Exclusive interview By Karen Shaw
“What’s the sense in sharing this one and only life…” is the opening line in one song which guarantees a dance floor appearance by yours truly. Who can resist the sound, the groove and the words to Young Hearts Run Free by Candi Staton? It has been the sound track to my life for 30 years and will continue to be, so when I discovered that Candi was coming to Blackpool, I was there…
Her face lit up just like the illuminations when we met. “I love Blackpool,” smiles Candi. “I’ve been here a few times y’know!” She’s just finished performing with alongside Percy Sledge and Joe Longthorne in David Gest’s Legends of Soul Spectacular in Blackpool, a far cry from where her career was started. Muscle Shoals studio is where it all began for Candi. When she stepped through the door at the legendary studio in Alabama, not only was a new song on the books but also a new future.
Muscle Shoals is where some of the greatest records of all time such as I’ll Take You There, Young Hearts Run Free, Brown Sugar, When a Man Loves a Woman and Mustang Sally were created. Located alongside the Tennessee River, Alabama, it seems a unlikely breeding ground for some of America’s most creative and defiant music. Under the spiritual influence of the ‘Singing River’ as Native Americans called it, the music of Muscle Shoals has helped create some of the most important and resonant songs of all time. Overcoming crushing poverty and staggering tragedies, it brought black and white together in Alabama’s cauldron of racial hostility to create music for generations to come.
“That’s where it all started, right there in Muscle Shoals in that tiny little studio with Rick Hall. It was a wonderful experience. I never dreamed the day I walked through those days that I’d be talking to you today. Never.”
It’s at this point I raise a smile at the irony of her last statement. I never dreamed that I would one day talk to Candi while I was ‘busting moves’ on the dance floor at the tender age of seven.
“When you go there and you’re in the studio day and night you focus on what you’re there for and you put everything that you have in it. At that time we were young and we had a lot of energy to burn so we burned it in the studio.
“Nowadays the young groups have special studio equipment to make their voice sound crystal clear and vibrant. They’ve got auto-tuners. We just got things thrown at us.
“It’s changed for them but not for me, I keep doing the same thing that I’ve always done. I keep going into the studio. I prefer to take musicians into the studio, that’s the only way I know how to do it. My latest CD called Life Happens is done by real musicians.”
Candi’s music has been described as lovesick, country-inflected disco which would have you “crying and dancing at the same time or you’re not human.” And it’s true. Her past is all broken homes and broken marriages, and her voice has the cracks and imperfections to prove it. Born in 1940 in rural Hanceville, Alabama, she sang gospel in her teens even while her mama mocked her singing voice.
“My mama put up with me, I’ll put it like that. She goes on to say “She put up with me because I was hers but she didn’t like what I was doing. I used to tease her all the time and say ‘You don’t like my music, but you sure like to spend my money’,” she laughs.
At that time in her life she was unhappily married with four young children and desperate to escape her miserable life…
“I’d lost hope because I’d got married and I had children and I felt like for me, for music, it was over. I was a housewife but of course it didn’t work out. Life’s road travels in different directions, sometime you get on a road that leads you to nowhere and when you finally get back on the main highway it leads you to your destination. That’s what happened in my case. I married the wrong person who did not understand my heart and did not understand my purpose. My husband wanted me to be the housewife and tried to beat it into me, tried to scream it into me, tried to embarrass it into me but it didn’t work. Eventually I just left him and found my road, found my way and it was through Muscle Shoals that I walked into the studio and produced my first record at that time. My first song was I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart Than A Young Man’s Fool and it went everywhere. It was so amazing and it took me out of that place which meant I had money to support my four kids.”
After her divorce to Joe Williams in 1968, in 1970 she married fellow musician Clarence Carter and had a child to him, two years later they divorced. She then hooked up with promoter Jimmy James. But James turned out to be, in Staton’s words, “a gangster and a pimp and very abusive.” In 1975 she confided in her friend and producer David Crawford about her relationship with James. He wrote her a song to sing about the ordeal: Young Hearts Run Free, a jazzy, shuffling dance track that went straight to the top of the disco charts and made Staton famous.
At the time Candi had no idea the impact that the song would have. “Strangely enough, when I walked out that studio I had a strange premonition. It was like I was super lady. I walked out the studio and we were going to LA, got to the hotel, went into the studio the next day and had to fly out at five in the afternoon. Between eight in the morning and two in the afternoon, I had recorded eight songs.
“Men loved it. They flipped it onto themselves. Instead of saying ‘the woman’ they would say ‘the man.’ A lot of the time in Young Hearts Run Free they would sing ‘the man in me’ instead of ‘the woman in me’.”
This lady certainly likes things in fives. Not only does she have five children, she also has had five husbands, although legally it was four husbands…
“One of my marriages was never recorded; one of them was a con. I was conned into getting married this guy was the greatest con artist I’ve ever met in my life. He set it all up. He paid an actor to play the priest. When I got registered for divorce we went down town and all the records, we couldn’t find a single record. I actually paid money to divorce a man I was never even married to. It would make a good book.”
Never mind a book; it’d make for a great film. It’s no secret that Candi certainly has had a life of trial and tribulations. It was in 1982 that she turned her back on her ‘sex, drugs and rock n roll’ lifestyle and returned to her first love of gospel singing and hasn’t looked back since.
Another popular song Candi released was a cover version of Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man, so I was curious to discover which song best described her life Young Hearts Run Free or Stand By Your Man…
“No contest, Young Hearts Run Free,” she replies.
After five husbands, her answer hardly comes as a surprise. This lass will always be young at heart.