No other male voice epitomises the sound of early Chicago house like that of Robert Owens. His vocals were not only among the first to be featured on house music, from 1986 on labels such as Trax, Underground, DJ International and Alleviated Records, but they have stood the test of time. He has appeared on so many records considered to be bona fide classics that almost no other male voice in the history of house music, great singers though they may be, can come close to equalling his achievements.
Although a DJ he is doubtless best known as a singer and started those endeavours in partnership with Larry Heard, the originator of deep house. Robert and Larry formed the trio Fingers Inc.alongside Ron Wilson and together they barely put a foot wrong. Classic upon classic were issued by them as singles including ‘Mystery Of Love’, ‘It’s Over’, ‘A Path’, ‘Distant Planet’, ‘Never No More Lonely’ and ‘Can You Feel It’, most of which were collected on Another Side (issued in the UK on Jack Trax) which still stands as one of the greatest albums ever produced in house music.
From the same era Robert’s vocals also featured on acid house anthem ‘Bring Down The Walls’, another collaboration with Larry Heard, issued under Robert’s name and on recordings by a Chicago group called The It, which Heard would later be involved with.
After Fingers Inc split up, Larry Heard choosing to focus on a solo career, Owens found himself an in-demand vocalist and went to work with New York’s Def Mix organisation, headed by Frankie Knuckles and David Morales. There he sang on another two classics, the chart bothering ‘Tears’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’.
In the mid 90s he moved to London and found himself busier than ever as a freelance vocalist guesting on the whole European dance scene with the likes of London Elektricity, Coldcut, Atjazz, Soul Clap, Compost Records, Felix Dickinson and on Photek‘s chart hit ‘Mine to Give’.
Now resident in Berlin and as busy as ever, singing, writing and DJing, Marko Kutlesa caught up with Owens to talk about his career.
On ‘Bring Down The Walls’ what walls were you singing about specifically?
The walls of negativity in society. It’s kind of like a metaphor. Stripping away the blocks of negativity and separation in society, mainly the ones found in the urban environment in which it was written. Bringing in harmony and unity. It kinda of has a double meaning too because there’s almost a sensual side to it too. Often we wrote songs like that, where two different meanings could be conveyed.
I think that was amongst the first releases to be released featuring your vocals. Do you remember the first time you heard it in a club or the first time you first heard one of your vocals in a club?
I did ‘A Path’ first, then ‘Mysteries Of Love’ and ‘Donnie’ at the same time with Harry Dennis. He formed a group called The It with this guy called Melvyn, who didn’t end up being in the group. Harry asked me to pick the first song for the group, as I was already DJing around Chicago, and ‘Donnie’ was the one I picked, so he asked me to come into the studio and guide him through the parts.
I went in with him and Chip E and made up some melodies. They ended up recording me, although I wasn’t supposed to be on the record as I was already in another group, Fingers Inc. They ended up keeping me on the song and in the group, but at first it was all an accident.
Ah, right. But do you remember perhaps which nightclub was the first one in which you heard your vocals?
I can’t remember the very first one but it had to be either The Warehouse or The Music Box. I gave Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy edits of some of the early stuff. I did an edit of ‘A Path’ where I added the Virgo tracks onto the beginning and Frankie was like “Oh, I like that” and ended up doing another edit himself, extending that intro even more.
He played that in The Warehouse and I saw the reaction of people getting into it and I was like, “wow!” That was cool. Especially as I’d already asked him about helping me and sometimes Frankie could be a little hard on you, “Have you had any musical lessons? Have you been to college?” He loved us, but he could be a little tough, so it was almost a way of proving him wrong. I started giving him lots of the things we were doing. It was great that it grew naturally, looking back. If I ever got frustrated or if I asked for help and didn’t get it, I always ended up going off by myself determined to do it on my own.
The whole house scene was like a family back then, everybody knew everybody and everybody knew what everybody was doing. Early records like ‘Can You Feel It’, ‘Washing Machine’ I got off Larry and I remember one time Ron Hardy got sick and they asked me to come and cover for him at The Music Box. I remember trying them out there and people were in a trance.
At the time I lived just across from Larry Heard and we used to see each other all the time. He would ask me over to listen to what he was working on and sometimes I would come up with vocals there and then, record them in his living room. That’s how it was with ‘Bring Down The Walls’. There was one point in the recording where the doorbell rings. I remember hearing it at the Paradise garage and thinking that people are going to notice this mistake in the record, but they all thought it was a sound effect.
You achieved so much musically partnered with Larry Heard and Ron Wilson in Fingers Inc, how did you feel when the group split in order for Larry to concentrate on his solo career?
I just said OK, he had to go and do what he wanted. I didn’t feel any sadness. He still came back to me to do some tracks on his solo album and I said sure, I’m here. When Frankie (Knuckles) and his crew knew that we weren’t doing Fingers Inc any more, they zoomed straight in. that’s when I ended up writing ‘Tears’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’. They asked me to move to New York and I ended up becoming part of the whole Def Mix thing. I never had chance to feel any kind of sadness because I was always busy.
New York was sometimes tough. Def Mix had a view that I had to be an artist and it was like a controlled system, but I had always been a DJ as well. I tried to follow it for a while, tried to respect their system because they were working with all these major labels, but in the end I just had to break out of it.
What was the inspiration behind the lyrics for ‘Tears’?
Frankie came to Chicago and gave me the instrumental and asked me to write some lyrics for it. I was staying at my mother and father’s at the time and I wrote it there, asked my mom and dad what they thought and after they said it was cool I called Frankie and told him the words. They flew me up to New York within a couple of days to record it.
But what inspired the writing of those particular words?
Well the track was already called ‘Tears’ as an instrumental so I just thought what would provoke me to tears and the loss of love, unrequited love was what I came up with.
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