Candi Staton is best known for hits like Young Hearts Run Free and You Got The Love
“I was so angry, because we were in a hurry,” the veteran soul star tells me. “I went down there, and he tried to pour me a drink. I said, ‘I’ve done my work, pay me’. He just smiled and brought out champagne. “I said, ‘Don’t play with me’. He said, ‘I can’t pay you until you’ve had a drink’. We ended up arguing and he came over and tried to kiss me.
“I pushed him away and said, ‘Don’t you touch me!’ Then I pulled my gun out from my purse. He took my money, a big roll of cash, out of his pocket, threw it all over the floor, and stormed out. I was on my knees picking up the 20s and the 100s. Why wouldn’t he just pay me? Just cos I was a woman! He paid Barry White and The Temptations.”
Candi, 81, best known for exuberant, life-affirming hits like Young Hearts Run Free and You Got The Love, met many men like that club owner on the US chitlin’ circuit ‑ the name given to African-American clubs in the bad old days of segregation.
The star, who returns to the UK for the Love Supreme festival in July, says, “Some club owners were good and honest, but some were dishonest. In every apple cart, you’ll find a bad apple.”
Staton started reluctantly carrying a .32 pistol in her purse in her twenties ‑ largely to make sure she got paid. “A lot of bad club owners would try and get away without paying you, so you’d come prepared. You’d do two shows, and you knew if you weren’t paid between them, you could forget seeing any money.”
She didn’t like guns, and admits that when she had to produce it “I’d be shaking in my shoes”. The circuit was rough and often violent. “There would be fights, tables would go over, and before you knew it there’d be a riot. I’d just stand there sometimes and watch a good old fist fight. It didn’t scare me; I was used to these people.”
Candi Staton c.1970
Other nights she’d be heckled and hectored on stage by drunks. “They’d drink too much. You’d see a guy with a fifth” ‑ a 750ml bottle of whiskey ‑ “on his table and he would drink the lot.
“Often, they only wanted to hear me sing, Stand By Your Man” [her version of the country classic was a US hit in 1970] “and they’d bully you till you sung it.”
It was a mighty long way from her early years in a teenage gospel trio ‑ and from the discos where Alabama-born Candi, dubbed ‘The First Lady of Southern Soul’, was treated like a queen after the success of Young Hearts Run Free in 1976.
“Disco was like walking into heaven,” she says with a dreamy laugh. “I could just walk on stage to backing tracks and do a 30 minute show or an hour show, and it was all dancing, dancing, dancing – and you got paid. It was so much fun.”
The song was based on Candi’s own life. When she signed to Warner Brothers, producer David Crawford got her chatting about her relationships. She opened up about her husband and manager Jimmy James ‑ “a pimp and a con man” who threatened to kill her or kidnap her five small children if she ever left him.
“He drugged me,” she recalls. “I don’t remember the day I was supposed to have married him.”
The result was Young Hearts Run Free, the tragedy of the lyrics contrasting with the sheer joy of the song. Candi recorded it in one raw, emotional take. “The hurt in my voice was real,” she says. “I was singing for my life.”
Canzetta Staton’s life reads like a TV melodrama. She has married six times, often to violent, controlling men. “I was just a little country girl who believed what men told me,” she sighs. “I was a sucker.”
She blames her childhood. Growing up in Hanceville, Candi recalls her alcoholic father bringing drunks home for late night parties. “They would paw you, pretending they didn’t know what they were doing…we’d have to fight just to keep from being raped.”
But then she married men who were “like my daddy…I kept marrying the same man again and again.”
At 11, Candy and her older sister Maggie were sent to the Jewell Christian Academy in Nashville. Impressed by their singing, the school pastor paired the sisters with Naomi Harrison to form the Jewell Gospel Trio who became hugely successful performing on bills with gospel stars like Mahalia Jackson.
“Maggie was the lead singer but on the day we were due to play a church in LA she woke up hoarse and that’s how I became the lead singer,” says Candi. “We made two or three albums for a Nashville company, and we’d be on bills with Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls.
“I was a little country girl, couldn’t hardly afford shoes –my daddy worked in the mine, but was also a farmer. So just being there with these famous folk was a dream come true.”
Later the trio realised they were being exploited. “The Staple Singers kids were on salaries, we weren’t. We hardly had food! Sometimes we went hungry. When Maggie was 19, she left and got a teaching degree. I was 17, but I had no money, we had to make our own clothes…”
So Candi went back home, and nearly eloped with 21-year-old Lou Rawls ‑ “his mother talked me out of it, so I went back and finished high school”. At 18, Lou and Sam Cooke tried to get her a crossover deal with Capitol Records “but my mom wouldn’t let me go to LA”.
Candi Staton performing at Love Supreme Jazz Festival in 2015
She was 20 when she married the first time, and 30 when she wed soul star Clarence Carter. In 1968, Carter introduced her to Rick Hall (of Muscle Shoals sound fame) who produced her string of R&B hits.
When she landed her own US TV show, Rawls was a frequent co-host.
Talking to Candi is like a history lesson in American popular music. She used to chat with Little Richard outside her school gates before he had his first hit, her friends included Aretha Franklin, Gloria Gaynor and LaBelle’s Sarah Dash, and the immortal Ray Charles once dubbed her “the female Ray Charles”.
She never met Elvis Presley but he sent her a note praising her version of In The Ghetto ‑ she lost it in one of her divorces ‑ and she did once buy Elvis’s limo for $50,000.
In the disco era, Candi developed a drink problem, falling off-stage twice, but she has been teetotal for 39 years and is powered only by her devout Christian faith.
The Bible helped sustain her through her recent battle with breast cancer (she’s now clear). She recalls walking down hospital hallways, singing to herself the words of You Got The Love (her 90s rave hit with The Source).
“It was written by a man who’d lost his father to help with his grieving, but it became personal, I was tearing up.”
Happily married to retired psychology professor Henry Hooper, Candi now lives in an affluent Atlanta suburb.
In lockdown she discovered she is half European, through her father and wants to trace that lineage.
She has also written a book of short stories, due to be published this year, and is looking forward to coming back to Britain.
“I’d got to the point where I thought people didn’t want to see me. Britain proved otherwise. The British brought me back! Glastonbury” [in 2008] “was incredible. There were so many people you couldn’t see the back of it. I was so energised. I can’t thank Britain enough. “My love for the UK overflows.”
Candi performs at Love Supreme Jazz Festival, at Glynde Place, East Sussex from July 1st – 3rd.