Robert Owens spoke with Marko Kutlesa about lyrical inspiration, his career to date and working with Frankie Knuckles, Larry Heard and Ron Wilson.
Date published: 16th Feb 2017
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'.
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.
So it was a story, an imaginary situation you put yourself in? It didn't come from a specific personal experience?
No, I just imagined it. I often do that. The track had that kind of melancholy feel to it.
I read somewhere online that you'd retired for a while to run a Christian book store...
Ha! That was never true. People sometimes create these stories all by themselves. I'm too poor to retire! I'm still a struggling artist! I would never quit.
Are you religious?
I'm not. I grew up in the Baptist faith, my parents believed heavily, but when I got older I realised a lot of it had been forced on me and I began questioning and analysing. I researched history, looked at where people were, where we've come to and where we need to go and I decided, for me, that it all boiled down to respect and love.
I know that I want the same respect that I give out to come back to me. When I'm performing and I see people connecting and happy that has nothing to do with religion. When it comes down to it I believe it should be about people coming together, helping each other, it shouldn't be about all this separation. It should be about unification. To come to that conclusion, religion had to go out of the window. I concentrate on the people who are around you right now, in the present.
How different is the process of your music making and singing in the latter half of your career compared to the studio and writing time you had as part of the group Fingers Inc or as part of Def Mix?
The best situations have been when I'm natural and relaxed, usually when I'm alone in a studio with just an engineer and I'm being creative, nobody trying to control me. It flows better like that. That's how it was with Fingers Inc, it all flowed naturally, organically.
Which other producers that you have worked with do you feel have had an ability to replicate the most similar mood to the music you made with Fingers Inc?
I think Larry is the only person I've worked with that really 100% understood me. We met on an equally balanced level of respect for voice and music. It was very natural and if I were to work with Larry today it would be the same. There was no aggression, no ego and that's difficult to find. Nobody else has come close to touching that.
Why did you first move to the UK in the early 1990s from New York?
They got me to come over and work for a label called Freetown and I was practically chief A+R for that label. I put an in house band together for them, a choir, I did a full album with Arnold Jarvis that never came out. In New York I was half off the wagon, so to say and I was shattered. I was not where I wanted to be, caught up in a bunch of nonsense really and frustrated. This was an option for me to get away from all that and being around some of the wrong people.
Other people from England who had been asking me to work with them said I should stay and so I said OK. From that, people in France, Italy and Germany discovered I was there and I started working a lot. I was doing way more work than I could imagine doing in America. 'I'll Be Your Friend' went to number one while I was there in England.
Why then did you move from London to Berlin, where you are now?
Well, they gave me some problems with a visa scenario coming back in to the UK after I'd played in Paris. It all boiled down to me not having a date in the books for coming back in, something as simple as that.
I was interviewed like I was there illegally, after all those years of living there, destroying your life after not seeing a date on a book, after I'd paid taxes in the country for years. I was there for over 27 years! It was such a shock initially, but water under the bridge. Everything happens for a reason. I can still write, I can still perform, the material things I lost I just had to let them go.
Wow. So what's your status now, are you OK to come back to the UK to perform?
I have three dates this week. I got a visa instantly in Berlin, so it's ok.
What are the main differences you see between Chicago, London and Berlin and the people who live there?
Berlin, for me, is more of a relaxed, laid back environment, possibly because it's a 24 hour system here. The whole mentality of people is really relaxed. You could go out to a club here alone and by the end of the night you'll probably know 10 or 15 people. People are friendly and approach you.
In London it was just like a big family to me, similar to Berlin. It's kind of hard to say about America, I'm kinda out of touch. In America it was hard to find loyalty among a lot of the house community. They have these little cliques and stuff. Whereas in Berlin and London, even if people are doing different things, they have a mutual respect. I've never really been a clique kind of person, I've always been a floater. I've done little residencies there and here but honestly, to me, everyone is family.