Staton outlived disco and hard living, and she's back

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

March 25, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

While you were dancing, you probably didn't notice that the woman was in pain.

What's the sense in sharing this one and only life

Endin' up just another lost and lonely wife

You'll count up the years, and they will be filled with tears ...

It was 1976, the bicentennial summer, and this beat-driven thing called disco was about to explode. One of its early hits, "Young Hearts Run Free" by Candi Staton, featured a brassy, uptown production, busy percussion. And the beat was propulsive, pulling folks to the dance floor. The hit topped the charts that year. Flowing from radios and filling discos, the song, which detailed an abusive marriage, brimmed with sadness. The soul-venting woman on the mike had just about given up. But you didn't feel her pain as you bumped, boogied and hustled across the floor.

Say I'm gonna turn loose a thousand times a day

But how can I turn loose when I just can't break away

Oh, young hearts run free

They'll never be hung up, hung up like my man and me ...

Candi is, hands down, one of the greatest soul vocalists around. I'm not talking about that flat, off-key screaming that made Mary J. Blige so hot. I'm talking about the kind of singing in which the heart and head meet to produce a sound that's knowing, intelligently phrased and raw. You feel the nuances -- the sun and the rain.

Seven years before "Young Hearts Run Free" became an international smash, Candi was a star on the Southern soul circuit, laying down such sizzlin', bare-bones cuts as "I'm Just a Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin')," her tough take on Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" and the sassy "I'd Rather Be an Old Man's Sweetheart (Than to Be a Young Man's Fool)." Those sides and 23 others she did for FAME Records between 1969 and 1973 are available again for the first time in more than 20 years. The new compilation, simply called Candi Staton, is a treasure of heartbreak soul that has aged beautifully.

"I had nothing to do with it coming out," says the vocalist, who's calling from her home in Stone Mountain, Ga. "Rick Hall, my old producer, owned the old stuff, and he sold his catalog to Capitol Records, and they have finally put it out. It was put together well, I think."

Vision Records has also released Candi's hard-to-find first four gospel LPs: Make Me an Instrument ('83) and The Anointing ('85) are on one CD; Sing a Song ('86) and Love Lifted Me ('88) are on a separate one. The reissues, especially the Candi Staton set, have sparked new critical attention for the singer-songwriter.

And let me tell ya: It's long overdue. I remember hearing scratchy 45s of Candi's music at my grandma's place. Mama Teacake, may she rest in peace, had an affinity for that greasy, crying-in-my-cognac blues. Back in the day, singers like Ann Peebles, Betty Wright, O.V. Wright and Bobby Bland kept 'em in steady supply. Before Candi left secular for gospel in 1982, the Alabama-born singer had the victim role on lock. (In fact, she scored a hit in '78 called -- what else? -- "Victim.") "Oh, I was always begging somebody not to go," Candi says, "I'm stalking the man. I'm waiting by the door. What an image. But back in those days -- we're talking about the late '60s, early '70s, women weren't so liberated. We were all begging, ... Whatever you did to me -- beat me, drag me across the floor -- I'm gon' get up and love you anyway."

Candi and I laugh. The sistas were wailing the masochistic jams then: Millie Jackson had out "Hurt So Good", Shirley Brown did "Woman to Woman," and Barbara Mason answered that record with "From His Woman to You."

"But if I can just be real," Candi continues, "I don't see much difference today. They just changed the lingo. You see the women answering to 'bitch' in the videos and these rap songs. Dancing around half naked. So, no, things haven't changed, really. Women are still the victims."

The soul-gospel star has long changed her tune. In the '70s, as you kicked up your platforms to "Young Hearts Run Free," Candi was living a private hell. Producer Dave Crawford wrote the signature song based on what the singer had revealed to him.

"This guy I was with at the time was like a pimp," Candi says. "He was really abusive. I'd tell Dave about some of the things he did to me, and he'd be writing all of this down like he was interviewing me."

Dave left out the parts where this man, whom the singer does not identify, shot at her three different times. The mother of five finally left him in 1978. By that time, she had already survived two troublesome marriages, one to blind soul-blues singer Clarence Carter.

"I sang exactly what I was doing in those days," Candi says. "When I was married to Clarence Carter, he was cheating, and I was too. He had his thing and I did too. I was an alcoholic for seven years. Oh, yeah, I was living those songs."

But Candi's life has been clean for more than two decades. The kids are grown; she has 18 healthy grandchildren. Plus, the single singing veteran looks sensational at 60. She's also working on an autobiography titled, of course, Young Hearts Run Free. Candi still tours, singing gospel and the soul stuff occasionally. To promote the reissues, she will be revisiting that old heartache material, everything except the songs about adultery.

"Because I'm a Christian, there are songs I won't sing, like 'Mr. and Mrs. Untrue' and 'Another Man's Woman, Another Woman's Man.' I don't endorse adultery in any way," she says. "But I will sing the life songs about what we go through every day. I missed singing those old songs, anyway. They fed my kids and bought my home. I would have been on welfare if it weren't for those songs."

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