The girl was no more than 12. Night had fallen, and the caravan of gospel singers that she’d traveled with from Nashville had steered their sedans and station wagons to a quiet space under an oak tree in Mississippi. Booking a hotel room wasn’t an option, not for this group of Black performers in the early ’50s. Instead, they shifted and turned in their seats, in search of a comfortable position and a few hours of sleep.
Their peace was interrupted by the rumble of approaching engines. Candi Staton heard doors clunk open, and several pairs of footsteps approach. Flashlight beams invaded the cars, stirring awake the other occupants. A voice cut through the air. “What are you n—s doing here?” asked a white police officer.
“We’re singers,” said one member of the caravan. “We travel. We just stopped to take a nap.” Staton had experienced the terror of the Ku Klux Klan years earlier, back home in Alabama, where her mother used to tuck her under a bed when Klan members rumbled by in pickup trucks, armed with smoldering torches. Now Staton — who would befriend and tour with Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and The Staple Singers — was in Mississippi, where 581 lynchings were reported between 1882 and 1968. “In those days,” she’d recall years later, “you didn’t know what to expect. That song — ‘strange fruit, hanging from the poplar trees’ — came to mind whenever a police officer stopped you. Especially more than one.”
The officer turned his attention to five men, who sat terrified in another car, and ordered them to get out. He told them to sing and dance. One meekly protested that they only sang. “You gon’ dance tonight, n—,” Staton would remember the officer responding. “You gon’ dance tonight.” He aimed a gun at the men’s feet, and opened fire. “The police fell out laughing. They kept shooting at the ground,” Staton says. “I cried. I honestly cried for the men.”
The encounter, a microcosm of the bigotry and violence that Black Americans routinely faced, could have compelled Staton and her older sister, Maggie, to quit their group — The Jewell Gospel Trio — and return home. But Staton pressed on. As a small child, she’d discovered that when she sang, her sound was unlike anything the adults in her life had ever heard. Her voice could crackle with campfire warmth, or summon freight train strength; she instinctively understood how to make a listener actually feel the joy or sorrow that a sheet of lyrics hinted at. Staton wanted only a chance to share that gift. What she often found though, were obstacles — people and circumstances that threatened to silence her voice.
A three-panel set of images, all of Candi Staton
Photos courtesy of Candi Staton.
There was a missed opportunity — an invitation, at 18, to move to California with her friends Cooke and [ANCHOR_COMES_HERE] (Web Site) Lou Rawls and pursue a recording contract. A jealous husband who beat her and wanted her nowhere near any stage, leaving her a single mother of four at age 24. To support her children, Staton worked at a nursing home, while some of the musicians she’d traveled with as an adolescent found stardom. It was a practical, understandable choice. But a thought nagged at her: What if she could somehow find her way back to performing?
Toward the end of the ’60s — without the benefit of a modern DIY star-making vehicle like TikTok — Staton built a new musical career from scratch. She played smoke-filled nightclubs, toured the unpredictable Chitlin’ Circuit, and recorded some of the most arresting soul music to come out of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, visceral songs about heartache, and the torture of doomed relationships: “Too Hurt to Cry,” “I’m Just a Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin’),” “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than A Young Man’s Fool),” “Mr. and Mrs. Untrue.”
Staton reinvented herself in the mid-’70s, becoming a disco star and an early ally of LGBTQ+ communities — and then reinvented herself again in the ’80s, this time as a Grammy-nominated gospel artist who doubled as the host of shows on Christian television. Another rebirth, in the ’90s, saw her become a house music sensation in the U.K.; in the aughts, she returned to Southern soul, just as a younger generation of musicians, like Florence + the Machine and Jason Isbell, were drawing new attention to Staton’s past work.
Her story is almost too big to fathom, a life that weaved through multiple chapters of American musical history, and weathered dizzying amounts of public success and private anguish. Staton’s admirers believe she possessed one of the defining voices of her generation, yet has sometimes been overlooked in conversations about soul music greats of the last 50 years. Her talent and tenacity, they argue, deserve wider appreciation. At 82, Staton has outlived many of the musicians she called friends. “She’s a legend to us,” says John Paul White, the singer, songwriter, and former member of the Civil Wars, who was born in Muscle Shoals. “But I quickly realized that outside our circle, she’s less known. And I always felt like that was grossly unfair — the talent of Candi Staton, in relation to the celebrity of Candi Staton.”
It was on a 40-acre farm in rural Alabama that Canzetta Maria Staton first learned that music could represent hope, a channel of light in life’s darkest valleys. Her family lived in Hanceville, surrounded by dirt roads; just 12 miles to the south sat Colony, a town originally settled by previously enslaved people following the Civil War. “We were dirt, dirt poor,” Staton says. “Our family was so poor, we didn’t even have shoes to wear for school, until my mother got enough money. We had some of the ugliest shoes you ever wanted to see. They cost but $1.98. They were boy shoes, not girl shoes.”
Throughout Staton’s childhood in the ’40s, Jim Crow laws reigned. Schools were still segregated — the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t rule that practice unconstitutional until 1954 — and it was impossible to avoid the menace baked into everyday life. Staton remembers reading a sign affixed to a nearby bridge: “Run n— run. If you can’t read, run anyway.” When Klan members stalked past their farm in search of a target, Staton’s mother dropped to her knees, and prayed, “Oh Lord, please don’t let them come to our house.” Those past aggressions no longer seem so far away. Republican lawmakers have advanced hundreds of bills across the U.S. to restrict voting access, while activists have launched coordinated campaigns to ban books about, or by, people of color and LGBTQ individuals. “I’ve lived all these years. [Black women] fought hard to even get the right to vote,” Staton says. “Now they’re trying to pull that backwards. Gradually. Day by day, incident by incident.”
As a child, Staton and her five siblings fixated on a new family possession to help them process the cruelty of the world: a radio. The children stretched out on the floor, and listened as a melange of booming voices — Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama — unspooled stories of love, struggle, and spiritual reassurance in song.
When Staton was 5, her mother answered a knock at their door. Members of a traveling church group asked if they could use the family farm for an impromptu performance. She agreed, and Staton was drawn to the sound the group conjured. “They set up their drums and tambourines. It was nothing like the boring churches I was used to. They sung fast songs, and they were dancing,” Staton explains. “I thought that was the most joyful thing I’d ever seen in my entire life.” Soon after, Staton and her 7-year-old sister, Maggie, started to sing together, and learned how to harmonize. “Do you know how I got a voice? God gave me a talent,” she says, “because of my mother’s generosity to strangers.”
Staton was drawn to the sound the group conjured. “They set up their drums and tambourines. It was nothing like the boring churches I was used to. They sung fast songs, and they were dancing…”