“My life has been unstoppable,” says legendary soul singer Candi Staton, explaining the title of her 30th album, Unstoppable (Beracah/Thirty Tigers). “It’s been a wonderful life, but it hasn’t been a normal life.”
That’s putting it mildly. Over the course of her 50-year career, Staton has seen more than her fair share of highs and lows. She’s scored hits in every decade of that span, in styles ranging from R&B (“I’m Just a Prisoner” and her iconic cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man”) to disco (the oft-covered “Young Hearts Run Free” and her song-stealing version of the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway”) to electronic dance music (“Hallelujah Anyway,” “You Got the Love”). Along the way, she’s had more comebacks than a prize fighter, garnered four Grammy nominations, and won over generations of fans with her powerhouse voice and timeless songs.
Unstoppable is both a celebration of Staton’s legacy and a bold step forward, with a sound that’s funky and contemporary, but still steeped in the Southern soul and blues of her Alabama roots. Featuring an ace rhythm section made up of Staton’s sons, bassist Marcel Williams and drummer Marcus Williams (Isaac Hayes, Pointer Sisters), the album reunites the singer with producer Mark Nevers (Lamchop), who helmed His Hands (2006) and Who’s Hurting Now (2009), the critically acclaimed albums for London label Honest Jon’s that reestablished Staton as a force to be reckoned with. But where those albums showcased Staton’s skills as an interpreter of bluesy ballads, Unstoppable — which Marcus Williams co-produced with Nevers — is a more celebratory, uptempo set. “It’s my kind of music,” she says proudly. “It’s more of a happy record, a dancing record.”
As an example, she cites album opener “Confidence,” on which she declares, “I’m strong, I’m a woman — I’m unstoppable!” “I wrote that for me,” she says of the horn-fueled funk ’n’ soul workout. “To give me courage — to give me the fortitude to keep moving forward.” It’s the kind of groove she plays when she wakes up every morning: “I put that on and I start dancing. That’s how I start my day.”
That positive energy carries through all 10 of Unstoppable’s tracks, including six originals written or co-written by Staton herself. Fans of her gospel-turned-house anthem “You Got the Love” — repopularized by Florence + the Machine’s 2009 hit version — will recognize the inspirational message of “Love Is You,” while anyone who’s ever been down on their luck will take comfort in the slinky grooves and empowered stance of “It Ain’t Over.” On “The Prize Is Not Worth the Pain,” Staton offers some hard-earned lessons on love and relationships, carrying through some of the themes she explored on her 2014 breakup album, Life Happens. “When I write, I write real stuff that affects me — and I know what affects me, other people are going through it as well,” she says. “I really sung the blues away. Music is so therapeutic.”
Like all of Staton’s albums, Unstoppable is deeply personal — but it also turns her attention towards current events. In addition to rousing covers of punk poet Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” and Nick Lowe’s timeless rocker “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” the album features a pair of Staton originals that address our troubled times head-on. “Stop living in a bubble, thinking everything is gonna be fine,” she sings on the deceptively smooth ballad “Revolution of Change,” before striking a more defiant tone on the funky “Stand Up and Be Counted,” growling, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”
“We’re the United States. We’re supposed to be united,” she says passionately, explaining her intention behind the album’s message-driven songs. “Where is all the division coming from? So stand for what you believe. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.”
For Unstoppable’s other two covers, Staton resurrected a pair of nearly forgotten soul classics: Norma Jenkins’ 1976 burner “I Fooled You (Didn’t I)” and a song particularly near and dear to her, Tyrone Davis’ 1969 chart-topper “Can I Change My Mind.” When Staton was just starting out, making the transition from singing in church concerts to the R&B circuit, Davis mentored the young singer, teaching her performance tricks she still relies on to this day. “Tyrone Davis was my best friend,” she recalls. “He and Jerry Butler (of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees The Impressions), they watched me and supported me and showed me the ropes.”
Candi Staton did her mentors proud. She came out of the gate in the early ‘70s with a string of hit R&B records, produced by her great friend, the late Rick Hall of the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals: “I'd Rather Be an Old Man's Sweetheart (Than a Young Man's Fool),” “I’m Just a Prisoner (of Your Good Lovin’),” “Sweet Feeling,” “Stand by Your Man” and a cover of “In the Ghetto” that remains nearly as celebrated as Elvis Presley’s original. In the late ‘70s, she reinvented herself as a disco diva, returning to the charts with “Young Hearts Run Free.” She then returned to her gospel roots, a move that unexpectedly led to her career resurgence in the ‘90s and 2000s, as two songs originally written as Christian anthems, “You Got the Love” and “Hallelujah Anyway,” won new audiences with dance remixes.
In 2014, Staton’s career came full circle with the release of Life Happens, which featured Rick Hall’s final production before his retirement and eventual passing earlier this year: “I Ain’t Easy to Love,” which paired Staton’s soulful croon with two of the many artists she’s influenced, Jason Isbell and The Civil Wars’ John Paul White. “Maybe it was God’s will that I was his last project,” Staton ponders. “Rick loved me more than just as an artist. We had a great relationship. I still miss him.”
After a lifetime of great music, Staton has accumulated many well-deserved accolades, including induction into the Christian Music Hall of the Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. But as proud as she is of those acknowledgements, she’s even more proud of her work with victims of domestic violence through her non-profit organization, A Veil of Silence — and deeply grateful that she’s able to continue dazzling audiences with her age-defyingly energetic live shows, mixing music from every era of her storied career. “I’m in awe every day,” she says of her continued success. “I am so blessed and thankful. There are so many of my peers that are not here to see something like this happen to them. And I’m still here.” You might even say she’s unstoppable.
By Andy Hermann, a freelance writer and journalist, who is the former music editor for the LAWeekly.
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