Choice Cuts: Candi Staton – Candi Staton

Honest Jon’s / Capitol Records, 2004
Candi Staton, press photo, Dec 2005, Alan Messer, 01 9590x332)Christmas with candy has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? But while overindulging in the sweet stuff will see you spending more time at the dentist the following month, there is one confection you can indulge in all calendar year without guilt: the music of Candi Staton.

Candi Staton - Honest Jon's 2004 comp artwork, 500This southern-born soul and gospel singer is best known for featuring on the 1986 version of ‘You’ve Got the Love’ by the Source. But it is Staton’s early soul music that will really make you sit up and take notice. UK independent label, Honest Jon’s Records, released a compilation of her music in 2004, making 26 songs from her much-sought after FAME recordings available to new listeners. (You can now get a double-CD, featuring all her master recordings from this era, but the Honest Jon’s CD is a bargain nowadays – got mine for £2. Its vinyl version, however, is almost as pricy as Staton’s classic LPs.)

All of the songs on the simply titled compilation, Candi Staton, are unfettered confessionals that steam with emotion.

Do right woman
Ms Station has had a hard life, as the absorbing linear notes by Mark Ainley and Tim Tooher make clear. Canzetta Maria Staton (pronounced ‘Stay-ton’) was born to a poor, but hard-working, farming family in 1943, in Hanceville, Alabama. Their small town harboured less than 800 people. Her father worked as a farmer in summer and coal miner during the winter. Staton picked cotton and sang in the church choir. By age eight, she was singing in a gospel group, the Four Golden Echoes. Moderate fame – and best of all to Staton, heartier meals – followed, as the group became “one of the most talked about little groups in the area”.

When she was 10, her mother moved the family north to Cleveland to escape her alcoholic father. Staton, however, was sent to boarding school in Nashville. Joining a new group, the Jewel Gospel Trio, she toured with many big names from the gospel circuit, including Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, the Soul Stirrers and the young Aretha Franklin. At 17, she ran away to Los Angeles with Lou Rawls, the then-singer of the Pilgrim Travelers. The two were talked out of marriage by Rawls’s mother. Shortly after this, Staton walked away from school and her gospel career, as she became increasing frustrated with life on the road.

Honest Jon's Chop Up, July 5, 2008, by Aurelien Guichard, 02 (2280x1283)When she first married it wasn’t into a loving relationship. She’d become pregnant from the son of a Pentecostal minister, and marriage was expected. Her husband was a jealous and abusive man, the notes say. Her hopes of a music career faded as she spent the next seven years as a wife and mother to four children. But she never stopped singing. Eventually, after some coxing from her brother, who took her out to get away from her husband one night, Staton impressed a local club owner, singing Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do Right Woman’. She was invited to sing every week at the owner’s club. One night, Staton sang with FAME recording artist, Clearance Carter, who was a big star in the south at the time. He liked what he’d heard and offered her a job, if her circumstances should change.

Six months later, after her husband beat her for an imagined affair with a radio DJ, Staton finally had to escape her abusive relationship. She left her husband and went to Nashville with her sister, where Carter was playing. Staying true to his word, he hired her to sing with his band. Staton and Carter’s professional relationship became more personal and the two were later married (though, they would eventually divorce). In 1968, her introduction to Rick Hall, owner of FAME Records, who was looking for a female blues singer at the time, is where the story of Candi Staton the recording artist truly begins.

A voice that’ll make you drop everything and coming running
There is an erudite authority to Staton’s voice, tinged as it is with her exceptionally sweet southern lilt. You feel so much of that on a track like ‘Evidence’, where Staton’s upstanding tone is thoroughly arresting. Like many blues and soul songs of this period, the form is conversational and sassy, but made more fragrant thanks to the backing singers’ chiming in to emphasise certain phrases. “Lip stick on your collar / The smell of perfume that I never use / Hotel matches in your pocket, boy / And a strained door key too,” sings Staton, as a nervous wiggle of brass sounds before the chorus: “That ain’t evidence / I got enough proof to put you away”. The sudden stress she lays on “proof” is heart-tingling.

Staton consistently bares this effect. The songs on this compilation are the kind you reach for immediately after your lover has unceremoniously dumped you. After your boss has given you the boot. Or generally whenever life gives you lemons, throws you out on the pavement, and expects you to make sumptuous lemonade with only bruised limbs, chapped lips and heartache at your disposal. Because, however dire your fate, Staton’s buff, wholesome register is both catharsis and cure.

Her songs frequently air on themes of the woman scorned (‘Freedom is Beyond the Door’, ‘Too Hurt Too Cry’), the infatuated lover (‘I’m Just a Prisoner (of Your Good Lovin’)’, ‘Someone You Use’, ‘Do Your Duty’) and the survivor (‘You Don’t Love Me No More’, ‘The Thanks I Get for Loving You’). Last year, I wrote about how I couldn’t get enough of the street-wise wisdom of Marlena Shaw in her talkative songs. And it’s much the same with Staton. Well-travelled as she is, her songs bring a sense of understanding to her life and also bare some biographical truth. And again, when you find yourself in hard times, their appeal is instantaneous.

How strong Candi’s love is
But don’t think Staton’s classic recordings for FAME were merely a series of sobbing ballads. There are seriously fresh soul cuts here courteous of FAME’s session musicians and producer Rick Hall. The musicianship on certain songs is nothing short of exceptional, challenging other great southern labels, such as Stax and Sun Records.

There’s the tender melody of ‘He Called Me Baby’, strings and brass dutifully lapping at the wisps of Staton’s vocals. The guitar inflections on ‘What Would Become of Me’, intentionally faint, are enough to dampen the eyes in the right context. Her version of ‘In the Ghetto’: so southern, and much more soulful than the Elvis Presley version. Then there’s the Motown “lushness” that comes from the addition of unison singing on a number of songs. And, finally, ‘weak-willed’ is not a term you level at Ms Staton, when she’s capable of dishing out heartfelt TLC (‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’) and shrewd romantic advice (‘I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than a Young Man’s Fool)’, ‘Stand By Your Man’) with such class.

Some singers have just got it. This piece could pour on for another 2,000 words about each of the songs on Honest Jon’s fine 2004 compilation. But let me simply say that, from the exaggerated rasp in her voice to the inflection you hear when she instructs you (her imagined lover) to “listen”, Candi Staton will bewitch you. And if your partial to the music of Millie Jackson, Marlena Shaw or Roberta Flack, then you’ll find Staton’s musings on men, women and this thing we call love to be equally as enchanting. Whether you’re in love, out of love, lost and lonely or overwhelmed and on the ropes, Staton’s got a song for you.

For classic albums, rarities and more, see my Choice Cuts archive.

Image: Alan Messer/PR (main); Aurelien Guichard/Flickr-CC (body)