Vince Aletti was the first person to write about disco (in a piece published in Rolling Stone in 1973), after discovering clubs like David mancuso's Loft in the early seventies. His disco column in Record World was required reading for both its critical awareness and its enthusiasm for the scene. Vince also worked for Ray Caviano’s RFC Records into the early ’80s. These days, he’s the Village Voice’s art critic and has one of the greatest collection of fashion magazines in the world.
Biographical details please
I was born in Philadelphia in 1945, grew up outside Philadelphia and Fort Lauderdale. I studied literature. I went to college, just to go to college. It was 1962 when I went to college. And as much as I was not exactly caught up in the hippie thing or anything like that at that point, I was undoubtedly affected by what was going on. But I was focusing on my career; I wanted to be a writer in a sort of vaguest way.
Had you already been a record collector?
I was a music fan. I remember being a record collector as a kid, but not again until I went to college when I completely got into Motown and the early early Motown years. I started writing about music for the college paper. I went to school in Ohio, which really had a schizophrenic radio. There were a lot of country stations there, but there was also some really strong R&B stations. So I was constantly listening to R&B, and I started writing about R&B records I heard on the radio. And that was that’s what got me my job, my friend was sort of associated with a New York underground paper called The Rat. It was an important paper for New York. I don’t think I was getting paid.
What year was that?
’67 or ’68.
Were you writing about R&B?
I was writing about everything at that point. I wrote about Crosby, Stills and Nash, Woodstock. I wrote about everything that was happening, because I was interested in everything that was happening. But I was much more interested in R&B personally.
Did you go to Woodstock?
I went to to Woodstock. Well, I left after the first day. It was too crazy. Anyway, I wrote about music for them and because of that I ended up getting a job at Columbia Records for a year writing publicity material, when they were just looking for anybody who had some ability. I was very lucky to get a job with that much money. I didn’t really have any prospect of making much money as a writer because most of the papers that were publishing rock’n’roll criticism really didn’t have much money. When I was at Columbia I started writing for Fusion, Crawdaddy and a few other places that were happening at that point in publishing rock criticism. I realised that it would help me to focus on an area that I like and that no-one else was writing about, which was black music. So that’s what I did. I specialised. I think rock’n’roll criticism was totally started by fans. But not very many of them really listened to black music, or certainly not Motown and that sort of stuff.
Has the rock press always been so white, because in the UK it seems more natural for people to like both black and white produced music?
I don’t know. I think there’s always been that split in taste. I don’t think it’s as radical as it used to be. I just know it helped me specialise, because every time they wanted a Jackson 5 record reviewed, I did it. Little by little, other people started broadening and writing about black music but for a long time, I was the specialist and it really helped me. I was really was a Motown fanatic; Mary Wells and that period. So I got all the records from the record company. I was on all the lists. And I was this R&B expert. Until I went to the Loft.
Until I started hanging out with friends who were going out to clubs, and most of my friends had discovered the Loft, because I would go their house and they would have this collection of records that I’d never heard of before. I’d never seen them before, I didn’t know anything about them. It really threw me off, because I was supposed to be this expert and I really didn’t understand how that could have happened. And I realised, most of them had this very similar collection because they were all going to the same club. This is like First Choice, Creative Source, really off the wall, but completely early disco collections.
I was really excited because here were all these records that I really liked that were at small labels, or they were things that didn’t get promoted. Or perhaps they were on records that I already had but had not really listened to. So disco was really exciting for me because it was stuff I was already kind of into, but yet it was a revelation. Also, here was another area that I realised I could specialise in because nobody else was listening to it at all. Certainly not my critic friends. I wrote a piece for Rolling Stone in 1973 that I think was the first piece ever written about disco.
Brian Chin said it was one of the articles that transformed his life.
(Laughter) I didn’t realise that. The way I sold it to them was, ‘Look here’s this music that nobody else is writing about, it’s really happening’, and I had a hook because just that summer Soul Makossa became a big national record after breaking out of the clubs in New York.
Didn’t Mancuso break that record?
He was one of many people, but he really couldn’t take all the credit for that record. But it was a perfect thing to write about, because you could really trace how quickly it broke in the clubs, how quickly it got to radio and how it became a national record.
Was it a new record?
It was new to us. Someone had discovered it in some reggae shop.
Nick at Downstairs says he gave it to David. But then someone else told me that Mancuso found it in a Jamaican store in Brooklyn.
That’s what I heard too. I don’t remember hearing, for sure, that David had the record first but once it became... that’s what interested me too about stuff was the New York grapevine was so intense. A record could break in a club one night and next day everybody who cared about it, would know about that record and would be running around town trying to find it; would try to find the store that had it. Just because it was a small scene and everybody knew everybody. Everybody would want to know what the new record was.
Were DJs protective of their records?
Not really. It wasn’t like a white label scene.
The impression that we got from D’Acquisto, Mancuso and co. was that they would meet and swap ideas, and records and tips.
Right. It was. That whole thing with putting white labels on things wouldn’t come up until later when disc jockeys were trying to preserve things for themselves. At this point everybody was friendly and it didn’t feel like a scene full of rivals. But they really wanted to share the music with the people in the club and tell their friends about it.
What was it like going to the Loft first time?
I heard about it through this group of friends, some of whom were would-be disc jockeys. And very mixed-race, mostly gay, but not entirely. A group of friends who I had become very close once we started going out. But I wasn’t used to staying up until 12 in order to go out to some place, so they had to really get me into it. But once they did it was like nothing I’ve ever done before. And again, it was exciting to go to a place where almost every record I heard was completely new and great. So all I wanted to do was write down all the titles. What is this? It was very exciting.
And also the atmosphere was what excited me socially about clubs was that it was like going to a party. Completely mixed, racially and sexually, where there wasn’t any sense of someone being more important than anyone else. And it really felt like a lot of friends hanging out. David had a lot to do with creating that atmosphere. Everybody who worked there was very friendly. There were people putting up buffets and fruit and juice and popcorn and all kinds of stuff. It did feel like going to someone’s party, yet you were completely welcome at it. It was very hot and very crowded.
Was the drug-taking obvious; or just a reflection of what was going on elsewhere?
It’s hard for me to say because, I know I was smoking pot, but I was not particularly aware of what other people were doing. I didn’t have the sense that there were a lot of people out of control on drugs, the way that some clubs became later, where people were falling over themselves. I remember people smoking, but I don’t remember any obvious drug-taking happening.
So where did you go from there?
I had also gone to this other club that was also, I felt, significant in the period, that was more a gay prototype. It was called the 10th Floor. And there was a disc jockey there called Ray Yates, who was one of the few black jocks who was really successful in the crossover clubs. And he really also had great taste, really played a number of unusual records and it seemed to me that he was always discovering things.
What kind of unusual records?
Singles, like, literally 45s at that time. Basic black material. Patti Jo. Do you ever read Dancer From The Dance? Because all of the records he describes in there and the club he writes about: that’s 10th Floor. And he mentions a number of records that are all 10th Floor records. Sort of light R&B with female vocals.
Wasn’t it a prototype hi-NRG club?
No. That’s what I thought. It became a prototype for 12 West, Flamingo. Infinity was more of a straight money-making club. 10th Floor was a very private club that became influential because of the people who went there. And because of the style. That whole look was completely what all the gay clubs ended up doing later: grey industrial carpeting, banquettes, juice bar, flower arrangements. It just had a look that everybody copied after that. The industrial, hi-tech, chic look.
Who were the influential people who went there?
Fashion designers, but more like second level, fashion designer assistants. I didn’t go there that often, but it really became one of those places that was a legend, even if it didn’t last, because of all the things that came out of there. But what was more important to me about the Loft was this whole cultural mix that was going on there and it really felt like this sort of New York melting pot that totally worked. And David made it clear that everybody was there because he wanted them to be there and so you felt very brotherly toward other people.
Did you get to know him personally in that period?
I did when I did this interview with him. I was friendly with him before because I was always bugging him with, ‘What is that record?’
When did you do the thing in the Voice? We couldn’t find it.
’74 I think it was. I just knew him very casually up until them, but as a result became much more friendly. I was always felt that he was a difficult person to get friendly with. But then my schedule was not the same as his schedule.
Are you referring to his nocturnal habits?
Mainly. He was a great DJ. He was a person who really discovered records and synthesised things. But there were certain people who worked with him who became so completely caught up in his myth that it was very destructive for them. And I just tried to stay away from that because it was too intense. Judy Weinstein, who was very close to him when the record pool happened, then pulled away to form her own record pool, but was very disillusioned by him.
He formed his record pool. That was quite a while before Judy got involved wasn’t it?
Yes, it was.
Didn’t you recommend Judy to him?
Yes I did. I was involved in the record pool at the very beginning.
How did that come about?
Out of necessity. I was at Record World at that point and I could see... part of my job at Record World was calling disc jockeys each week to get their top ten lists and to find out what they were playing. And a lot of what I heard was how difficult it was to get records. And at this point, it was clear that disc jockeys were really breaking records; selling records that the companies thought they would never sell. So they were becoming more and more important and the labels didn’t know what to do about them. Here were all these people coming knocking on their door saying we want a record and the labels didn’t know how to verify where they were working; didn’t know who they were. So it was obvious that there had to be some kind of organisation to give the disc jockeys credibility and power in the business; and to verify who they were.
Had the record companies recognised this need?
To some extent. A lot of companies were giving out records, but as soon as they did, a lot of other people were coming and saying give me one too. So the record companies needed help and the disc jockeys needed help. And so the disc jockeys got organised enough to say what can we do; and how can we form a group that the record companies will recognise the group and the group will vouch for its members.
The record companies hadn’t tried to do this?
Well, this wouldn’t have happened without record labels supporting. So some of the labels had expressed interest in it.
The independents understood anyway, didn’t they, because they were the ones that saw their records broken on floors?
Well ,the independents were a lot of the people that helped it get going because they were so much more tied in. Especially, TK and some of the smaller labels.
What about Scepter and Wand and Roulette?
Yeah, you’re right. Maybe TK wasn’t around at that point. There were enough people who realised that they were getting really great returns from giving records out, but they still needed help getting it organised.
So who galvanised the whole thing?
I think David to a great extent, because he was still someone who people looked up to and knew. Even though I think some people resented his being a figurehead, he was always very well meaning and always looking out for other people. He was the only person who could pull people together. But he had this space. He had 99 Prince to work out of and offered it as a place run to the record pool. He was the only person who owned his own club; that’s the bottom line. Everyone else was working as an employee somewhere. David had a place that he could actually bring people to and use as a distribution point and that’s what got it all together. If he didn’t they would have tried to rent some place, but he certainly made it a lot easier. It was idealistic, but it was also a very workable and smart thing to do. And everybody else, once they saw that it worked, started imitating it around the country.
How long was it before they cottoned on to it? Was it Jackie McCloy and people like that?
People in the area. Then there became little splinter groups. I don’t remember exactly when things broke off. This guy Eddie Rivera, he was the first person to form another big record pool. And most of his members were from outlying areas, they were not the key jocks, but they were all working in Brooklyn and Queens. He was Puerto Rican and had a loyalty from the Puerto Rican jocks who might not have already been a member of the record pool. Now that I think about it, I think he worked at the RP for a while but didn’t get along with David, they had a falling out and broke off and took some of them with him. It very quickly became a lot of splinters. Partly in New York, and then when Judy was there that was essentially the end of David’s pool…
When did it actually start because you were there, weren’t you?
I’m terrible at dates. Steve D’Acquisto would be able to tell you better than I can. He was one of the people too who wrote up the whole proposal that we did. I guess about ’73 or ’74.
When did For The Record start? 75?
Sounds right. I don’t know. But what was sad about that; sad about Eddie Rivera; sad about Judy having to pull away; was that it had started out as a very idealistic thing pulling everybody together. And more and more it became a big business and became more ego-driven and complicated. The more money was involved, the less people got along.
Did this not mirror that end of the hippie period that was happening in that time anyway?
Mmm. I don’t know.
How tied into the hippie era do you think it was?
Not enough to make a difference to anybody. It was only David. You know, David and his idealism. It certainly didn’t feel like any hippie outpost to anybody who went there.
How quick were the labels to jump on it and exploit it?
Because I was writing about the music during this whole period, I would say not quick at all until Rock The Boat, Rock Your Baby, Love’s Theme all became number one records.
Wasn’t there a story involving Billy Smith and the Barry White record?
Right. That was another great record business story. For a record that the label didn’t even know they had, to become huge in the clubs. It was six months after it became a number one club record that it became a number one pop record. It took that long for it to really catch on. That was the best thing about that period. The record companies were very happy to see these little things pick up and get sold. I’m sure Atlantic were very delighted with what happened to Soul Makossa, but that was a one-shot. It didn’t turn into an album thing for them. But Soul Makossa was such a fluke, but these other records. You don’t have three flukes in a row and not have record companies paying attention.
So the first problem, at least from my point of view, instead of being creative and see what this new music’s about, at first all they tried to do was imitate Barry White. Imitate George MccRae. Imitate Gwen McCrae. There were all these records that were just exactly like those. They didn’t happen. And this is what the record business still does to some extent. Something becomes big and they imitate it. And the imitations fail completely. And then they say, ‘Well, this is not a real thing.’ It’s so easy to have something fall apart quickly because the commercial impulse that follows it, just kills it off by imitating it without any creativity. It took a while for the imitations to fall away and for people to start making creative records again. And that’s when I think disco had a second wind of really good music.
I think the second wind was the Euro-disco stuff that started coming in. Especially the European records that came in. They became imitated, but at least they had a longer life. Had it not been for Donna Summer’s record, it gave it another punch. But during the time I was at Record World - basically 1974-79 - I was doing a weekly column. Each week I would call four different jocks and ask them what their top ten was. And there a sort of cumulative list of what the top records where. I became close to a lot of disc jockeys because I loved that they were so completely dedicated to the music.
It was what I loved about music writing when I first got into it was that there were all these music enthusiasts. People who completely lived for music. Who spent all their money on music. I just loved their drive. It seemed to me that they lived for what they were doing and since I was just as excited about the records, a lot of our talking on the phone was about what records they had heard, and what records I had heard. It was the best period of music, for me, to feel completely tuned into it from the ground up. To hear things before they were pressed on a record. I felt very privileged. I felt like I was in the middle of the scene. Most of the records I was singing to myself hadn’t even been released yet. I was lucky enough to get a tape or acetate. It was a really interesting and exciting period for me and, I think, for all the guys who were working in it.
What happened once a record took off?
Well, one of the things that discouraged me about disc jockeys was that once a record became a hit, they would usually stop playing it. Usually because they had already been playing it for three months and they were tired of it, but once it became a radio record, they just weren’t interested in it any more. They were glad to claim it, and it gave them a lot more leverage with the record companies. But they also disowned it on a certain level. They just didn’t want to know about it any more because they were already on to the next record. And that kind of hurt them in the long run with the record companies. But I do think a lot of disc jockeys were really proud to see their records happen, especially at the beginning. When Love’s Theme became such a big record, they could really claim that as their own. It was strictly a club record.
What effect, if any, do you think Stonewall had on clubs?
I’d have to say only a residual effect because... Stonewall had the effect, little by little, this sense.. before that it was illegal to dance in clubs together. Once that stricture fell away, most of the clubs that were big early on were private so they didn’t have to deal with that anyway. You wouldn’t even have thought the 10th Floor was there unless you were...
Was that going on in the sixties?
I don’t really know. I never went out to bars, so I don’t really know that scene... Once I started going out to discos. There were always things after those. I remember hearing about those things, but I never went to them. I mean, I was definitely an aberration in terms of disco. I would go at 12, sometimes 11.30, hang out with David in the booth, because I loved hearing the music that started out the night. And some of my favourite music was David’s early records. He would play this sort of jazz, environmental things, very loose. He would make this whole atmosphere when people where coming in. Before people started dancing.
What kind of records are you talking about?
I would have a hard time pinning down records at this point. But David could give you some examples, I’m sure. These oddball things that he would discover, that were mostly like jazz-fusion records, or international world music things. Things have didn’t any lyrics for the most part, but were just cool-out or warm-up records. And I loved that kind of stuff. It was great to see the mood getting set. Little by little, they would get more rhythmic and more and more danceable and people would start dancing. I loved seeing the whole theatre get underway. It was like being in a play before the actors had started doing it. And I did the same thing at the Loft and the Garage. I would go early and by the time a lot of my friends got there, at about 4 o’clock, I’d be leaving.
Were there different shifts of people?
Yeah. Some people would come early and wait for things to pick up. And then it would get to a certain peak at about 4 or 5 in the morning and would get so crowded that you couldn’t dance
In the Loft?
Both places. A lot of my friends in the business, because of course during this whole period my friends were disc jockeys, other clubgoers and promoters. Most of my promoter friends would arrive at the club at about 4 o’clock in the morning because they’d already been to a lot of other clubs. Well, it was it the Garage at that point because the Loft was sort of pre-promotion to a great degree. But they’d come to the Garage because they’d already been to four or five places and dropped off records.
When the Garage opened with the construction parties did it eat into what the Loft was doing?
I wasn’t going out quite as much for a while. I wasn’t all that tuned into what was going on. But there were enough places that siphoned off typical Loft-goers, but David would have this hardcore crowd. He had a crowd that always went there. But he lost some of that to other places, which were newer, crazier. One thing I wanted to mention; I was thinking about some promoter friends. The thing that interested me a lot while I was at Record World and when disco promotion really took off. In ’74, ’75, I guess.
It was the first time that a lot of gay people were working in the record business, which had always always been a very very traditional, straight business. I was working at CBS Records in ’69, it was a period of what they called the House Hippie, where there’d be one or two people who would work at a label who could plug them into what kids were really listening to. So there’d be some long-haired guy working at the record label who would be their hippie. When disco came, they knew that all the traditional promotion guys, who were all, typically, these straight, older out-of-shape guys, were not going to work.
They weren’t going to go out dancing at 10th Floor.
Actually, this is post-10th Floor, this is when Le Jardin happened, and Infinity and the other big clubs. They were in the press all the time; and they were getting attention; they realised that they had to deal with these clubs, and they had to deal with the disc jockeys. The men who were already at the companies were at a loss. Little by little, they realised that they would have to bring someone in, and often they would hire somebody who was an ex-disc jockey, or someone who was working in a club.
Is David Todd one of those early label people?
Yes. Did you get to talk to him yet?
No, but we have his number.
The only older person on the scene was this guy named Juggy Gayles. I think he died. He was the only record biz character; and he loved disco. He was the only old guard promotion person who attached himself to the scene and became everybody’s father-figure. But all the other guys who got hired were almost exclusively gay. And it really changed record companies. I mean, it was really interesting to me to watch this happen because I was already dealing with a lot of people when I was working at Record World and as they started hiring people and changing and having to deal with some fairly flamboyant characters. But they knew that these guys knew what they were doing; and they were getting the records played.
The House homos then?
Well, Homo Promo was what they all called themselves! (Laughter) The person who became the symbol of all this was my eventual boss Ray Caviano, who was a true record business person; and happened to be gay. But he really was a very savvy record guy who made disco his thing. A lot of the others were a little flakier and a little crazier. I think a lot of people within the business resented it. I know when I worked with Ray at Warners, there was still a lot of tension there, because Ray was very out and very gay, but very straight-acting in a way. He was someone in the company, who they wouldn’t have known what his preferences were, except he talked about them whenever he did an article. And he got lots of publicity when he got that deal and he always talked about being gay. I don’t think the company was very comfortable with it, but they had to deal with it as long as he was successful. RFC happened at this very crucial turning point. We signed the deal in ’79.
It was very late in disco wasn’t it?
It was. It seemed like everything was happening, then suddenly it was all over. So halfway through our tenure there, disco was over and they changed the department’s name to dance music. And they lost so much confidence in the whole thing that all these issues of sexuality became much more sticky and much more difficult for everybody to deal with. But through the period when it was happening, I think it was a really good thing for the business. It really opened the business in a way that I had never seen before. I was glad.
Where people able to hold on to their positions?
Only a few of them. They really disbanded the departments really quickly. There were a lot of records that were still happening, but nobody wanted to call them disco any more so a lot of those departments continued as dance music departments.
Was there a point where one record didn’t happen, whereas the previous one had?
No, it wasn’t quite like that.
Did the Comiskey Park thing signify anything, or did it just capture a moment in time?
I think that’s more what it was like. I happened to see, coming over on the plane, the Last Days of Disco which I hadn’t seen. There’s footage from the Comiskey Park thing, and really that was just a sort of acting out of a feeling that had always been in the air.
Because Steve Dahl was a rock DJ anyway wasn’t he?
Right. And there was always that feeling and resentment.
Was it labelled as fag music around that time?
To some extent, I mean I think that people weren’t that brazen, or obviously homophobic about it, but certainly that was the undercurrent. There was a definitely a level of resentment that this music had so much attention. Not just the music, but a real movement of people, and people really cared about it. It had just drawn in a lot of disparate elements, who all felt a common interest in this music. And the fact that a lot of them were gay didn’t make any difference to the people who were into the music, but from the outside it really became an issue, I think. I think it made it easier for people to put it down.
What we can’t pin down is was it distaste from the record-buying public, or distaste for this social movement?
A little bit of both. I think it was the record companies and radio just got tired of it. To some extent, the success of Saturday Night Fever was the end of it all, I think because, and also the influence of Euro-disco at a certain point. I always think that when something becomes so big and so successful that the business thinks it’s got to move on. It milks it for all its worth. And then it’s over. For a long time, it didn’t seem like a fad, but it became so big that it had to be done with. I don’t think the general public had anything to do with it.
My feeling was at that point it was very much radio. Radio was still very traditional. It was very straight, very rock’n’roll and most of the people there were just not interested. They didn’t care about the music, they only played it because it was a hit. And they were only too glad to see it go. What was weird about us being at Warner Bros at that point was Ray, as part of his deal with WB was that he created a promotions department for all their dance music records, not just the label he set up. So just as disco was supposedly over, he made huge hits out of D’Ya Think I’m Sexy? and Rock Lobster. Neither of which could really be classified as disco records but were real dance records.
Was D’Ya Think ever an underground record?
What about labels like Prelude and West End. Were they having commercial success while this was happening, because they didn’t come into their own until the fag end of disco.
I would say that Prelude was a disco label that, once disco was over, didn’t last much longer.
Well, it was still going in ’86. The thing is a lot of the interesting records on Prelude, like D Train, came after the fall of disco.
Well, a lot of the records that came out after that period I thought were really stronger. They didn’t have to fit into a mould. They were less and less formulaic. It was what I like about disco in the first place. It had no formula. It was completely unexpected. There were all these things you just couldn’t predict. What bothered me about the label disco especially as it became used by the business, was that it meant formula to a great extent. And so it wasn’t open to the creativity that was there in the music. When the Euro-disco sound - like Donna Summer - became the definitive disco sound, everything else around it became less and less disco and more and more freaky, in a way. It was possible for all these other records to happen, but the Euro-dsco thing was like over. Except, embarrassingly enough I think, in certain gay clubs, where the only thing that they played were these hi-NRG disco records.
This was the period when I was most intensely involved with the music. And once the record company I was working for was disbanded it was sort of the end of the period for me as well. Not so much disbanded, but once they left Warner Bros. I was let go, as the label fell apart. So it was a very definitive period for me in terms of involvement, except I was still going to the Garage. Now I think about it, I do think that a lot of the records that came after that that were big Garage records, were more interesting than some of the records that came out at the height of disco.
Do you think part of that was that now the record companies had rejected this music that the artists could get on with making good records again?
I think some people maybe felt that way, but there was still dismay that had so much had been rejected. People had to really regroup and rethink their careers.
Were there a lot of casualties?
Well, there already were casualties in the business because there was a huge drug-taking period. A lot of the people who didn’t die later of AIDS, overdosed. A lot of the key, early disc jockeys, overdosed during the early Eighties.
Which DJs are you talking about here?
I can’t actually remember any names.
What drugs are you talking about?
Combinations of downers, and coke usually.
What about the clubs post-disco?
What I would say about it was it became another creative period for the disc jockeys, the same way pre-disco was, that they had to go out and look for records. They had to go out and find odd things. So there became more quirky records; more oddities. And that’s what had drawn me to it in the first place. I mean, all along there had always been these weird fluky records. But after the whole disco thing fizzled, it went back to something more strange. And people made more unusual more unusual connections. It was easier to play the Clash and Loleatta Holloway.
Were you aware at that time of what was happening in the Bronx?
Not so much. One of my most embarrassing moments in the business was getting - this letter no longer exists - but when I was at RFC Records I was doing A&R and getting all these tapes. And the Kurtis Blow record had become a hit, a semi-hit, Christmas Rapping. So we started getting some very imitative rap records and I remember writing to somebody, ‘This is just a fad. It’ll never happen’. And of course regretting it six months later. But there were certainly a lot of bad rappers at that point. I was living in the East Village at that point, so there was some crossover with the graffiti E. Village art scene and the sense that this whole Bronx thing was very hip. So there was this whole crossover thing with hip-hop and Keith Haring and the early people working in the E. Village.
So what about the Garage. Tell us about it?
As I said, my experiences of the Garage are so much different from everybody else’s because I went there as it was opening up.
I assumed that you had already met Larry?
I met Larry. My whole connection to Larry was through Judy Weinstein.
And she managed him the whole time didn’t she?
Yeah. She was close to him. That’s why I started going, because I was hanging out with her. We’d all hang out together.
Had you been to Reade Street?
So the first time you saw him was at the Garage?
Yes. I never went out as much as most of my friends did. So when I went to the Garage, I’d hang out in the booth which usually ended up being a number of Larry groupies and promotion people and other club employees. And seeing this scene of people coming to play my record; getting Larry to hear something; or leaving off an acetate. It was mainly because Larry had the ear of Frankie Crocker at WBLS. At that point it was the radio station and he was the big disc jockey. And he was the only who was really clued into disco. And he would go to the Garage. That was the place he knew he could go and be comfortable and hear new things. So Larry became incredibly important.
Beyond the fact that he was a good disc jockey and he had a great club. He had the ear of the most important radio disc jockey in the city. Promotion people could pretty much count on, that if their record got played it would be heard by Frankie Crocker. And that was doubly important. All those factors made it the hot club. Everybody who had a record to push would get to perform there. One thing fed into another. It became important because of all of these factors. And it helped that Larry had a great ear; was a good mixer, and had an interesting crowd.
How much do you think Frankie Crocker angle has contributed to his legend?
No. They didn’t even care. The legend, as regards Larry, totally depended on him being up there in the booth. But it was a theatrical place. The way it was set up with this booth overlooking the floor - it was also one of the largest booths in New York - so you could get 30 people up there if you wanted. So it became a whole other scene. It became like the VIP room of VIP rooms. And yet it was not very much about celebrity. It was about Larry’s friends. Some of the celebrities who came, never got up there at all. The Larry legend is like beyond any reason. It’s just sort of feeds on itself to some extent.
And also the fact that he’s dead.
But I was talking mostly about what gave him power within the New York scene. He really became the ruling disc jockey and that was really to do with the promoters giving him that power.
How did Frankie Crocker get on the case with that?
I have to say it was obvious. It was a club that was...
Was it that obvious? To me Studio 54 was obvious.
Studio was still more of a pop place and the Garage was much blacker. The music they played, the people who went there (the crowd was probably 75% black), and it was important that he also plugged into that. I really can’t say that the Garage was underground for more than a year after it opened. It was still private, and still had its membership list, so not everybody could get in, but it was so known as the hot place to go.
Do you think that it maintained its hotness (ahem) right till the end?
Almost till the end, because it helped that it was still inaccessible to a lot of people. In the same way that it helped Studio that it was inaccessible to a lot of people who wanted to go there. Not everyone could get in to the Garage. So if you got in, it was a scene. It was definitely a scene. People from Europe and everywhere knew about - I’m not sure how the word spread, but the way those things do - it was always interesting, because it always attracted the kind of music business and celebrity that was not like the Studio scene at all. It was hipper and younger, to some extent.
What marked him out as a DJ compared to the others?
That I’m not so sure about, because I often thought that he made very clumsy mixes. He was not the most elegant of mixers, but he did have a great ear. I loved the kinds of things that he would pick up and put together. It really just gets down to taste.
Was it him that picked these odd records, or did he get them from someone else?
I think that he had a lot of good advice from other people, the same way all good disc jockeys do. David Mancuso, from the very beginning, had people bringing him records. But in the end it was him who decided to play them. I’m sure he listened to everything that came his way and made a decision that this one would work and that one would work. He also made certain records his records, even though everybody else was playing them.
Such as Love Is The Message. Not that he was the first to play it, by any means, it was out long before the club opened, but it became such a defining record for the Garage.
Was that the bootleg mix or the original?
The original, although he started doing his thing with it. I always think of that and Weekend by Phreeek, any Loleatta Holloway record, the Clash’s Magnificent Dance, Lace. It makes a certain force of personality to make records that everybody else is playing your own. It wasn’t always that he played them first, he played them... all the time! (Laughter) It felt like they belonged in that club.
It’s to do with context isn’t it?
Yeah, that’s right it’s the context. And he was really good at making this night happen. For me it was the crowd he got. One of the things that excited me about disco was that it really did bring people together and it was a way of being out partying with people who you would never be with in another context, and with whom suddenly you became friendly with. I don’t really like clubs that are one thing. I don’t like clubs that are just gay. Or just black. So it was really important to him to have a real mixture all the time. If it was essentially a black club, that was also important because it was never tipped over in another direction. It was important to him that it was essentially a black club, but also very mixed. And also essentially a gay club, but a mixed one.
Nicky Siano was very critical of Studio 54, saying that the elements that Rubell introduced to the party were the beginning of the end of NY clubland as it had been known.
It totally got rid of the democracy of the party. It was the beginning of disco becoming a business of a whole other sort. And, I thought, really unattractive. The only time I was in Studio was when RFC Records had a kick-off party there when it first formed and another party later. I would never go to a place where I had to worry about whether they would let me in or not. There was nothing else before Studio, though there were other clubs that lead up to Studio. Before that there was Arthur and other pre-disco clubs. A lot of other clubs aspired to this and were jealous when it happened for Studio. But I think it was destructive to have a velvet rope. It was completely against the idealism of disco and the community of disco, in the sense that everybody was together.
Did people at Garage regard the Studio as the anti-Christ?
To an extent. I certainly did. It was not what we thought this was all about. David’s idealism was very widespread in terms of the way people felt. I think disco was, to some extent, a movement and a lot of people felt very strongly. And a lot of people got very caught up in what they felt it should and shouldn’t be.
What was the reaction when Studio 54 took off?
It’s hard for me to say, besides what I already said. There’s a scene at the end of the Last Days Of Disco one of the characters has this very idealistic speech where he says disco was a whole movement. It was funny, but it was really true and people felt that. They felt disappointed that the idealistic quality of it was being trampled over, in favour of money and celebrity. As much as disco was glitzy and certainly loved celebrity culture when people came to clubs, there was never a sense of it being driven by that. It was much more driven by an underground idea of unity.
If it was idealistic, what would you say was the manifesto?
Love Is The Message. The manifesto was the music. That’s another thing I loved about Larry was that – and which I don’t feel in clubs any more – he liked playing records because he liked what they were saying. And David, too. There was this real sense that he was speaking to you through those records and that Love Is The Message. That’s another reason why it became so identified with it, that they were records were uplifting and were positive, even though... You remember that record Love Money?
No. Anyway, there were certainly things that he played that wouldn’t fit in with his love love love message, like Love Money, but the overriding message was unity and love. That was the other thing I remember feeling very drawn to. That was the manifesto.
Were there other DJs from that period who you would say were noteworthy. Like Tee Scott for example?
Another club I went to occasionally was Flamingo, which was very gay, 99%, very white for the most part, but had a great club jock there, Richie Rivera. He was really good, and also very charismatic, but in a slightly more retiring way. I’m trying to remember other people. A lot of people I would talk to on the phone and get very friendly with, like Jellybean, Tony Smith, people who I rarely heard play.
Jellybean was the first superstar DJ really wasn’t he?
True, and I was surprised to see him do it, because when I first met him he was very young, very sincere and a little shy, so it seemed to me. I would never have predicted that he would be the one to break out and to be the first one to put his name on a record. He definitely upped the ante as to where you could go. He was playing at Funhouse during his most influential period. Which was only important because he was there. He really drew an interesting crowd. In a way a hip-hop crowd, very mixed, black and Puerto Rican, really young. A cute crowd. It was a great crowd for him to work on. It gave him his first real dedicated followers. He’d become successful by that point, but he really hit his stride there and was able to break records.
What do you think was the lasting impact of those early disco DJs?
There was a period, at the beginning, where they all felt like proselytisers. Not just to their audience but to each other. It was a real community. They were happy to share, and make connections with other people. They weren’t jealous of each other, they weren’t overly competitive. That only came later. The bigger the business, the more involved.... It seemed like a small scene and they were real buddies. This was their connection. They lived and breathed music and didn’t talk about anything else. It wasn’t like they had a big life outside of the clubs.
Before clubs became very successful and made a lot of money, a lot of them played several nights a week at several different clubs. They lived for nothing else. So this was all they had to talk about and they loved it. That was their currency: the newest record. You got a sense from them that there was a constant trawling of record stores and places where they knew they could find things. It was an active, and great, network, that was all about sharing.
Do you think part of that charm and naiveté is its secrecy?
Yeah. One of the things I loved about David. One of the records I remember him playing was this a cut off a Bonnie Bramlett album [the track is called Crazy ’Bout My Baby]. And no way where they aware how it was being used. But there it was. A top ten Loft record. So it was those sort of accidents that kept things creative. The things that were designed for discos were not always the best records. The things that people discovered and made work kept it going and they were usually that pushed it off into another direction, or pushed into more creative areas. And I still think it’s the same. It’s the records that you just don’t expect; that no one’s ever made before that are the ones that indicate where things are going.
Interviewed by Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton in New York, 12.10.98
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