Irving Farm's John Henry Summerour sat down with Richard Lewis and Lynne Koehler-Lewis, longtime patrons of our 71 Irving Place cafe, to discuss their dual lives as DJs, their Icelandic connection, and their involvement in the incredible Dig Deeper series, a monthly event that brings soul legends back to New York City for an unforgettable celebration of music, dance and life. The next Dig Deeper will go down on Saturday, February 21st, at Brooklyn's Littlefield, featuring Georgia artist Roy Lee Johnson who will be performing in NYC for the first time in 40 years, backed by the Brooklyn Rhythm Band! Get your tickets and dig deep into this 1960s soul experience with Richard and Lynne. They'll see you on the dance floor.
In my twelve years working the counter at 71 there were plenty of regulars I enjoyed seeing. When I was in the zone on a busy morning shift I could scan a line of customers and catalogue up to thirty approaching orders:
Small black coffee flat top, Skim latte paper cup, Decaf latte cold milk flat top paper bag with handles, Tourist, Tourist, Large hot tea no milk two croissants paper bag no handle, Waiter from next door recently married just got back from honeymoon, Black iced coffee light ice topless...
I would continue adding to this list while reaching behind with my right hand to grab a large cup and begin filling it with hot coffee, punching the current order into the register with my left, grabbing a lid and topping the coffee just before it brimmed, asking a coworker for six specific pastry items, calling to the back for more cups and lids and ice and whole milk, making a mental note that we were about to run out of $1s so I needed to dump the tip jar and make change, tossing beans into the grinder to prep the next brew, the whole time maintaining eye contact with the customer directly in front of me, trying to smile and speak calmly, as though we were the only two people in the room. You could call it a ballet except there's very little grace involved. It's frenetic at best, yielding to utter chaos at the slightest hiccup in rhythm. So much of being a successful barista comes down to rhythm. While I liked plenty of customers, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have favorites. On a crazy Saturday morning with the line stretching out to the sidewalk, I could quickly review the string of waiting faces, lock eyes with Richard and Lynne, and I swear every time I would feel 1% calmer. In the coffee industry, 1% is EPIC. It's the difference between executing a very simple task, like placing a cranberry banana muffin on a plate, and accidentally fumbling the muffin to the floor which triggers the apocalypse. Muffins roll. Coffee overflows. Cupcakes slip from the sugary palms of children. Banshees howl. Glass jugs of milk jump off the counter and shatter, drowning everyone in a river of sticky, sweet calcium. I run to the back of the building and squeeze myself into the darkest, furthest corner, where I hold myself and whisper, "I can't do this anymore," over and over like the prayer of a broken man. Richard and Lynne, with their gentle, calming aura, can prevent this from happening. And they know a thing or two about rhythm.
Born and raised in Houston, TX, Richard relocated to NYC from LA in 2005, and this year marks twenty years working as an analyst for a mutual fund company covering the oil and tech industries. Lynne, who is Brooklyn born and bred, decided to walk away from a decade-long career at the Wall Street Journal to study speech pathology at NYU, graduating last year. At this point I should tell you that Richard and Lynne also have alter egos: DJ Honky and Lynne K. Upstanding professionals by day, rump-shaking sorcerers by night, Richard and Lynne had quite different paths to the DJ booth. Richard grew up playing piano and riding in the car with his mother who listened to the Kingston Trio and Broadway show tunes. As a teenager he would scour the record stores for prog rock, developing an early interest in rare recordings and forgotten artists. His first real gig was in Reykjavík, Iceland (cuz you know, that's what you do when you're nervous about doing a good job and need an anonymous, safe space to practice your craft). He flew over with a box of 45s and started inquiring at coffee shops, some of which turned into clubs at night, until he found a promoter who gave him the "warm up" slot at a biker bar from 11pm-12am. That night he played his very best soul records for an audience of two drunks who spent the entire set heckling the American. He figured it couldn't get any worse, so when he returned to LA he started spinning around town and producing mix CDs of his favorite tracks. As a New Yorker, Lynne had the enviable experience of following her brother's recommendation to pay $15 and catch James Brown in concert. She was 15 years old and this was her very first club show. Having just picked up the trumpet, this night wound up being a major cultural turning point as she fell in love with soul and early funk. She attended various soul nights and parties around town, making her own mixtapes and CDs, which eventually caught the ear of a promoter who asked her to spin in between live acts at Brooklyn's Polish National Home/Warsaw in 2001. Bringing a party from a complete standstill to ecstatic mayhem with the drop of one record became her favorite thrill. It's unclear how Lynne would have fared in the Icelandic biker bar, but in 2006 she entered a contest through Icelandair to win a free trip. She wrote an impassioned entry about why Iceland needed soul music and why she was the person to rescue them, and although she didn't win the trip, the experience made for good conversation with the quiet guy standing near the turntables at Rififi's Subway Soul Club in the East Village. The next time they ran into each other at Botanica, Richard gave her some of his mix CDs, and that was that, leading to their eventual nuptials in 2009. Another important connection born out of the Rififi scene was Richard's friendship with Mr. Robinson (also known by day, and probably by his mother, as Michael). They were interested in collaborating on an event as DJs, but New York had no shortage of nights featuring two white guys at a bar spinning obscure record collections. Inspired by concerts that celebrate music heritage, like the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans, they began spitballing ideas. What if they could produce live events with legendary soul musicians? Where were their heroes now? Do any of them still play live? Would these artists, many of whom are in their late 70s and early 80s, be willing and able to relearn their old hits, and then travel miles from home for their first NYC gig in over 40 years? DJ Honky and Mr. Robinson had no experience booking shows, but the concept was too thrilling, the mission too important, to not give it a whirl, and thus Dig Deeper came into being.
Their first set of shows was at the Five Spot in Fort Greene, and as their audience grew through grassroots marketing efforts like email blasts, dynamite fliers and word of mouth, the events moved around Brooklyn to venues like Southpaw, the Bell House, and finally their current home at Littlefield, a progressive arts space in a former textile warehouse in Gowanus with walls constructed from recycled rubber tires and chairs made out of repurposed cork. To this day, Dig Deeper is a labor of love. The booking of Paul Sindab is a good case study of how an event generally comes together. In his heyday, Paul Sindab performed with Sammy Davis Jr., Dionne Warwick, Wilson Pickett and Jackie Wilson. The Temptations even served as his opening act once upon a time. When Richard and Michael began looking for him, they knew he was living in Austin, TX, but had no way of contacting him. Richard combed through the White Pages and started making calls, guided by the rule of six degrees of separation, but to no avail. After years of dead ends, a friend who was a fan of the music and loved doing research happened to type "Paul Sindab" into Facebook, and voila! Paul was driving a school bus at the time and hadn't played his classic songs in 45 years. Richard was able to convince him to give it a shot and made a CD of his old recordings so that Paul could learn to sing his entire catalogue all over again. They also discovered—and Paul had to be reminded—that he had recorded under another name, E.J. Rush, so he learned those songs as well. Another friend from the Rififi days, J.B. Flatt, served as the Dig Deeper bandleader and personally transcribed all the charts for horns, rhythm, backing vocals, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, etc. Travel arrangements were made. Tickets were sold. People came, and they danced. They danced hard, and Paul sang harder, and just like that, a moment jumped out of the footnotes of music history to become thrillingly, achingly reborn.
After Superstorm Sandy, they threw a benefit with Rye Coalition and '60s garage group The Sonics for Norton Records, the legendary label that was completely flooded during the storm. Dig Deeper also hosts Jamaican music nights that have drawn fans from the UK, Japan and Puerto Rico. DJ Honky and Lynne K can be found at Union Pool once a month, spinning records before a mass of spinning bodies. And there's more... They chose to completely renovate their apartment and live out of one small bedroom lined with multiple extension cords, where they prepared all their meals in a slow cooker. Dishes were washed in the bathroom sink. They would take pictures of their dinners as a source of encouragement. "Look what we managed to create out of incredibly challenging circumstances!" This spirit infuses everything they do, and it mirrors the lives and journeys of the artists they showcase. Dig Deeper has hosted over 50 musicians since 2008, and each time it's an incredibly emotional experience for all involved. Most of these artists were not fairly compensated when they were recording, and many were left to feel chewed up and discarded by an industry that often prizes youth, units and dollars over longevity and legacy. To be invited to perform again, to be respected and cared for, to be honored for their artistic contributions in their latter years can be a cathartic experience. After suffering a stroke, Marva Whitney traveled to New York with an oxygen tank, and even though she had to remain seated to perform, she absolutely rocked Dig Deeper's New Year's Eve concert. Lou Pride took a break from dialysis to do his show. Jimmy "Preacher" Ellis was almost 80 years old when he participated. It was his very first time playing NYC and he had to be carried onto the stage. Lynne sat in the sound booth with Jimmy's daughter who had never seen her dad perform. Marva and Lou passed away in 2012, and the urgency of this series is not lost on its organizers.
When I ask Richard and Lynne how they manage to juggle full-time day jobs with full-time nights and everything in between, they credit their love of the music and lots of coffee, which they affectionately call "magic juice". Lynne tells me that she started drinking iced coffee with her grandmother when she was 5 years old, and I'm reminded of drinking coffee in my grandmother's kitchen as a kid. I'm reminded of my grandfather playing his prized collection of gospel tapes by the Rangers Quartet. I remember the profound importance of shared experience, sensory connections that carry us deeper into the rhythm of living, of being. I think about that special quality Richard and Lynne possess, their ability to introduce calm into a chaotic environment. And then I realize that what I see in their eyes—what I imagine the Dig Deeper artists see as well—is empathy. To be seen and heard can be simply miraculous in this busy, quick world. And that's what soul and funk is all about. Are you hurting? Is your heart in pain? Do you wanna cry out? Are you happy? Is your heart about to burst? Do you wanna shake and sway and shout? You are seen. You are heard. You are not alone. Let's dance.
Join us this Saturday, February 21, at 9pm as we catch some Georgia soul with Roy Lee Johnson, DJ Honky, Mr. Robinson and special guest DJ Brian Poust. It's all going down at Brooklyn's Littlefield. Tickets here!