Coming in from the cold rain on the second Saturday night of 2014, Darrow Fletcher is running late for his second New York City performance in more than 40 years. The 63-year-old Chicago-bred soul singer is the main attraction at tonight’s Dig Deeper party, the monthly concert series that features a live performance from a forgotten or obscure act whom co-organizers Richard Lewis, aka DJ Honky, and Michael Robinson, aka Mr. Robinson, sometimes search for years to find. Fletcher walks through the crowd, holding his suit in a bag over his shoulder, and even the people who have paid to see him at Littlefield in Gowanus don’t recognize him. But once he takes the stage, stark white carnation resting in the lapel of his immaculate charcoal three-piece suit, he immediately owns it. Even though the audience doesn’t know his songs, and the familiar ones he sings aren’t his, the crowd is nevertheless lost in the music and the soul.
“We didn’t get into this as a financially rewarding thing for ourselves,” says Lewis, a few weeks later in his Chelsea apartment. “We did it because it’s part of American culture that’s going to die if we don’t share it with people.”
“There isn’t a club in the world that does this, not on a monthly basis. Not just in New York, but in the world,” adds Robinson.
Lewis met Robinson during his first weeks living in New York City, in 2005, on a night that Robinson, already a longtime DJ, was spinning at the Subway Soul party. Impressed by Robinson’s selection, Lewis tried cheekily to stump the DJ by requesting a very obscure tune called “Sugar” by The Isonics on Kammy Records.
Robinson, virtually unstumpable, had it.
Shortly thereafter, they began plotting their own soul party. They focused on tracking down artists who, despite making great music, had long been forgotten or never really known. They decided to build a live show around these discarded musicians whose rare 7-inch, 45 RPM records they’ve been accumulating throughout the years are what Lewis describes as “non-Googleable.”
“Nobody was bringing the artists whose records we’d been collecting to New York to perform live shows,” says Lewis. “And we also thought that if we were ever going to do it, the window was going to close at some point because the artists weren’t going to be around forever.”
Finally, in June 2008, Lewis and Robinson hosted the first Dig Deeper party at the now defunct Five Spot on Myrtle Avenue, an old pharmacy that was converted into a small club. The inaugural act was Philadelphia native Don Gardner, whose track “My Baby Likes to Boogaloo” from the early 1960s was a favorite of both organizers. Lewis says there was hype around the show because soul aficionados were eager to see Gardner, who hadn’t played New York in 45 years. From the beginning, the two friends knew they’d created something special in Dig Deeper.
“I knew from the very first song of the very first rehearsal. For us, the rehearsals are like our own private shows because we pick the artists we love. We’re fans and we’re putting this on for everyone, sure, but for us, too,” says Robinson. “At rehearsal, you hear these chords and the voice starts singing, and it’s the first time the song has been sung since the day it was recorded. It’s a lot of teary and happy moments.”
Managing the logistics of an event like Dig Deeper comes with numerous complications. Because many of the artists who typically perform in the series are elderly, Lewis and Robinson must consider each potential performer closely. Some don’t take the stage anymore, or rarely perform the material the two DJs want them to sing at Dig Deeper. Others, such as February’s headliner Jimmy “Preacher” Ellis, at a few months shy of 80 years old, can still sing, but may need a little help climbing onstage.
“We’ve had three others that had trouble walking, one that was blind, so they’re getting on a bit,” says Robinson. “They look old when they walk on stage because they are old, but when the bands kick in, it’s like time travel.”
Since starting Dig Deeper, Lewis and Robinson have hosted 42 artists at 50 events, most of which took place at Brooklyn’s Southpaw and The Bell House before they settled at Littlefield. Each month they’re responsible for flying a long-forgotten soul artist to the city, picking them up from the airport, taking them to and from rehearsals and hotels, and getting them to the show on time.
“We’ve had so many disasters of people missing their planes, flights getting canceled, one of the biggest snowstorms in NYC history hitting before our New Year’s Eve show, artists going missing, artists forgetting their medication,” says Robinson. “We’ve dealt with it and still put on the show.”
Once the artists are in town, their music is placed in the hands of one of a handful of bandleaders who work the show. In the case of Fletcher and Ellis, that bandleader is J.B. Flatt of the Brooklyn Rhythm Band. Before the show, Flatt listens to the record that Lewis and Robinson send him and writes out arrangements for each instrument, often adjusting them to better suit the key in which the elder vocalists now sing.
“The challenge is to do it right but do it quickly. We only get one rehearsal, which is the sound check on the day of the show, but that’s no excuse for doing it half-assed,” Flatt says. “One of the reasons I got into this line of work is that I got fed up with seeing my heroes sing with pickup bands who seemed lost or uninterested.”
Saturday night’s headliner, Lonnie Lester, has played Albany and Buffalo, but never made it to New York City. Lester, a native of Gary, Indiana, has been a singer since 1959 when he opened for The Drifters. He’ll turn 77 in April and stays busy singing at restaurants, corporate functions, and retired living communities near his home in Indianapolis. “I didn’t live like the big boys, but it was a job,” Lester says.
For Dig Deeper’s 51st show, Lewis and Robinson have compiled a set list of tracks that Lester recorded on the small Gary-based label Nu-Tone. Although songs such as “So This is Love” and “You Choose” sound like they should have been hits in their day, Lester’s singles never got traction. Still, they’re the kind of songs that Dig Deeper’s audience leaves a show treasuring. Devotees of this soul revival keep returning because they’ve come to trust DJ Honky and Mr. Robinson to deliver a quality show, no matter how unfamiliar they are with the featured act.
“I can’t do splits anymore, but I can entertain the crowd, and if I do a split they’re going to need to have some kind of ambulance near the stage,” Lester says. “My voice is still pretty strong; I’m never going to sound like I did anymore, but you’ll know it’s me.”
Lonnie Lester performs at Dig Deeper at Littlefield on Saturday, March 8. $15, littlefieldnyc.com