Carlos Hawthorn dials up Sandy Rivera to hear the story of a perfect soulful house track.
Sandy Rivera: Which track?
Carlos Hawthorn: "Finally."
SR: I didn't make that. Yeah, dude I'm Kings Of Tomorrow, Sandy Rivera. CeCe Peniston made that.
CH: What? Hang on…
SR: I'm joking. [Laughs.]
Sandy Rivera is in a playful mood when he picks up the phone in Warsaw. He's one beer deep and on the hunt for more. During our conversation, his wife, who is Polish, brings him a large ice cream followed by a pizza. "I should take a picture of this shit," he said. "It's hilarious."
Rivera's opening gag was cheap, but it has some basis in truth. CeCe Peniston's 1991 smash was the inspiration, not only nominally, for "Finally," Rivera's soulful house classic produced under his best-known alias, Kings Of Tomorrow.
"My ex-partner [Jay 'Sinister' Sealee] was a really good writer," says Rivera. "He wrote the lyrics. I gave him the storyline. It's called 'Finally' because of CeCe Peniston. I said, 'It needs to be like that track.' The track is perfect, the vocal is perfect. It's gonna last forever. It's still one of the top 20 records for soulful house music. It's spot on."
Nearly 20 years since its release, you could say the same about Rivera's "Finally." He began making it at the end of the '90s in his New Jersey living room. At the time, he was working on his debut album as Kings Of Tomorrow for the French label Distance. The track's first and most important breakthrough came early.
"I was just playing keys," he said. "And for some reason I did a chord structure with 32 bars. I kept playing this chord structure, just fucking around. And then I heard these three chords that came in a hub. I was like, 'Oh shit, let me loop this section.' As soon as I looped that without putting any bass or a beat, I was flabbergasted for, like, hours. I was like, 'shit, this is special.'"
Rivera kept tinkering away, figuring out ways to make the bassline and chord changes sit in harmony. He knew the track needed a vocal, so he sent the tape to Sealee, together with a big spiel about how "it's gonna be one of those anthems where everybody sings almost every word back." But the project stalled. Then, around a year later, Sealee walked into the studio and restarted the conversation.
"He's like, 'hey I'm gonna bring Julie [McKnight] and we're gonna finish that song," said Rivera. "So then we have the session and all the magic just happens. The track's already set. It took me about a week to organise the whole structure, like a solid week, ten-hour studio days. And then it was done exactly the way people hear it—but no one liked it. Harry 'Choo Choo' [Romero] came to my house and I was like, 'Dude I've got this tune, do you want it?' And he's like, 'Nah, too soulful.'"
"Finally" first appeared on the It's In The Lifestyle LP, which came out in 2000. It was the tenth track of 13—"literally a throwaway cut," said Rivera. At the same time, he was proud of it. He thought he'd made a beautiful track—"everything that I wanted." To have people rejecting it must have been a blow.
According to Rivera, one of its original naysayers was Simon Dunmore, founder of the UK label Defected. But Dunmore, speaking to me recently from Ibiza, claims this never happened. "Sandy… He just makes me laugh," he says. "He's a character. He always tries to remind me of the fact that I passed on it. I mean, it's not my recollection of it, but it's a good story."
The reason it's a good story is because a year after its release, Dunmore paid "an incredible amount of money" to license "Finally" for the UK. It was a calculated risk. After a slow start, the record had been picking up serious heat on the dance floors of Winter Music Conference in Miami and elsewhere, hammered by tastemaker DJs like Tony Humphries and Louie Vega.
"Several people thought that I'd lost my mind to pay that amount of money for an underground vocal house record," says Dunmore. Today, he calls "Finally" his all-time favourite house track. "It's probably one of the best signings Defected ever made."
The first thing that hits you is the bassline. Simple yet timeless, it anchors the tune, gelling beautifully with the soft chords and snatches of explosive percussion. McKnight's vocal, warm and moving, soars over the beat. The lyrics, which reflect on past struggles from the throes of fresh love, are honest, uplifting and gently philosophical. For good reason, "Finally" is a favourite at weddings and funerals. "This song became the unofficial anthem in NYC after 9/11," said one Discogs user.
"You can't get sick of it, that was the plan," said Rivera. "That was the whole thing: to make a record that you're not sick of. You know how you have these records, whether you're sober or wasted, this one record that you listen to yourself. That you can loop. That's personal to you. It's just that one that brings you into a place. I'm just happy I made it."
Sat / 31 Aug 2019
A1 Finally (DJ Meri Vox Mix)
A2 Finally (Original Extended Mix)
B1 Finally (Rulers Of The Deep Mix)
B2 Finally (Tom De Neef Dub)
C1 Finally (Tom De Neef Club Mix)
C2 Finally (Mad Congism Bonus Beats)
D1 Finally (Danny Krivit & Steve Travolta Re-edit)
D2 Finally (Acappella)