the story of candi staton is truly the story of a soul survivor. born canzata maria staton in hanceville, alabama, in 1943, staton grew up helping her parents pick cotton and tending to the chickens. when not lending a hand on the farm, she could be found singing with the local church. at the age of four, staton sang her first solo in the church and, by the age of five, she had been singled out, along with four other girls, to sing as part of a smaller vocal ensemble. "the crowds would get very emotional," staton related to the ce newswire in 1997, "at the time, i didn't really know why they were crying. once, i remember, the audience got so emotional, throwing their pocket books at my feet and so on, that i got really scared and ran off to my mother." when the relationship between staton's mother and her alcoholic father reached the breaking point, they moved, along with staton's older sister, to cleveland, where the oldest of staton's siblings already lived. candi and her sister, maggie, attended jewel christian academy in nashville, tennessee, where their new pastor asked them to join another young singer, naomi harrison, in the jewel gospel trio. "i was eleven or twelve, when i cam to the jewel christian academy," staton recalled in a 1997 interview with the tennessean, "the grounds there were just beautiful. i remember it very fondly. i lived in nashville for the next six years." the jewel gospel trio enjoyed relative success on the gospel circuit, touring with future gospel, r&b and soul luminaries aretha franklin, mahalia jackson and the staple singers, and recording singles such as "jesus is listening", "i looked down the line" and "too late" for nashboro records.
though staton was performing gospel music, she was not treated with much "christian charity" within the music industry, rarely being paid for her performances and often having to rely on the compassion of more senior members of the traveling ensemble to get by. when staton turned seventeen, she left show business for a relationship with lou rawls, but the relationship did not last long and staton soon married another man, by whom she became pregnant. the two married and had three more children, but the relationship ended when staton could take no more of her spouse's violence. having witnessed the rise of her fellow gospel circuit performers, staton, who had been out of the music scene for some seven years decided to relieve her itch to perform by gigging at local clubs. it was at one such performance that staton met soulster clarence carter who married her and secured for her a recording contract with rick hall's fame records. in 1969, statons foreshadowed her 1970 muscle shoals release, i'm just a prisoner, with the single "i'd rather be an old man's sweetheart (than a young man's fool)". the single went on to become staton's first platinum record and the album sold nearly as many copies in its first six months of circulation. for the next three years, staton returned to her southern roots frequently, transforming classic country music such as tammy wynette's "stand by your man" into soul-stirring r&b hits. staton explained the appeal of country music to the tennessean, "country music tells stories the lyrical tradition of country music is so rich. a country song always has a beginning, a middle and an end." it was hits such as these that earned staton the nickname "the first lady of southern soul".
after the birth of her last child, staton reports that husband clarence carter became a fillanderer whose womanizing ways she could not abide. the two divorced and staton came to be romantically linked, in the press, with al green, johnny taylor and eddie levert. in 1974, staton signed to warner borthers records and, two years later, released one of her signature songs, "young hearts run free", which recently proved it had stood the test of time when a cover of it by dance diva kym mazelle appeared on the 1997 film adaptation of william shakespear's romeo & juliet. with the release of "young hearts run free", staton was catapulted, once again, from a genre which she had already conquered to a genre that she would quickly come to dominate. alongside disco divas such as donna summer, gloria gaynor, cheryl lynn and evelyn "champagne" king, staton became a club staple. the little girl who'd once been frightened by the religious zeal of her congregational audience now stood under a mirrored ball with throngs of gay and straight disco denizens writhing at her feet, entranced by the beauty and power of her voice. performances at churches were replaced with spots on american bandstand and soul train.
staton described her third husband, jimmy, as "a pimp and a hustler", to the big issue's tina jackson, in 1999. "it was the worst mistake i ever made in my whole life he was a big cocaine user and carried a gun. i was often frightened that he would kill me." though staton's career was riding high, her troubled love life and a growing dependency on alcohol threatened to ruin everything. "alcohol became my husband, my lover, my kids, my comforter, my god. i worshipped alcohol. i couldn't get up in the morning with out a drink," she admitted in her interview with the tennessean. a fourth marriagethis time to diana ross drummer, john susswellseemed to be the straw that would break the camel's back. himself, a serious cocaine user, it seemed unlikely that sussell would be able to provide the stability that staton so badly needed in her life. the two, however, were able to turn their lives around, abandoning their respective addictions, and re-dedicating their lives to their religion. the pair became pastors at an atlanta church and, to reflect her recent lifestyle change, staton stopped singing "secular" music in 1982.
having come full circle, staton threw herself into gospel music and managed to rekindle the magic she'd created as a young gospel sensation. "i've always liked to be real," staton explained to jet magazine in 1997, "when i was singing the blues, i had the blues. i was for real. i was living it. when i got saved, i changed my lyrics. i grew up in the church and returned to my roots". in 1986, she began hosting a cable program called say yes!, which focused on ministering to at-risk youth. "what i'm trying to do is offer inspiration message music because we've let rap go too far with its message," staton explained in the atlanta journal, "we need songs like 'respect yourself' out there, for the children."
in 1991, however, staton was thrust back into the international spotlight as a remix of a bootleg recording of she'd done five years earlier ("you got the love") found its way to the dancefloor. interest in staton's "secular" music was reignited by the single and a biography of her life entitled this is my story was published in 1994. in 1997, "you got the love" was remixed, againthis time by the sourceand made its way to number one on british dance and pop charts. in response to the positive reception her club hits were garnering, staton released her first non-gospel album in seventeen years in 1999. entitled outside in. the album which billboard magazine proclaimed "brightly shines the spotlight on one of clubland's most soulful singers"is radio- and club- friendly without breaking her commitment to herself to only record music with a positive message. former label, warner brothers, has also capitalized on staton's recent boon, with the release of a compilation of many of her long out of print classic recordings.
having suffered through trials and tribulations rivaled only, perhaps, by those of tina turner and etta james, staton has recreated herself as often as needs to keep her head above water, each time successfully tackling new challenges and winning legions of new fans. with a voice that spans genres from soul to dance to gospel as flawlessly as martha wash's, staton is truly one of music's most overlooked treasures. she sums up her philosophy on life by saying, "i had a praying mother. she instilled strength in me. if you fall, get up, brush yourself off and keep moving. don't wallow. you have to get up and sometimes go against the wind. you can't always go with the flow and succeed you have to swim upstream." no truer words hath a diva ever spoke.