In October 2017, Candi Staton was at a Nashville recording studio, working on a new song called “The Prize Is Not Worth the Pain.” As her band stretched out the disco-funk tune into an extended jam, the singer began improvising phrases and one-liners. At the very end, Staton eventually arrived at the hard, declarative truth she had been working toward the whole time:
“I am somebody,” she growled with a preacher’s conviction, “all by myself.”
When Mark Nevers, Staton’s producer, heard her sing that line, a lightbulb went on.
“It was just shocking,” he says. “I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s what this whole record’s about.’”
I am somebody all by myself. Candi Staton has been striving to live up to that promise throughout her career, while moving freely among a variety of scenes and eras. Her work has taken her from the golden-age gospel circuit of the Fifties to the historic R&B recording studios of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the early Seventies and the iconic New York clubs of the late Seventies, where Staton reinvented herself as a disco hitmaker with songs like “Victim” and “Young Hearts Run Free.” In the Eighties, Staton emerged once again, this time as a contemporary gospel entertainer and dance-music luminary before eventually — with her acclaimed 2006 Nevers-produced comeback LP, His Hands — assuming the role of a latter-day roots/Americana pioneer.
Along the way, Staton has endured unimaginable personal trials, overcoming trauma as a young child and suffering through several abusive marriages. But by 2016, it had seemed as though the singer had finally arrived at some long-overdue peace. She had married for the sixth time, and was feeling more content with her professional and personal life than ever when, this past August, less than two weeks before her new album, Unstoppable, was set to be released, she received a fateful phone call as she was driving to rehearsal with her band.
In July, Staton had been putting on deodorant one morning when she noticed a lump on her left breast. She had waited a few weeks for the lump to go away, and when it didn’t, she went to the doctor. Now her doctor was on the phone, informing her that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“This is the big one, the granddaddy of them all,” she tells Rolling Stone of the diagnosis.
“I was in a state of disbelief,” she continues. “I was like, ‘Did you just say ‘carcinoma’? I was in shock. I’ve always taken such good care of myself. How in the world did this happen to me?”
Staton took some time to live with the news by herself. “I’ve been through my crying spells and my depression and my anxiety,” she says. But almost immediately, the singer decided that she would go ahead with her August and September tour dates in support of her new LP.
“You go through your down days, you go through your pity days, but then you come up the next day and you say, ‘I’m not going to take this,'” she says. “‘You’re not going to take my life. I’m going to fight.’
“I do think, ‘How many other curveballs are going to be thrown in my path before I leave this Earth? Haven’t I had enough?’ I’ve had to fight from the day I was born all the way up until now, and now that I’m in my older age, I’m like, ‘I just don’t get a break, do I?’”
The diagnosis made Staton more determined than ever to spread the message of Unstoppable, a record that preaches hard-earned strength and self-assured confidence.
Though the album has come to serve as a statement for Staton’s own personal journey, the genesis of Staton’s project can be traced to the 2016 election. Not long after Donald Trump was elected, Nevers, who hadn’t recorded with Staton in close to a decade, reached out to the singer, realizing the world needed to hear from an empowered voice like hers now more than ever.
“The first thing Mark said to me was, ‘I just want a woman’s record. A woman who is assertive, a woman that’s not afraid of strength, to step out and show the world that they’ve got strength,’” Staton recalls. “So that’s what happened.”
Staton began looking back on a decade’s worth of songs she had been writing that addressed these types of ideas. There were songs with titles like “Confidence” and “Stand Up and Be Counted,” songs that demanded accountability and promoted self-worth. Her new album, she decided, would have a wide-ranging sound that encompassed the variety of styles she had been working in her entire life.
“Gospel and country and blues, all music, really, except jazz, have the same chord changes,” Staton says. “It’s just what you put into it.”
Unlike its recent, rootsier predecessors, Unstoppable incorporates more of the funk, disco and gospel-house that Staton spent the majority of her career singing.
“I think this is the record Candi has probably been wanting to make since the Seventies,” says Nevers. “She’s touched on it every now and then, with different songs throughout the years, but she’s never put it all into one package.”
Among those who know her music, Candi Staton is regarded as one of the great unheralded American voices of the latter half of the 20th century, a singer who has influenced everyone from Florence Welch to Jason Isbell and Mary J. Blige. “Candi’s a legend,” says David Macias, who released Unstoppable via the prestigious roots-music imprint Thirty Tigers, “although probably for too few people.”
“There are a lot of good singers, a lot of great technical singers that don’t interest me in the least because their voice doesn’t have that natural quality to it, and they have to make up for it by dancing around the notes, and that’s not something that Candi does,” Isbell, one of Staton’s foremost admirers, told me for a 2016 story I wrote on Staton for No Depression. “When she’s emoting, vocally, it’s very, very soulful and tender, but it’s not overwrought. She doesn’t sound like she’s working too hard for it. It sounds like it just naturally comes out of her, and sometimes that’s the hardest trick to pull off.”
Staton’s most loyal following is in Western Europe, where she tours the festival circuit each summer performing “Young Hearts Run Free” and “You Got the Love” — songs that Staton refers to as “the national anthems of Europe.” But in the States, despite some late-career triumphs and a resurgent interest in the music of Muscle Shoals, Staton remains largely unknown outside soul and disco record-collector circles.
When we meet up to talk before her September show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, Staton has Muscle Shoals on her mind. The last time she was in the city, in 2014, was to perform her song “I Ain’t Easy to Love” on David Letterman. That song, which featured next-generation Shoals artists Isbell and John Paul White, appeared on Staton’s album Life Happens, the last-ever record to be produced by legendary Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall before his death in January 2018.
Hall jump-started Staton’s career when, in 1969, she began recording a mix of country, blues and R&B at the producer’s FAME Studio. “There’s a tear in Candi’s voice in everything she sings,” Hall once wrote of the singer.
That work earned Staton two Grammy nominations and 16 R&B hits during a seven-year span with Hall. But none of Staton’s singles ever quite crossed over into the pop market, and for a variety of reasons, she never became a household name in the world of Southern soul.
Her entire life, Staton has drawn comparisons to Aretha Franklin, who also made her biggest initial impact in the world of soul and R&B at Muscle Shoals. Nevers considers Staton as “basically the Southern Aretha Franklin.” When Staton meets with Rolling Stone in New York, it’s just a few weeks after Franklin’s passing.
Staton and Franklin kept in touch throughout the years, e-mailing back and forth from time to time. “She was a big e-mailer,” Staton says. Shortly before Staton took the stage on Letterman back in 2014, she received an e-mail from Franklin. “I’m watching you,” it read.
On another occasion, Staton says that when she sat in with Paul Shaffer’s band on Letterman simply to sing backup vocals when coming out of commercial breaks, Franklin, watching once again, became enraged that her friend wasn’t receiving more of the spotlight. According to Staton, Aretha called Shaffer personally and yelled at him. “What’s wrong with you guys?” Franklin told the bandleader. “She’s a great singer. Let her sing!”
At this point, Staton has become accustomed to dealing with the loss of close friends and lifelong acquaintances. But another recent problem that’s been nagging at her lately, she tells me, is her ongoing legal dispute with her former label, Warner Bros., which released several of Staton’s disco albums in the mid-to-late Seventies, during the most well-known, and commercially successful, period of her career.
Her problems with Warner, she says, are twofold. For one, despite scoring several enduring hits like “Victim” and “Young Hearts Run Free” and selling hundreds of thousands of records internationally, Staton hasn’t received a single dollar in royalty payments from Warner Bros. since 1980, the year she stopped working with the label. According to recent royalty statements obtained by Rolling Stone, Warner Bros. claims that Staton still hasn’t earned back the money the label spent on her records in the Seventies.
“They sporadically send statements where they show that they are applying the royalties [Staton] is due to her un-recouped debut to the company,” says Bill Carpenter, Staton’s longtime associate. “We question the debt, period.”
Even more pressing, says Staton and her team, is Warner Bros.’ refusal to transfer the ownership of her master recordings from the late Seventies. Staton, and her lawyer, say Staton is the legal owner of those recordings, according to the 1976 Copyright Act, which stipulates that after a period of 35 years, artists can reclaim the copyrights to their own work for recordings made after 1978. For Staton, those include some of her signature recordings, including hit singles like 1978’s “Victim” and 1979’s “When You Wake Up Tomorrow.”
“Candi followed the rules, she terminated her contract and she recaptured her rights,” says Brian Levenson, Staton’s lawyer, who says that Staton should have had legal ownership of her master recordings ever since January 2016. “The issue is that Candi is the owner of those recordings and Warner is still trying to profit from them. They’re still selling those recordings.”
Warner Bros. did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
“I’m still fighting,” Staton says of her legal disputes.
Staton’s short promotional tour for Unstoppable went well, considering the circumstances. At 78, Staton is still a compelling, commanding live performer and entertainer: part R&B preacher, part disco diva. The most moving moment of her recent New York show, her first in the city since 2006, was when Staton transformed the 1964 soul standard “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” typically delivered as a passive devotional, into a declarative anthem of persistence and survival. Staton hadn’t yet shared her medical news with the world, but she sang the song as a promise and a reminder, both to her fans and to herself, of all the strength and guidance she’d soon be asking for in the months to come.
“It was amazing that I got through that tour,” she tells me afterward.
Having completed the tour, Staton has turned her focus toward treatment. She will soon begin chemotherapy and will undergo surgery in 2019. For now, she’s canceled all her remaining 2018 tour dates in order to fully devote herself to the long, strenuous battle toward recovery.
“I’ve slowed down a lot,” she says.
When I ask Staton if she can envision a future where she stops touring, and perhaps performing altogether, she doesn’t hesitate.
“It will come. It’s coming,” she says. Staton pauses for an instant, perhaps taking in the weight of what she’s just said, before repeating herself once more: “It’s coming.”
In recent years, as Staton has gradually slowed down her touring schedule, she’s shifted her focus to speaking out on the issues nearest and dearest to her. For decades, Staton has been an advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual violence, but only in the past few years has she decided to share the most traumatic secret from her own life in hopes of helping others.
Staton’s 2016 memoir, Young Hearts Run Free, opens with a harrowing depiction of one of Staton’s relatives sexually abusing her as a young child. “This was the beginning of my downward spiral trying to maintain a normal relationship,” she writes.
Today, Staton describes her childhood trauma, which she did not share with anyone in her life for more than 40 years, as the origin point of so much of the abuse and violence she suffered throughout her first five marriages and divorces, including her marriage to Southern-soul hitmaker Clarence Carter. “He held tightly to my clothes, and then started beating me in the face,” Staton writes in Young Hearts Run Free of an alleged assault from Carter during their early-Seventies marriage. (Carter did not respond to a request to comment.)
Staton recorded Unstoppable just a few weeks before the beginning of #MeToo, but the singer had never waited for the rest of the world to care about her own story.
“I always tell people I was a #MeToo person long before that came about,” she says today. “I do this not because I want my dirty laundry out. I do this to save another generation from what I had to go through, because I’m not going to be on this Earth forever.
“You keep it a secret, and then it starts to sprout into other areas of your life,” she continues. “You don’t trust people. You don’t trust men, and it’s like it grows roots and starts to affect everything else in your life that’s happened to you.”
Despite her own advice, when Staton first received her breast-cancer diagnosis, she was tempted to keep the news to herself. “The first thing that goes through your mind is that you want to keep it a secret,” she says. “But you can’t get through it alone. You need help. I need that positive energy.”
The moment Staton realized she wanted to share her diagnosis with the world was the moment she realized she could, once again, became a source of inspiration, strength and guidance for others. In the months since learning about her breast cancer, Staton has already taken it upon herself to encourage everyone in her life to get mammograms. “If I can help save as many as I can save from this dreadful disease,” she says, “I will do it.
“This is going to be my new thing,” says Candi, who has decided that she will begin preaching and singing at the chapel of her cancer treatment center. “I’m going to preach and scream about it.”
A few weeks before her first round of surgery, Staton says that she’s found peace, once again, in her own strength as she faces the difficult path that lies ahead.
“I’m pretty settled now,” she says. “I’m ready to deal with this thing.”