When connoisseurs of soul music hear the names Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, David Hood, Jimmie Johnson, Reggie Young, Wayne Jackson and Carson Whitsett, they perk up, because those names are all over the credits of some of their most treasured records. It isn’t every day that these legends of Memphis and Muscle Shoals lore come together, but the entire magnificent seven eagerly converged on Penn’s Dandy Studio in Nashville recently when they heard the news: Bobby Purify had returned.
Of the great soul singers from R&B’s golden age in the 1960s and ’70s, Purify is perhaps the most underappreciated. Although he’s the contemporary — and equal — of such southern soul legends as Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and Solomon Burke, his stature has been obscured by a twisted career path and some basic confusion. The singer/guitarist’s real name is Ben Moore, and he worked with and behind the likes of Otis, James Carr, James Brown and the Tams before becoming half of Ben & Spence, who cut a number of sides for Atlantic in the ’60s before hooking up with James Purify in 1971. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Moore was the third individual to take the name Bobby Purify, although he’s answered to that moniker for close to 35 years. These and other circumstances conspired to deny him the fame he deserved, and he’s had some hard times, especially in recent years—but one thing that couldn’t be taken away from Bobby Purify was his gift. And that makes his unexpected and triumphant return a joyous event for all of those who care about rhythm & blues in the original, uncorrupted sense.
Afterglaucoma caused him to go blind in 1998, Purify was thrown into the depths of despair, frightened and alone. Then one day the phone rang, and Bobby found himself talking with Ray Charles. “I had met him awhile ago out there on the road,” he explains, “and a friend of mine told him that I had went blind. So Ray called and told me, ‘You don’t need no eyes to have soul. If you got soul, keep on goin’. Just use that thing in there as a crutch for bein’ blind, to keep your mind occupied.’
So I started goin’ back out on the road, blind, but without Ray, I’d still be sittin’ back there in that room.” So he resumed eking out a living on the chitlin circuit, as before, still well under the radar, aside from a 2002 appearance in a made-for-PBS soul special featuring Aretha Franklin, Jerry Butler, Lou Rawls and other fellow veterans. One night, back home in Pensacola, Florida, Bobby was invited to a party at another friend’s condo. He brought his guitar and started singing for the guests, one of whom was songwriter Hoy “Bucky” Lindsey. According to Purify, when Lindsey realized who was singing, “He said, ‘Man, I thought you were dead.’ I said, ‘No, man, I went blind and I come off the circuit for a while. And he said, ‘I gotta get somebody down here to listen to you, ’cause you sing better now than you sang 30 years ago!’”
That somebody was Lindsey’s writing partner, Dan Penn. Since co-writing the title song for Solomon Burke’s critically lauded 2002 comeback album, Don’t Give Up on Me, with Whitsett and Lindsey, the legendary writer/producer had been wanting to cut an album of pure soul, and the three longtime collaborators had continued writing with that idea in mind. There was just one problem — a dearth of pure soul singers.
So it was with some excitement that Lindsey called Penn in Nashville to tell him about his surprising discovery. “I went on down there,” Penn recalls, “and when Bobby started singin’ and playin’ the guitar, right away, it stood all my hairs up on my arm. He was singin’ R&B like they did in the ’60s, which is the only kind of R&B I know, and you just don’t hear that no more. What they call R&B these days, that ain’t the real thing.”
Blown away by what he’d just heard, Penn told Purify, “I’m gonna get in touch with some people, see if I can get you a record deal.” Sure enough, several months later, he called Bobby to tell him the news, “I got some guys in from London and they’re comin’ down to hear you sing.” The visitors were Proper Records founder Malcolm Mills and his business partner, Paul Riley. “They come in and listen to me,” says Bobby, “and after I got through singin’ four or five songs, they said, ‘Man, shoot, we gonna do a deal on you.’ And I thought they were just talkin’, you know. But three or four weeks after, the contracts came in. They had already hired Dan to do a CD on me.”
Now, Purify and Penn have a little bit of history together, dating back to the ’60s, when Penn was engineering records at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he recorded and wrote songs for Ben & Spence, including the R&B hit “You’re the One for Me.” Penn, of course, went on to become a renowned songwriter and producer, working primarily out of Memphis’ American Studios accumulating a thick resume as producer on such hits as “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby” for the Box Tops, and as a co-writer on such classic hits as “Sweet Inspiration,” “Cry Like a Baby,” “Do Right Woman,” and “Dark End of the Street.”
Meanwhile, the breakup of Ben & Spence coincided with Robert Lee Dickey’s departure from James & Bobby Purify, prompting Papa don Schroeder, who managed both duos, to team Moore with James Purify and take the name Bobby Purify. The revamped duo scored a U.K. hit in 1975 with a version of the original duo’s U.S. hit, Penn and Oldham’s “I’m Your Puppet.” and had some good years together before James, beset by legal difficulties, disappeared from the scene. Moore retained the name Bobby Purify for his R&B work, while having a second career as the gospel singer Ben Moore, receiving a Grammy nomination for the 1982 LP He Believes in Me. In 1994, he began suffering from glaucoma but continued working under both names for as long as his diminishing vision allowed. Then the blindness, the depression, the intervention and the second chance.
Knowing he finally had a singer who could help him make the album he’d long been imagining, Penn got together with Whitsett and Lindsey to cook up some more tunes for Bobby to sing—tunes with all the old-school facets, because that’s the only way these guys know how to write ’em. “But it’s not as easy as it used to be,” Penn confesses, “’cause it’s not the same times. You write what you see, feel and hear—we all do. But you start headin’ for 1965 and you’ve gotta turn a few knobs in your brain. You’ve gotta adjust your thinkin’. We tried to pinpoint Bobby in writing the songs, but at the same time you have to kinda let it come and just write. I mean, we had the basic idea in mind — we’ve all heard Bobby sing, and we know the school of music we were reachin’ for.”
During the course of writing sessions in Pensacola and a remote cabin in Louisiana off of Highway 61, they got what they were looking for: nine songs penned in the traditional manner to go with the three they’d originally written for Burke’s follow-up album before Purify had made his reappearance and claimed them for himself. Also in the mix was Purify’s own “What’s Old to You.”
When it was time, they brought Bobby up to Nashville and led him down the stairs of Penn’s house to the basement, a.k.a. Dandy Studio, with its vintage two-inch, 16-track tape recorder. For the singer, the moment was the soul-music equivalent of This Is Your Life — it seemed like everybody was down there. “Man, it was a gas after all these years,” Bobby marvels, “These guys kept comin’ up — Spooner Oldham, Reggie, David — all the old guys that I worked with during that time came back to work on this thing for me. Spooner just grabbed me and hugged me and squeezed me. ‘Man, you must be close to 200.’ I said, ‘No, I’m just 63. I’m just startin’. I’ve still got a hundred years to go.”
After the hugs and another round of “I thought you was dead,” the veterans got down to business. Says Penn: “The first thing I told Bobby was, ‘Let’s try to go from like ’64 or ’65 to Al Green, and let’s don’t do anything else—just straight-ahead R&B.’” Because of Purify’s burnished, pitch-perfect tenor—which was sounding stronger than ever—and the songs they’d come up with, Penn felt strongly he could achieve his goal, but he also knew he couldn’t just roll tape and expect to get results. Making all those great records at Fame and American had required concentration and energy, and this one would be no different.
“Let me tell you something,” says Bobby. “When Dan Penn takes you in the studio, you can get ready to stay in there until he says it’s OK. He don’t let nothin’ pass. I love him for that, too, because when you’re workin’ with a person that just don’t put anything out—they want it to be right or not at all — then you got something to be proud of. He worked with me, man. He drilled me. He’s a great producer, a great writer and he knows how to work the machines up there to get the best results.”
Better to Have It vividly recaptures the entire expanse of first-generation Southern soul, from the silky balladry of “Forever Changed” to the swampy vibes of “The Pond”. Among the most powerful moments is the ballad “Nobody’s Home,” which moves from social commentary to a sort of down-home metaphysics during its three-and-half minutes. The pathos of the lyric clearly affected Purify, who gives a performance of stunning conviction. “It hit me like an old Drifters tune,” says Penn, “but when Bobby did it, he took it somewhere else.” Another stunner is the closing “Only in America,” a patriotic song that, like Brother Ray’s indelible performance of “ America the Beautiful” near the end of his life, renders Red State/Blue State partisanship moot.
“I love every cut on it, I mean every cut,” Bobby says with conviction. “I even love the frog song [“The Pond”]. When Bucky first told me they had a song about a frog, I said, ‘I don’t sing nothin’ about no frog. I’m a serious singer.’ But when I listened to it, man, I loved it. I do it with the guitar for the kids, and they just jump around and have a good time. These guys did a fantastic job — Dan and Carson and Bucky and everybody. I tell you, man, I’m totally proud of this CD.”
So, too, is Dan Penn. The producer nailed that old-time soul LP he’d envisioned, but Better to Have It turned out to be much more than a formal exercise. “To tell you the truth, other than the initial thought of a soul record, I never thought any more about it,” says Penn, “I was just cuttin’ Bobby Purify, and he had this really good, hungry voice. After we got started, I didn’t think Muscle Shoals, Memphis, New Orleans or nothin’ — we just cut this guy. We got good songs and we put it together pretty decent, but really, what you got is, you got a guy with a whole lotta heart that you don’t mind listenin’ to for a long time.
“He’s a fine singer from way back who never quite got his due,” Penn points out. “When Bucky found him, he was down pretty far. But we all believed in him, and we was wantin’ to help him, and I hope we have. We did everything we all could do, I’ll tell you that right now. Everybody worked on his record just as hard as we would on, you know, the Temptations.”
Purify is fully aware of all the love and support that have been showered on him, starting with that phone call from Brother Ray. “A pep talk got me back out there, and I’m really proud to be back out there,” he says. “I’m most excited that I got a chance to show people that I still have somethin’ left after all these years.” - Bud Scoppa