he Bowery Ballroom is packed to the walls with bloggers, devoted soul music enthusiasts, and … Rosie Perez on this surprisingly cool August evening, all in attendance for the return of forgotten-but-not-forsaken soul legend Candi Staton.
She doesn’t disappoint.
On stage, delivering her songs of lost loves and lost love, trials, tribulations, and troubles, she seamlessly shifts from Alabama country-fried Muscle Shoals soul to heart-wrenching gospel hymns to infectiously decadent disco anthems in a span of minutes. The crowd shows their appreciation and Staton is visibly overwhelmed by the crowd’s adulation; She wasn’t supposed to ever be back here.
With her first producer, the legendary Rick Hall, seated in the balcony, and two of her children sharing the stage with her, tonight’s performance, her first in New York City in over 20 years, couldn’t be seen as anything less than a triumph. Tonight she carries with her an emotional authority, a peace earned after years of abuse; she casually remarks with an almost discomforting nonchalance, “I know what it’s like to feel your face just to make sure it’s not broken.” Still, that voice: weathered with age but strengthened with experience, remains as powerful on stage tonight as it did on record almost four decades ago.
Indeed, Candi Staton’s story is not a very happy one, but those hardships have served as the seed for her most recent album, His Hands. Released earlier this year through Astralwerks to almost unanimously glowing reviews, His Hands, along with a previous release compiling her first three solo records for FAME, has helped introduce Staton to an entirely new generation of listeners. Stylus sat down with “The Sweetheart of Soul” before her Bowery performance to discuss His Hands and her unlikely return to secular music.
So you haven’t performed in NY in over 20 years?
Oh, probably longer than that. The last show was probably in the late 70s. I’ve been singing gospel for 22 years. I just completely did it, gave it all up, got out of the circuit and just got some peace.
What pushed you away from performing secular music?
I got tired of the traveling, tired of leaving home, tired of the Chitlin circuit, tired of the money being short. You travel 300 miles to do a show, you do your show and then you don’t get paid. You have to fight and cuss and pull guns out and lay them on the table. I’d been doing it since I was in my early 20s. Meanwhile my children were being raised by strangers. They were growing up and I was losing them. So I came back, put them in church, built a house in the country and decided to go back to my roots in gospel music.
So what’s brought you back?
Well … things got better. The compilation album came out and I realized people were very kind. They really liked my music, they were buying the music, they were enjoying the music.
I misjudged myself. I didn’t think they liked me. “Why bother?” I said. “They don’t like me, they like Aretha, they like Gladys, they don’t like me.” So I really didn’t miss it much. But about 10 years ago a pastor told me I should take a look at those old songs again. So I started to go back and re-examine the songs and I suddenly realized how good they were. They were really good songs.
Nothing was wrong with them but I’d attributed and associated all the bad things that happened to me in my life to the songs I was singing. But that wasn’t it at all. It was my choices, my wrong choices. Once I was able to convince myself, to get straight in my heart and make peace with myself about it, I was fine. And I was ready.
His Hands strikes me as a survivor’s record.
How did the collaboration with Will Oldham come about?
I never met Will actually. He and Mark (Nevers of Lambchop) were good friends. Will had just picked up the compilation and he watched my television show and he heard my stories about relationships and the abuse I went through. The song was a little folksy at first, we had to rearrange it. If you’d heard the original you’d have been like “Whoa!” I felt like it should be a minor-type song, in a minor mode with an atmosphere, an ambience, and that’s what you hear.
There’s a lyric in that song, “I would pity that beautiful man and I would bless his path.” It struck me that the idea that His Hands is a secular album might be somewhat misleading because it’s still fraught with themes of forgiveness and many of the same themes as Gospel music.
Oh, yes, absolutely. From the very beginning to the end of “His Hands” we’re trading the hands of an abusive man to the hands of a loving God. That song is basically my life.
So now you’re able to look back on those songs with a better perspective. With the success of the compilation will you be featuring those older records on your current tour?
I’m really promoting the new stuff so most of the show will be drawn from His Hands, but I will do some of the old stuff and “Young Hearts Run Free” and “Victim.” I love the “The Best Thing You Ever Had,” I love “Stand By Your Man,” I love “Just a Prisoner,” “Sweet Feeling,” “That’s How Strong My Love Is.”
I think your version of “That’s How Strong My Love Is” is the only one that has that absolutely perfect minor shift in it. The Otis Redding version and the O.V. Wright stay major. Whose decision was that?
It was Rick Hall’s decision. He said, “Let’s do this a little differently.” And I didn’t even want to hear it. They were going to play it for me so I walked out of the studio. I said “I don’t want to hear it. I want to create it like it was my own song. Just give me the track, give me the lyrics, let me hear it once, and you put the track down. That’s how I did it.
So you’re doing this quick four-date tour and then you’re headed over to Europe. It seems Europe is more embracing of soul music in general?
Oh, it’s an absolute revival, a soul revival. Parents are bringing their children to the shows and I bring them on stage and let them dance. They see that this is real music. This is it. Right here.
By: Barry Schwartz
Published on: 2006-08-18