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Candi Staton: I sat in the waves crying and asked for God's help... I haven't had a drink since

From disco classic Young Hearts Run Free, to dance staple You've Got The Love, Candi Staton has entertained generations of music fans. She speaks to Andrew Arthur about her politically charged 30th album, how her faith rescued her from alcoholism and abusive marriages, and playing baseball with Sam Cooke as a teenager

Young at heart: Candi Staton still performs despite approaching her 80th birthday
Young at heart: Candi Staton still performs despite approaching her 80th birthday

Soul singer Candi Staton is keeping a low profile in a baseball cap and sunglasses as we sit in a quiet corner of a hotel dining room. "Am I unstoppable? You could call it that," she declares with a grin.

The 78-year-old played an intimate show the previous evening to launch the 30th album of her career, Unstoppable.

Staton cites life in Donald Trump's America and the injustices African-Americans face as motivation to continue some five decades after she first reached the US charts.

"This album speaks to the now," says the Alabama-born singer, with her soft, southern states accent. She is almost whispering, but her voice strikes a determined tone.

"When Dr Martin Luther King was trying to change things in the Sixties, Mavis Staples came out with songs like Respect Yourself. It spoke to what was actually happening politically and racially. This album does the same thing.

"I'm encouraging people because there is so much bullying from the top. It's amazing how people are cowering under it. We don't know what to do. The Senate is deaf and dumb. They don't say or do anything. Bills are passing and we don't know what they're doing in the dark. There is so much uncertainty now.

"I was born in the Forties. We had prejudice and all that kind of stuff. It's not prejudice in the form of segregation now, it's in blue suits with police sitting up there on it, so it's changed, but for the worse. We're having a lot of problems with racism. It's just blatant."

Staton began singing in a gospel group with her sisters when she was a teenager. She toured with the likes of Mahalia Jackson and a young Sam Cooke.

"I was 14 when I met Sam. I never knew he was going to be who he was. We got to be friends and we'd just sit and talk. He wasn't a big star, he was just the lead singer of a gospel group. He was one of us.

"We'd arrive early at the school auditorium where we'd be performing. One of us would have a ball. We'd get a plank, not a baseball bat, just some old plank, and we'd play ball."

Candi Staton
Candi Staton

Religion has been the foundation of Staton's life. Her faith has guided her through many difficult periods, including a battle with alcoholism that lasted more than 10 years.

At the start of her career, she found herself caught between touring and raising a family -and developed a taste for champagne at record company parties and became dependent on alcohol to perform.

She vividly recollects the day she decided never to touch another drop.

"I got so drunk one night. I had lost it. It was in August and it was hot. I was in Alabama.

"We were swimming. I was sat there on a big ol' rock. I had a hangover. I started crying and said, 'This is not like me, I don't know what I'm doing with my life'. My kids were worried.

"I said, 'This has got to stop but I don't know how'. It was as though I could hear my mother's voice. She said, 'You need to fast. Fasting breaks things'. So I sat there in the waves and said, 'Lord, I want to be as solid as this rock. Can you make me as solid as this rock?'

"All of a sudden, I said I wasn't drinking anymore, or eating until this is broken. That was in the Seventies. I've not had another drink since."

Staton admits her faith was also tested during a string of abusive relationships and difficult divorces. The lyrics of her disco anthem, Young Hearts Run Free, were written while Staton was seeing what she calls one of her "bad guys".

She remembers him holding her over a banister at a theatre she was playing at in Las Vegas with Ray Charles, and threatening to drop her.

Staton is happily married to her sixth husband now, a former US secret service agent who worked as a bodyguard for four presidents. They were introduced at a church where Staton was doing charity work supporting victims of domestic violence.

"I married a wonderful man. It was strange because I've been used to the wrong kind. I wasn't used to anyone that straightforward or so well-respected.

"We have a good relationship. We see each other once or twice a month. He works in Memphis, while I'm based in Madison, Georgia. I'm not giving up my house, and he's not giving up his.

Candi Staton
Candi Staton

"I go home for two or three weeks and he comes to Madison for a while, then goes back. He understands all that.

"I didn't want to get married, I didn't trust men. It just happened."

Staton's career was rejuvenated in the Nineties, when a song she recorded for a diet commercial was remixed and released by London DJ The Source. You Got The Love was a hit across Europe.

"The story of that song could be a documentary. It was on the shelf and I forgot it was even out there. When people told me it was in the top 10 here in Europe, I was floored. I was like, 'You got me mixed up with somebody else'. Then I got a call from a DJ asking me to talk about You've Got The Love.

"And then it clicked. 'Oh that song I did in Chicago in '86 for that diet thing'. When I heard it, I didn't recognise it. I'm a straightforward R&B and soul singer, so it was kind of like, 'Okay, but I'm not going to do this stuff'. But I did!"

The song has been covered many times. As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Staton whose reworking she likes the best. "Florence + the Machine did a good job. We did it at Glastonbury and she recorded it on her phone. I was going to do it like that on stage, but she beat me to it."

Candi Staton's new album, Unstoppable, is released tomorrow

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