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air. I know I can count on you.” I said, “That’s me.” I stopped in the window, and I went inside. I said, “Um, where’d you get that?” He said, “It’s an import.” I said, “Imported from where?” He said, “London.” I said, “Oh, well that’s me singing.” He said, “Yeah, and I’m Michael Jackson.” [Laughs] Then he went on about his business, and I said, “Forget it.” I got real mad at first. I said, “I need to show him. I need to show you my I.D.” Then I was like, “Forget it.”

Paste: Then you were like, “Maybe I just need to go home and put on some make-up.” [Laughs]

Staton: He probably still wouldn’t have known me. He didn’t have a clue. House music wasn’t really that big here.

Paste: So, I want to get the time frame right, tell me about when Jimmy James comes into the picture. Is that pre-disco? Or was that during disco?

Staton: Oh God. That was disco. That was during the disco period. He was a promoter out of Oakland, California. He and Tyrone Davis and I were doing a tour together out there. He promoted a tour, and I met him. Didn’t have a clue who he was. Others did, but I didn’t. I didn’t know he was a pimp and all that stuff. It’s so strange how there’s at least one in life to every female entertainer. We always manage to get one like that. Gladys Knight got one. You name it. Aretha had one—Ted White. Gladys got that one that called himself manager.

Anyway, I found him. He found me, and he literally put himself on me. That was a really dark time in my life. He was very, very abusive, and he was very mean. He was evil. He was really evil. I had to stop a lot of things I was doing, which was at the height of the biggest hit I’ve ever had…because of him. He would go in with his gun, you know, promoters were leaving. We would have to leave sometimes because he wanted the money the moment when the bus pulled up, he wanted the promoter to pay us. The man said, “Man you ain’t even put the first drum up on stage yet. You think I’m going to pay you? Y’all ain’t even tuned up.” So I had to deal with that and he would pull the gun out and they guy would say, “Forget it,” and send us home. Everything got just so bad until I just had to get rid of him. Warner Brothers—I was with Warner Brothers at the time. They called us in. They sent for us and told me that he could not go on the road with me anymore. If he did, they were going to drop my contract because we were losing money. He was making so many enemies with the DJs and all. He had to go.

Paste: I know you’ve talked before about some issues with substances at some point during this time period. Did that have anything to do with sort of impairing your judgment?

Staton: Yeah, I was an alcoholic. I was just hooked to alcohol at that time. I couldn’t function without it. Yeah, it had a lot to do with impairing my judgment because had I been as sane as I am now, I wouldn’t have looked at him twice. No way I would’ve been there. When you’re high and you’re partying and you’re having a good time and he was—he was a good time guy. He’d keep you laughing, dancing, and all that good stuff. He knew everybody and so it was like—he was on drugs of course.

Paste: A lot of those bad guys can be fun when they’re being fun. Then all of a sudden they’re not being fun and, well, you know.

Staton: Yeah. Ohhhhh yeah. I was doing a show with Ray Charles out in Las Vegas at the Aladdin Theater, and Jimmy and I got into an argument. He came upstairs and he dangled me over, I think it was maybe 24-25 stories high. He picked me up and told me he was going to drop me. He put a gun to my head until I went to sleep and when I woke up, he was gone.

I guess I just talked my way out of it. I said, “You know what this hotel is run by the mafia I guess you know that right? If you drop me, there’s going to be a lot of press out there. They gonna find you. They’re going to kill you. They won’t stop until they annihilate you. I think the best thing for you to do is bring my back into the house-back into the room.” He thought about it. He said, “Yeah, I guess you right, but I’m gonna shoot you. I’m just gonna shoot you then.” I said, “Okay, shoot me. But don’t do that. That’s painful. I don’t want to hit the ground.” So I just lay down on the bed, and I was so shaken. I had done the show and I was just lying on the pillow there crying and he had the gun at my head. Somehow I just went to sleep. Maybe I was high; maybe I was drunk and just went to sleep. Maybe alcohol helped there but when I woke up, he was gone. He came back the next night. Came in the next morning as though nothing had happened.

Paste: Like nothing had happened.

Staton: “Ready to go to breakfast?” I’m like, “God.”

Paste: Do you think that sowed some of the seeds of you deciding that you needed to get out of that situation? Was that incident a big—

Staton: Oh yes! He would tell me that if I left him, he’d kill me. He had me in fear. I was afraid to leave him. I was really afraid to leave him. Till one day I got to the point when I said, “What’s the point of me living like this? I may as well be dead.” When you don’t fear things anymore, they don’t have any impact on you. When that fear is gone—fear is what holds you to a situation. When you lose the fear, and you face death and you say, “I’ll just die first before I live like this.” Then he don’t have anything else to do. It has to back off.

Paste: Yeah, yeah.

Staton: He pulled a gun on me and I said, “You know what? You shoot me. You can’t shoot me cause God won’t let you.” His whole countenance fell. I walked away from him and he was holding a gun on me. I walked with my back turned. He could’ve killed me so many times.

That’s why life happens. These are the stories in this record. Music that I have lived through. This is what makes me who I am. Each story each level carries a different message and makes a different me out of me. It makes me stronger. I’m not defeated. I’m stronger for that. I have a victory for that. That’s why I can tell so many young women, “Hang in there baby. It’s gonna pass. This too shall pass, and it will. Don’t be afraid and don’t fall and collapse under the strain of someone making you fear them. You don’t fear nobody but God. The only person you fear. ”

Paste: Yeah. If God is with me, who can be against me?

Staton: Who can be against me? That’s right.

Paste: Well I’d love to hear a little bit more about the whole Studio 54 scene. I’m so fascinated by both the good parts and the bad parts of that scene, some of which we’ve touched on in the past few minutes.

Staton: It was amazing! It was some amazing place! Trust me. You would see anybody. Any type of artist or movie star just walking through any time. It was like you were in Hollywood or somewhere. It’s the most amazing thing. The floor is filled and everybody is dressed to the nines. And the things is, with Studio 54, they got these real good looking guys standing out front choosing who comes in. That was the fun part. They always choose who comes in. Only the good looking, only the beautiful people. They didn’t want nobody at Studio 54 raggedy looking. You had to be dressed right. You had to be looking right. You had to be dressed the part. They would say, “You over there, come on in.” They knew me though. They all knew me.

Paste: Of course.

Staton: “Candi! Come on in. Bring your guest.” I think they even turned Diana Ross away one night. It was probably somebody that didn’t know her, of course, but I heard she was turned away one night and she was so mad. But they got him for it. “Don’t you ever turn Diana away anymore!” [Laughs]

Paste: Yeah, I bet that person got fired! [Laughs]

Staton: Yeah, I bet he did!

Paste: In addition to all the parade of ‘You never know who’s going to be there’ was there also a core community that you knew were always going to be there when you went? Who were some of those people that you sort of always loved seeing there and always loved being with at Studio 54?

Staton: Oh God the biggest DJs in New York were always there. I was in there the night Frankie Crocker came in on the white horse.

Paste: Wow!

Staton: I was there. I saw that! [Laughs] When he came in on that white horse, you know, he didn’t play “Young Hearts Run Free” and he came up to me and apologized for that. He said, “But I’m going to burn the next one,” and that was “Victim”. He just stayed on it. At the time, he was the most popular DJ in New York.

Paste: Yeah, yeah. Sure.

Staton: Frankie Crocker was the man. He had gone to jail for a little while. He came back and came back into 54 on a white horse that night and everybody just screamed and clapped. I was there that night. You’d see people like Stephanie Mills—you’d see all the movie stars, all the Broadway stars. They’re coming and going and it was just a fun-filled place.

Paste: You had to feel like you were just at the center of the universe.

Staton: Yeah, you really did. You really did. It was amazing.

Paste: But there was obviously a dark side of that too. There was a lot of—as we were talking about in the last few minutes—there was a lot of substance abuse there and a lot of violence involved in that scene. That kind of thing.

Staton: Oh yeah.

Paste: I guess one of the things that’s so fascinating to me about it is how it had such a glamorous, care-free, celebratory feel—it seems to have had that—and yet, at the same time, also had all of this darkness underneath some of it.

Staton: The basement. [Laughs] It was called the basement, and they would never let me go there. They said, “No, you’re not going to the basement. No, you’re a nice girl. We want to keep it that way. You stay right on up here Miss Candi. You don’t go to the basement.” But I heard some things that go on down there—we won’t tell about it here but—

Paste: We don’t need to do that. [Laughs]

Staton: No we don’t need to do that. [Laughs] Anyway, there was a lot of stuff going on down there like drugs and sex and whatever they felt like doing down there. It was Studio 54!

Paste: Moving forward from that, as disco sort of faded into the music of the next era, again, it’s interesting—it had to have been kind of a mixed blessing. All that next level of fame that that era took you to. It was great. I’m sure it opened a lot of doors for you, but, at the same time, there were probably a lot of people who saw you as a disco singer when, in fact, you were this amazing long standing singer of all these different genres that just happened to have some huge hits in disco, right?

Staton: Yeah. Right. You know, Europe never knew anything until they put the compilation out. Honest Jon put out that compilation that did 100,000 records in about, I guess it was maybe, six months.

Paste: Wow.

Staton: That’s when they really knew who I was. Now I go over there, like I’m doing in September, and I’m going to be doing like nine to ten days, but I’ve done 30 days and sold out everywhere because of that old gospel/blues type of song that I did in Muscle Shoals. Muscle Shoals is so well known in Europe. They love the music of Muscle Shoals.

Paste: Yeah that compilation was a real sort of—I don’t want to call it a comeback because you were doing some pretty cool stuff in between too in gospel and in television shows.

Staton: Oh yeah, yeah. I’ve been there. I’ve been all around the world, right?

Paste: But as far as that music, that compilation was really sort of a rediscovery for a lot of people of your music. How did that come about?

Staton: Warner Brothers had put out quite a few things. They put out The Best of…and a lot of stuff. They always did good like 10, 15, 20 thousand, but they never did really big. They never went real big so Bill Carpenter called me, my publicist, and he said, “EMI wants to put out a compilation on you in Europe.” I said, “Tell them to join the gang. Everybody else is doing it.” I’m not thinking it’s going to do anything. He said, “Are you up with that?” I said, “Yeah, sure. What are they going to put on it?” So he began to tell me all the songs that they wanted—about 26. I said, “Okay. Sounds good.” Didn’t really think about it at all.

They wanted me to do some promotion. I said, “Okay, I’ll promote.” They were calling me from Europe. The calls kept getting more and more frequent, and they were talking about it. All the magazines were picking up on it, and they were giving it five stars. Best. The best sound. Didn’t realize she could sing like that. We only knew “Stand By Your Man” and “Young Hearts Run Free” and “You’ve Got The Love”. We didn’t know she could sing the blues. These were the kinds of, you know, blues and soul and all the rest of the magazines over there. The Guardian, The London Times gave me a whole page of just a big interview. It just blew up and when I went over there, my God, the crowd—they were selling out. Every show I had sold out before I left the house.

Paste: Wow!

Staton: They were sold out. The whole tour was sold out.

Paste: That’s crazy.

Staton: It was amazing. And they still sell out today.

Paste: And that’s allowed you to do some more albums of new material since that point.

Staton: Yeah.

Paste: How many have you done since then?

Staton: This is off our own label. We decided to do it ourselves this time. We’ve been letting everybody else do it. It’s on Beracah Records, our own label and Sony Red is distributing for us, but we’re looking for distribution right now in Europe and I’m pretty sure we’re going to get it.

Paste: Well yeah! They obviously have the appetite for it.

Staton: Yeah, but this is about—I guess I’ve done about 28 to 30 records in my whole career.

Paste: I don’t think we should let the interview go by without talking about the setting that we’re in here because—we don’t have to be too specific about where you are. We don’t need the paparazzi showing up at your door, but we’re in what could accurately be described as rural Georgia, right?

Staton: Right.

Paste: Not too far from population centers, but definitely in rural Georgia. It’s such a—I remarked to you when I walked in—not only is the house beautiful but your land here and the surrounding area is such a peaceful place.

Staton: Yeah.

Paste: Tell me about-it’s kind of like a coming back to your roots, right? Now, after all these years, you’re back in a tiny town in the rural Southeast living with farms across the street from you. What is that like?

Staton: Yeah, right. It’s lovely. I just, oh my God—in the evening, I sit on the porch, and I watch the traffic go by. We have a garden. We got a garden down there. I’ll show you in a few minutes. We got corn, snap beans, we’ve got some strawberries, we’ve got okra, tomatoes, hot peppers, and stuff like that already planted. We got carrots, I think we’ve got some carrots down there. We’re just doing mini-farming and around here it’s so peaceful. Nobody ever bothers you. You can be who you are. You can be yourself. It’s quiet. You don’t have a lot of break-ins. You can go to sleep at night and rest here and that’s what I was looking for. Because when you come off the road and you’ve been in all of the hustle and bustle of the big cities and stuff, you need a place like this.

Paste: Sure.

Staton: Just to relax and just regroup and get yourself back together.

Paste: That’s why I wanted to bring it up because I want people to have this picture of you—this accurate picture of you having been through a lot in your life and being in this really peaceful place geographically, you know.

Staton: Yeah.

Paste: The last things I want to talk about is, you know, we talked about how the music and career have kind of come full circle back to a really good place where it started, right?

Staton: Right.

Paste: Your geography, your surroundings have kind of come full circle back to a really good place near where it started.

Staton: Right.

Paste: There’s also a really interesting cyclical thing about your troubled-in-the-past love life. It has a nice final chapter too. Talk to me about that.

Staton: Oh, yeah. Well I’m single now, and I’m glad to be single.

Paste: Okay.

Staton: I’ve gone full circle, and I’m just going to settle into me being me. I’m writing a lot now. I’m doing a lot of writing. I’m just devoted now to my music and my family. Jane Fonda was on the other day and—she’s about my age I think, somewhere near my age. They asked her, “Jane do you think you’re ever going to get married again?” She said, “Are you crazy? I might have a friend, but I will never marry. I’m too old to do that. No!” So I’m kind of there.

Paste: That’s maybe not the happy ending that you might expect to see at the end of a story, but it is a happy ending nonetheless. It’s a no-less happy ending to get to the point where you’re good with that. We haven’t talked in depth about it, but I sense in you a pretty deep happiness with being in that place.

Staton: Yeah, yeah. I’m in a good place. I really am. I like where I’m at. [Laughs]

Paste: Well that’s fantastic. The career coming to the great place, the geography, the personal life; it seems like it’s all coming together, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer woman.

Staton: Well thank you so much Michael.

Paste: Thanks for the time.

Staton: You’re welcome! Thanks for coming and doing this with me!

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