Candi Staton – All souls’ day
Musically, His Hands, which was recorded in Nashville with producer Mark Nevers, shares something of the loose, uncluttered immediacy of the records Staton made in Muscle Shoals. Yet as the presence of Pete Finney’s liquid pedal steel attests, it also contains more overtly country arrangements than even the Grammy-nominated hit versions of “Stand By Your Man” and “In The Ghetto” that she recorded there in the early ’70s.
“I grew up on country music,” Staton said. “I grew up with Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb.”
During a show at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe in 1997, Staton recalled listening to country music back when she was a little girl growing up in the African-American hamlet of Hanceville, Alabama (pop. 800). “My family used to listen to Roy Acuff and Tennessee Ernie Ford [on the Grand Old Opry],” she told the audience at the Bluebird. “We had an old battery-operated radio and most of the time it didn’t work. When the battery was almost gone, we’d lay on the floor, getting as close to the sound as we could, just trying to get that last bit of Roy Acuff out of radio.”
Staton, who was born Canzetta Maria Staton in 1943, finally got to see Nashville, and to sing on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium (with Mahalia Jackson no less), when she and her sister Maggie attended boarding school on the north side of town during the late 1950s. “It was near Tennessee State, on Hieman Street,” Staton said. “There was a great big campus and a dormitory there. It was called Jewell Academy and Seminary.
“The school was founded by Bishop M.L. Jewell,” Staton continued, referring to the founder of the Jewell Dominion of the Church of God, the Pentecostal denomination most noted in music circles for introducing the world to sacred steel guitar. Most of the buildings Staton mentioned, including the main, three-story colonial structure at the corner of Hieman and 23rd Avenue North, are still standing.
Staton and her sister were adolescents when they started singing with the Jewell Gospel Trio. An electrifying group with full-band backing, the all-female vocal ensemble recorded a handful of sides for the Nashboro label and toured with the heady likes of the Soul Stirrers, the Staple Singers, and Aretha Franklin, at whose annual revival Staton sang last fall.
“You gotta know, we were bad,” she said, “I mean Michael Jackson bad. We were the most fantastic group out there because of our age. And because we had a band. We had the steel guitar, the sacred steel. We had the rhythm guitar, we had the bass guitar, and we had the drums. We would tear up the place wherever we went. History doesn’t write this down, but we were the first group [to introduce] the band idea to gospel music. Before then, they only had a piano or a guitar. After we came along, everybody started getting more and more instrumentation.
“I remember Clara Ward saying, ‘I got to get me a music like that,’ and the next time I’d looked around she had gone to the Apollo with the steel and everything. We started that trend. We didn’t get credit for it but the Jewell Trio started that.
“Mahalia Jackson too. Mahalia Jackson said, ‘I got to get some music behind me.’ She just sung with piano. And most quartet singers never had music. They were a cappella. They kept time with their feet and patted the sides of their jackets.”
Like the Fairfield Four?
“Yes, just like the Fairfield Four.”
Needless to say, these were thrilling times for two girls from Alabama raised, as Staton put it, “with chickens and pigs, milking cows and stuff. And planting cotton and picking cotton and hoeing. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven.”
Staton left the Jewell Trio and went solo in 1968, but not before running off to Los Angeles planning to marry Lou Rawls, whose mother talked her out of the engagement. Staton’s first single after she ventured out on her own, a duet with Grand Ole Opry star Billy Walker, stiffed, but success came soon enough, after her version of “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man” won an amateur competition at the 27/28 Club in Birmingham the following year. First prize was a slot opening for Clarence Carter, who not only introduced Staton to Rick Hall, but eventually became her second husband (they later divorced).
“I got heckled at first,” Staton said, talking about her first few shows on the road with Carter’s revue. “I would go onstage and just stand in one spot with my eyes looking up at the ceiling. Nobody had ever told me how to do a [club] show. It was awful. I remember one night I ran off the stage screaming and crying. I’d just had it, but Clarence said, ‘You know what I have to do. I’m gonna have to teach you how to do a show.’ So the next day, we rehearsed all day and he taught me how to do a show.
“And the Ice Man, Jerry Butler, he took me to the side too. I saw him last year and asked him if he remembered and he said, ‘You know, I believe I do.’ He took me to the side and said ‘Girl, you will never make it in this field unless you sing to people. You can’t sing at them.'”
That was the better part of four decades ago. Since then, Staton has reached countless people with her music and her ministry. A persistent theme in her work, from the proto-rap of “As Long As He Takes Care Of Home” to the disco smash “Young Hearts Run Free”, has been how the challenges that confront relationships, whether posed by communication, money or sex, can tear couples and households apart. The difference is that while still theistic in emphasis, the message of reconciliation and healing on Staton’s new album is expressed inclusively enough to cut across lines of faith and embrace a wider audience.
“I was listening this morning to ‘You Don’t Have Far To Go’,” she said, referring to the ravaged version of the Haggard original that opens His Hands. “If you’re going through problems in your marriage or in your relationship with someone and you start listening to these things, you start thinking of your relationship and sometimes you can turn it around.
“You can preach a sermon in three minutes through a song,” she added, “and that’s what I was doing.”
ND Senior Editor Bill Friskics-Warren lives and writes in Nashville. The paperback edition of his book, I’ll Take You There: Pop Music And The Urge For Transcendence, will be published this fall.