The early days of House Music in Chicago were dominated by enthusiastic young producers who processed what they heard being played by club DJs like Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles and radio DJs as the Hot Mix 5, a raw and highly functional take on the American Disco heritage and European electronic counterparts, its sound determined by limited means to afford musical equipment. There were many records released that had enough brilliant ideas to last to this day, but for its originators it might have been sufficient to have their tracks played by said DJs, and however addictive their rhythms and wild piano chords were, they also seemed not to aim too high in terms of traditional musicianship. Thus from very early on the music of Larry Heard stood out. He was a real musician, with credentials as a professional drummer and keyboard player, and he introduced a level of artistry to the scene that in comparison seemed to be underdeveloped until then. And from the start his music reflected his personality. It was deep, introvert, even melancholic. It did not contain the usual dancefloor imperatives, but it was still very danceable. But club functionality did not appear to be his top priority. Nevertheless all the records he released under different guises from the mid to late 80s became legendary classics, and many more records he released afterwards became legendary classics as well.
Consequently Larry Heard will forever remain one of the most revered artists in the history of House music, yet it always seemed as if he felt his career did not unfold as he hoped it would. He probably shared the same desire to become famous, just like the rest of the Windy City pioneers, but neither he nor his music were extrovert enough to fit the necessary schemes. And this both applied to his most noted alias Mr. Fingers, and Fingers Inc., the group he formed with Robert Owens and Ron Wilson. Mr. Fingers was reserved for his very own interpretations of the House groove, and he created one eternal blueprint after another in the process, impressively showing how deep and pure electronic music could be. Fingers Inc. on the other hand was clearly conveyed to work as a group, in the traditional sense of any other R&B group of those years, only with the sound of House instead of R&B. Just take a look at the pictures of the group on the sleeve, matching sweaters and confident poses, with female limbs wrapped around like an outtake from an Ohio Players artwork. The charts were to be climbed, the sooner and higher the better. But despite reassuring sales in the club scene they did not climb the charts as intended. It is significant that both the albums „Ammnesia“ by Mr. Fingers and „Another Side“ were released on the Jack Trax label from the UK, an imprint specializing on importing landmark Chicago House releases to the European market. Both albums combined tracks previously released on local Chicago House labels like Trax and DJ International with new material. Both albums were released in 1988, the year when a rising interest in the new dance sounds from across the pond turned into the Acid House movement that would change the UK and continental club scenes substantially. And both albums are not regarded as a quick compilation to cash in on a then current hype, they are regarded as peerless masterpieces. Albums that really work as albums, from start to finish, all killer no filler. They are still ultimate references that club music can work perfectly in the format, and whoever is failing is just not trying hard enough. So much for Larry Heard’s talents, you cannot really overestimate them.
But the lasting appeal of Fingers Inc. is not only caused by Heard’s compositions. It really is a group effort, and the vocalists Robert Owens and Ron Wilson make a difference. Especially the voice of Robert Owens is as legendary as Heard himself, lending a bittersweet quality to the atmospheric melancholia of his songs that just fits like a glove. Just listen to his interpretations of „Mysteries Of Love“ and „Can You Feel It“ that transform the original tracks into something truly other. There are so many moments, especially on the sadder songs as „Shadows“ or „Bye Bye“, where you just want to embrace him, while feeling embraced by his voice at the same time. But he is perfectly capable of sultryness („Feelin’ Sleazy), and bossing the floor as well („Music Take Me Up“, „Bring Down The Walls“). The lower but no less skillfull voice of Ron Wilson is his perfect counterpart, best shown on „A Love Of My Own“, where both share their desires for love bouncing back and forth, only to erupt in one of the most magnificent chorusses I’ve ever heard.
I can still vividly remember pulling this album out of a bargain bin when it originally came out, listening to it in its entirety at home, and being thoroughly moved by the experience, despite having heard most of the tracks before. And that experience has not changed at all upon relistening to it. But that bargain bin incident, however fortunate for me, is also unfortunately typical for Larry Heard’s career. His efforts to meet his creative and commercial ambitions never worked out as they should have. The original liner notes of „Another Side“ by NME writer Simon Witter already contain statements about the notoriously shady dealings of the Chicago labels, but the major deal he landed with MCA in the 90s went sour as well. Lured into it with the promise of being able to work with greats like Chaka Khan as in-house producer, the company decided not use his potential. Even though his album „Introspective“ as Mr. Fingers was a commercial and critical success, it was a last straw after years of bad experiences in the music business, and it left him disillusioned for years. But to much relief, he never gave up producing for good, and still manages to match his reputation.
It probably is a real blessing for a lot of music collectors that this album is now accessible for a reasonable price, with the trademark fine remastering and repackaging of Clone supervised reissues. And, best of all, now the music is no longer squeezed on a double vinyl, but a triple album format. And I highly recommend to opt for the vinyl edition, as the CD version repeats the authentic but cringeworthy omission of the entire side four due to format limitations which already happened with the original CD release. Well, at least now there are downloads as well. However you decide, this is essential.