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 rush,” the veteran soul star tells me. “I went over there and he tried to get me a drink. I said, “I did my job, pay me”. He just smiled and took out some champagne. “I said, ‘Don’t play with me’. He said, ‘I can’t pay you until you drink’. We ended up arguing and he came over and tried to m ‘to kiss.
“I pushed him away and said, ‘Don’t touch me!’ Then I took my gun out of my purse. He took my money, a large roll of bills, from his pocket, threw it on 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 because I was a woman! He paid off Barry White and The Temptations.
Candi, 81, best known for exuberant and inspirational hits like Young Hearts Run Free and You Got The Love, has met many men like this club owner on the American 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, said: “Some club owners were good and honest, but some were dishonest. In each basket of apples, you will find a rotten apple.
Staton reluctantly began carrying a .32 pistol in her purse in her twenties – largely to ensure she was paid. “A lot of bad club owners would try to get away without paying you, so you would be prepared. You would do two shows, and you knew that if you didn’t get paid between them, you might forget to see any money.
She didn’t like guns and admits that when she had to make them, “I was shaking in my shoes”. The circuit was rough and often violent. “There would be fights, tables would go by, and before you knew it there would be a riot. Sometimes I would just stand there and watch a good old fashioned fist fight. It didn’t scare me; I was used to these people.
Candi Staton circa 1970
Other nights, she was heckled and harassed on stage by drunks. “They would drink too much. You would see a guy with a fifth “-a 750ml bottle of whiskey-”on his table and he would drink a lot of it.
“A lot of times they just wanted to hear me sing, Stand By Your Man” [her version of the country classic was a US hit in 1970] “and they was harassing you until you sang it.”
It was a long way from her early years in a teenage gospel trio – and from the nightclubs where Alabama-born Candi, nicknamed “The First Lady of Southern Soul”, was treated like royalty after the success of Young Hearts Run Free in 1976.
“The disco was like stepping into heaven,” she says with a dreamy laugh. “I could just walk on stage to listen to tracks and do a 30-minute or hour-long 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 with Warner Brothers, producer David Crawford had her discuss her relationships. She spoke of her husband and manager Jimmy James – “a pimp and con artist” who threatened to kill her or kidnap her five young children if she ever left him.
“He drugged me,” she recalls. “I don’t remember the day I was supposed to marry her.”
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 pain in my voice was real,” she said. “I was singing for my life.”
Canzetta Staton’s life reads like a TV melodrama. She married six times, often to violent and controlling men. “I was just a little country girl who believed what men told me,” she sighs. “I was a jerk.”
She blames her childhood. Growing up in Hanceville, Candi remembers her alcoholic father bringing home drunks for late night parties. “They were stomping on you, pretending they didn’t know what they were doing…we had to fight just not to be raped.”
But then she married men who were “like my father…I kept marrying the same man over and over.”
At age 11, Candy and her older sister Maggie were sent to Jewell Christian Academy in Nashville. Impressed by their singing, the school pastor paired the sisters with Naomi Harrison to form the Jewell Gospel Trio which enjoyed huge success performing with gospel stars like Mahalia Jackson.
“Maggie was the lead singer, but the day we were supposed to play at a church in Los Angeles, she woke up hoarse and that’s how I became the lead singer,” Candi explains. “We did 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, I couldn’t afford shoes – my father worked in the mines, but was also a farmer. So being there with these famous people was a dream come true.
Later, the trio realized they were being taken advantage of. “The Staple Singers kids were salaried, we weren’t. We had next to nothing to eat! Sometimes we were 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 home and nearly ran away with 21-year-old Lou Rawls – “her mom talked me out of it, so I went home and finished high school.” At 18, Lou and Sam Cooke tried to get him to cross-deal with Capitol Records “but my mom wouldn’t let me go to LA.”
Candi Staton performing at the Love Supreme Jazz Festival in 2015
She was 20 when she first married and 30 when she married soul star Clarence Carter. In 1968, Carter introduced her to Rick Hall (of Muscle Shoals sonic fame) who produced his series of R&B hits.
When she landed her own American television show, Rawls was a frequent co-host.
Talking to Candi is like a lesson in the history of 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 Sarah Dash from LaBelle, and the immortal Ray Charles has her. nicknamed “the Ray Charles woman”.
She never met Elvis Presley but he sent her a note praising her version of In The Ghetto – she lost it in one of his divorces – and she once bought Elvis’ limo for 50,000 $.
In the disco era, Candi developed a drinking problem, falling offstage twice, but she’s been sober for 39 years and is fueled only by her devout Christian faith.
The Bible helped support her recent battle with breast cancer (she is now healed). She remembers walking through the halls of the hospital, singing to herself the lyrics to You Got The Love (her 90s rave hit with The Source).
“It was written by a man who had lost his father to help with his grief, but it got personal, I was in tears.”
Proudly married to retired psychology professor Henry Hooper, Candi now lives in an affluent suburb of Atlanta.
Locked out, she found out she was half-European, through her father, and wants to trace that line.
She has also written a short story book, due for publication this year, and is looking forward to returning to Britain.
“I got to the point where I thought people didn’t want to see me. Britain has proven otherwise. The British brought me back! Glastonbury” [in 2008] ” was unbelievable. There were so many people that you couldn’t see the back. I was so full of energy. I cannot thank Britain enough. “My love for the UK overflows.”
Candi performs at Love Supreme Jazz Festival, Glynde Place, East Sussex from July 1-3.