CANDI STATON has been acclaimed as a soul music pioneer and a disco diva. But it's her ministry as a gospel singer, which has brought direction to her life. James Attlee spoke to Candi.
The history of popular music is littered with strange tales of careers resurrected in the most unlikely ways -anything from a jeans ad to a movie soundtrack can catapult an artist from relative obscurity back into the spotlight For Candi Staton, her sudden return to the top of the pop charts early in 1991 with "You Got The Love", (credited to The Source featuring Candi Staton), must seem like just one more unexpected turn of events in a career that has had more than its share of dramatic changes in direction.
Not that Candi was languishing in obscurity - for the past nine years she has been a successful gospel singer with her own record label in America; still, it was some time since she had graced the top of the charts in her previous incarnations as soul singer and disco diva.
As is so often the case, this dramatic development in her career was really beyond her control. "You Got The Love" was originally recorded for, of all things, a weight loss video extolling the virtues of something called the Bohemian Diet (probably not cigarettes and alcohol, despite its name.) A record was released in 1986, although the video never saw the screen, with Candi's voice floating over a light disco backing. The next stage in the gestation of this most complicated of hits was that one DJ Errin Abdullah, decided to lift the acapella vocal version of the hit and beef it up by adding it to the rhythm track of Jamie Principle's 'Your Love', also released in 1986. The mix thickens. A bootleg of the result became popular around the London clubs and John Truelove, boss of True love Records, sniffed a hit, moved in and licensed it from all the parties concerned. Incredibly, by the time it had reached number eight in the British charts, Ms. Staton had still not heard it.
Despite the fact that it has at least served as a calling card to a whole new set of listeners, I sense that Candi and her husband and manager John Susswel are still confused and a little upset by the whole episode.
They didn't ask our permission or anything and they just take advantage of an artist" Candi told me. "But thank God for it anyway, I'm able to reach more people."
John, a music business veteran, having served time on the drum stool for Kokomo, The Average White Band, Steve Winwood, Ashley and Simpson and Diana Ross among others, mutters darkly about "unconventional royalty split, we're still working on it"
Candi's unusual career, like many before and since in the field of gospel, began before she reached double figures. "I started singing when I was five years old. They would lift me on the top of a chair and stand me behind the pulpit and I would sing. This was in Alabama - dirt roads, well water, cows, horses and chicken - my job was feeding the chickens."
That vocal talent soon opened doors for Candi to travel far beyond her rural beginnings.
"When I was about 13 I joined the Jewell Gospel Trio. We became international, you know - we went to Cuba, The Bahamas; we went all over the States. We would sing in all the big auditorium shows. At that time Sam Cooke was with The Soul Stirrers, Lou Rawles was with The Pilgrim Travellers, Shirley Caesar was with The Caravans, James Cleveland was out there he was their keyboard player. We just grew up with these people, The Davis Sisters, The Swan Silver-tones, Clara Ward and the Ward Singers - we were the baby group and they all took care of us, we were well protected by all these grown singers.
It was great experience; we got a chance to watch the pros. We leant how to interact with the audience - at that time the old saying was 'get the house;' we knew how to 'get the house', how to make 'em shot and scream and fall out, how to 'wreck the house!' Yeah, we knew how to do that alright!"
Despite this solid grounding in the craft of showmanship, a full time career in music eluded the young singer. By 1968, already a mother and trapped in an unhappy marriage, Candi thought her career over before it had rightly begun. Her oldest brother Sam had other ideas, however. I'd never sung rhythm and blues, in my life, but my brother told me 'my best friend runs this nightclub and I told him you can sing. I want you to get some records and learn them and start singing and earn yourself some money.' At that time Etta James' 'Tell Mama' was out and I learnt that Clarence Carter (the blind soul singer best known in Britain for his crossover hit "Patches") wrote that, you know -- he had a song called "Tell Papa" too, but it didn't do as well as Tell Mama --" that was all over!
I learnt that and 'Do Right Woman, Do right Man', Aretha Franklin's rendition. They had 150 people packed in that little nightclub, (The 27-28 Club in Birmingham, Alabama) that's all it would hold. I got up and did "Do Right Woman" and I got a standing ovation, they were screaming for more. I didn't know any more, so I had to do that one over and they still wanted more - so the club owner said 'I want you to come and work weekends with the band and do a 20, 30 minute show every night at the weekend twice or three times a night and I'll pay you 30 dollars a night' So I said fine!
At this point Candi's husband John makes a sound like "aargh!" and falls sideways gripping his throat "That was 30 dollars Friday, 30 dollars Saturday and 30 dollars Sunday, that's 90 dollars a week" Candi elucidates, giggling. "Well bless your heart, Candi," says John, wiping the tears from his eyes. "We sure have come a way since then," Candi adds thoughtfully.
If s a classic showbiz story. Clarence Carter, who had already had a million-seller with 'Slip Away*, came to play the little club as a favour to his friend, O.J. Gray. The queue stretched around the block. He asked Candi to open the show and played behind her. He wanted to hire her right away, but Candi was not divorced and her jealous husband threatened her life. The star left with the words "If you ever get loose from that fool, just call me." One year later Candi was in Nashville, trying to get her life and career together. She was just getting ready to go into nursing school when Clarence Carter hit town with a revue that included Eddie (Knock On Wood)Floyd, Bobby Blue Bland and The O'Jays.
"I went backstage to see Clarence. I had all my kids placed, ready to go to school. Clarence said 'What you doing? I said I was getting ready to go to school. 'Go to school? he said, 'girl I need you out on the road with me.I said 'How much was you going to pay me? He said I'll start you off at 300 dollars a week.' I'd never had 300 dollars a week in my entire life - so I just dropped school, I dropped everything and I was gone. Two months later I had my first record, I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart (Than A Young Man's Fool)."
One hit followed another- and Candi and Clarence Carter got married. While the musical partnership thrived the marriage did not, when she found out that he was seeing other women Candi had to set out on the painful process of another divorce. Meanwhile a soul/pop version of Tammy Wynette's country classic 'Stand By Your Man' took the Staton career to another level -- as she puts it, "out of that chitlin' circuit and into the Vegas circuit/ Throughout the 70s it seemed that whatever the musical trend, Candi would get at least one major hit out of it In 1976, on a new label with new management and a new producer, she had a massive disco hit with 'Young Hearts Run Free.' Two years later another disco-orientated song, 'Victim', sold a million. However the singer, whose roots lay deep in gospel, So-them Soul and blues was not entirely happy with the way her career kept switching track.
I just kept shirting gears, it was like I never could sustain one mould -- every time the music changed there was someone suggesting that I changed. I wanted to be a ballad singer, I wanted to be a blues singer, I wanted to sustain that and keep going in one direction-but I'd get managers here that would be saying 'Why don't you go here, let's try this. If any new artists are reading this you should be real careful about this - don't let management or your record company shift you from what you want to be and eventually you'll get there. James Brown has never stopped being James Brown - he got cold, but he's still James, and he pulls in that old audience and a new audience, even young kids, because he's a legend. In my case they never knew what to expect of me."
By the end of the 1970's Candi was deeply dissatisfied; her manager had her moving ever more in a disco direction and she took refuge from artistic frustration and emotional trauma in the bottle. Around this time she met her future husband John who was drafted in to give her new album 'Looking For Love' musical punch on the strength of his drum work with Ashford and Simpson and on Diana Ross's album 'The Boss'. John himself had experienced his share of hard knocks in the music business and was also busy taking refuge from the harsh realities of life as a top session man, in powder rather than in liquid form.
"I couldn't cope with some of the unseemly things that go on with the music business. A lot of times it's not how good you are but who you know: he explained. "I couldn't accept the fact that though I was meant to be the number three drummer in New York there were some extremely strategic gigs that less qualified musicians got, either because of the colour of their skin or because of who they hung out with."
John and Candi met and fell in love in the studio, neither knowing the other's battle with personal problems. After they got married these soon became apparent, however. John's cocaine addiction was to the tune of 2,000 dollars a week and their bank account was dwindling fast. After three years yet another divorce seemed on the cards. In desperation Candi had a lawyers' agreement drawn up, signed by both of them, that if John got involved with drugs one more time he had to give her an unconditional divorce. The inevitable happened and Candi was actually on her way out of the door to her lawyers' when something happened that was to change both their lives. John remembers the incident vividly.
I'll never forget it, that morning August the 4th 1982 Candi was about to walk out the door when she heard a voice say 'You tried everything else, why don't you try God? You've been married three times, why do you want to get divorced again? Give it to me and I'll make it work--' something like that She turned to me and I was just a wreck of a man -- I was six foot one and I weighed 135 pounds... She turned to me and asked me 'You've tried everything else -- would you be interested in getting some spiritual counselling? I said 'I'll do anything. 'I rang up a church I'd seen on the TV and the end of my part of the story is that during a three hour counselling session I experienced a total deliverance from all that I'd been afflicted by and I went home and threw away all my marijuana and all the beer out of the icebox and just picked up the Bible and the Lord began to give me understanding."
Candi could see the change in her husband's life alright and was happy for him to go to church -- "anything was better than him spending all our money on cocaine --" but she was very reluctant to get involved again herself.
"I had been abused, I mean really abused in church. In the gossiping, the jealousies -- they exploited my talent as a child, never giving me a dime, just using me. I said this is all God's good for, just using you -- I'm not going to be used any more, I want to make some money. That changed as I saw the change in John over the weeks. I did not see religion; I saw a relationship with a person. The church we went to (the Huffman Assembly Of God Church) was very living, just what we needed. We'd grown up in those very hard-laced Baptist and Pentecostal type of churches - all of them had basically the same rules: don't wear make-up, don't wear pants, no TV, no movies, just look like a saint with a little white thing on your head."
Meanwhile Candi had completed her contract with Warners and was signed to Sugarhill, a label with the reputation of not being people to mess around with. At the same time, she was convinced that she should "never sing the blues again." How was she to get out of her contract?
"I wrote Joe Robinson (the decidedly heavy boss of Sugarhill) attorney, no nothing. I wrote to him 'Joe, I'm saved, I don't want to sing the blues any more, I want out of my contract, thank you very much.' We never heard from him again. "After I'd written that letter we sold our home and invested all the money into our first album. We moved into an apartment and went back to living very simple, put the kids in local school and worked on our album. John got a job selling insurance and I stayed home every day and fasted and prayed - I wrote my first gospel album while John was out working and I was at home being a housewife."
When the new gospel artists went looking for a deal they were saddened to find that even within the Christian music industry finding an offer commensurate with an artist's talent and track record was not always plain sailing.
"You can print this," John told me, "the world needs to know this. Major artist - here's the first deal from Word (U.S.) 17,000 dollars for the album and for an additional three thousand dollars you give us all your future publishing. For 20,000 dollars they wanted her whole life. Any song that she would write they would get first refusal. We were responding from the point that we were knowledgeable about the industry - so the man at Word said 'Well John, it sounds to me like you need to make up your mind whether you want to be an artist on a record label, or be a record label. Boom, the light went on! We started our own label."
That label, Beracah Records, has so far released six Candi Staton albums and has recently signed two other artists, Rodney Posey and former member of the Gapp Band Oliver Scott. For the first time in her career, Candi has total control and is making the music she believes in. This time around, you can be sure, she'll be taking her own advice and standing by her Man.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.