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Robert Dickey, soul singer in James & Bobby Purify Duo, 72

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Robert Dickey, who got his start playing guitar and later sang as half of the soulful James & Bobby Purify duo in the late ’60s, died Dec. 29. He was 72.

“I’m Your Puppet” became a smash Top 10 hit for James & Bobby Purify in fall 1966 — and re-entered the charts in 1976 — but Dickey never cared for his famous, million-selling signature song.

“I didn’t even like it,” Dickey said in October 2000, when he was honored as part “Follow That Dream: Florida’s Rock & Roll Legends” exhibition at the Museum of Florida History. “I hated it. It was originally intended to be the B-side. But things got changed ... I sang it for 23 hours straight (in the studio), that’s why I hate it. And the last one, the last take was the one they decided to go with.”

“I’m Your Puppet” was followed with other Top 40 hits such as “Shake a Tail Feather” and “Let Love Come Between Us” in the late ‘60s as James & Bobby Purify toured the world.

After the duo split in the early ’70s, Purify returned to his native Tallahassee where he eventually found full-time work as a custodial crew supervisor at the Tallahassee Police Department starting in 1976. He and his wife, Debra Dickey, raised a family of four sons. The amiable former soul star became a deacon in his church and performed with the Bethlehem Male Singers for 31 years.

Gospel music was a long way from Dickey’s first big musical break in 1963, when he dropped by the raucous Club 40 juke joint in Midway, Fla., to see an Alabama band called The Dothan Sextet. The guitarist for the Dothan group quit that evening and Dickey was called to the stage as a last-minute replacement. Everything clicked.

“I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” Dickey said.

In 1965, The Dothan Sextet teamed up with soul star Otis Redding and toured the Southeast. On the road, the guitarist met and rubbed elbows with such rhythm-and-blues royalty as Wilson Pickett, Curtis Mayfield, Tyrone Davis, Jimmy Reed and, his musical idol, James Brown. The same year, Dickey met James Purify, who joined the Dothan Sextet when the band relocated to Pensacola.

During a gig at Tom’s Tavern in Pensacola, the Louisiana soul singer Mighty Sam was so impressed with Dickey and Purify’s performance that he introduced them to talent scout and disc jockey “Papa Don” Schroeder in August 1966. Schroeder booked studio time and “I’m Your Puppet,” which was written by Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, was recorded during the infamous, grueling, marathon session. The song spent 14 weeks on the pop and R&B charts.

By 1967, the Purify act was living the high life playing in the headline slot at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and sporting fancy Mohair suits, which were the height of fashion at the time.

“Nothing under $150 apiece,” Dickey said. “We never wore the same thing twice.”

The money came in as fast as it went out, though, and royalties from the record sales never made their way to Dickey’s bank account.

“We were young,” Dickey said. “We thought money was coming through our manager but it never was. It was a lesson ... I asked (our manager), ‘If the record sold 1 million copies, then where’s the money?’ He didn’t have an answer.”

Rather than become embittered, Dickey decided to say so long to the pop-music world.

“I probably could’ve pressed the issue and gotten what was coming to me, but I’m an easygoing person and I don’t like to leave enemies behind me, so I left,” Dickey said.

A memorial service will be held for Dickey at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Old West Florida Enrichment Center, 2344 Lake Bradford Road, Tallahassee. Burial will follow at the St Mark Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery.

Gannett News Service

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