When Bobby Purify was at his lowest low, Ray Charles was there to lift him up.
Formerly half of the R&B duo James & Bobby Purify, the Pensacola, Fla., native went blind from glaucoma in 1998, sending him into a state of despair. He was certain his singing days were over.
Charles often crossed paths with Purify at 1960s and ’70s soul revues, but they hadn’t spoken to each other in years.
“A friend of mine who was a pianist for Ray and for Stevie Wonder was visiting me and he called Ray,” Purify said recently. “He said ‘I think I’ve got somebody here you know. You know Bobby Purify?’ Ray says, ‘Oh, yeah, I know that old boy.’ He said, ‘Ray, he’s blind now. He’s really down.’
“So he handed the phone to me, and Ray says, ‘How long you been blind?’ I said, ‘About six years. It scared me to death, man. Scared enough to not want to go back out there.’ Ray said, ‘Man, you don’t need no eyes to be soulful. You’re a soulful singer, now get up and get back out there on the road. Use that singing as a crutch.’ So that’s what I did, I use my singing as a crutch and I’m happy when I’m doing it.”
Today, at age 63, Purify is at the top of his game – even if it’s in the late innings. “Better to Have It,” his first album in more than a decade, was released on July 19 by Proper American Recordings and greeted immediately with rave reviews and calls for Grammy Award recognition.
Produced by Dan Penn and featuring the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, keyboardist Carson Whitsett of Malaco fame and the Memphis Horns session players, “Better to Have It” is the most authentic soul album since the 2002 comeback of another R&B master, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Solomon Burke.
“Dan said ‘It’s time for you to do an album rather than playing these little clubs. You need to get out there to where you can do concerts, you know, three or four a year, so you don’t have to work yourself to death,’ ” Purify said.
“I think people will relate to my album. It’s clean singing. I don’t sing about no sex or this and that; there’s no cursing. There’s no derogatory messages on it. Today’s music is so negative, so rebellious. Our children grow up listening to that and follow right into that step. I don’t want my music to be like that. I want my music to be enjoyed by everybody.”
Purify and Penn go way back to the 1960s when Penn was an in-demand engineer, songwriter and producer. Purify, whose real name is Ben Moore, originally was a member of the duo Ben & Spence, and Penn engineered many of their songs, including the R&B hit “You’re the One for Me.”
Penn, with creative partner Spooner Oldham, wrote and/or produced hits for the Box Tops (“The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby”), Aretha Franklin (“Do Right Woman”), Burke and Ronnie Milsap.
A few years after James & Bobby Purify scored their one and only Top 10 hit in 1966 with Penn’s “I’m Your Puppet,” James Purify had to find a replacement for Bobby (Robert Lee Dickey). With Ben & Spence disbanded, Moore was perfect for the job.
“The other Bobby Purify had quit because of some kind of medical problem,” Purify said. “So James asked me if I could be Bobby Purify and that’s what I’ve been going by for 35 years. The other Bobby Purify couldn’t sing anything but background; he was no lead singer like I am. James and me stayed together until he got into that trouble in California, which I won’t mention. He went away for a while for something he did.
“After that, I had a lot of records out in London under my own name, Ben Moore … ‘Small Town Girl,’ ‘Easy as Pie,’ ‘Woman Hang Your Head in Shame.’ Sometimes I would do shows as Bobby Purify and people would say, ‘You’re not Bobby Purify; you’re Ben Moore,’ so I had to put on my albums ‘Ben Moore, aka Bobby Purify,’ to clear up the confusion. Then in 1983, I had a Grammy nomination for a gospel song I did. It was a tossup between me and Al Green; I had him scared for while there, but he won it with an old standard, ‘Amazing Grace.’ He won it fair and square, but I had him going.”
After going blind, Purify laid low, rarely venturing outside Pensacola. Then one night he was invited to a party at a friend’s condo. He brought his guitar and performed for the other guests, which included songwriter Hoy “Bucky” Lindsey. Lindsey’s songwriting partner was none other than Penn. After co-writing the title track off Burke’s “Don’t Give Up On Me” album in 2002, Penn was itching to do a genuine soul album. Lindsey hooked Penn up again with Purify.
“I sang for Dan and he said the hairs on his arm stood up,” Purify said. “I was just what the doctor ordered. Dan was doing the old R&B stuff again. Most of the stuff on this new CD goes back to the old ’60s-style singing. He wrote the songs and produced it in the old R&B style. I love it, I love every song on there.
“Things are working out good for me. But I have to thank the Lord for my good fortune. If it wasn’t for Him, I would’ve been gone a long time ago. He’s giving me another chance, and I love Him for it.”
Purify is equally thankful for surviving the brunt of Hurricane Ivan last fall and Hurricane Dennis in early July.
“A friend of mine took me to his storm shelter and we stayed there during both storms,” he said. “We were in there with his son and daughter and her little son, plus two dogs, a snake and a bird. My friend’s wife said, ‘Bobby, do you know anything about birds?’ I said no. She said, ‘I’ve been trying to get this bird to talk for a long time.’ I said, ‘Just throw him out there with Ivan, he’ll be knocking on the door and screaming ‘Let me back in.’
“But we had a good time during the storms. We sat around and played songs and prayed a lot. I thank the Lord my house is way up on a hill and didn’t get any of that water damage. My sight may be gone, but I’ve just been blessed in so many ways.”
ON THE WEB: conqueroo.com.
BWF (before we forget): Bobby Purify albums – “Shake a Tail Feather! The Best of James & Bobby Purify” (Sundazed, 2002); “Better to Have It” (Proper American, 2005).