When Larry Heard first started making music in Chicago in the ’80s, what was called “house” still had a relatively rickety frame. The roof wasn’t reinforced, and the insulation was haphazard. The “Jack” character, later superimposed on Heard’s seminal release as Mr. Fingers – “Can You Feel It?” – didn’t have much space to wander in this house. But with dozens of scene-shaping releases over the ensuing 30 years as Mr. Fingers, Fingers, Inc. and a variety of other aliases, Heard became one of house’s most significant architects, beautifying a gritty structure and building several new additions to boot.
Growing up in Chicago, Heard was a musically multi-talented teen, playing guitar and bass before settling on drums. From 1977 to 1984, he worked almost exclusively as a drummer, completely unaware of what was forming around Frankie Knuckles and the Warehouse. He only began producing music with those nightclubs in mind in 1984, when, fed up with bands ignoring his ideas, he quit his gigs and bought a Roland TR-707 and Roland Jupiter 6. While fooling around with this kit, someone told him, “That sounds like what they’re playing at the Warehouse.” The rest was history – the first electronic production he ever shared publicly was “Mystery Of Love,” with two of the three original acetates given to Knuckles and Music Box resident Ron Hardy.
“Mystery Of Love” and “Can You Feel It” were actually recorded on the same day. At the time, Heard attributed the former to Loose Fingers, a name that had come about due to a quirk of Heard’s, where he would pick up an instrument and mime playing it by moving his fingers quickly up and down the instrument’s body. It was modified to Mr. Fingers within one release and then to Fingers Inc. once Heard formalized the partnership with his vocalist of choice, Robert Owens, and Ron Wilson, a colleague of Heard’s at the Social Security Administration office in Chicago. Fingers, Inc. were veritable founding fathers of house, with 1988’s Another Side providing a sleazy, powerful argument for the artistic legitimacy of the music beyond club 12"s, even as tracks like “Mysteries of Love,” “Distant Planet,” “Never No More Lonely” and “Bring Down The Walls” remain capable of inciting dancefloors three decades on.
Heard admirably expanded his sound, refusing to limit himself to a single style. “I have literally thousands of pieces sitting, and the complication is that not all of it’s dance music stuff,” he said in a 2012 interview with Resident Advisor. “I mean, hip-hop tracks, and R&B tracks and smooth jazz and stuff like that. Stuff that people really aren’t accustomed to when they think of Larry Heard. So that poses a challenge, you know, as far as people being able to receive that, because they still want, you know, ‘Can You Feel It.’”
Heard was always prolific, but that consistent commitment didn’t extend to filling out the release history of various aliases, which often appeared with a single memorable 12" or EP as a diversionary tactic before Heard would resurface under his own name or Mr. Fingers. Few of these aliases came with obvious conceptual backstories beyond the urge to have as much music out at one time as possible. Heard was inspired to do this in part by George Clinton, whose Parliament and Funkadelic groups were signed to separate majors and orbited by several other projects. “Looking back, I guess the Mr. Fingers name and other various monikers were used to hide behind initially since I didn’t have a clue what I was doing... If the whole thing turned out to be a disaster, I could develop a case of amnesia if anyone asked about it,” he told Magnetic Mag in 2012.
In celebration of Heard’s return to live performance as Mr. Fingers, here is a run-down of the aliases Heard has used over his storied career. Whether working as Trio Zero, Strong Souls, the Ram Project, The It or others, he has a knack for tapping the same vein but drawing a different blood type each time. This list excludes productions under his own name, as well as output as Mr. Fingers and Fingers, Inc. But even without examining the essential influence of those projects in-depth, the consistent quality and singular sound on display via these aliases is surely enough to reinforce Heard’s status as one of house music’s most treasured producers.
Trio Zero was the credited artist for a one-off release of Balearic bliss produced by Heard and mixed by Ten City. Originally appearing on a Capitol Records compilation in 1989, “Twilight” is as relaxing and pretty as the title suggests, ticking along on wordless vocal runs and falsetto ad-libs. However, Trio Zero never surfaced again, although “Twilight” did appear on a bootleg Balearic comp in 2013.
Disco-D & Ace ‘Smokin’ Amy
The sole credits for “Ace ‘Smokin’ Amy” and Disco-D are on Dance Tracs, an EP that Heard released on Alleviated in 1986. There was confusion from the outset – the original white label names Amy as the producer, but the second Alleviated pressing in 1987 credits only Larry Heard on production, while the 2012 repress adds Heard’s name while retaining the originally obfuscatory credit for Ace Amy. The tracks are minimal, one-take jams, with plenty of surface noise sandpapering down Heard’s typically sensuous pads and ricocheting accents. You get the sense these are faded blueprints of future classics, spat out when his machines were left to their own devices, looping joyfully towards nowhere in particular.
The Blakk Society
The Blakk Society is yet another one-off release, this time a collaboration between Heard and the little-known Yancy Watkins, with David Hollister on vocals. Released on Alleviated in 1989, “Just Another Lonely Day” appeared in four different versions, and though the instrumental can be a bit cloying on its own, the vocal version shines. Behind the repetitive declaration of the title, Heard’s backing vocals drive home the melancholy until the isolation feels almost comforting, emotional intimacy and distance presented hand-in-hand.
The Ram Project
The Ram Project was a mid-’90s transmission from Heard and “Jackin” Bernard Badie, who had a prolific career of his own on the likes of DJB and Cajual. Out on M.T.G. Records, a sublabel of Alleviated with only this single release to its name, it’s a mystery what the individual initials of “R.A.M.” and “M.T.G” actually meant, but questions like that dissolve under the music’s impact. Undeniably playful, the EP’s highlight is “Gonna Be Alright,” which is stuffed with triumphant piano, a blurry vocal sample offering reassurance and glassy accents, in contrast to some of Heard’s more organic production choices.
Heard released just two records as the Housefactors, 1988’s Play It Loud and 1990’s Big Bang Theory, but they are among the nastiest of his career in style and attitude. It’s beautiful, intense music, with dashes of humanity and inhuman robotics in equal measure. Poise and calm tapping the same vein but drawing a different blood type each time have no place here, with synthesizers squawking with effort and beats reverting to a militant stomp. “Go Crazy” on Play It Loud is, fittingly, the craziest Heard track put to wax, a vicious creature battling an asthma attack over a symphony of screeches. Hieroglyphic Being fans, take note.
Strong Souls is the operating alias of Raymond Funnye, but the first 12" under that name was a co-production with none other than Larry Heard. “Sensual Let’s Work” and “Original Ground” came out on Black Market Records in 1993, and it was their only release together, although Funnye went on to put out three other Strong Souls with a number of additional collaborators. The two tracks here are carnal trips, particularly the A-side, where an unidentified vocalist named Twanna X. (s/he never appeared on another record) beckons the listener with lines like “Why don’t you show me what you have to offer…you know, your valuable assets…and I’ll show you mine.”
Gherkin Jerks first appeared on Gherkin Records, a Chicago-based label and distributor run by a friend of Heard’s named Brett Wilcots AKA Gallifré. Consciously rawer than previous work, Heard has said the Gherkin Jerks name was reserved for more experimental musical concepts, although his two releases under this name were also just a way of helping a friend’s label find its footing. Of the first ten records Gherkin had a hand in releasing or distributing, Heard was credited on eight of them, including co-writing and producing Robert Owens’ Gloria Gaynor-referencing “I’m Strong” and turning in a bongo-heavy remix of North / Clybourn’s “We’re Gonna Work It Out.”
Overall, Gherkin Jerks productions are rigid with simple arrangements. Minimalism reigns on 1988’s Stomp the Beat, with strange details like the extreme panning on “Don’t Dis the Beat” and the carnival-esque clatter of “Din Sync.” 1989’s confusingly titled 1990 takes off from a subtle sci-fi theme, and the results are positively luscious by comparison. Though less frantic overall, the release feels like it presages the swooping psychedelia of Detroit’s The Martian throughout. One highlight here is “Space Dance,” with metallic drums clanking against an insistent curl of bass and luminescent pads.
Heard only began releasing music as Loosefingers nearly 20 years into his career, putting out three EPs in 2003, 2004 and 2006 as well as the single “303 Indigenous” in 2011. The alias implies that what you’re hearing are forgotten leftovers of some sort, but the music shows that even reheated Heard is better than fresh releases from most other producers.
All of the material on Glancing at the Moon, When Summer Comes and What Is House? also appears in alternate versions on 2005’s compilation Loose Fingers (Soundtrack from the Duality Double-Play). The 12"s are showcases for two distinct corners of Heard’s discography, pairing soft-spoken, horn-heavy vocal tracks with tougher, trackier workouts. The duality is especially pronounced on When Summer Comes, with the title track percolating around a pining vocal versus the self-explanatory “Acid Bounce” and the graceful, acidic “Transmission X.”
These three Loosefingers EPs also flaunt Heard’s enviable vocal talents, as he turns in one affecting and restrained vocal performance after another. You don’t doubt for a second the romantic longing he’s describing on tracks like “Deep Inside,” featuring lyrics like “Give me one more chance, and I’ll let you deep inside my heart, where the love is.” “What Is House?” boasts a stranger vocal turn, with Heard’s roboticized voice delivering a creation myth to rival the story of Jack and his groove. It’s a gravelly history lesson over an irrepressible acid line.
The It initially consisted of Heard, Robert Owens, Chip E. and Harry Dennis, who would later become the project’s primary vocalist alongside Heard. The first release was an undeniable triumph: “Donnie,” a fidgety, paranoid jam that came out on DJ International in 1986 and still sounds fresh today. The track’s success was helped along by an additional mix from Ron Hardy, then reigning supreme at the Music Box. According to Dennis, “He made a classic out of it. He played it at the club so much that kids went crazy for it.”
In 1990, Heard and Dennis released On Top of the World, a solid, psychedelic full-length with socially conscious vocal turns by both Dennis and Heard throughout. Skewing towards chill-out room hip-house, the lyrics aren’t particularly thrilling but they shoot for basic inspiration; see “Love is a gift / We all want to receive” or “It’s time to stay together / We already know how to divide.” There was a 24-year gap between this LP and new material surfacing on Alleviated. That recent release can be fantastically trippy, with a sense of emotional sprawl – Dennis wants to talk about people with hungry bellies, sure, but also people with hungry souls.