Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Greatest Unheralded Soul Song Of All Time

About six years ago I was in Tower Records (R.I.P.), browsing for albums, and saw a CD with a woman's face filling the cover, a soulful looking face, obviously a photo from the past. I picked up the CD, titled Candi Staton, and looked through the song titles, most unfamiliar to me, except for a few songs I knew by other artists, such as "In The Ghetto." I was about to put the CD back when the person standing next to me said, "If you like soul music, you need that CD."

I had never heard of Candi Staton before buying that CD. Reading the liner notes, I discovered that she had been signed to FAME Records, Rick Hall's (he of Muscle Shoals fame and producer of many southern soul classics) label through Capitol Records, and had a few R&B hits in the late 60's and early 70's, but had her biggest success in 1976, with "Young Hearts Run Free," a disco hit.

When I put the CD on at home, I liked what I heard, but at least through the first ten songs or so, I wasn't overwhelmed. That changed when "Heart On A String" came on.

"Heart On A String" explodes from it's opening notes, a torrent of sound that seems to epitomize soul before the brain has even had a chance to really process what it's listening to. The piano pounds, the drums swing magnificently, the bass anchors everything while keeping the action moving, the horns blare an intro melody line, and before you know it, in comes Candi's voice, an amalgamation of country and soul, a voice with a tear in it, the sort of tear that oozes both vulnerability and strength, the sort of strength that comes from surviving when survival, emotional or otherwise, is far from assured.

When I first encountered the song, I couldn't really believe it, because I couldn't believe that I had never heard it before. How was this not an enormous hit? I played it again and again, becoming more enraptured every time I heard it. I played it for friends, pretty much all of who asked, "What song IS this?" And five plus years after I first heard it, it's one of those songs that I never cease to be completely lit up by.

The interplay between the instruments is astounding. Each of the players find their own space to emerge within the song - the pianist peeks out with amazing fills in the first verse, and in the second verse, the guitarist finds the room to rip some brief but incredible lead fills in between Candi's vocals. In the first half of the third and final verse, the song breaks down, and the drummer plays an awe-inspiring rim pattern that leads into a final, joyous close to the song.

And as far as the vocals, listening to Candi sing on "Heart On A String" is akin to watching Baryshnikov dance or Lebron streaking down the court - it's the work of a master. Each phrase, pause, swoop and shout is perfect in tone and execution. She is all hurt and sensuality, trapped in loving someone who is oh so wrong, but feels so right.

Songs gain immeasurable power when they are a shared experience - a hit on the radio, a song at a club, something treasured with friends, or in concert. And soul music, having emerged from the African-American church, was designed to be a shared experience - songs about heartbreak, exultation, joy, loneliness and isolation meant to take on a life of their own with an audience relating to and living out every word. So what does one make of "Heart On A String," a great song that barely anyone has heard?

Five years after I first heard it, and almost forty years after it was recorded, "Heart On A String" is, for my money, one of the great soul songs ever. And despite never finding the audience it deserved, its power resonates as strongly as ever, making it in, in my estimation, the greatest unheralded soul song of all time.

Download: Candi Staton - "Heart On A String"

Heart On A String - Candi Staton