John Capouya teaches journalism and nonfiction writing in the University of Tampa’s undergraduate and MFA programs. “Purify” is adapted from his forthcoming book, Florida Soul, to be published by the University Press of Florida.
“Oh, I’m still singing,” he told me. “Most definitely.
“I’m in a gospel group called Joyful Noise. We get together three times a week, doing “Old Rugged Cross,” “Glory to His Name”–pretty much all the gospel tradition. There are eight of us and I sing lead. Not to toot my own horn, but they tell me I sound pretty good.”
“So, you’ve still got the pipes?” I asked.
“Until it gets cold in here,” said the man on the other end of the phone. “Then I get hoarse. But you can’t control that.
“You know,” he continued, “gospel was the first singing I did. My dad sang with a group back in Pensacola. They would rehearse at my house and I would sit in the middle of the floor listening to them. I was always in love with spiritual music. So now it’s no different; it’s just that, well, I’m in here.”
“Here” is Avenal State Prison in California, a low-to-medium security prison for men about an hour and a half north of Bakersfield. The speaker, soul singer James Purify. In the 1960s and 70s, soul music’s golden age, he had roughly a dozen hit songs; the first and biggest was “I’m Your Puppet,” which reached #5 on Billboard magazine’s R&B charts and crossed over, climbing to #6 on the pop charts as well. It’s still popular on oldies stations, and was recently heard in a Nike commercial.
Purify, now 69, had his success as part of a duo: James and Bobby Purify, the closest rival to Stax artists Sam and Dave (they sang “Soul Man”). James and Bobby were billed as brothers, but Purify and the three others who sang with him weren’t related. Their producer just thought James Purify was the greatest soul name he’d ever heard, so at their first recording session he told singer/guitarist Robert Lee Dickey: “You’re Bobby Purify.”
James was a good-looking man; everyone remarks on that. Six feet and around 200 pounds, he wore his hair slick and processed over a high forehead and, in his later years, a black moustache that slanted down, taking the opposite direction from his thick, upturned eyebrows. When his ex-wife, Anner Purify, met him in Pensacola, she was 16, still in high school. He was 23. “James just had a really soft look and voice and a beautiful smile–with dimples,” she remembers. “He was very well built but slender, with a small waistline. He still doesn’t have a butt.”
Anner married James in 1978 and divorced him about 10 years later. “But we’re still together,” she told me when I spoke to her last year. “His things, his clothes, are here, and when he gets out, he’s coming back.”
With his partners–there were three different “Bobby’s”–Purify toured Europe, played New York’s Apollo Theater and the Howard in DC, and shared bills with other top R&B acts. “James was the star,” said his former producer, “and also the trouble.” An engaging, intelligent man with a beautiful voice, Purify was–is–much beloved by many close to him. But the man who gained fame through the romantic “I’m Your Puppet” went on to commit some ugly crimes that even he says he doesn’t understand and can’t assimilate into the rest of his life. Perhaps, like human passion itself, the reasons aren’t ultimately knowable.
Purify didn’t want me to visit him in prison, so we talked in a series of collect phone calls last in the spring of 2012. California’s public records are fairly opaque; they don’t reveal what an inmate’s been convicted of. Asking him “What are you in for?’’ seemed patently wrong, so I started gingerly with: “How long is your sentence?”
He answered readily: “Four years and eight months, but I hope to be paroled after two years, eight months. So if all goes well, I’m out next month.”
I followed up with the awkward: “Um, what were you convicted of–why are you in Avenal?”
He didn’t hesitate.
“Assault with a deadly weapon. In a domestic. I didn’t really plan it out that way, but it was just that heated moment…”
Papa Don Schroeder first heard James Purify sing at Tom’s Tavern, a Pensacola nightclub, in 1965. The producer was coming off one of his first big hits, a cover of “Sweet Dreams” by Mighty Sam McClain. McClain told him he had to check out the singer who’d been sitting in with his former group, the Dothan Sextet. (They were from Dothan, Alabama, close to the Florida Panhandle).
Purify had a fluid tenor voice that was Smokey-Robinson smooth but lower in pitch, rarely straying from the middle of that vocal range. Less piercing than Marvin Gaye, not as powerful as Solomon Burke, Purify sang with intensity but without strain, his timbre pleasing but still potent. His signature song at that time was Jackie Wilson’s “Work Out.” “Not tooting the horn or anything,” he said, “but I’m told I did a splendid job on that particular song. To be honest with you, I could do pretty much anything then.”
Soon he was the Sextet’s lead singer, with Robert Lee Dickey–the first to take the name Bobby Purify–playing guitar and singing. Papa Don took those two to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where you could record on 16 tracks. Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Joe Tex, among others, would also record hits there with the Muscle Shoals horns and the house rhythm section.
Schroeder had a bunch of songs, including several written by prolific collaborators Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. At that time, singles were the goal, not albums, and Schroeder thought “I’m Your Puppet” was the hit.
For some reason he had Dickey singing lead, he said, and Purify doing background and harmony. But as all the singers, studio musicians, and the producer stood in the middle of the room and ran through the tune, “Dickey couldn’t find where the pocket was,” Schroeder said. “I was looking for a certain approach and he just couldn’t do it. So Purify showed him; he said,’ ‘Here’s what he’s talking about,’ and just nailed it. So I changed the plan.” When they all went to their separate recording booths and put on their headphones, Purify was singing the lead.
According to Schroeder, “I’m Your Puppet” had already been recorded 13 times as a country song (that’s probably an exaggeration) and every one of them had tanked, including Dan Penn’s version a year or two earlier. It’s a light, sweet song–not what we think of as soulful, much less funky–and the tempo’s quite slow. The narrator’s a hopeless, hapless lover, a captured man who just doesn’t want to be free:
“Pull the string and I’ll wink at you, I’m your puppet
I’ll do funny things if you want me to, I’m your puppet
I’m yours to have and to hold
Darling, you’ve got full control… of your puppet
Treat me good and I’ll do anything
I’m just a puppet and you hold my string…
I’m your puppet
The singers hated it. They sang soul with swagger and force, and this was more of a “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” ditty than a grown-man’s declaration. “We were strictly R&B,” Purify said,” and their stuff was more pop and country.”
But Papa Don wore them down–and, in the end, he had the power. “We just got so tired,” Purify said, “and at one point ‘I’m Your Puppet’ became the focal point. But as far as it becoming a hit, we had no inkling whatsoever.”
Schroeder had a great ear and a visceral feel for soul, but he also possessed a strong pop sensibility. He sensed that, in the same way Mighty Sam had infused Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” with passion and blues/gospel intonations, laying soul vocals on top of “Puppet’s” poppy sweetness could yield a hybrid hit.
The 1960s recording equipment allowed for one overdub after the recording was mostly done–and Oldham and Schroeder made a strange and risky move. Oldham, who’d played piano on the basic track, spotted a glockenspiel in the studio, that high-pitched, tinkling instrument sometimes carried in marching bands. He couldn’t find the mallets used to play it, so Oldham used “a church key, you know, a beer can opener” to strike the keys.
Not long after, Purify said, “we were riding down the highway coming from one of our engagements in Columbus, Georgia. Lo and behold, ‘I’m Your Puppet’ pops up on the air and the DJ has a big rave about it. After that, seemingly, every station we turn to, there it was. It really was strange, to tell you the truth.”
Purify still can’t understand it. “Until this very day, I do not see what was spectacular about ‘I’m Your Puppet.’”
Ben Moore, the third and last Bobby Purify, disagrees with his former singing partner. “To me ‘I’m Your Puppet’ was a classic tune to grab young people during that time,” he told me. (My sense is he meant young white people.) “We’re singing about being a puppet on a string and everyday kids, sixteen, seventeen years old, were grabbed by that. I’ve had people tell me, ‘My mom and dad say I was born off ‘I’m Your Puppet.”’
“IYP” is slight, even in a pop music context, but the Purifys’ singing took its sugar-and-soul mix to glory. Combined, the two versions of “I’m Your Puppet”–the one with Dickey, released on Bell Records in 1966 and a remake, with Moore, on Mercury 10 years later–have reportedly sold over a million copies. It’s been covered many times, including by Dionne Warwick, Irma Thomas, and Elton John. On the musicians’ site Digging for Covers, one fan of the song recently declared: “The glockenspiel is the new guitar. Get on board.”
Rock critic Dave Marsh thinks the song’s appeal lies partly in its relaxed, almost halting tempo, and the languorous ease of the duo’s vocals. “If the best definition of cool is that which never has to expand any energy defining itself,” he wrote, “then ‘I’m Your Puppet’ may be the coolest soul classic ever recorded.”
One of the oldies stations that still plays “Puppet” is tunein.com, the internet radio channel some prisoners at Avenal listen to. “Guys come over to my bunk telling me the DJ, Art Laboe, is playing my song,” Purify said, “and he’s making such a big thing about how “I’m Your Puppet” is one of the most sought-after oldies. So now, I can’t really go any place in the compound without getting recognition.”
When “I’m Your Puppet” hit Schroeder had to rush an album out, which he did.
James and Bobby Purify delivered some strong singing on covers like “Knock on Wood” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” along with the country-ish “You Left the Water Running (When You Left Me Behind).”
The duo scored more hits straddling those same lines; both the individual songs and their albums mixed R&B with accessible radio-friendly pop, complete with horns and strings Schroeder dubbed in. “Wish You Didn’t Have to Go” was another teen-pop hit.
But Bobby Purify–Robert Lee Dickey at this point–had a hard time flying, and for that, and possibly other reasons he left the act. A second Bobby drowned. Then in the early 1970s Papa Don took James Purify to Pensacola’s 506 Club to hear Ben Moore, who was singing with a group called The Rounders. Purify sat in and the two did Sam and Dave’s “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” together. Purify told Schroeder: “This is the singer, if you can get him.”
He got him. Ben Moore took over the harmony vocals and the guitar work as Bobby Purify. “Man, we got along just like scrambled eggs and bacon,” said Moore. He and James Purify worked together for almost 10 years.
“James loved singing,” said Moore, now 72, “and here’s what I love about him: He will rehearse. See, practice makes perfect, and that was what he and I did. We rehearsed our harmonies so tight, that when we went into the studio, in two days 13 songs would be finished. Now it takes some people six months to finish [an album].”
The times he remembers most fondly, though, are backstage, before they performed, saying to each other: “Let’s go get them, baby. Let’s go out there and tear ‘em up.”
As for Purify, he said Moore was the best singer he ever worked with. “His voice was much stronger than the other Bobbys’, and he had the sound that I really prefer, the more gospel/soul sound.” Purify laughed. “Now, on stage, Ben wasn’t much of a showman, he really couldn’t dance at all. I did all the dancing from that point on.”
Moore concedes the point. “I wasn’t no smooth mover, like James told you. I never could get my feet to do what my brain wanted them to do. He was the one to do the flaunting around on the stage.
“But when we got ready to really nail something down and sing, we had people in those places crying, man, our voices blending so close…
“There were a lot of duos out there during that time–Mel and Tim, the Righteous Brothers, Sam and Dave–but James and I were burning the trails, I tell you. Sam and Dave had a fit with us. We played a lot of places they played, together, and when they heard James and Bobby were coming, I bet they said, ‘Oh, boy, we got trouble.”
When I went to visit Sam Moore, formerly of Sam and Dave, in Arizona, he didn’t remember it that way. He and Dave Prater weren’t at all cowed by James and Bobby, Moore told me–but they did admire their singing. “With me and Dave, it was more call and response,” he said, “something I took from the black church, and that actually made us stand out. But those two sang true harmony.”
James and Anner married in 1978. She continued to teach high school in Pensacola until 2003. Her subject was what used to be known as home economics, but it’s not called that any more, she told me; it’s family and consumer science. They have a son, Jason, who’s 33. He graduated from Florida A&M and now works for a charity in Atlanta.
When she told me she finished high school at 16, and graduated from Tuskegee University early as well, I teased her, saying, “So, you were one of the smart kids?”
“In the books, I guess,’ she replied. “Other than that, they say I didn’t make smart decisions. I was young and naïve and I was so in love with James…”
The last Purify duo disbanded in the early 1980s. One former associate said the lead singer had “a terrible drug problem,” and that led to the group’s breakup and his later incarceration. Purify flatly denied that to me, and when I sat down with Ben Moore at his house in Pensacola, he also rejected that explanation. “We’d would smoke a little marijuana in the day; all young groups did that. After the show, we’d sit down with a bunch of friends and light up a little joint and laugh and talk about how we tore the show up. But I never saw him with no strong habit like cocaine or heroin or uppers and downers…”
Moore said Purify’s temper got him in trouble. “He was a fighter, man. I’m telling you, during that time he was a young bully. He never drawed his hands back at me, though.”
Soon after the breakup Purify moved to California alone. He continued to perform solo when he could, took a job in a Sealy mattress plant and managed an Oakland nightclub. Then in May of 2009 he committed the assault with a deadly weapon on the woman he calls “my now divorced wife” (a California woman, not Anner Purify). He went to prison and was released roughly two and a half years later, in 2012.
Purify was a very good interview: responsive and reliable, he called when he said he would. He was thoughtful, polite, and spoke with some care and precision. He was modest– or he tried very hard to come off as modest–prefacing remarks about his success or talent by saying, “Not to toot my own horn, but…” When asked about the Sam and Dave comparisons, he quickly said: “Oh, they were much better than we were. I idolized Sam and Dave.”
He’s a religious man, he told me. “It hasn’t been completely consistent but I’ve never completely dropped out.” Before he was imprisoned he was a deacon in training at an Oakland church, and sang in two church choirs.
At one point he said something that seemed to indicate he had been in prison before. “Can you tell me about that?” I asked.
“Not over the phone,”’ he said. “Maybe after I get out.”
We spoke again after his release, and I asked him again about that other conviction. “That was a sex offense,” he said evenly, adding that it occurred in California around 1988 or 1989.
I knew. Right under his photo the Department of Justice’s Sex Offender site says he was convicted of “lewd or lascivious acts w/ child under 14 years.” At that time he was 45. Florida and California sites offer further details:
Offense/Statute: Annoy Or Molest Child Under 18 Years Of Age
Offense/Statute: Sex Penetration With Foreign Object Of Victim Under 14 Years Of Age
Offense/Statute: Oral Copulation With A Minor Under 14 Years Of Age Or By Force Or Fear
I saw something about it online, I told him. Could he… explain?
“I’m sure in life something happened that you absolutely have no logical explanation for,” he began. “Now that’s one thing that I don’t have any explanation for. I really and truly don’t because it was totally uncharacteristic for me. That’s not the nature of me and you know I never had any desire of anything like that.
“If I said that some young teenage chick came on to me and I was unable to reject, that would be passive, but I take full responsibility for what I did. I don’t admit it brazenly; matter of fact it’s something I’m totally ashamed of. You wouldn’t have any idea just how ashamed I am. So I’ve been beating myself up for years [but] comes a time when you’ve got to let it go. If I could undo it I wouldn’t hesitate, but I can’t. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last,” Purify said.
At one point he said he wasn’t “having a pity party” for himself, and I thought he might be using therapy-speak he’d been taught. He quickly added: “I have more pity for the person that was involved, you know, I just pray constantly that whatever transpired doesn’t have any effect on her.”
He was speaking so openly, I felt emboldened to ask: How is it that the gifted, intelligent James Purify is also a violent felon? Why does he think his life turned out this way?
There’s a medical term, that’s also a judicial term, he said, for the two incidents that led to his convictions. “With my now divorced wife it was heat of the moment–passion,” Purify said. “She was caught in a compromising situation, and I was just unable to contain myself. I blow up, it’s called…I can’t think of what it’s called.”
“What does it mean, what is the term for?” I prompted.
“A spontaneous act of violence…you’re like momentarily insane.”
“Yep, temporary insanity. Passionate crimes, crimes of passion…”
Since his release Purify’s been a home care worker in an Oakland facility for parolees and the mentally challenged. He’s attending the Harmony Missionary Baptist Church and hopes to be approved to resume his deacon training.
The terms of his probation dictated that he stay in California for another year; after that, he said, he would return to Florida. The last time Purify was free and in Pensacola, Ben Moore told me, James asked his former singing partner to get back together. “He told me, ‘Bro, I sure need you to come back,” Moore remembered. “And he said he had talked to producers and they said that if he got me back, they will give us a whirl.”
Moore told him he couldn’t do it. “Man, we had such a friendship, such a brotherin’ thing going, that I would love to. But I’m with the Blind Boys now, one of the leaders of the group, and I got a lot of people depending on me. I’m too far into it–I’ve won Grammies and sung for the first black president. I just don’t think I’m able.
“I’ll tell you what, though,” Moore told me. “Ain’t nothing happened to his voice. James can still sing.”
Papa Don, the producer, says he and Purify talk all the time, and that he wants to cut a gospel album with him when he returns to Florida. “He’s walking with The Lord now,” Schroeder says. “And I pray for him.”
Purify said he was eager to get back to Pensacola for that reason–and to get back together with Anner. “My ex-wife and I are rekindling our differences. It’s obvious that she still loves me and I have to confirm that I do still love her. Our split was a mistake on both our parts, seeing as how we were both young, and now we’re getting back together.”
Anner, his first ex-wife, wants him back. When I got in touch with her last summer to check the dates of their marriage and divorce, she quickly emailed me back:
“James and I met in 1972 and had a wonderful romance story. We later married in 77. I hate you have to mention that we got a divorce because we are back together now, forever (smile).”