Mr. Fingers aka Larry Heard
Larry Heard's life has been characterised by the kind of quiet intensity that will be instantly understandable to anyone who knows his music. From the moment he unwittingly gave the nascent house music scene a shot in the arm with his introspective and dreamlike early tracks, he has delivered music that doesn't shout or demand your attention, yet which speaks to the very deepest parts of the human condition, and as such triggers the most passionate and enduring responses in discerning listeners and dancers. And his dedication to his craft means that not only do his earliest works still stand up as classics for the ages, but he continues to be as prolific as ever, creating the kind of poised, beautiful electronic music that can consistently win over the most demanding music lovers.
Larry grew up on the South Side of Chicago, when it was a mostly white suburb with a few black families moving in - “and,” he adds ruefully, “white folks moving away as a result.” His family was pretty musical: nobody performed in any formal capacity, but people played and sung “as entertainment, as a social thing.” In particularly his father came from a religious Southern family: he would play piano in the house, and Larry remembers going back to visit his family in Mississippi “where singing hymns around the piano was just what they did instead of watching TV or whatever – if there was a few people together they would get round that piano and start singing!” He lapped up the pop culture of the time, too. “Radio was really great back then,” he says; “the presenters were good and all the songs they played have become classics now, so that was a good grounding.”
Music was more than just a social glue though. “We experienced violence in my family,” explains Larry, “including gun violence, and I know that music was a sanctuary for my mother in that time.” When his parents eventually split, Larry had to keep his household together, and set out to earn a living at just 15: “I had to live an adult life from then,” he says. At 17 he was working full-time for the Department of Health, Education & Welfare. This meant that though music was very important to him too – he'd already become a talented drummer – he didn't have time to go to the disco clubs his friends frequented. His main social activity outside of work was playing in a couple of covers bands, playing mostly ultra-complex progressive rock like Genesis and Yes: “we were two black and two Latino guys playing Rush songs,” he laughs, “we'd play wherever we could, and people seemed to enjoy it! We had a lot of competition locally, so you couldn't slack off.”
He found himself increasingly looking at his keyboard players' synthesisers enviously, and bit by bit he saved up to buy himself some kit and experimented with it at home. From the beginning he explored musical simplicity. “The guys in the [prog rock] bands laughed at it,” he smiles, “but I think it was appropriate for my skill level.” His responsibilities meant he didn't get to experience the “disco evolution” that was taking place in Chicago's clubs as others started to add drum machines and other electronic sounds to the mix – but at 24 years old, when he made “Washing Machine” and “Mystery of Love”, a neighbour listened and told him, “hey that sounds like the music they play at [Frankie Knuckle's epochally important club] The Warehouse!” He had just started to work with Robert Owens at this point; Robert would take cassettes of Larry's productions to Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, the resident DJ at The Music Box, who began to play them. Larry felt a fact-finding mission to the clubs was in order, and here he realised that he wasn't alone musically. Hearing the sounds of, and then meeting, Jesse Owens and Jamie Principle (who he discovered he'd been to high school with), felt like “a forum, a way of feeling connected: before, if I liked Ohio Players or Earth, Wind & Fire they were distant, but here were guys I knew doing the same thing as me... it offered a sense of possibility.”
“Mystery of Love” was self-released in 1985, and for the next couple of years his tracks as Mr Fingers, and Fingers Inc with the vocals of Robert Owens and Ron Wilson, would be Chicago staples. The local scene had blown up to the point that 12” vinyl releases could sell by the thousand just in the city, and by 1987, realising he was approaching his ten year anniversary in his job, Larry had a “now or never” moment and decided he would make music his career. He got an advance and set about making what would become Fingers Inc's Another Side album, including the world-shaking “Can U Feel It”. This was just as house music hit ignition point in Europe too, and particularly in the UK, Larry's productions would become instrumental in kickstarting the rave movement. Indeed “Can U Feel It”, in all its forms – the instrumental, Robert Owens's vocal versions, Chuck Roberts's “our house” spoken vocal, or with Martin Luther King's “I have a dream'” speech – still reverberates around the world, getting instant, visceral responses wherever it's played.
Larry was never going to let success go to his head, though. Unlike those who threw themselves into the club scene from the first opportunity, he was always one step removed, and put the same work ethic into music as he had into his day-job. It was tough being the production machine behind Fingers Inc. – he was the only one involved in the process from beginning to end, so once again while the others could get out and about in the clubs, he shut in the studio the bulk of the time, programming, mixing, preparing live shows. Still, there was part of him at least that liked it this way. “It was never my goal to be a star,” he says. “I never wanted to get so I couldn't go to the store without someone wanting to stare or ask me for something. That's kind of what happened in Chicago – I couldn't go to a party to hear music or dance because wherever I went someone always wanted to talk to me.” It was that in part which led him to relocate to Tennessee in 1997, where he still lives. When he returns to Chicago now, he has no part in the politics of the music scene: “I may go to a club, but not for long – I'll get in, talk to a few old friends, catch a little music and I'm gone again!”
This distaste for the hustle and celebrity culture of music scenes, along with that undimmed work ethic, goes a long way to explaining Larry's musical longevity. Never interested in who was the biggest star, or what micro-trend was flavour of the month, he's kept on keeping on with exactly the same dedication to detail and personal vision that he put into those first tracks in his Chicago bedroom. All the way through the 90s, 00s and 10s, he's explored his own personal zone in between soul, meditational new age sounds and, of course, house music – and rather than relying on hype and stardom, he's simply allowed his name to become a guarantee of quality for the most passionate of music lovers. He's no more-underground-than-thou snob either, though: as producer, remixer, singer and collaborator he's worked with most of the major labels, just as easily as he makes tracks for the most lauded of specialist club labels. The music itself is always what matters, not anyone else's arbitrary value judgements of hipness. Scenes have come and gone, but from Tokyo to Stockholm, Capetown to LA, there's always been a record store, a club, a DJ that understands the timeless value of Larry's music and will help it reach new generations of dancers and listeners.
All of which puts Larry way outside the usual cycle of disappearance and comeback that can affect DJs and producers. That Stakhanovite work ethic (he treats the studio as a proper job, doing a full working week whenever he's home in Tennessee) means he has “over a thousand” tracks in varying states of completion. And as the beautiful range of [Album Title], from shimmering ambience to deep soul to psychotropic electronics, shows, there's absolutely no danger of him slipping into a creative rut or formula. Created with quiet, focused dedication, and full of the full range of human experience and emotion, this music comes from the same place it always did more than three decades back in Chicago, which is why it will continue to provide a place of comfort and sanctuary for people around the world for a very long time to come.