“I Had to Face the Blues Every Day”

Soul and gospel singer Candi Staton let no hardship stand in the way of her voice, one that helped define the music of her generation.

David Gambacorta | Longreads | July 2022 | 16 minutes (4,445 words)

The girl was no more than 12. Night had fallen, and the caravan of gospel singers that she’d traveled with from Nashville had steered their sedans and station wagons to a quiet space under an oak tree in Mississippi. Booking a hotel room wasn’t an option, not for this group of Black performers in the early ’50s. Instead, they shifted and turned in their seats, in search of a comfortable position and a few hours of sleep.

Their peace was interrupted by the rumble of approaching engines. Candi Staton heard doors clunk open, and several pairs of footsteps approach. Flashlight beams invaded the cars, stirring awake the other occupants. A voice cut through the air. “What are you n—s doing here?” asked a white police officer.

“We’re singers,” said one member of the caravan. “We travel. We just stopped to take a nap.” Staton had experienced the terror of the Ku Klux Klan years earlier, back home in Alabama, where her mother used to tuck her under a bed when Klan members rumbled by in pickup trucks, armed with smoldering torches. Now Staton — who would befriend and tour with Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and The Staple Singers — was in Mississippi, where 581 lynchings were reported between 1882 and 1968. “In those days,” she’d recall years later, “you didn’t know what to expect. That song — ‘strange fruit, hanging from the poplar trees’ — came to mind whenever a police officer stopped you. Especially more than one.”

The officer turned his attention to five men, who sat terrified in another car, and ordered them to get out. He told them to sing and dance. One meekly protested that they only sang. “You gon’ dance tonight, n—,” Staton would remember the officer responding. “You gon’ dance tonight.” He aimed a gun at the men’s feet, and opened fire. “The police fell out laughing. They kept shooting at the ground,” Staton says. “I cried. I honestly cried for the men.”

The encounter, a microcosm of the bigotry and violence that Black Americans routinely faced, could have compelled Staton and her older sister, Maggie, to quit their group — The Jewell Gospel Trio — and return home. But Staton pressed on. As a small child, she’d discovered that when she sang, her sound was unlike anything the adults in her life had ever heard. Her voice could crackle with campfire warmth, or summon freight train strength; she instinctively understood how to make a listener actually feel the joy or sorrow that a sheet of lyrics hinted at. Staton wanted only a chance to share that gift. What she often found though, were obstacles — people and circumstances that threatened to silence her voice.

A three-panel set of images, all of Candi Staton

Photos courtesy of Candi Staton.

There was a missed opportunity — an invitation, at 18, to move to California with her friends Cooke and Lou Rawls and pursue a recording contract. A jealous husband who beat her and wanted her nowhere near any stage, leaving her a single mother of four at age 24. To support her children, Staton worked at a nursing home, while some of the musicians she’d traveled with as an adolescent found stardom. It was a practical, understandable choice. But a thought nagged at her: What if she could somehow find her way back to performing?

Toward the end of the ’60s — without the benefit of a modern DIY star-making vehicle like TikTok — Staton built a new musical career from scratch. She played smoke-filled nightclubs, toured the unpredictable Chitlin’ Circuit, and recorded some of the most arresting soul music to come out of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, visceral songs about heartache, and the torture of doomed relationships: “Too Hurt to Cry,” “I’m Just a Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin’),” “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than A Young Man’s Fool),” “Mr. and Mrs. Untrue.”

Staton reinvented herself in the mid-’70s, becoming a disco star and an early ally of LGBTQ+ communities — and then reinvented herself again in the ’80s, this time as a Grammy-nominated gospel artist who doubled as the host of shows on Christian television. Another rebirth, in the ’90s, saw her become a house music sensation in the U.K.; in the aughts, she returned to Southern soul, just as a younger generation of musicians, like Florence + the Machine and Jason Isbell, were drawing new attention to Staton’s past work.

Her story is almost too big to fathom, a life that weaved through multiple chapters of American musical history, and weathered dizzying amounts of public success and private anguish. Staton’s admirers believe she possessed one of the defining voices of her generation, yet has sometimes been overlooked in conversations about soul music greats of the last 50 years. Her talent and tenacity, they argue, deserve wider appreciation. At 82, Staton has outlived many of the musicians she called friends. “She’s a legend to us,” says John Paul White, the singer, songwriter, and former member of the Civil Wars, who was born in Muscle Shoals. “But I quickly realized that outside our circle, she’s less known. And I always felt like that was grossly unfair — the talent of Candi Staton, in relation to the celebrity of Candi Staton.”

***

It was on a 40-acre farm in rural Alabama that Canzetta Maria Staton first learned that music could represent hope, a channel of light in life’s darkest valleys. Her family lived in Hanceville, surrounded by dirt roads; just 12 miles to the south sat Colony, a town originally settled by previously enslaved people following the Civil War. “We were dirt, dirt poor,” Staton says. “Our family was so poor, we didn’t even have shoes to wear for school, until my mother got enough money. We had some of the ugliest shoes you ever wanted to see. They cost but $1.98. They were boy shoes, not girl shoes.”

Throughout Staton’s childhood in the ’40s, Jim Crow laws reigned. Schools were still segregated — the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t rule that practice unconstitutional until 1954 — and it was impossible to avoid the menace baked into everyday life. Staton remembers reading a sign affixed to a nearby bridge: “Run n— run. If you can’t read, run anyway.” When Klan members stalked past their farm in search of a target, Staton’s mother dropped to her knees, and prayed, “Oh Lord, please don’t let them come to our house.” Those past aggressions no longer seem so far away. Republican lawmakers have advanced hundreds of bills across the U.S. to restrict voting access, while activists have launched coordinated campaigns to ban books about, or by, people of color and LGBTQ individuals. “I’ve lived all these years. [Black women] fought hard to even get the right to vote,” Staton says. “Now they’re trying to pull that backwards. Gradually. Day by day, incident by incident.”

As a child, Staton and her five siblings fixated on a new family possession to help them process the cruelty of the world: a radio. The children stretched out on the floor, and listened as a melange of booming voices — Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama — unspooled stories of love, struggle, and spiritual reassurance in song.

When Staton was 5, her mother answered a knock at their door. Members of a traveling church group asked if they could use the family farm for an impromptu performance. She agreed, and Staton was drawn to the sound the group conjured. “They set up their drums and tambourines. It was nothing like the boring churches I was used to. They sung fast songs, and they were dancing,” Staton explains. “I thought that was the most joyful thing I’d ever seen in my entire life.” Soon after, Staton and her 7-year-old sister, Maggie, started to sing together, and learned how to harmonize. “Do you know how I got a voice? God gave me a talent,” she says, “because of my mother’s generosity to strangers.”

Staton was drawn to the sound the group conjured. “They set up their drums and tambourines. It was nothing like the boring churches I was used to. They sung fast songs, and they were dancing…”

A few years later, Staton found new possibilities in Cleveland, where her mother had relocated her children to escape her husband. “Papa was a rolling stone,” Staton says. “Drinking and gambling and chasing women.” There, Staton and her sister participated in a singing contest at a local church, and caught the ear of a towering woman, Bishop Mattie Lou Jewell, who oversaw dozens of churches, and a Tennessee-based school called the Jewell Academy. Jewell offered to let Staton and her sister attend the academy for free — as long as they’d sing at revivals that she staged across the country. The Staton girls formed their gospel trio with Jewell’s granddaughter, Naomi Harrison. A teenaged Staton can be heard on some of the group’s surviving recordings; on a track like 1957’s “Praying Time,” she sings with the poise and power of someone twice her age.

On the road, they met kindred spirits, other young performers who possessed stunning voices and a hunger to connect with strangers through song. In between performances at churches and auditoriums, they’d play softball and muse about their futures. During one conversation, Sam Cooke confided to Staton that he’d decided to leave his group, The Soul Stirrers, and transition from gospel music to the blues. Staton was startled; crossing over to secular music had long been considered too risky, personally and professionally, to even attempt. She’d once watched a gospel audience boo and shout “Traitor!” at one of her idols, the pioneering guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who began playing secular venues in the late 1930s.

“When we think about a person who’s performed in and who grew up in the world of sacred music, it really is a cultural phenomenon that absorbs every aspect of your life,” says Katie Rainge-Briggs, the exhibition and collections manager at the National Museum of African American Music, in Tennessee. “When that happens, intrinsically moving to the space of the world seems to have so many pitfalls.”

In 1957, Cooke released a dreamy new song that he’d written: “You Send Me.” The track shot to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Rhythm and Blues charts, an encouraging sign for other gospel singers, like Lou Rawls, who wanted to follow in Cooke’s footsteps. A year later, when Staton was 18, the two men suggested that she join them in Los Angeles. “Sam and Lou said they’d get me with Capitol Records,” Staton says. “I was so excited. I told my mother, ‘They said they’d take me to California!’ But my mother said, ‘No way. You’re never singing the blues, little girl.’”

But my mother said, ‘No way. You’re never singing the blues, little girl.’”

It’s easy to imagine this what-if moment having gone differently — a young Staton landing a record deal, her star rising steadily as the doo-wop wave of the ’50s gave way to the Motown sound of the early ’60s. But Staton isn’t so sure. “You know, I was 18. Full of energy and excitement,” she tells me, letting go of a small sigh. “And wide open and ignorant. I don’t have a clue what would have happened to me.”

Rawls, who would duet with Cooke on their 1962 hit, “Bring It On Home to Me,” briefly dated Staton, and assured her they would be married. Rawls’ mother intervened, and told Staton she should instead return home and finish high school. Staton reluctantly agreed. It was another pivotal choice — one that nearly cost her life. Back in Alabama, she met a man who drove an eye-catching ’57 Chevrolet and doted on her. Soon, she became pregnant. Staton hoped to continue her singing career, but instead found herself married, the mother of four children. The stage never seemed so far away.

Staton discovered that the man she married had a dark side, one that would prove dangerous. He became verbally and physically abusive, she says, and grew jealous if he thought other men looked at her. “When I got married to him, he owned me,” she says. “I was no longer free.” On Valentine’s Day 1964, Staton laid in bed with her 18-month-old daughter and watched TV, while a chilly rain fell outside their Birmingham home. Her husband barged in, accused her of cheating — and began attacking her. Staton says he dragged her toward his car. She believed he intended to take her to a nearby portion of Interstate 65, which was under construction. “He planned to take me up there, jump out of the car, and let the car go off the road with me in it,” she says. A relative who lived next door heard Staton’s screams and intervened.

Staton filed for divorce, and — like her mother, years earlier — moved with her children to Cleveland, where one of her sisters lived. Staton had been a little girl during her first visit to the city, one whose singing voice pointed to a bright future. Now, her circumstances were far more bleak. She landed a job at a nursing home, which barely paid enough to cover her bills. She had two arms, and four children; trying to meet all of their needs could sometimes feel impossible. “This is why I could sing the blues,” Staton says. “I had to face the blues everyday.”

She had two arms, and four children; trying to meet all of their needs could sometimes feel impossible. “This is why I could sing the blues,” Staton says. “I had to face the blues everyday.”

On one rare evening, Staton had some time for herself. She ventured to a nightclub where her old friends, The Staple Singers, were appearing, along with The Temptations. Backstage, she caught up with Pervis Staples, Mavis’s brother. Their conversation was interrupted by David Ruffin, the lanky, mercurial Temptations singer. Ruffin glanced through his dark-rimmed glasses at Staton, who wore a pink dress and no makeup. “Whoa, where’d you get that little country girl from?” he blurted. “That your girlfriend, Pervis?” Staples tried to explain that Staton had once been a singer, but Ruffin continued needling. “If that’s your girlfriend,” he laughed, “Lord have mercy!”

A fire sparked inside Staton. She had once dazzled audiences across the country with ease — and now she was being treated like a punchline. She turned to Ruffin. “I knew what I could deliver, if only I had a chance,” she says. “I looked him in the face, because I’ve never been shy. I said, ‘You’re gonna regret these words. You gonna be paying to see me one day.’”

***

Staton wasted little time trying to make good on her backstage vow to David Ruffin. She would quickly find success and validation — and new challenges that threatened to derail her career. Her first step was to find a stage. In Cleveland, her brother approached a band at a small club, and persuaded them to let his sister have a turn at the mic. “I didn’t know them. They didn’t know me,” Staton says. “But everybody knows ‘Stormy Monday.’” She tore through the decades-old blues number, which traces a week’s worth of misery, a sentiment Staton understood all too well. “I can’t sing a song if I don’t know the meaning of that feeling,” she says. “I have actually lived that moment.”

“I didn’t know them. They didn’t know me,” Staton says. “But everybody knows ‘Stormy Monday.’”

In 1968, she moved to Tennessee, and ran into an artist she’d played with years earlier, the blues singer and songwriter Clarence Carter. Fate was about to bend in Staton’s favor. Carter insisted that Staton travel with him to Muscle Shoals, a city in Alabama situated about 20 miles east of the Mississippi River. There, a producer named Rick Hall had turned a small, unheard-of recording studio into a hit-making phenomenon. Wilson Pickett recorded some of his most popular songs — “Land of 1000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally” — at Hall’s FAME Studios in 1966, with a band composed of local musicians who possessed an almost preternatural ability to find a groove. A year later, Aretha Franklin recorded what was then the biggest hit of her career, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” with Hall’s crew. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon were among other artists who would make a pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals, hoping to tap into the local sound.

A three-panel series — all photos of Candi Staton.

Photos courtesy of Candi Staton.

But now it was 1969, and Staton was auditioning for Hall in an Alabama hotel. He listened for a few minutes, and delivered a verdict: She needed to get over to FAME Studios. Hall hastily assembled some musicians, and they recorded several tracks. The first — “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart” — begins with some keyboard vamping and a punch of horns. At the 13-second mark, Staton’s voice explodes into the track, and the song takes off like a rollercoaster. “Her voice jumps right off the record,” says Clayton Ivey, who played keyboard on some of Staton’s early recordings with FAME. “I’ll tell you what’s amazing, to be sitting in the studio … you get caught up in her vocals for a second. It’s like, damn! She can really do this!”

Staton began to perform on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of clubs and theaters for Black audiences and performers that traced its roots to the ’30s, when big band music was the chief draw, and was later a critical incubator of early rock ‘n’ roll. Her experience on the Circuit, she says, “was good and bad at the same time.” She learned how to shut down hecklers and won devoted fans. But the clubs could sometimes be claustrophobic, and she also contended with male promoters who tried to cheat her out of money, or coerce her into sleeping with them — deterrents that proved exhausting.

“I had to be a gangster and get me a .32,” she says. “I learned how to cuss. I’d go to promoters, and say, ‘You better have my money, motherfucker.’ I’d take my little gun, and lay it out.” Singer Gloria Gaynor, a friend of Staton’s, confirms this was too often a reality for many female performers. Gaynor recalls once having to search through a club for a promoter who tried to stiff her after a show: “He was in the kitchen, crouched between a refrigerator and a freezer, hiding from us.”

In 1971, Hall encouraged Staton to record a cover of the Tammy Wynette country hit “Stand By Your Man.” In Staton’s hands, Wynette’s cloying message of wifely devotion took on an edge of knowing irony. Staton’s performance was nominated for a Grammy Award; another nomination followed in 1973, for her affecting cover of the Elvis Presley song “In the Ghetto.” Just a few years removed from feeling stranded in Cleveland, she was now playing concerts amid the neon of Las Vegas. Still, some of her supporters felt Staton had been deserving of more commercial success.

“I think Candi’s one of the greatest soul singers of all time,” says Rodney Hall, Rick’s son. “But I think she’s been a little bit overlooked. To be honest with you — my dad used to say this and I’ll say it, too — part of the reason for that is that she wasn’t on Atlantic Records. She was on our label, which was distributed through Capitol. If she’d been signed directly to Capitol, she would have gotten more promotional muscle.”

Broader music tastes began to change — and Staton’s did, too. She continued to record with Hall, but grew tired of singing about cheating men and women who pined for them. In 1976, she signed to Warner Bros. Records, and a new producer, David Crawford, sketched out a song based on comments Staton made about a relationship that was wreaking havoc on her life. “Young Hearts Run Free” embraced the surging sound of disco — the four-on-the-floor beat, swirling strings, sunny vibes — and spoke the language of female empowerment. “Never be hung up, hung up like my man and me,” she warns in the song’s chorus, before later declaring, “Self preservation is what’s really going on today.”

Staton had been on the sidelines when songs recorded by Cooke and The Staple Singers became part of the fabric of the civil rights movement; now, her music spoke directly to women’s liberation efforts, much like Gaynor’s 1978 song “I Will Survive” later would. “Young Hearts” became the biggest hit of Staton’s career, climbing to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart, and No. 20 on the Hot 100.

To soul music historian David Nathan, Staton’s ability to successfully transition from gospel to Southern soul and then disco made her a peerless figure in 20th-century music. “She is just completely unique,” he tells me from his London home. “I can’t think of any artist who I can say is like Candi Staton.” Staton’s disco records were embraced by the LGBTQ community, and she, in turn, embraced it. Some musicians, Nathan says, were still wary in that era of acknowledging such a connection. “But she played LGBTQ-oriented events, specifically for the community. She’s a true LGBTQ musical icon.” Staton paid little attention to critics who didn’t approve of this bond. “I don’t want anybody telling me how to live,” she says, “or who to love.”

Some musicians, Nathan says, were still wary in that era of acknowledging such a connection. “But she played LGBTQ-oriented events, specifically for the community. She’s a true LGBTQ musical icon.” Staton paid little attention to critics who didn’t approve of this bond. “I don’t want anybody telling me how to live,”she says, “or who to love.”

By the late ’70s, Staton was living hard. She’d married blues musician Clarence Carter and had a child, but their relationship unraveled when Carter became unfaithful, and allegedly assaulted her. Now she was on the road constantly, trying to parent from afar, and responsible for house and car payments. The occasional glass of Johnnie Walker Black to unwind became a daily necessity. “I became overwhelmed. I felt like I couldn’t even function without it,” she says. Staton began drinking before she took the stage, and her performances suffered. Then she developed kidney problems. “I had an antibiotic in one hand,” she says, “and a Scotch in the other.”

She could feel everything she’d built start to slip through her fingers. During a visit to a club in Atlanta, Staton drank so heavily that she fell off a bar stool. She staggered into a bathroom, and glimpsed herself in a full-length mirror. “For the first time, David, I saw myself,” she tells me. “I saw who I had really become. And I started to weep.”

Candi Staton needed to break away. To go back to her roots.

***

“Oh my God. Oh, oh my goodness,” David Letterman huffed appreciatively, as he strode across the New York City set of the Late Show with David Letterman on an early October evening in 2013. His destination was Staton, who stood in a shimmering black jacket and dark pants, flanked by Jason Isbell and John Paul White. Led by Isbell’s sinewy slide guitar, the trio blended their voices for “I Ain’t Easy to Love,” a song that appeared on Staton’s then-new album, the appropriately titled Life Happens. At 73, Staton had lost none of her ability to sway an audience. Letterman bowed his head, and pecked her hand.

Staton had spent much of the aughts establishing herself once again in the realm of secular music — and firming up her legacy. In the ’80s, having given up alcohol, she embarked on what she calls “a 25-year sabbatical.” She started a record label and publishing company, and focused entirely on gospel music, earning two more Grammy nominations. “I was burned out,” she says. “I went back to the church, and got refreshed.” Gaynor cites a song Staton recorded during that period, “Sin Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” as her favorite. “It’s a prayer,” Gaynor says, “to make me a better person.”

Yet the ’80s and ’90s had, in one sense, been another lost opportunity. Recording artists from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s enjoyed some renewed visibility — and replenished bank accounts — when their catalogs were made available on CD. But the essential music that Staton recorded with FAME was nowhere to be found; the company was embroiled in a lawsuit with Capitol Records over the rights to her recordings that wouldn’t be resolved until 2000. “So, pretty much for the whole CD era, her music wasn’t available,” Rodney Hall says.

Staton still loomed particularly large in the imaginations of aspiring musicians in the South. White grew up in Tennessee, and often heard bar bands chugging through covers of Staton’s soul classics. “The main thing I took from Candi, and the trajectory of her career, is to make sure you’re always doing it for the right reason,” he says. “She sings things that she’s felt, that she’s been through. She was not chasing hits, or chasing trends. She was always herself.”

“She sings things that she’s felt, that she’s been through. She was not chasing hits, or chasing trends. She was always herself.”

In the early ’90s, the British group The Source released a remix of a song that Staton had recorded, years earlier, for a documentary. “You Got the Love” climbed U.K. dance charts, and introduced Staton to a new audience: electronic dance music fans. Younger artists, like Florence + the Machine and Joss Stone, later recorded popular covers of the song, and Staton became a sought-after touring attraction in the U.K., playing the Glastonbury Festival — which draws upwards of 200,000 spectators — in 2008 and 2010.

Thoughts of mortality intruded in 2018, when a breast cancer diagnosis forced Staton to cancel a planned tour. Within a year, she’d added cancer to the long list of obstacles that she’d overcome, and spoke openly of feeling grateful to still be among the living. “Every time I look around,” she says, “another one of my friends is gone.” She has continued to write and record — new Americana gospel album, Roots, is planned for a fall release — and squeezed a handful of live appearances in between several waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, she’s mulling a U.K. farewell tour.

Rainge-Briggs, of the National Museum of African American Music, argues that Staton’s career has added up to something more significant than album sales or hits. “Her music is a perfect example of someone saying, ‘Guess what? I’m not perfect. I’m not pretending to be perfect,’” she says. “Her career is a demonstration of redemption. Her imperfections are an example of her growth.”

When pressed, Staton acknowledges that it might be nice to have a little more recognition for all that she — a country girl from Alabama — managed to accomplish through sheer determination. Perhaps a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys, an honor they’ve bestowed on many of the performers she once considered peers. Maybe a movie, given all of the cinematic drama that punctuates her story.

But if none of those things happen — well, that would be fine, too. Because Candi Staton still has her voice. Sometimes, in conversation, the mention of an old song will trigger an almost involuntary reaction. A melody will rise up from somewhere deep inside, and she’ll start to sing, all of her pain and joy circling around the words like growth rings on an oak tree. “It is what it is,” she says. “We’re all born for a reason. A purpose. Some of us meet that purpose, and some of us never find it. And I found it.”

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David Gambacorta is a writer at large at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s also written for Esquire, The Ringer and Politico Magazine.

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact checker: Lisa Whittington-Hill