Candi Staton is one of the most enduring acts in music. Best known for her iconic liberation anthem Young Hearts Run Free that reached No. 1 in 1976, Staton has released 30 albums in several musical genres over the course of her acclaimed 70-year career, but dance music has always been her main groove.
The Alabama native started singing professionally at age 13 with The Jewel Gospel Trio who toured with music icons Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson in the 1950s. After signing with legendary impresario Rick Hall’s FAME Records label in 1968, Staton was crowned the First Lady of Southern Soul before she became a disco princess and gay icon with a series of smash club hits.
By 1983, Staton had beaten an alcohol addiction, joined a church and recorded several critically hailed gospel albums. This fall the multiple-Grammy nominee releases her 31st album, Back to My Roots, a roots-inspired set of gospel songs with a 1960s soul and country music retro vibe.
But Staton never left pop music, and after the British press this year reported her current tour is her last, Ms. Staton—now 83—gave me a candid interview to preview her much-anticipated September 29 concert at POP Montreal, her first concert in Montreal since the 1970s.
I cannot let this opportunity pass without asking you what it was like touring America in the 1950s with Mahalia Jackson, and with Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, when you were a teenager.
Candi Staton : I was 13, just starting out, I didn’t know very much. They were more like mothers and big brothers to me. They talked to us a lot and gave us advice about life, what to expect when we grow up. We travelled in caravans in five or six cars. We had to be together—especially in the South where I was frightened. I knew about the hangings and killings. It was frightening just to be Black in Mississippi or Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, places where segregation was really bad.
Mahalia had her own car and driver. And she only had a keyboard player. They traveled together. Mahalia did a lot of the cities in the north and would very seldom get to the south. One day we were on the same program at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
I was peeking through the peekhole to her dressing room when her keyboard player tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Would you like to meet her?” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” So she opened the door and let me in. Wow! I used to hear Mahalia sing on the radio at home. She was one of my favourite singers, just a wonderful voice.
And so Mahalia said, “You come on over here and give me a hug!” That show she came to watch us, I looked in the curtains and there she was smiling!
Your career has bridged many musical genres. You have been inducted into the Christian Music Hall of the Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, been nominated for Grammys. You have recorded great gospel albums but many people also love your secular career which began in Muscle Shoals. What was it like working with Rick Hall at his FAME Recording Studios where Etta James recorded Tell Mama and Aretha Franklin recorded I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)?
Candi Staton : I learned so much about the music industry from Rick. I was just so green.
I met him through Clarence Carter. I was right in the middle of a divorce or trying to get rid of this abusive husband of mine. And I had four children to think about. Rick had mentioned to Clarence that he was looking for female artists and Clarence called him up and said, “I found one for you.” And the rest is history. But working with Rick was very difficult. Rick was a very serious, single-minded producer, but he was a really good one.
You’ve overcome many obstacles in your life—domestic abuse, bad relationships, alcoholism, battling record labels for royalties, and your successful 2-year fight against breast cancer. During each battle you never gave up. Do you see yourself as a survivor and role model?
Candi Staton : Yes, I do. I keep a positive mental attitude. I am also a Christian and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m a tenacious woman. If you tell me “No”, I’m going to prove you wrong. That’s the kind of person I am. I love proving to people that we can be strong and single-minded. That’s the one thing I learned from Rick. He wouldn’t stop until he got what he wanted.
Your liberation anthem Young Hearts Run Free was written for you by David Crawford. How was that song created?
Candi Staton : Warner Bros. Records president Mo Ostin called me up and asked if I would be interested in working with David and they flew me to California. I told David about the abusive relationship I was in. I would talk to David as a friend and he wrote it down and when I walked into the studio and heard that music I said, “David, that is the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard in my life. What is that?” He said, “I’m writing you a song that’s going to last forever.” How right he was.
The 2023 Benji LaVida remix has spurred tens of thousands of TikTok videos and millions of streams. A new generation has discovered Young Hearts Run Free.
Candi Staton : I’m so glad because the song has a great message. And each generation goes through this.
During your career you had a period where you were crowned one of our great disco divas. Why is disco still important?
Candi Staton : Because it makes you feel good. It’s a happy feeling. And you can dance to it. People love to dance. We need to dance!
You are also a gay icon, adored by the LGBTQ community where Young Hearts Run Free
became part of the soundtrack of gay liberation. How does that make you feel?
Candi Staton : It makes me feel great! You know what, I don’t want to be judged and I don’t judge anybody else. I have never had any bad feelings about the gay community. I don’t think I would have sold that many records had it not been for the gay community. They are very loyal.
We adore Candi Staton!
Candi Staton : (Beaming.) I adore you as well!
The British press is reporting that this is your final tour. Is it?
Candi Staton : I did so many interviews with the BBC and The Guardian and you know what? I can’t answer that question. I don’t know the future.
Well, I like that! That means we can still get some more Candi Staton!
Candi Staton : (Laughs happily.) I just put it like this: If I’m able, you will see me again.
How do you feel when people call you a living legend?
Candi Staton : I don’t know. I’ve been doing this for 70 years. I’m still living. I guess that’s a legend, right? I don’t get prideful. But I appreciate that people recognize and appreciate my music and contribution that I’ve done to the music industry.
If living legend means you’ve paid your dues, you certainly have.
Candi Staton : Why, thank you, I sure have. And that is the truth!
INFOS | Candi Staton headlines the Rialto Theatre at POP Montreal on September 29.