Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Candi Staton
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Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Candi Staton

In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the years in the pop trenches has knocked the knowledge out of them

By Gary Ryan

Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?! - Candi Staton - NME interview
CREDIT: Sean Cokes

1Last year, which pop megastar was filmed performing your 1976 hit ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ onstage at a wedding?

“Oh my goodness! You’re asking me some hard questions! I don’t keep up with that stuff.”

WRONG. It was Adele.

“Adele did it?! I did not know what. Now you’re telling me something I don’t know! (Laughs) I’m so busy writing new songs and doing concerts that I don’t keep up with what’s going on. Once I’ve finished a project, I just move to another one.”

‘Young Hearts Run Free’ was written about an abusive marriage you were in at the time. Did it feel cathartic and powerful to sing it?

“The song that hit me right in the middle of the stomach was actually ‘You Got the Love’ – those words came alive for the first time when I was going to get treatment for breast cancer [She was diagnosed in 2018]. I’d walk down the hallway to my next appointment with my hands in the air and I’d sing it to me: ‘I know I can count on you / Sometimes I feel like saying ‘Lord I just don’t care’ / But you’ve got the love I need to see me through’. And I would be tearing up – because it hit me. The song was originally written by a man who’d lost his father to help him with his grieving, but it became about me. It was personal.”

2When you appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2014, which icon phoned up the show to complain that you hadn’t been given enough screen-time to sing?

“Aretha Franklin.”

CORRECT.

“She and I were friends for years. We grew up together. I met her when she was about 14 and I was 12/13 and she would be on the road with her father, CL Franklin, back in the gospel tour days. I was a group called the Jewell Gospel Trio, and we were all children backstage together, including Mavis Staples and The Staple Sisters. We’d talk a little bit to Aretha, but he was more introverted in those days and wasn’t as outgoing. About a year or two before she passed [in 2018], we started emailing each other. She started having revivals in churches and would invite me every time. She wanted me to sing one song – ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’. In her emails, she remembered everything we went through together – the hotels we stayed in, the little boyfriends we had (Laughs). I put all of her emails in a [physical] folder so I have them as a memoir. Someday I might write a book and put them in the back under the title ‘Conservations with Aretha’.”

The range of people you hung out with before they were famous is mind-boggling. You even knew Little Richard years before he recorded ‘Tutti Frutti’…

“Oh yeah! We were at a school called the Jewell Christian Academy in Nashville and Little Richard would come by. He and our manager were close friends. We’d run out to the gate and talk to him. He’d wear pedal pushers with, strangely, a little handkerchief pinned to the bottom of them. We called him Pedal Pushers at that time. (Laughs) He would talk, talk, talk saying: ‘I’m going to be famous one day’. We’d reply: ‘Yeah right!’ and didn’t believe him. The next thing we knew, he was a superstar!”

3Which pop star’s limousine did you once buy?

“Elvis Presley.”

CORRECT. For $50,000  – bargain! Did you ever meet him?

“In never did. I wanted to meet him so badly. I covered a couple of his songs, and he [wrote to me and] said he loved my version of ‘In the Ghetto’. It was a beautiful song I knew would fit me, and I like to challenge myself. When I first sang my new song, ‘Open My Eyes’ [a collaboration with pop production outfit Shibashi], I didn’t think it would fit me because it’s a little out of my R&B/disco thing, but I connected with the lyrics and kept practicing. And I love it. I can’t wait to hear what it’s going to do. I pray we go triple platinum with it!”

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4Name either of the two acts you performed between at Glastonbury in 2008.

“I was so busy in the back that I didn’t even go out front! (Laughs) Stevie Wonder was there one year and Jay-Z was there another time. Those are the only two I remember.”

WRONG. You were sandwiched between Lupe Fiasco and Alabama 3.

“I was supposed to go back to Glastonbury two years ago and then COVID came and destroyed all that. They asked me again last year, but COVID was still around. Hopefully next year if all goes well, I’ll be back!”

Sometimes big artists complain about the mud at Glastonbury, but I’m guessing that’s a breeze compared to what you apparently faced on performing on the Chitlin’ circuit (the nickname for entertainment venues catering for African-American audiences in the era of segregation) with overflowing toilets for dressing rooms, gangster-run clubs and drunken, demanding audiences…

“No comparison at all! (Laughs) You had to be strong and tenacious to be able to do that. [Muscle Shoals’] Rick Hall once said he and I got along so well because we think alike. He said: ‘When you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to make you a liar’. And that’s how I’ve always lived. I came from a poor family who told me I’d never make it and I said: ‘I’m going to show you I will’. That gave me the hope and determination to get through people booing you offstage.”

“I’m writing a book on the Chitlin’ circuit. There were a lot of scary moments. I  carried a 32 gun with me in my purse and I sometimes had to threaten people [with it] to get my money. You’d do two shows a night and if you didn’t get paid between the first and second show, you could forget seeing any money!”

When you move to disco and started partying at Studio 54 and performing in gay clubs, did it feel more glamorous?

“I loved disco! There were still various incidents though! (Laughs) I had a beautiful dress covered in rhinestones. While I was performing, an audience member asked me if I they could buy it. I told them it isn’t for sale, and when I went to breakfast, somebody broke into the car and stole it and another outfit. So I really should have sold them the dress! (Laughs) Maybe then I would have kept my tailor-made leather suit!”

5On which Bobby Womack album do you sing on the tracks ‘Trust Your Heart’ and ‘Stop Before We Start’?

“You got me there! (Laughs). Bobby and I were friends, so he invited me to the studio in Detroit to hang out. When he was singing those songs, the producer Don Davis asked me to go into the vocal booth and start singing with Bobby. I don’t remember what album it came out on. As a matter of fact, I forgot until a few years ago that I’d even done it!”

WRONG. It was his 1978 album ‘Pieces’.

“Well…fill in the blank for me! (Laughs)”

6In 2011, you performed a service at the New Testament Church of God for a ‘Sacred Sites’ event for which UK city’s International Festival?

“Manchester.”

CORRECT.

“I thoroughly enjoyed that and it took me back to my roots. My mother would not let us listen to any other kind of music except gospel in the church and country, but my sister and I would sneak and listen to an old AM radio at 6pm through the static to listen to the last song. That’s how my style developed. Ray Charles once told me: ‘You know you’re like a female Ray Charles, right? You’ve got your gospel, your R&B and your country just like me.”

7Who did you duet a version of your anthem ‘You Got the Love’ with at the 2014 Mobo Awards?

“She was a rapper, but I can’t think of her name off the top of my head.”

WRONG. It’s Little Simz.

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8Complete the following of your lyrics: ‘Video games and movies have saturated their minds…

“’Evil is lurking around the corner in every rhythm and every rhyme’ – that’s from [her 2014 song] ‘Have You Seen the Children?’.”

CORRECT. It was apparently partly inspired by the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old black man Michael Brown Jr by a white Ferguson police officer…

“Yes. In America, things have gone backwards. Black Lives Matter is highlighting how we’re getting killed. Our men are getting shot down in cold blood and there’s nothing done about it. When I was growing up that didn’t happen unless you said something to one of the KKK who would string you up. That’s no different to being shot by the police. You’re going to die either way. You don’t expect that in ’21 – you would think everybody would have sense enough now to know it’s only skin.”

9Which soul legend were you talked out of eloping with?

“Lou Rawls.”

CORRECT.

“I meet Lee when I was 17. He was 21 and wanted to marry me. My mother said there’s no way I’m going to let you go to California but I slipped and went anyway and his mother talked me out of marrying him. She told me he wasn’t ready. I spent a Christmas vacation with them and she said: ‘Baby, go back home and get your education’. I’m glad she told me that because I went back and finished high school. When I was 18, him and Sam Cooke tried to get me to come with them and they would get me a record deal with Capitol, but my mother wouldn’t let me go. We remained friends, and when I did my TV show, he co-hosted about 36 shows with me.”

10Which 1996 movie did a version of ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ appear in?

“Was it William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet?”

CORRECT. A Kym Mazelle-sung cover featured in that Leonardo DiCaprio-starring blockbuster.

“And ‘You Got the Love’ was in the film Layer Cake. Do I get a point for knowing that?! (Laughs)”

Afraid not! What do you have coming up?

“I’m working on a roots album of old songs that young people are not too familiar with. I’m also writing a book called Beyond a Shadow Of a Doubt sharing all the godly miracles that have happened to me that you would not believe.”

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