Alabama native Candi Staton has been a force in both Gospel and Southern Soul music for a half century, in the process defying musical industry odds and overcoming a number of personal hurdles to become one of the greatest singers of her generation.
Staton began in the 50s as a 13-year old member of the Jewell Gospel Trio (often serving as the warm-up act for Gospel's biggest luminaries) and continued as a Gospel performer for more than a decade before turning her distinctively raspy voice to a unique blend of soul and country music that propelled her to fame as the "Queen of Southern Soul." For many she was the deep South's gritty counter to Aretha Franklin, as Staton took a series of songs about broken relationships, affairs, and heartache - often putting a soul edge on Country hits - to the upper end of the Soul charts during a nearly decade-long relationship with Muscle Shoals' Fame Studios. Her biggest hits of the era, such as "I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart (Than a Young One's Fool)" and a reworking of "Stand By Your Man," became Southern Soul classics.
As her career began to wane in the mid-70s, Staton moved to California to work with producer Dave Crawford. One of their early collaborations was "Young Hearts Run Free," an irresistible dance number (based on Staton's everpresent marital problems with her third husband) that shot to the top of the Soul Charts and hit the Pop top 10. It opened a brief second career for Staton as a disco artist. However, depression over marital troubles and spousal abuse and a battle with alcoholism drove Staton to a precipice, and led her in 1982 to leave the popular music industry and her dependencies for a return to her Gospel roots. She began Berachah Ministries with her former husband John Sussewell and for the next two decades became a fixture in Gospel music.
Staton's Gospel work always kept an eye on popular music, and her tendency to keep spiritual music contemporary won her fans and detractors, many of the latter being radio programmers. As a contemporary Gospel pioneer, she took the arrows for many future performers ranging from Kirk Franklin to Mary Mary, who have been more easily accepted in the Gospel world despite the secular R&B sound to their music.
Staton's dozen or so Gospel releases, combined with her twenty year television show on TBN, kept her in the Gospel public eye and on the charts. One of her dance/Gospel songs, "You Got the Love," even became an international club hit in multiple mixes. Her output from this period has been wonderfully compiled by Shanachie Records in a new two-disc compilation, Candi Staton: The Essential Gospel Collection. One disc focuses on Staton's contemporary Gospel recordings during the period, which have aged well. But the other disc, which compiles some of her more traditional Gospel recordings (though many were not considered too traditional by Gospel devotees at the time), is a gem, displaying her gift as one of the most expressive, unique singers of the genre and clearly one of the most underrated singers of the past 30 years.
2004 brought a renewed interest in Staton's work with the successful release of Candi Staton, a critically acclaimed compilation of her FAME recordings of the 60 and early 70s. It also led Mark Ainley (who had created the compilation) to approach Staton about recording a new R&B album, her first secular album in more than two decades. Teamed with producer Mark Nevers and a slew of veteran Southern Soul musicians, Staton recorded His Hands, which was released in early 2006. Covering songs by Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and others, Staton created a landmark album that appeared to summarize the tragedy and triumph of her own life. It perhaps even exceeds wonderful recent comeback albums of Solomon Burke, Percy Sledge and Mavis Staples and is, by any measure, one of the best albums of 2006. There's a depth of emotion that takes the disc to the edge on "It's Not Easy Letting Go" and "You Never Really Wanted Me," and reaches a crescendo on the title cut, a chilling Will Oldham song of abuse, faith and ultimate redemption that Staton makes her own. There isn't a bad moment on His Hands, but there are plenty of great ones. It is a great bookend on a notable career, and a well-deserved triumph for a truly seminal artist.
By Chris Rizik