Candi Staton
They Made Magic

These pen portraits build up into a gallery of special people. These people have made unique contributions to popular culture. Some of the stories will be fairly familiar, and some may seem slightly strange. There are some glaring omissions, and some odd inclusions. A thread of narrative runs through, and itís all as subjective as hell.

How many times have you heard Candi Staton sing 'Young Hearts Run Free'?  It’s the sort of song you still hear wherever you go, and it really doesn’t matter because it’s one of those songs that you can’t hear often enough.  But I bet if you stopped someone in the street and asked who wrote it you wouldn’t get to many right answers.

The creator of 'Young Hearts Run Free' was in fact stalwart soul producer Dave Crawford, who was given the challenge of transforming Candi after the southern soul market maybe didn’t seem to offer too many opportunities to push on to superstardom.  Crawford provided the wherewithal to update Candi’s trademark sound, with a disco sheen and real soul roots showing still. 

Candi wasn’t in the best of places at the time that she first worked with Dave Crawford.  It was listening to her troubles that provided the inspiration for the astonishing anthemic 'Young Hearts Run Free', which by all accounts he put together in next to no time, and had Candi record the words in double quick time.  The results are timeless.  The message lingers on with the melody.

Kevin Rowland when Dexys Midnight Runners were the most important thing around in pop music would revel in doing things differently, and provocatively put out statements sure to stir people up but which would also be treasured endlessly by Dexys’ devotees.  In these pronouncements Kevin would often refer to songs and records that meant a great deal to him.  He would, for instance, cite playing Aretha’s 'Say A Little Prayer' every morning when he woke up, or say that Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited made him cry every time he listened to it.  And Candi Staton’s 'Young Hearts Run Free' was another record he would use as an indication of Dexys’ defiant independence. 

And I guess what none of us realised at the time was that Candi had recorded her last secular record for a quarter of a century.  This farewell record was the Nightlites set for Sylvia Robinson’s Sugarhill imprint, home then of the cutting edge Grandmaster Flash records and other nascent hip hop and electro classics.  Candi’s set, however, was strictly on the soul side and saw her reunited with Dave Crawford who seemed to draw out the best in her, despite the dark places she was dwelling in or running from. 

It would not be until the successful reissue of her southern soul sides by Honest Jons in 2003 that Candi would consider straying from the gospel path, and make music for her old audience again.  The subsequent His Hands set almost seemed too perfect, and authentic for the digital age, but then again why not?  The big talking point on the record was the title track, written by Will Oldham, which captured a lot of the pain that Candi had endured back in the days before she was saved.  It must have been a tough one to sing, but she’d covered such ground more graphically in her autobiography, This Is My Story, a decade or so before.

Now this book is not your usual look back on a musical career.  It’s not the gift to lovers of soul music that say David Nathan’s Soulful Divas is, or David Freeland’s Ladies of Soul is.  It’s not filled with details about what it was like working with Rick Hall in Muscle Shoals, or getting in with the Sugarhill gang.  And Dave Crawford hardly gets a mention, if at all.  There’s a lot of abuse and alcoholism, discrimination and desolation and destruction and dependency.  There’s also salvation and when you understand what Candi’s been through it is possible to see how important that will have been.  For this is not the story of dumb college kids with too much time on their hands and too many rock’n’ roll wasted stories filling their heads so that they end up going down the same road even though they know what the cost is going to be.

After the success of 'Young Hearts Run Free', there was a frustrating hiatus before Candi recorded with Dave Crawford again.  The partnership was resumed in 1978 for the House of Love set, of which the song 'Victim' was the undoubted highlight: “I’m the victim of the very song I sing.  I told you young hearts run free when I didn’t listen to myself.  Engulfed by the power of love I just fell right on in …”  And Candi is cheated on, and lonely and tired.  So unsurprisingly the set finishes with an astonishing rendition of 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord', a nod to Candi’s gospel roots and a pointer to the road she would take.

And Candi’s gospel singing has in a kinda funny 'Young Hearts Run Free' way inveigled its way deep into our pop subconscious via the cyclically successful 'You Got The Love' track, where The Source sampled an a capella recording of the Staton spiritual sound and married it with a low-key house track and made magic.  It always sounds special on the radio.  It reads well too in our own demi-gospel which is Garry Mulholland’s This Is Uncool.

I guess these days Candi’s recordings from the fabled Fame days don’t get played much on the radio, bar the occasional specialist show.  But the collection that Honest Jons put out is such that you want to thrust a copy on everyone you see, and whenever you see a troubled soul you want to sit down and play them a few minutes of Candi singing 'Freedom Is Beyond The Door'.

Then I guess there’s a different kind of bond that binds the likes of Candi Staton and Kevin Rowland.  They are sort of immortalised by a few songs, a few minutes here are there that connected with the greater masses for whatever reason, and have since become kind of karaoke classics, but which give no indication of the torment and troubles, the drive and demons, the joy and salvation and retribution and have we ever bothered to thank them enough for what they shared with us? 

© 2006 John Carney