Return to the source … Candi Staton, who has gone from soul and disco to dance-pop but kept her gospel roots. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
Between the ‘chitlin’ circuit’ and her new rave tunes, the soul diva even picked up praise from Elvis. In our new series where you ask the questions, this storied musician reveals a few untold yarns
Why do you think that your early 70s classic albums (I’m Just a Prisoner, Stand By Your Man, Candi Staton etc) are less canonised than other ‘classic’ albums of that period by the Stones, the Beatles etc? mesm
Back then I didn’t get on the same chart as those guys because Black artists on smaller labels were put in the R&B charts, not the pop charts. It was musical segregation. To cross over you needed a big label and money behind you. There was a lot of politics. In the UK there was one chart, which is how it should be.
Did you play the ‘chitlin’ circuit’ in the 60s? RedGammon
I am writing a book about it. The first thing they told me was to get a gun. I was in my 20s. I didn’t like guns! Eventually I told them to get me one small enough to fit in my handbag. It wasn’t in my personality to become a scary gangster, but when the promoters tried not to pay I had to get my gun out even though I was shaking in my shoes. Some of them would laugh at me with my little pistol. Others would say: “You don’t have to do that, girl. You’re classy”, and pay me.
How did you feel when Elvis showed his appreciation for your wonderful version of In the Ghetto? MullOtter
Elvis wrote me a note saying: “You did a great job.” I kept it in my kitchen desk for years. Then after I got divorced and moved house I couldn’t find it anywhere. Clarence Carter [Candi’s future second husband] was singing the song on the [studio] floor and [its writer] Mac Davis said: “You know what? I think a woman should sing this song, because it’s about a woman.” They put the lyrics in front of me. I sang it. Then I went back to reading my magazine [laughs].
Did the Bee Gees approach you to record Nights on Broadway? DaveParry
I never met the Bee Gees, but I used to hum it and one day I mentioned to [producer] Arif Mardin that I wanted to do it. He said: “Why don’t we just do it?” The Bee Gees featured it on one of their TV specials and commented that they liked it.
Why has Now You’ve Got The Upper Hand never been rereleased as a single since the Unity seven-inch was withdrawn? Stonecold316
I was living in Birmingham, Alabama, and I had a contract with Unity but wasn’t doing well. Then Clarence Carter introduced me to Rick Hall from Fame Studios and he signed me the night I auditioned. It was my big opportunity, but I was under contract. So I told Unity that I was retiring to bring up my kids and could they tear up the contract? They said: “Well, it’s going to cost you.” They hadn’t even paid me for what I had done! I was freshly divorced, had four children and no money. Clarence gave me $1,500 in cash and that was the end of Unity. I’ve never told anyone that story before. The northern soul people in the UK went wild for that song. The original white label is worth a mint.
I read that Will Oldham wrote His Hands having read your biography and you recorded the song without having met him. Was it a good fit? icyberg
[Producer] Mark Nevers sent me the song and it was quite folky, so we changed it. That song tells a story. Abuse starts by verbals. I always tell women: “Don’t allow them to call you the B-word and don’t let them talk down to you. Once you see red flags, you have to stop them because otherwise it gets worse.” In the song he comes into the room, turns vicious and it turns into gospel because only God’s going to get her released. Mark Nevers told me he played it to Will Oldham and he wept.
In reference to one of my favourite ever tracks of the disco era, were you ever a victim of the very songs you sing? AndrewW
I was in quite a few abusive relationships in the early days. As an artist, you meet people that want to get into the industry and they are looking to spend your money. They come at you with champagne, roses and compliments and then suddenly they change. They say if you leave them they will kill you and come after your children. I’d think: “Maybe I should just kill him.” But my Christian voice would pipe up … Young Hearts Run Free is about getting out.
Who are your favourite singers? SpottedRichard
I love my dear [late] friend Aretha [Franklin] and Gladys [Knight]. I like Alicia Keys. Beyoncé’s Irreplaceable is like my personal life [laughs]. Teddy Pendergrass. Sarah Dash [from LaBelle] was one of my best friends. If I was going through the worst time she would always call me, like she knew. I spoke to her last month and then three days later I saw on Instagram that she’d passed away. I called her number and her sister answered and confirmed it, and I just screamed.
I am a great admirer of your gospel work. Would you consider recording gospel again in the future? RFDIII
Soul music comes from your mind, will and emotions, and the foundation for that is gospel. I’m recording a roots and gospel album at the moment. Really old songs with good lyrics.
What wisdom can you give to help us live well? zebalby
Positive books and good music. I pray a lot and live a simple life. My conscience won’t allow me to sing those “sneak around trying to see each other” songs any more, like Another Man’s Woman, Another Woman’s Man. And I don’t bring the stage home with me. When I go home, I vacuum. I try not to worry, especially since having breast cancer. I told the doctor I didn’t want chemo and he was a tough cookie who told me: “We’re going to get you well.” I had many rounds of chemo and I’m cancer free.
How has life and experience shaped the way you sing? DonnaFerentes
Singing is like therapy for me. If I’m singing That’s How Strong My Love Is or You Got the Love, I think about times I’ve been in love. For other songs I get kind of mad. It’s gotta be believable.
How does your faith impact on your work? SignificantOther
The spirit of God is always in my singing. In the Bible it says: “Out of my belly shall flow rivers of living waters.” When you sing from your diaphragm, it waters the people listening. That’s why they feel good.
My favourite release this year is You Everything (Remix) by the Producer ft Candi Staton. How involved were you in this release? Orfordness1
I’m not sure I’ve actually heard it! I’ve done about 300 songs and it’s really hard to keep up with what happens to them. I’ve just done vocals for a song by [Two Door Cinema Club dance side-project] Shibashi. My daughter brought it to me. I’m always up for a new challenge and it came out good.
Shibashi’s Open My Eyes (ft Candi Staton) is out on 8 October