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Long Before Beyoncé, Candi Staton Recorded a Defiant Cover of Dolly Parton's 'Jolene' in the 1970s... Why Did It Sit in the Vault Until 2011?

In an interview with Q, Staton remembers cutting the song in a Muscle Shoals studio: 'I'm like, do you really want me to do this? ‘Cause I ain't begging nobody to stay with me!'

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Source: Warner Music Group

Candi Staton, as pictured on the cover of 'Evidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters.'

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Since its release on March 29, Beyoncé's Cowboy Carter album has been getting a significant amount of press for her cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene." It's a cover that Parton herself wanted Beyoncé to do, pointedly saying as much a few years ago, but one of the reasons that this version immediately stood out from Parton's original was the way Queen Bay tweaked the lyrics in a manner that painted its narrator as a woman with precisely zero plans to beg Jolene not to take her man.

Indeed, she's actively warning her not to do it.

While Beyoncé's version definitely puts a 2024 feminist spin on the song, and successfully so, it should be mentioned that she's not the first Black woman to have a go at the song, nor the first to add a defiant R&B sensibility to the arrangement. That honor goes to Candi Staton, who recorded the song for Fame Records while it was still in the midst of its initial run on the charts in the '70s. Alas, for reasons which remain somewhat murky, Staton's version ended up being shelved, remaining in the vault until 2011, when it finally emerged as one of the previously-unissued songs on Evidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters.

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Source: Fame Records

Candi Staton, in all her '70s glory.

"I loved recording country songs!" Staton tells Q in an exclusive interview. "Country is one of my favorite genres of music. I've been doing country all of my life. Even in gospel, I did the song 'He Cares for You.' Because we listened to country when I was a kid. It was all we had on the radio! (Legendary Muscle Shoals producer) Rick Hall brought 'Jolene' to me, and...I'm kind of a strong, positive woman...the kind who says, 'Do you want me to take off my shoes and earrings?'

"So when Rick brought Dolly's song to me, I'm, like, 'Do you really want me to do this? ‘Cause I ain't begging nobody to stay with me!' 'Don't take my man'? Oh, honey, you got a problem! I won't beg nobody to stay with me. Uh-uh. If he won't stay, I'll give him to you. You want him? Take him! He’s yours for the asking! I’m not fighting over him.

“But Rick said, ‘I think you could do a great job!’ So I said, ‘Well, if you think so, Rick. You're the producer.' But I reluctantly sung it because of the lyrics. I had to sing it that way because that's how Dolly wrote it...and back in that day, you couldn't change lyrics. But I changed it a tiny bit..."

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Source: Bill Carpenter

Rick Hall and Candi Staton backstage at the Bowery Ballroom in 2006.

In fairness to Staton, there may still be a version in the vaults where she only changed the lyrics a tiny bit. But the one that was released on Evidence? That ain't it.

In the version that closes out The Fame Records Masters, Staton is every bit the woman she describes herself as being, and she's got her defiance cranked up to at least 11, angrily spitting out several lyrical revisions during the course of the song:

“I’m telling you / Don’t you take my man”

“I’m warning you / Don’t you take my man”

“I just won’t compete with you, Jolene”

“And I could easily understand / How you could want to take my man”

“Don’t you take him / That I just won’t stand”

“Now, the way Dolly did it originally was beautiful,” Staton says. “I love her so much. I love her music, anything Dolly Parton sings. I've done several songs of hers. She just has such a beautiful voice, a great personality, a sweet person... I've never met her in person, but I can kind of read her character. She's a sweetheart. I think we'd get along just fine if I ever meet her. But I also loved how Beyoncé was allowed to do 'Jolene' her way. I think she did a fantastic job."

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But back to Staton's cover, the most amazing thing about which is the fact that it went unheard for such an extended length of time.

When asked why it wasn't released, Staton herself didn't immediately know, so Q dropped a line to Staton's publicist, Bill Carpenter, to ask if he could offer any insight...and he could, but only up to a point.

“When Candi was working on her first Americana album, His Hands, one of the musicians – Chip Young – actually played guitar on Dolly’s original version of ‘Jolene,’” says Carpenter. “As it happened, Candi was doing a remake of an old Dolly song called ‘Running Out of Love,’ and Chip, who was still friends with Dolly, said that he told Dolly that Candi was re-recording the song. Later on, he mentioned that to Candi, and in context, she mentioned that she’d done ‘Jolene’ years before.

“This was news to me,” Carpenter continues. “I was shocked that she had done that cover, and I was intrigued to hear what it sounded like. Rick Hall was still living at that time, so I called him and asked him about it, and he said that he might release it some day when the time is right. He didn’t really say why he didn’t release it at the time, but my guess is that he felt the R&B market was shifting, and he released music that was a little more urban-sounding."

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Source: Bill Carpenter

Muscle Shoals keyboard legend Barry Beckett, Candi Staton, and guitarist Chip Young, circa 2005.

Unfortunately, Rick passed away in 2018, but Carpenter suggested reaching to his son, Rodney Hall, current president of FAME and one of the people involved in rediscovering the recording in the first place.

"We found it sometime in the '90s, and me and one of our studio guys went in and did a couple of guitar overdubs on it, because it was kind of unfinished at the time," Hall tells Q. "It kind of sat on the shelf for a couple of years, and then Ace Records came along and wanted to do a Candi best-of, so we found that track and put it on there. But we knew it was a piece of gold when we found it. We were, like, 'It just needs to be tidied up.'"

Alas, even Hall can't provide a definitive answer as to why the song ended up being shelved, although he has a reasonable guess.

"I think it probably got caught up in the middle of Candi going to Warner Brothers," theorizes Hall. "They probably cut the track, and then the decision was made that she was going to go to Warner Brothers, and it just kind of got lost in the shuffle. But it was definitely worthy of release."

In his liner notes for Evidence, Dean Rudland asks of Staton's Parton cover, “It might have made a good single in the vein of ‘Stand By Your Man,’ but in 1974, with disco music already in its ascent, would Black radio stations have played it?”

The answer: we'll never know.

But given that Staton's aforementioned version of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" hit No. 4 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1970 and was followed by her cover of Patsy Cline's "He Called Me Baby," which hit No. 9 in 1971, who's to say that she couldn't have turned "Jolene" into a hit to rival the chart placements of either of those two country classics?

Give it a listen, but don't waste time wondering what might've been. Just sit back and enjoy what Staton -- and Parton -- gave us.

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