“What’s the sense in sharing this one and only life, ending up just another lonely wife. You’ll count up the years and they will be filled with tears.”
These opening lyrics from Candi Staton’s 1976 single Young Hearts Run Free offer a glimpse into the troubles that her heart-rending voice has illustrated over the years.
Born in Hanceville, Alabama, which Staton describes is, “as country as country can get,” she was bought up by her deeply religious mother and an alcoholic father. And when the opportunity first arose to begin singing for an audience, it was not her family that pushed her, “my mother actually discouraged me, she didn’t want me to do this,” Staton explains.
She soon found a way into music through the Gospel scene and after touring as part of the Jewell Gospel Trio alongside Sam Cooke, she wed for the first time at 18, to Joe Williams. “I got married and I had my first four kids and it just didn’t work,” she confesses. “I left him because he was extremely jealous and he was abusive. So I got divorced and I had four kids to raise alone; I was desperate.”
That desperation led her into the soul industry as she began singing in local clubs to pay the bills and it was here she met her second husband, the blues musician, Clarence Carter. “I opened for Clarence in Birmingham, Alabama and he called Rick Hall right away saying ‘man I think I’ve found your girl singer’ and the rest is history.”
At the time, producer Rick Hall was working with the likes of Etta James and Otis Redding and it was with him that Staton’s voice was worked into the rasping, pain-inflicted force that blasted out her first single I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart, selling 750,000 records in just a few weeks.
She then split from Carter in 1973 after finding out he was having an affair but, despite making a fresh start on the Chitlin circuit, she soon found herself in another abusive relationship with her third husband, Jimmy James, a situation she says, “was really not a relationship”.
She explains, “I wasn’t really married to him, he was like a dictator in my life. He was a con-man. He got other con-people to make a wedding, the license was never registered and he drugged me. I don’t even remember getting married to him.” And it was James that inspired the lyrics to her famous breakthrough, Young Hearts Run Free.
At the time Staton herself was struggling with alcohol issues as, “you had to be drunk and out of your mind to stay with him”. The relationship was short lived, though, “I allowed everything to get turned off and I starved him out of my life.”
The smash hit Young Hearts Run Free hit number one in the R&B chart and introduced Staton into the world of disco and, just as her music was going through a transition, so to was her personal life as the break from James allowed her to become a star. She reminisces, “I was always with the beautiful people, at the nice places, with the great dressing rooms and I would be dressed up and everybody would be looking like a star on the dance floor and I was in heaven. I loved every minute of it.”
But just as soon as her career had moved in one direction had it swung to another. She sobered up and quit the world of secular music, returning to gospel for her fourth husband, John Sussewell. However, after a 17-year marriage things became all too familiar for Staton as, “he just got lazy and he went back to drugs he did something that I won’t allow, and that means he got physical, so I left and I gave him that house and that’s how I left John Sussewell.”
Things went from bad to worse though following their split as the church turned their back on her. “During that time in the church, when you got divorced, it’s like they can forgive you for murder quicker than they can for divorce.”
After being shunned by the church it was The Source’s 1991 remix of You’ve Got The Love that changed her direction forever. “After (the divorce) I was like, you know what, screw all you people, I’m going to do what I have to do and doors began to open again in the UK and Europe. You’ve Got The Love led me back into secular music and that’s why I love you so much because you opened your hearts to me, you opened your doors to me, you appreciate my music, that’s why I still come over; you were my life saver.”
She will be back in the UK in July as she descends on Sussex’s Love Supreme Jazz Festival and she couldn’t be more pleased to return, “Oh my goodness I can’t wait, it’s exciting,” she beams. “I love doing festivals in the UK, they’re so uplifting, you get some audiences, they just sit there and look at you but not the UK, they get all into it and I love doing it.”
Divorce number five came after a short-lived marriage to former baseball star Otis Nixon, and stories from the relationship and all her other heartbreaks down the years are in between the lines of her 2014 album Life Happens and, after a long, often painful, journey she now knows who to count on.
“I have some regrets but not a lot,” she reflects. “I don’t think I would be the strong woman that I am today had I not gone through some of the things I’ve gone through; it made me strong, I didn’t wither under pressure, I got stronger under pressure and I’ve never lost my will power to survive. I’m a survivor.”
Candi Staton will be performing at Love Supreme Jazz Festival, July 3-5, and for more information visit www.lovesupremefestival.com