“I was visiting my cousin Jay,” remembers Julie McKnight of one special night in a New Jersey living room 20 years ago. “Sandy, the other half of Kings Of Tomorrow, was also there. We got pizza. Had some Heineken. They said they had a tune called ‘Finally’ they needed a vocal for, and I said ‘ah, OK’. I sang it, and what people hear is one of only two takes I ever did. That was it. I went off to play with Sandy’s baby girl and they finished it off.”
Simple as that. No committee meetings. No major labels. No vastly expensive studios. That one laidback get-together gave birth to one of the most enduring soulful house tracks of the century. In the 20 years since it peaked at No.24 on the UK singles chart and No.17 on the Billboard dance chart, ‘Finally’ has remained an evergreen favourite — a track that unites any crowd with its bittersweet messages, hypnotic drums and spiritual atmosphere. Sandy Rivera had actually started producing it a year before that living room meet up, but had stalled when it came to getting the right vocalist.
No one ever really knows why some tracks go on to be as indelible as this one, but co-producer Jay ‘Sinister’ Sealee — who went solo in 2002, leaving Sandy to take care of Kings Of Tomorrow — has his own ideas.
“It was just a perfect pairing of lyrics and the tone of Julie’s voice that intertwined for a magical result,” he says. “The family connection to her was totally irrelevant in our selection. Her very specific styling, perfect pitch and timbre made her the sole consideration and obvious choice to deliver this very important song. No one else could have delivered it with the same outcome, because Julie takes direction extremely well and, typically, is a ‘one-taker’. ‘Finally’ is very straightforward by design and didn’t incorporate many additional tracks for her to lay down with regard to harmonies.”
Importantly, ‘Finally’ is very much a song and one, says Jay, that was “perhaps inspired” by the Aly Us hit ‘Follow Me’ on Strictly Rhythm. Sandy Rivera, meanwhile, said in a previous interview that CeCe Peniston’s 1991 smash of the same name was the inspiration.
“It just came organically, outside of the fact that it was pre-determined that the bassline was going to drive the track as a feature, once laid,” explains Jay. That bassline was crafted on a criminally under-appreciated Roland JV-2080 synth and, next to the vocal, is the track’s standout feature, despite its simplicity.
‘Finally’ actually starts with two verses as opposed to the more standard one, which delays the gratification of the first chorus and the main melodic features of the tune until you’re already well-and-truly locked into the rolling bass and Julie’s spine-tingling voice. What she does is a masterclass in vocal work: she repeats words and phrases like ‘you’, ‘I’ and ‘time and time again’, effortlessly shifting their pitch and tugging at the heartstrings in the process. When she opens up for the chorus and the heavenly chords ride up and down the scales, the rush of emotion and ripples of goose-pimples are unavoidable. Whether you’re a house head or a techno warrior, it brings universal feelings that never grow old.
The lyrics were written by Jay while on a flight home. They manage to be both profound and sensuous, singable but never derivative. He remembers that they came to him quickly and that he was “tearing up a bit as ideas hit the pad during the writing process. Maybe one too many bar drinks attributed to the emotion at the time,” he laughs. The track was written about something personal to him “which I won’t share further”, and was inspired by the arrival of the new millennium.
“It was presented in a package to be delivered, related to, interpreted and consumed by the listener for whichever circumstance was personally applicable, whether that may have been personal self-reflection, relationships, love or new beginnings.”
For many, the song can be happy or sad; a tale of love lost or newfound romance, depending on how you come at it. But for Jay, “it is awesomely happy and the only sad emotion it evokes, if you could call it that, would be one of hope”. And that’s part of the reason it became an unofficial anthem for dancers in New York in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 911. “The song reflected the value of a new beginning, and I believe people latched on to that and looked to the song for peace in a very dark and chaotic moment in time.”
"The song reflected the value of a new beginning, and I believe people latched on to that and looked to the song for peace in a very dark and chaotic moment in time.” - Jay ‘Sinister’ Sealee
Spark of magic
These days, well-crafted house songs like ‘Finally’ are few and far between. Simon Dunmore has a theory as to why, after he re-released the tune on 12” via his Defected label a year after it first appeared, buried in the middle of Kings Of Tomorrow’s ‘It’s In The Lifestyle’ album on Paris label Distance in 2000.
“Artists don’t get together in the studio like they used to,” he says. “These days, most collaborations are done on the internet. I think that means there isn’t the opportunity for a kind of curveball moment, a spark of magic, or for people to really bounce off each other in the way they can when they get together in the closed environment of a studio.”
Simon had worked with Sandy at a previous label, AM:PM, so the two already had a relationship. To this day, they have a friendly dispute over whether Simon knocked ‘Finally’ back first before it went to Distance. Regardless of that, once he heard it in the club, and saw the undeniable reactions it was getting each and every time, he was keen to license it for Defected.
“The tune was picked up by lots of the US DJs who were coming to London and playing,” he says. “Word began to spread, the tune got played on lots of pirate radio stations, by Bobby and Steve on KISS, and Danny Rampling on his specialist show on Radio 1. It was almost everywhere you turned back then, so we ended up making an offer to license it. It is a record that, to this day, still very much defines Defected. It’s just a great song, very emotional house music. There is a lot of functional music these days, but tracks that really stand the test of time are much harder to find.”
Simon remembers people balking at him for putting up such a big advance to secure the track for his own label, but it paid off. Defected reissued ‘Finally’ in October 2001, and the same year, Simon enlisted New York legend Danny Tenaglia to serve up two remixes of his own.
“You have to broaden out the appeal of a record. The original is very deep, the bassline is really hypnotic and the song carries it, but then — as it is now — DJs preferred records with a bit more energy. Danny had an amazing reputation, so his endorsing the record was one part of it, but for him to deliver a remix that was so up, with the huge and lush piano chords he added, it just took the track a bit more into peak time territory.”
Julie and Jay both tell us they were fans of the Danny Tenaglia remixes, and also the ‘Love Story vs Finally’ mash-up that proved just as successful by Layo & Bushwacka. It came about as a result of the tech-house duo’s DJ sets: Bushwacka would play on three decks, and one night at Creamfields in Argentina, he dropped the acapella of ‘Finally’ over their own tune ‘Love Story’, as well as a simple techno loop. “I had never seen so many thousands of people go so crazy,” he recalls. “The fusion brought tears to my eyes, and that is how it came about.”
The pair actually had other vocalists in the studio re-singing the original. “The results were OK, but not magical enough for us,” says Bushwacka, who admits that at the time, Layo didn’t even want to release the version they finally did. “I saw Sandy once years later. I said that he did well out of us with his publishing royalties. He thanked me. That’s the only discussion we have ever had about it but, for me, it has meant making lots of people very happy. It fills me with joy to think about how many beautiful memories there are of people dancing and singing along.”
The original ‘Finally’ got plenty of plays in Sandy Rivera’s own house sets, even if Harry ‘Choo Choo’ Romero knocked it back when he first heard it at Sandy’s house, claiming it was “too soulful”. Jay remembers the track catching on when he heard it at the Winter Music Conference in Miami. “Tony Humphries dropped it multiple times in a set, and the crowd reaction from spin one said it all,” he says, adding that for him, “it was a big track from the moment I heard Julie deliver the first line in my headset.”
“I still love it. I love all of mine,” beams Julie, who now also works as a kindergarten teacher, but is speaking while in the UK touring with Sandy and happily performing ‘Finally’ at every show.
“You know, that’s why I’ve made sure I choose songs that mean something to me, rather than just singing on something people think will be a hit. No. With ‘Finally’, honestly, the meaning of the song changes at times, even when I have to perform it, depending on where I am in my life. It can be about God, or it can be a message to the house family that’s there with me, it can be about someone who has passed away, or a wedding, or a new baby, and I think that’s why it’s so special.”
The reason Julie has always been so vocally adept is because she has been singing and performing since she was 15. “I was raised singing in clubs at home, whether it was rock or punk or blues or jazz. I’ve always been a singer with a band, doing open mics and larger venues, and that was always my favourite thing to do. But if I am up there on stage, alone, I get my energy from my house family, feeding back into my performance.”
She grew up in a musical household, and legendary early rock ’n’ roll architect Little Richard was a family friend and regular visitor. Julie says he, and other family friends, grounded her and always advised her to stay independent, which is why she shunned major label offers that came in the wake of the success of ‘Finally’.
In fact, Julie was and is very choosey about who she works with. “I have a small circle of people, mostly family, who I would sing for, and that was why I was comfortable enough to go in with Jay,” she says. “I knew I would be treated fairly and given some freedom.”
Years later, Julie was asked to work with Axwell and David Guetta. She did, but still insisted she sang verse-chorus-verse-chorus rather than just a line that would be looped and heavily post-produced. “It’s a different world, the songs come out very different, so I only did two,” she says with a wry smile.
Neither of them bested ‘Finally’. The “never-ending churn of music streaming”, as Simon puts it, means the track is always available, and always getting played somewhere. In the past, tunes sold out, went out of print, got deleted. But these days anyone can listen to anything at any time. That, combined with the subtle spirituality and philosophy of the original, has helped it endure. “The thing about great music is that longevity is not necessarily about selling a huge amount of records really quickly and being in the charts,” says Simon. “Other records we have put out on Defected have been more successful, but don’t define us as well as that record.”
Similar follow-up tunes by Julie and Jay, such as the gospel-tinged ‘Home’, are still brilliant house records, but never even got close to the status of ‘Finally’. As Simon puts it, lightning never strikes twice. “It was just a magical moment where everything came together.”