May 31, 2016Feature

Without Candi Staton dance music as we know it today wouldn't be the same. We talk with her about the tough tours before disco, her friendship with Ray Charles and never quite meeting Frankie Knuckles

Some tracks age so gracefully that the usually cheesiness associated with a “classic” simply doesn’t apply.

Candi Staton’s ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ is one of those songs.

Written and produced by David Crawford, the track hit number one on the US Billboard Hot Soul Singles Chart and number two on the UK Singles Chart.

Commercial success aside, ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ set the bar for what would be one of the most successful eras in music; disco.

It was also the song that took her out of the rough and ready world of the Chitlin’ Circuit. From how Candi describes these gigs, they  sound eerily similar to what would eventually be called a ‘rave’.

“The Chitlin’ Circuit was a club circuit for down south. They’re not the best clubs to play at. They’re rowdy sometimes, they’re almost like an upscale version of a juke joint. It’s bring your own bottle and you can drink as much as you like, so they get unruly.

“Sometimes when you travel 300 miles with your band and you got a payroll you can’t find the promoter when the gig is over.”

Candi was fully immersed in the Chitlin’ Circuit when a genre dripping in sequin came knocking on her door.

“They always had dance clubs in America, but they didn’t have much of a name for it. Now all of a sudden it’s called disco.”

"(Tina Turner) only had one Ike, I had four!"

It was a stark contrast, going from unpaid work and byob to gowns and television appearances.

We didn’t do the song for ‘disco’. We did it as a dance song, but they called it disco. Wherever they wanted to fit it was fine with me, as long as we sold records!”

1976 saw other iconic disco tracks like ‘Daddy Cool’ by Boney M, ‘You Should Be Dancing’ by Bee Gees, ‘Love Hangover’ by Diana Ross released and it was also a year before ‘Saturday Night Fever’ became a global sensation. Something special was bubbling.

“It went really big. Disco was open, and I was one the first people in it.

“I was just so delighted to get out of the Chitlin’ Circuit. I was giddy! I didn’t have to take around a band with me and I could dress in beautiful clothing. We looked really good! It was the most amazing experience for me. I truly, truly loved it and still do.”

It’s the blend of genres that makes Candi’s music extra special. Growing up in Alabama she was exposed to gospel music from a very early age and the it never left her.

I just finished a gospel record ‘It’s Time to be Free’, which will be the 14th gospel record I’ve released. It’s truly the heartbeat of my life. It’s not an easy genre of music to sing. I think it was the first rendition of soul.”

I mentioned to Candi that I felt one of the most apparent times when gospel and disco intermingled was in her track ‘Victim’. For some reason a smile broke across her face and ‘The Genius’ Ray Charles came to mind.

I remember Ray and I did the Aladdin Theater together back in the 70s. We had five days together and I would go and visit his dressing room every night and we’d sit and talk. He became a good friend of mine.

“One night we were sitting there talking and he gave me the greatest compliment I think I’ve ever had. He said, ‘You know you’re the female Ray Charles?’

“I laughed and said, ‘You’re kidding, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘You do three genres of music, gospel, country and rhythm & blues, you put them all together and you do them so well. That’s what I do too.’ That really stuck with me.”

Candi tells me that she goes into these conversations with ‘The High Priest of Soul’ Ray Charles in more detail in her forthcoming book. A publication she’s very excited about.

“You thought ‘I, Tina’ by Tina Turner was a great book? She only had one Ike, I had four!

“It’s a book about abuse. All my life I always seemed to chose the wrong guy. It always ended up bad. But I know when I’ve had enough. I know when I’ve reached my saturation point and I move on.

“I’m not going to hurt any body, I’m not going to do what a lot of women do, take a gun and shoot him in his sleep. You only kill yourself when you do something like that. I wanna live, so I just move on.”

Through all the turmoil of failed relationships and set backs I was curious to see how Candi got back into making music.

“In everything you do there’s a lesson and if you don’t get the lesson you have to repeat it again. It’s like school. If you don’t pass the test, you have to go back and repeat it. Obviously I didn’t pass a lot of my tests! But now I’ve got it. I’ve got it.

Music is therapeutic, it’s very powerful. In terms of depression, you could be feeling very bad and when you walk into a room where everyone is dancing and in five minutes you’re shaking it.”

Even though disco has been proclaimed as dead and revived many times since its inception, it’s clear it never really went away. Some of the most revered house and techno DJs in the world pay homage to the era every weekend by dropping disco tracks into their sets. What is it about that section of the music timeline that has such longevity?

“‘When You Wake Up Tomorrow’ for example is about a one night stand. It’s a song about going out partying, and you end up going to bed with somebody. That’s still prevalent today. You wake up the next day and look over the other side of the bed and wonder ‘who the heck are you? How’d you get in my bed? Get out!’

“Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t do that any more! But that’s why it has longevity, because people still do that!”

Although Candi has focused primarily on gospel since her breakthrough in the 70s, dance music has remained a big part of her story.

‘Hallelujah Anyway’ showed in 2012 how relevant Candi still is to dance.

Defected did a great job on that record. They organised quite a few remixes on it. It got to be very popular in the UK and Europe.

“The record kind of bounced on the strength of ‘You’ve Got the Love’. There are quite a few dance songs on my new record coming out in July too.”

On that release another dance music legend, Frankie Knuckles, remixed the track. I wanted to know if Candi ever met Frankie, who is often considered the physical link between disco and modern house music.

“You know, I never got the privilege to meet him. I always thought I’d meet him one day. I almost went to New York to meet him once, but something got in  the way and I was so hurt, so sorry.

“You have to give him credit for transitioning disco into house music.”

Photos by Ellius Grace

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