The great soul queen discovers god and disco... and puts them together with surprisingly good results.
Candi Staton has one of the great soul voices of our time, tougher and more resonant than Mavis Staples, less showily flamboyant than Aretha Franklin, earthier, by far, than Mahalia Jackson. She started, like nearly all female black singers of her time, in church, touring through her teens with the Jewel Gospel Trio. Four children, a troubled marriage and a stint as a church organist intervened, but she was rediscovered in the late 1960s by Rick Hall's Fame Records, which released a string of top 10 R&B hits. Switching to Warner, she even hit number one in the disco era with "Young Hearts Run Free". Still, she had more or less been forgotten when 2004's Candi Staton unearthed her classic Muscle Shoals material from 1969 to 1973 to nearly universal acclaim. She followed with His Hands in 2006, her first album of new secular material in more than 20 years. And now, with The Ultimate Gospel Collection we get a glimpse of what she had been up to in the interim, the long period between her R&B heyday and current revival when Candi Staton found god and gospel music.
This two-disc set collects previously released and new music primarily from the 1980s onward (though there is one Jewel Gospel Trio cut, the wonderful "Too Late", recorded in 1958). It is divided into two sections, with disc one focusing on traditional gospel music and disc two, called "contemporary hits", highlighting Staton's gospel/disco hybrid sometimes known as "gospco".
Even the traditional disc, however, diverges pretty sharply from pure church music, putting slinky soul beats behind its songs of praise. Opener "There's Nothing Left But God", originally from Staton's 2002 Proverbs 31 Woman, oozes sensuality out of every pump-organ'd pore, its rollicking blues beat rocking from side to side. And then there is Staton's voice, climbing steadily, surely, up the stately melody and letting loose with a note-shifting "whoo-ooo-ooo" when she gets there. The subject matter is downbeat -- literally losing everything to find Jesus -- but there is nothing but triumph in the melody. "Grace, They Call It Amazing" a newer cut which features Staton's son Marcus Williams on drum and her daughter Cassandra Hightower singing backup, is similarly uplifting, starting from a talk-sung invocation of god's grace and soaring in the tightly harmonized chorus. Staton's faith is tough and realistic; she's been through too much to indulge in sentiment. So there's a defiant joy in songs like "Shut Up and Start Praising", with its scorching duet with Dottie Peebles, and a touching heartache in "Mama" her song to the mother who died before she turned her life around. Some of the sounds are overly slick, others such as the hora-rhythmed "I Will Praise" are just plain odd. Still, the traditional songs, buoyed by contributions from Joe Ligon, the Richard Smallwood Singers and Dottie Peoples are surprisingly genuine and moving, even when they are a little too glossy.
The second disc, surprisingly, is even better. It sounds dreadful, the combination of gospel and disco, but it works quite well. There's a steady pound of dance drums, whippet lines of funk bass and staccato bursts of strings to propel Staton's vibrant voice in "It's Your Season", and a hooky-girl chorus calling out the moves in "Hallelujah Anyway". The best cut, though, is "Dance Dance Dance", Staton's definitive disco-gospel blend, with its dark-edged piano chords and pounding boom shuuup beat and a quick homage to Sly's "Dance to the Music". Like the Family Stone song, this one communicates a familiar message -- the world is a sad, dangerous place, so why not party? -- but it has an unexpected religious edge. "Get up off of your feet... and dance," she says, but it's for god, not man.
Staton got a lot of flack from the church ladies for her willingness to cross genres, and it's hard to imagine it won her much love from the dance crowd either. Still there is something spiritual, something both physically and emotionally moving about this music. You can imagine it comforting, transforming, motivating and inspiring people, just as all the best religious music is supposed to do. Cuts like "The Blood Rushes", provides an almost bodily release in its triumphant chorally sung refrain. "You need a miracle," chants Staton, her girls reply, "The blood rushes," and it's a little miracle in itself just how good it makes you feel.