Category Archives: Paradise Garage

Danny Krivit rolled through disco

Danny Krivit rolled through disco

It’s hard to believe Danny Krivit has been DJing for five decades. He was around for the early flowerings of disco in the early ’70s. So what’s the secret to his youthful appearance? Well, Danny started DJing at the age of nine! His mum was a white vocalist on the black New Jersey club circuit; his dad, a jazz musician who managed Chet Baker. By his teens Danny was programming music on reel-to-reel for his father’s Greenwich Village club, The Ninth Circle, which was the start of him playing many of the landmark clubs of the disco era. He was resident at The Roxy, the massive west-side rollerskating venue, for four years from 1979, as it became the wild epicentre of hip hop (Quick to embrace a few scratching techniques, they called him Danny Rock). Danny was particularly close to Larry Levan and the family of DJs and music-lovers that coalesced at The Paradise Garage, and would often skate over to King Street after the Roxy and hang there, playing records. In 1996 he teamed up with Joe Clausell and another old friend, François Kevorkian, to create Body & Soul, a club that kept the flame alive for the Garage heads. More recently, his own 718 sessions have given him a residency that still delivers some of the best nights in New York. Through it all, as Mr K, he’s a creator of legendary edits, creating cuts of songs that have become the classic version. Check his great website where he posts new ones all the time.

Interviewed in New York, 06 10 98, by Bill

Where were you born, where did you grow up?
I was born in 1957 in New Jersey, we moved to Manhattan when I was four or five. Pretty much stayed in the Village my whole life. In fact, until I moved over here (E14 Street) I’d only moved about four blocks in thirty years. My step-father owned a place called the Ninth Circle, which he started in ’62. In the Sixties, it was one of the main Village spots. When I was growing up I was really around there a lot. There were a lot of rock’n’roll people there, music people. When I was seven I was already doing brunches and working as a waiter, and I served Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon. In the Village it just wasn’t that odd, I suppose. And they had a very happening jukebox. So without even knowing it, before I was even into music, I was around it. My mother was a jazz singer, my father was into jazz, an older sister into pop.

Did your mother perform?
She performed on the black circuit in New Jersey. I remember we went to Puerto Rico when I was a kid and Dionne Warwick was really happening then. She had seen her there and she said lemme introduce you to her because my mom had worked with her. And Dionne Warwick remembered her because she was a white girl doing this thing and she just stuck out. But she never really made it.

The Ninth Circle was kind of dying out by about 1970 or so and a friend of his owned the Stonewall and when that closed he said to my father I know you’ve had this great thing for years but you know the Village has really turned gay. If you just turn your place gay, all your troubles will be over and you’ll be a success overnight. And literally that’s what he did. The Ninth Circle went gay about 1971. He turned the restaurant downstairs into a disco and I started programming [reel-to-reel] tapes for him. He also got tapes from clubs like Le Jardin, Le Hippopotamus, happening places. I got in the door like that. Then he opened up a place called Ones. If you’re down near Vinyl on Hudson, there’s a Korean fruit store down there. That’s the location of Ones. I started working in 1974. It opened in ’75.

A proper nightclub?
Well, back then… It had food, it had dancing. But Ninth Circle was definitely a disco downstairs. Although there were no turntables ever there (at Ninth Circle). At Ones it started out the same thing with tapes but then it progressed to a DJ booth with decks. We didn’t have a Bozak, we had something cheaper. Probably AST, they’d just started outfitting everyone downtown.

I remember even the tapes I was making were segued. Basically, when he played these other tapes from the clubs, they were segued. I was like I can’t do the radio mix thing. I didn’t understand at first but I was going around checking things out. At that time, I was probably a little more into drugs than the music, so I’d be going to clubs to get drugs and things and I’d be standing outside waiting for somebody and I’d be hearing… They had a Limelight on Sheridan Square, and David Rodriguez used to play there. I didn’t know him at the time, but I’d be standing outside waiting for someone. And the music I’d be hearing was not the regular stuff. He’d play some really rough old stuff. But he was mixing, I was really paying attention to that. I knew what was expected of me.

Were you actually going into any of the clubs?
Back then I wasn’t really going into the Limelight. I was looking old for my age, so I could get in, but I was a little more into concerts than clubs. Especially the Fillmore East. As far as clubs go: I went to the Hippopotamus, Le Jardin, the Dom: below the Electric Circus. I ended up buying their speakers when they closed. They had these beautiful Altec Lansing cabinets; really nice wooden cabinets. I nearly killed my mother with these speakers. I showed no mercy. I remember when ‘Doctor Love’ [by First Choice] came out and I played it to death. A few weeks later, I met my neighbours in the elevator and they said, ‘You know, we never really say anything. You play music loud, but we like music. But this song: ‘Doctor Love’. We can’t get it out of our heads. You’re really doing a number on us with this song.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ Six months later, my music’s off and I’m hearing ‘Doctor Love’ It burned into their heads so much they had to buy it. I remember going to the Loft.

What are your memories of the Loft?
Well, I never went to his first one, I went to 99 Prince Street. I just remember it was unique. Before that, my idea of a club was more dressy, the Saturday night out feeling. The Loft was the opposite of that: it was a professional house party. These were eccentric club people who were really into dancing. They knew music, not just the top ten hit parade, but they knew music they never heard before. That impressed me. The type of music that was being played it just had a lot more substance to it. At first, I remember congregating with a few people. There would be a regular crowd that I’d meet with: François was one of them, Steve D’Acquisto, this girl Freddie Taylor from Pearl Distributors. And we’d just be hanging out critiquing the music; bringing David some new records. David was very friendly with me and when he had the record pool, I tried to get in it when I was DJing at Ones. It had just opened and I wasn’t actually spinning there. So he said, ‘I can’t really do anything for you there.’ But he hooked me up with some of the record companies. By the time I was ready to come back to him, he was shutting his doors and I was one of the first members of For The Record [Judy Weinstein’s record pool].

What records do you readily associate with the Loft?
I remember things like ‘City Country City’ [by War]. If I heard it somewhere else it was not a big record. Here it was a record that people went crazy to from the beginning to the end. When the disco stuff started to come in heavy, he had like USA European Connection. It was extremely different. Especially as David had it on reel-to-reel, it sounded better than when it came out on vinyl. I remember in general hearing the depth of the production in stereo. It was that true feeling of, ‘I’m not on drugs, but I feel like I’m tripping on music. The music is really taking me somewhere.’ These people are just dancing. All night. Seriously.

How did the Gallery differ?
It struck me as quite a bit more gay. Definitely less about the hi-fidelity sound, more pumping. More mixing. More to do with the lights.

And Nicky Siano as a DJ?
Certainly more about drama. He would be like: I’m in the DJ booth. This couldn’t be a tape. This couldn’t be a just a record you like. I’m playing this record. He had a presence. He also was very much about drugs himself, there was a whole thing about him, especially towards the end; high, but not too high, to play the music. But there’d always be a point where it seemed like he’d collapse in a very dramatic manner: fall on the turntables and stop the music. Everyone knew what was going on, and they’d be patient and know that somehow, somebody would help him get it together and an even better record would come on. And usually it did. Certainly, both David and him, this was very different to the other clubs I’d been to. Very vibey. He’s picking a record that’s not just a hit record, but he’s picking a record that’s timely for these particular people; and he’s also talking a message, certainly creating a vibe. There’s a story being woven. With Nicky it was a vocal story. With David it was a mood story. David in general was always about love and he’d always try to stay with that. But there were a lot of instrumentals; more percussive, Latinesque things.

How did your DJing progress from there?
After Ones I opened up an after-hours with this ex-boxer. And I started working at Trudi Heller’s. It was along the lines of Copacabana, Régines. 25-30-year-olds’ club. Kind of a clip joint. But it was on Sixth Avenue right by 9th Street. All my life I’d lived on 12th Street and Sixth Avenue, even though I passed by, I never went in it. They had a Richard Long mixer. A decent set-up. It was a funky little club. Straight mainly black. Trudi Heller took it over and it went wrong. Even then I was making a bit of a mark; getting my charts out there. Then I got a job as the opening DJ at Roxy. And I played at a place called Lacey’s in Long Island from 1981 to 1991. I managed to turn some little nights into big nights. That’s how I got the job at Lacey’s. There was something about having the booth elevated and right in the middle, like they had at Lacey’s. There was something infectious about having all the people surrounding you in a circle and you in the middle. It’s not like being on the edge of the floor. The energy is focused at you. It was a rush.

And how did you get to know the Paradise Garage crew?
I was friendly with Larry Levan through the Loft. Mel Cheren [Garage co-owner] had told me he was going to open this club; and he described what he wanted. I went there; but it hadn’t really started yet. The main room was just an off-room but it was very pumping and Larry was kicking. It expanded very quickly. I was very close with Larry and I’d come there in the daytime, because he also lived there.

What, he actually lived in the club?
Yeah, before [the other Garage co-owner] Michael Brody couldn’t deal with him any longer and bought him an apartment. He used to pay for his apartment just to keep him out of there because he was causing too many problems.

(L-R) Danny with David DePino, Judy Weinstein, Larry Levan, Jeffrey Osbourne, John Brown

Was this around the time of the construction parties?
Well, he was living there during the construction parties. Basically, you go up a ramp and the first room you come into was a kinda small room that they used as the disco. What ended up being the main room, right next to that, they used as a lounge. The construction parties were this: just a killer sound system and nothing much else. But then there was another room after that which was a pretty good size and these were the offices and Larry’s apartment. Soon after, that began to be an extra room and he got Larry out of there; gave him an apartment.

But while he was living there, I used to come down in the daytime and roller-skate and play him some records from the pool. And he used to come to Roxy and skate. He told me he used to be a skate guard at Empire Roller-rink. But he was a little crazy. I remember playing ‘Girl You Need A Change Of Mind’ [Eddie Kendricks] once and he got so excited, got up, then I couldn’t see him skating. Next time I saw him his arm was in a sling. He didn’t skate much after that. He knew he couldn’t control himself. I would hang out with him a lot. I’m a passive person and he would, you know, want me in the studio with him when he was mixing. I was in the studio with him when he did ‘Bad For Me’ [Dee Dee Bridgewater], ‘Give Your Body Up To The Music’ [Billy Nichols], ‘Work That Body’ [Taana Gardner], a few others. So he wanted me to get a handle on this and get involved. His sessions were so stretched out that I was just hanging, not learning.

In what way?
He was a record company’s nightmare. Basically, he’d show up really late and while he was there it was about socialising and drugs. And eventually he would get to the mix, but he would be distracted very easily. And the mix, instead of taking a day or whatever, it would go on for weeks. This budget would be a $27,000 budget, stretched to that. I remember the Gwen Guthrie project wasn’t really even supposed to happen. He was supposed to mix a song and he ended up doing all these mixes.

Did her Padlock EP…
Well, basically, he did ‘Should’ve Been You’. That’s what he was supposed to do. He did this whole thing. I think he was in there so long that he was actually working on this stuff. It was probably one of the more productive sessions he had. But when he showed it to them, they were so pissed off at the price and how long ‘Should’ve Been You’ took that they just shelved it. For a year or two he was just playing it at the Garage and kicking it.

Had he finished the other Guthrie mixes? And was he playing them?
He’d finished them but they were rough. He was playing them and unlike a lot of other things where he mixed it seven or eight times, he did these and they worked out good rough. He kept them like that. Lots of his things, like ‘Work That Body’, the one that came out was his seventh mix. He mixed it over and over again and fine-tuned it.

What was he changing?
Really a lot of things. He’d say: ‘This is sloppy’, ‘I don’t like the sound of this bass’, ‘I played it in the club and we need to compress it a little more.’

So he’d be floor-testing at the club?
Sometimes that, other times just in the studio non-stop over-producing. So I would be invited in on some of this stuff. Some of it I was getting a little feel for it, but for the most part it was so stretched out I didn’t have patience. In general, he wanted me to get involved but the thing was I was DJing for a living. Working at Roxy and other places. I always had a weekend job. When it came to the Garage, I always came there after work and after a few years there, there were times when he couldn’t be there because of the studio and he’d have to have somebody fill in a little bit. ‘Danny if you could be here a little more often, get this feeling, I could stick you in here a little bit.’ I wanted that. But I couldn’t hang out non-stop. So I’d come at my usual time.

A couple of times he was like, ‘Why don’t you put on couple of records and we’ll have a dance’. Another time there was a pool party for For The Record and I played, Jellybean, Jonathan Fearing, Larry ended the night. I remember I was the last one before Larry. The club was just packing as I played. So I had a really good set and it was the first time I played ‘I Want To Thank You’ [by Alicia Myers]. And I kept telling Larry about this song. He came over to me and said, ‘What’s this you’re playing?’. I said it’s that song I been telling you about. He started playing it after that. Sure enough, Frankie Crocker heard Larry play it. It had already been a big hit on the roller skating for a while.

Anyway, I had a really good set, but I was a little in awe of the sound system: I didn’t want to fuck with the sound system too much. He was working the system while I was doing my mixes; really tweaking it and beefing it up. When I came on he had a switch underneath that he flicked which basically took the limiter off and he said: ‘Only for you’. So I felt really privileged. He really supported me. I was working a lot, so when push comes to shove, he really needed somebody and David DePino was close with him, right there and out of work. He was opening for Larry a lot, a few other people too. Victor Rosado, Joey Llanos.

Danny has an entire apartment where his records live.

How did you first meet Larry?
I came to the Loft to see David. But David was knocked out. His DJ booth was kind of on the second floor looking down; he had a bed right next to it. So I came up and thought Mmm, this is isn’t David, David has long hair and he’s white. Larry wasn’t rude, but he wasn’t especially friendly the first time. He was just, you know. Next time I had a few records – I don’t think he played them or whatever – I think he liked the idea that I didn’t just bring them for David. Then I would run into Larry at the record pool.

What was he like as a person?
He was bit eccentric. He was really like a little kid. Very energetic. When Star Wars came out he was like, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta go see the opening. This whole thing about lights; anything special and big like that, he loved. Big bright things. Disneyland. Even Studio 54, as a club. He liked that sort of thing.

Did he go to Studio 54?
Oh yeah, I think he played there a couple of times. Richie Kaczor was a sweetheart and we all knew him from Hollywood. And Hollywood wasn’t as commercial; it was a little more edgy and more underground. So he had a lot of respect from all the underground DJs. When he did Studio 54, instead of thinking of him as, ‘Oh, you’re just playing that commercial stuff,’ we thought of him as someone who does his own thing, but is playing the commercial stuff at Studio. Also, the whole time I knew Richie he was so down to earth. There were so many egos going on then. Even the guys that were nice would still be a little like that. But Richie was never that way. Larry was very friendly with Richie and used to go there and Richie would come to the Garage. The Garage had a very social DJ booth. It was huge. Like another club in itself. There was a real scene going on there. And for a long time, I’d find myself in the booth, that was a club experience. You were right above the dancefloor and you’d get the whole feeling of the crowd. The light show, everything.

What kind of drugs were people doing at the Garage?
Well, I was kind of out of my drugs stage by then. I was just a pot-head. I would notice a lot of coke, some heroin, tripping. More of the kids would be into tripping, but there’d be dust, too. It seemed like because I wasn’t into it, I didn’t latch on to it so much. There was a lot of drugs there.

Do you think that Larry’s drug taking eventually had a detrimental effect on his music?
I look at this way. He was definitely into drugs, but as opposed to the drugs having a handle on him, it definitely seemed like it wasn’t running his life. Towards the end, say the last year or two, it was probably clear to him, it had been said in so many words, that’s it, the Garage is closing this time, and even then, everyone else was very hopeful that there’d be another spot. You have this party and the party’s going to go somewhere and when it does, you’re going to be it, so don’t even worry about it.

But I think at that point the drugs seemed to be more obvious. He was there less. When he came in, it would be less about putting the record on, there would be a long rainstorm first. Rain effects. He would still turn it out. But he was there less. A lot less mixing, just about playing the right record and working the sound. Adjustments, like he was in a studio. Not just feeling it, but going out on the floor and checking it. Some nights he would keep the club from opening an hour or two because he wanted to rewire the whole system. He’d always have things for Michael Brody, the owner to buy, new toys. He really had put a lot into it. Towards the end there, David was playing the most, especially the last year. A lot of people who went to the Garage really just went that year [1987]. And when they remember the Garage, it was really the staples of songs that made up ‘Garage Music’.

How would you describe that?
My feeling going the whole way through was that Garage music was kind of breaking the rules. It was what he felt like playing. He’d turn you on to something. It was really about having no boundaries. A lot of rules were broken there. When [Taana Gardner’s] ‘Heartbeat’ came out there wasn’t hip hop on the radio like there is today. There wasn’t any downtempo music like ‘Heartbeat’. And when he put that record, a full club of people left the room to get food. There was not one person left on the floor. He played the record from beginning to end and they stayed off from beginning to end. And you’d hear people talking, ‘What the hell is this? It’s painful.’ Sure enough, next week he played it and a few people stayed on the floor. The week after, the floor’s not happening, but there’s a decent amount of people there. The week after that, now there are actually people running to the floor when they hear it. By the end of the month, there was no-one left off the floor when they played that record.

And now, of course, they had to go to Vinylmania and bug Charlie for that record. He would break rules. He would play things and you thought, ‘Oooh, this is a commercial record.’ Pat Benatar ‘Love Is A Battlefield’ Someone said he could never play that there. That was reason enough for him to play it; and make it happen, too. Those things stuck out a lot more than the so called staples that you associate with Garage music.

That’s Garage music, sure, but it’s the other things that make more of an impression on you. He would take a chance. He would play ‘Why D’Ya Do It’ by Marianne Faithfull. When he played that, it was a violent record; it got a violent response. He had this thing with the lights where he had an elaborate light system and Robert Da Silva was his light man and he was a great light man. Larry had this clear arrangement with Robert – because he had been a light man too – he had a mini light board on a track with a handle and he would just pull it over in front of him. And without saying anything, he would just start working this song, or part of a song. Robert would just accept that. I remember when he did things like Marianne Faithfull. It was like: I’m doing this and you can tell Larry’s doing the lights: very extreme, very violently emotional. He made you remember that song. He would do that with a lot of the music. That was the thing I remember about the Garage.

The difference between this and the other places, is that he’s controlling the entire environment. At the end, it was far less about him. David [DePino]was told to play not the newest records, but the staples. That’s how the club was then. And Larry was more into drugs, and even if he played well, you related a little less to him personally.

After the club closed, there was a period when I didn’t really see him. Then I started seeing him at the World a little bit, and Trax, behind the Roxy. Basically, Trax was David DePino’s club and it was a huge success but it was basically built on what Larry had started at the Garage. At that point, he didn’t have another situation where he could control the entire vibe. As a DJ he would come in and do his thing but he couldn’t hit that mark like before. He was an excellent DJ, so he could still play well, and mix it up, bring in a few boxes to beef up the system, play a better selection of music. But it didn’t have what people were getting at the Garage. The system wasn’t there, it wasn’t his people, and you would notice more that drugs had a little more of handle on him. Not that he was more high, just that he was more affected. When I had Ninth Circle, my father had passed away, and I ran into him. Larry would come by to me and I had so much respect for him as a mentor, he’d hit me up for a bit of money. I knew what he was going through. And I wanted him to get out of it in a way, but I couldn’t say no to him. It was a real struggle. More than that, it was because of this: how could I deny him? He was such a major part of what I am and what I’m doing.

Is it true that he kept selling his records to pay for drugs towards the end?
That probably has some truth in it. I knew I would find big chunks of it – in a flea market once. He had his records stored all over and, because he wasn’t playing that much and he was into drugs, the people keeping his records weren’t taking them seriously and they’d just get rid of some of them. I remember finding a bunch of things, this particular record, I found an acetate of ‘Can’t Shake Your Love’ by Syreeta. It was a remix that only he had. It was scratched up and didn’t play well. When I saw that, I thought this other stuff must be Larry’s collection. I had a done a lot of edits for bootlegs. I saw Larry after that, and I mentioned this and said, well, it’s not like they’ve got your name on it, but there’s this acetae of ‘Can’t Shake Your Love’. He was like, ‘I need that.’ I said it’s unplayable, but I’ve done these edits of it and you can have that.

How did you get into editing?
My first mix was ‘Chill Pill’ on Sleeping Bag. The first record on Sleeping Bag. [credited to The Sounds of JS126 Brooklyn]. It was a rock thing. Will Socolov I’d grown up with. We did this, and during the session, I knew what I wanted but the engineer… kept saying, ‘Oh we’ll fix that in the editing’. And towards the end he started to do an edit, but he couldn’t do it. I had a reel-to-reel at home, but I’d never done any editing. I was getting frustrated with this guy, literally half the session was this guy trying to do this edit. We salvaged it. I walked out of there thinking I know how to edit, just from seeing what he did wrong. Same thing happened next time: ‘Oh, we’ll fix it in the editing.’ A DJ friend of mine Jonathan Fearing, was into editing, working at WBLS, I was telling him about it and he finally just gave me a quick pep talk and said it’s really just about the ear. I went home and I edited ‘Funky Drummer’ and it ended up being ‘Feeling James’. I gave it to this guy who bootlegged it.

What, the thing on Tommy Boy by Fresh Gordon?
No, it was a bootleg. That may have sampled it. Anyway, there was this guy Tim Rogers at Polygram, he was hanging around the Garage, instead of being a big record exec, he was actually into all this editing and bootlegs and stuff. He found out that it was me and he said, ‘I’m working on all this stuff and I want to put out “Funky Drummer”. Do you wanna do a mix?’ Whenever I’d do an edit, it would turn into a legitimate job. Like I did one of ‘Touch And Go’ [by Ecstasy Passion & Pain] and [future Maxi label founder] Claudia Cuseta was working at Sunnyview at the time, gave me a job to remix the song. The second edit was ‘Rock The House’, which wound up becoming ‘Put The Needle On The Record’. I knew Arthur Baker. I’m just a DJ and I’m doing something that just ends up being a bootleg, so I can’t call anyone a thief. But basically, he took my edit ‘Rock The House’ and he had Gail King play it over this drum beat. That’s all it was. When I saw him in a club, I came over to him and said: ‘Oh is that your record?’. He says, ‘Yeah’. ‘I did ‘Rock The House’. He got so defensive. ‘You did “Rock The House”? You’re a thief anyway, who you calling a thief?’ I said, ‘I’m not calling anyone a thief, I’m just letting you know that I did “Rock The House”’. After that I got a few jobs with him.

Danny with his great friend and Body & Soul collaborator, François Kevorkian

You did the MFSB bootleg of ‘Love is the Message’ as well didn’t you?
Well there are two and they both sample Gil Scot-Heron. I did the white one that has ‘My First Mistake’ on the other side. It’s on T.D. Records. It’s just basically ‘Love Is The Message’ and ‘Love Break’ put together. The other guy that did the other one, this guy who worked at Vinylmania. Speak to Charlie about him. I’ve done a lot edits for that guy, though. By then those were the two main ones. Mine was after the other one, but they were close: early Eighties.

When David Mancuso was playing MFSB was he playing the ordinary version?
Right from the beginning he was probably playing the quad mix on the album. The original album also came in quad. I collect quad and usually since quad wasn’t a bit hit, they had to make things a little different so that even if you played it on your regular stereo you knew it sounded different. Sometimes it was a different version of the song. ‘Rocksteady’ Aretha Franklin, instead of ending at the fade out, it goes on for another two minutes and slows down to a complete stop. It’s got a completely different horn part in it. Apparently in ‘Love Is The Message’ there were a lot of loose keyboard parts that they edited out of the final mix because it was sloppy. In the quad mix, they put them in to make it sound different. Played that till the Tom Moulton Philly Classics mix came out, then played that.

When Tom Moulton remixed it without the frilly bit at the front?
The original and the Tom Moulton mix both had that on it. But the original didn’t go on much and Tom’s kept going.

Has your version of MFSB ever come out legitimately?
No. But MFSB is probably the quintessential bootleg mix.

[Danny was kind enough to let us release his 11-minute mix for the first time on the original compilation for Last Night a DJ Saved my Life (Nuphonic)]

Which other edits have you done?
I stuck to things that were either long gone or impossible to find. As far as other ones: ‘Just Us’ by Two Tons of Fun, ‘Sugar Pie Guy’ [Joneses], ‘Bra’ [Cymande], ‘You Got Me Running’ Lenny Williams, ‘Let’s Start The Dance’ [Bohannon], I had a version that never came out, I just kept going with the guitar.

Is that ‘Let’s Start The Dance III’?
I think it was II. The one with the rapper over it. I did a version without the rapper on. ‘My First Mistake’. I was really proud of that.

I assume that you were doing them to make them better for DJs to play?
Yeah. I’d do something that I knew Larry was into, like ‘Family Tree’ (by Family Tree). I have the original here, it’s one of the most rare records. It’s one of the first 12-inches. Something Larry played and it was such a rare record that even if you owned it you didn’t want to play it in case you scratched it up. When I brought him that he was happy. Also it was a really good edit.

What do you think was the first 12-inch?
It was ‘Dance Dance Dance’ by Calhoun. Definitely. Warner Spector. It was a terrible record. It was a bad way to try and get into the market. I remember immediately after that, the second 12-inch I got, because at the Ninth Circle, I was getting a lot of stuff in the mail. And at that time I was getting a lot of 7-inch 33s, before the 12-inches. Seven minute version on a 7-inch. All of a sudden I started getting these 12-inches in the mail. And I started hearing that this was the new thing. The next song was Floyd Smith on Salsoul, very Barry White sounding, but it wasn’t a big hit. This was a better example of something sounding good. Then there were a few 12-inches. Motown, 20th Century.

Tom Moulton says he did one that he thinks is the first? Al Downing ‘Dreamworld’?
If he did that and that was the first 12-inch, then I’ve never even saw that to this day. The thing about Tom Moulton is, for instance ‘Free Man’, he made a couple of 12-inches himself. Because the record label weren’t going to. I’ve a feeling that if he did a 12-inch of Al Downing, it could’ve been something that just 20 copies were made. If it was the first, it was kind of unheard of. These things were promos, but you’re still talking about 100 copies at least. They got around the US. I’m an avid record collector and I’ve never seen Al Downing. Atlantic’s first one was ‘Mellow Blow’ by Barrabas. People weren’t impressed to start because they really weren’t putting the best stuff on them. Everyone was, ‘Well, there are a lot of hits out there, why are putting these songs on there?’

It was a marketing ploy, basically?
Definitely. This was the age of promotion and this was how to promote these records. Soon after it was almost like 12-inches were going to be laughed at, so they started putting some good songs on there. ‘Ten Percent’ etc.

When The Garage closed and Junior Vasquez started Bassline, what was the reaction to him. Was he seen as a Larry copyist?
Definitely that, but kind of like the way I was describing David DePino at the Garage. Junior was taking it a step further. He had nothing to do with the Garage and yet he was just playing this hit parade. When Junior was playing some great music, but it was rehashed in a time when people really weren’t rehashing music. It was not about retro then. When you heard retro then, it was like what’s wrong with this picture. It was only because the Garage had closed and people were still hanging on to that that it seemed okay. They were good songs and he was mixing. I thought it was fad, and it would fade away, but it kept getting bigger. But then it slowly changed. He was always friendly with me, but he was out of the loop; I crossed a lot of circles and he wasn’t in any of them.

Do you think they turned playing records into a performance?
Totally. And also broke ground. They didn’t take the new hot record and break it when it would have been a hit anyway. They broke a record that would not have been otherwise. They educated people.

Can you think of any examples?
With David [Mancuso] there was such a long line of them. Things like ‘City Country City’ [by War], or ‘Woman’ [by Barrabas]. Those were Loft records. Without the Loft, they were just records. People would scream when they heard a record for the first time, not the tenth. One of the legacies they left is that fever for hunting down records. These are records that were rare the moment they came out. There was a DJ, Tony Smith, from Barefoot Boy, there was a record store on 8th Street, Daytons. I met him because we’d always be looking for those kind of records. A lot of jazz-funk. They’d play something, and if I liked it, it always seemed that Tony would want it too. It was underground even then. Forget about now, back then some of these records were hard to track down too.

What do you think the legacy of these DJs is?
There’s a lot of marks that they made that might go unnoticed. Certainly, I think that Mancuso is one of the main ones. The thing that David expressed, and came out in Larry and Nicky, was playing a positive vibe in the club. When I went to other places I was always amazed at how negative the vibe was. Weaving a message, rather than wandering all over. David made people realise the DJ was important. Before that most people thought a band or DJ: what’s the difference?

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Larry Levan and the Lost Art of DJing

Larry Levan and the Lost Art of DJing

He burned bright and left us at the age of 38. If he’d stuck around, on 20 July 2024 Larry Levan would be celebrating his 70th birthday. In the history of DJing, he epitomised the young craft’s possibilities and inspired a generation. As the DJ became a force for record promotion, as the DJ entered the recording studio to become producer and remixer, and as the DJ learnt how to generate shared moods of grand intensity, the biggest most influential DJ making those moves was Larry Levan. To celebrate his life, and to remind anyone who calls themselves a DJ what the job is really all about, we’ve polished up these epic sleevenotes from our 2000 Nuphonic compilation, Larry Levan Live at the Paradise Garage. Read to the end and there’s a visual treat – star-studded photos from Larry’s 1984 birthday.

by Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster

Putting a roomful of people in the moment. Amazing them, surprising them, challenging, even confusing them; pushing, electrifying, loving them; carrying them with you towards a better place. Shaking the dull daylight out of their bones, waking them into their other life.

Few people know what great DJing is really about. Today’s global club culture, with its lightshows and rootless brand-name jocks, has bred dancers with a painfully short attention span. Our dancefloors might throw their hands in the air for a clever technical mix, a swift key change or a bombastic snare roll, but they’re largely immune to anything that takes a bit longer to achieve – like pacing, building, teasing, exploring. Sadly, these days most of us just want to pay our money and get an immediate dance fix. We’re happy to be switched on by manipulative drug-pop and thrashed around at fever pitch all night. It’s rare today to find a DJ brave enough to take a crowd down as well as up. Or to reflect emotions more complex than mad-for-it ecstasy, or to play music outside the narrow focus of their niche. Or to throw a risky curveball or two and ‘cleanse’ the dancefloor for a fresh start. When you find a DJ willing to do more than stitch together a bunch of surefire floorfillers, shake their hand.

Larry Levan played records back when a DJ had to sweat for a living. When he started in 1971, a DJ’s set was built from 7-inch singles and uptempo album tracks. The album tracks had to be painstakingly unearthed and the singles had to be changed every three minutes. There were just a handful of records released each week and almost all of them were aimed at radio or home listening. There were no ten-minute dubs, no extended remixes, no minimal beat tracks, no easy-to-mix intros. Records were all made with live drummers, with often wildly wavering tempos, and record decks were mostly fixed-speed monsters taken from the world of radio.

DJing as we know it evolved from all these unimaginable restrictions. In New York a small band of explorers worked themselves to the bone to dig up danceable music from whatever sources they could find, and distorted, extended and manipulated it until it met the energetic demands of their dancers. In doing this they forged the DJ’s craft, pioneering almost everything that DJs do today. In clubs like Arthur, Sanctuary, Salvation, The Loft and The Gallery, DJs Terry Noel, Francis Grasso, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Michael Cappello and Steve D’Acquisto built a whole new world, the world of dance music we’ve inherited.

Eventually we’d call their scene ‘disco’ and we’d think of its music as a single genre. But originally it was far from a homogenous, definable form. It was an amalgam of anything people would dance to: rock, Latin,soul, funk,rhythm and blues. It was simply music you heard in a discothèque, which back then was probably just a black loft, hot with bodies.

This was a small, close-knit world and despite the basic decor of the first disco clubs, something else invariably filled the room: the dancers’ togetherness, their sense of redemption, their feelings of escape from a racist and homophobic reality. ‘More than anything, disco was driven by an underground idea of unity,’ says Vince Aletti, the first journalist to write about disco. ‘The manifesto was the music. Love Is The Message.’

Larry Levan was an early child of this scene. He danced in its clubs, he learnt from its originators, and he joined a growing band of DJs who were filling New York with thrilling, loving music. And later, in his own club, The Paradise Garage, as disco was declared dead he took it underground, nurtured and developed it and allowed it to take its first steps as something new.

HEAVEN IN A PARKING GARAGE

‘You have to un-learn everything you’ve ever experienced about clubs to understand The Paradise Garage,’ insists DJ and pioneer dance producer François Kevorkian, explaining what made this particular nightclub such a mythic inspiration for so many of the world’s greatest DJs, producers, clubs and dance labels.

The Garage was where, a decade or so after taking its first steps, black, spiritual underground disco reached its peak. It was quite simply the largest and most powerful expression of the original disco spirit. As disco became mainstream and occasionally moronic, it was at the Garage that the underground sound  and the scene’s strong sense of community were preserved. Outside, insurance men in brown suits were knocking their knees to Abba, dreaming of the coke-and-celebrity-fuelled nonsense of Studio 54. Inside the Garage, the original disco family were continuing and amplifiying their tribal rituals. And at the centre was Levan himself, a DJ who enjoyed such a passionate relationship with the people on his dancefloor that they worshipped him more or less as a god.

Closing party, 26 Sep 1987

‘This is the Paradise Garage in a nutshell,’ says New York DJ Johnny Dynell. ‘One night, Chi Chi, my wife, was bartending at the Garage. And, having worked at Danceteria doing the same, she couldn’t believe it when she saw these boys making everything so clean. They would take the garbage out and then wash and scrub the garbage can, then dry it, and put a new garbage bag in. She was in awe at the love these kids showed that garbage can. Because to these kids, it’s the temple. It’s sacred. This isn’t just a garbage can, this is a garbage can at the Garage. It’s very Old Testament. And for everyone there, it really was the temple. It was sacred ground.’

The Paradise Garage inspired an unparalleled reverence. It dominated gay New York’s dance vista for more than ten years, with only the Saint – which catered for a very different crowd – as a serious rival. For its members the Garage was a sanctuary from an increasingly cruel and voracious city, a role made poignantly necessary as AIDS cut through New York. Dance there and you were treated as an honoured guest, with a level of courtesy and respect that is virtually unheard of in clubs today. ‘You felt special,’ says Danny Tenaglia, one of many DJs inspired by early visits to the Garage. ‘You felt like you were an elite group, with people who were on the same level of understanding about music as you.’ In a drab district in south west Manhattan, it created a private world based on disco’s original ethos of loving equality. In stark contrast to the harsh city lights outside, the Garage offered freedom, compassion and brotherhood.

Dave Piccioni, owner of London’s Black Market records, then living and DJing in New York, was a regular at the Garage in the late eighties. ‘It was New York cut-throat money time,’ he remembers. ‘Everybody was sticking knives in each other’s backs. It was dog eat dog. Aggressive. Dealing, 60,000 people living on the street. It was a dog of a place to live in. And then you’d go to this little oasis, where people were really well-mannered and friendly to each other. You just felt completely comfortable. People of a like mind who shared something, and that was an open mind. America is a very narrow-minded place. The thing they had in common wasn’t just getting high, like it is here – it was much more than that. That was what was so great about it.’

Flyer for Larry Levan’s Birthday Bash by his friend Keith Haring

PREPARE FOR TAKE-OFF

You entered the Garage along a long darkened runway lit by tiny flickering egg-strobes. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to going up a ramp as much’, smiles DJ Joe Claussell, who today runs Body & Soul, the New York club founded on reclaiming the atmosphere of the Garage. ‘At the top was The Garage logo in neon. It was like going to church. Once you got up that ramp and paid your money, you were in heaven. Paradise.’

‘You walked up the ramp and you heard this ‘wooof, wooof, wooof, wooof’’ remembers Louis, another Garage regular. ‘And then, as soon as you got into the tunnel people would start this scream, and you knew you were going into somewhere special.’

In his evocative book Disco!, Albert Goldman wrote that ascending into the Garage made you feel like a character in a Kafka novel. ‘From overhead comes the heavy pounding of the disco beat like a fearful migraine. When you reach the bar, a huge bare parking area, you are astonished to see immense pornographic murals of Greek and Trojan warriors locked in sado-masochistic combat running from floor to ceiling. On the floor of the main dancing room are the most frenzied dancers of the disco scene; black and Puerto Rican gays, stripped down to singlets and denim shorts, swinging their bodies with wild abandon.’

Inside there were changing rooms, a chill-out area where movies were shown, a non-alcoholic bar, the large, beautifully-appointed booth, and the giant, relatively spartan dancefloor. In the summer you could climb through the cinema onto the roof, which itself was half the size of the club. Dancers would take a breather from their intense workouts and hang out under the stars among fountains, flowers and brightly coloured lights, watching the majestic New York night until Larry threw down another unmissable tune, perhaps ‘A Little Bit Of Jazz’ by Nick Straker Band or Spark’s ‘Let’s Go Dancing’, and there’d be a rush for the floor.

The Garage was located on 84 King Street in west SoHo in the echoing expanses of a cast-concrete parking garage. Levan was its pilot from the beginning, but the club was the creation of a tireless young clubber named Michael Brody. As disco grew to define gay life in post-Stonewall New York, Brody dreamt of recreating the atmosphere of its earliest clubs on a much larger scale.

His prototype had been 143 Reade St, set in a two-floor warehouse space which he ran from the summer of 1974 till it was forced to close in 1976. Here a gay and predominantly black crowd had gathered to sweat to the young Larry Levan’s increasingly exciting sonic experiments. ‘Reade St was very free and open,’ chuckles clubber Yvon Leybold. ‘I remember going there dancing topless. It was hot in there, but it was so much fun that you wanted to take your clothes off.’

Reade St gave Brody the confidence and experience to proceed, and proved his hunch that as a DJ Levan was exceptional enough to build a club around. However, the Garage would be an altogether more massive undertaking. He borrowed $110,000 from friends and relations, including $30,000 for sound equipment lent by his ex-lover Mel Cheren, founder of West End Records, but quickly found that this was a tiny fraction of the money he’d need to renovate such a huge space. He continued running it as a parking garage, but this was never going to generate the necessary sums, and parking cars all day left him with no time or energy for anything else.

The solution was to open a small fraction of the space as a club and enlarge it bit by bit. So the Paradise Garage opened in early spring 1977 with a series of ‘construction parties’, held in the Grey Room, what would eventually become the entrance area. For its first months, the club was just a raw space with an amazing DJ, the germ of a phenomenal sound system, a small but loyal crowd and a whole universe of possibilities.

Things grew steadily, until, in January 1978, Brody felt it was time for an official opening. He planned a grand launch party and invited the cream of Manhattan nightlife. Disaster ensued. Blizzards had been raging, delaying the arrival of a new sound system, which had spent several days sitting on a runway in Kentucky. And true to form, Levan refused to hurry the installation process, instead spending days incorporating it with the existing equipment and ironing out problems. This perfectionism continued right into the night of the planned opening, and even as thousands of people waited outside in sub-zero temperatures, the DJ refused to open the club until he was ready. Naturally, most of the waiting A-list clubbers stormed off. Those that were finally admitted found themselves in a vast club, not much warmer than outside, with plenty more glitches to meet them throughout the night. Few ever came back. As Cheren writes in his memoirs, Keep on Dancin’, ‘These queens never gave a disco a second break.’

Paradoxically, this failure was the defining moment for the Garage. Brody deeply regretted the club never held the attention of the A-list and he worked hard to entice the more upmarket (and mainly white) gay crowd. (He even at one time arranged free buses to and from the gay beach resort of Fire Island, 60 miles away.) However, in the long run their absence was the making of the club. Had the Garage opening gone smoothly, it may have ended up as chi-chi as Studio 54 or with the hi-NRG music tastes of The Saint. Instead, rather than being an instant hit with the in-crowd it was forced to grow organically, filling up gradually with dancers who came simply for Levan’s music.

TIME TO DANCE

In a city which usually decides a person’s importance by their money, their clothes or their race, the Garage became a rare place of equality. ‘One of the great things about The Garage was that it was very mixed,’ says François. ‘It was a place where everyone would mingle together – whether you were a superstar or whether you just happened to have a regular job. No heavy door scene. There is no alcohol for sale. The point of the club is dancing.’

Every weekend, regular as church, the club filled with people who came to shake their troubles away. But more than escaping the harsh outside world; they came to the Garage to feel close to each other. The atmosphere made them feel part of a huge, inclusive family. And this sense of communion was powerfully infectious. The club regularly welcomed stars like Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Eddie Murphy, Boy George, Mike Tyson and Stevie Wonder. But when celebrities came to the Garage they didn’t draw attention to themselves the way they did at Studio 54, they dressed down and joined the crowd.

‘You didn’t know who would party there,’ recalls musician and songwriter Ray Reid of Crown Heights Affair. ‘Diana Ross, Calvin Klein, everybody came to the club. Russell Simmons tried to get in there. The common celebrities went to Studio 54 for the dressing up thing; that glamour, that little fuck parade. But everybody knew if you really wanted to party you had to go down to the Garage. Celebrities would go there in their jeans and be inconspicuous, and no-one would run up on them. You could party next to your number one hero. You’d just be minding your business and enjoying yourself.’

The majority of Garage regulars were far from wealthy; some could barely scrape together the price of admission. They were predominantly black and Latino, although the Garage was never an intentionally ‘black club’ as such. It was simply a place where, unlike most well-appointed New York nightspots of the time, skin colour was no barrier to admission. As Mel Cheren writes, it was ‘the one place that truly reflected the rainbow that had produced disco’s pot of gold. The potent intersection of rhythm, race and realness that had produced disco in the first place – black as it was gay, gay as it was black – all came together here.’

One thing was never in doubt: this was where you found the city’s most devoted clubbers: kids who danced for seven, eight hours, or more every week. They knew the records that were played, they screamed with excitement for their favourites, and they booed with bitchy contempt at visiting performers who didn’t cut it (including the young Madonna, who bombed badly when she first performed at the Garage). As Cheren writes, ‘There was no attitude here, no cliques defined by their muscles, no fashion victims, no A-list. These people were dancers.’ And this is what made the atmosphere at the Garage so electrifying – it was driven by the energetic input of its clubbers. ‘The intensity of the disco pyrotechnics was unlike anything anywhere. Venturing onto the dance floor was like swimming into an undertow – you were sucked into the vortex, and you surrendered, for hours at a time.’

FAMILY MEMBERS ONLY

This dancefloor singlemindedness was possible because only members and their guests were admitted. And as the club gained in popularity, fairly stringent measures were taken to ensure that its population of hardcore devotees was not diluted by an influx of curious onlookers.

‘The Garage was underground. There was no advertising’, explains David DePino, one of Levan’s closest friends and one of the few other DJs to have played at the Garage. ‘We were not an off-the-street club – it was a private, 100 per cent membership thing.’ Prospective members had to turn up in person and submit to an interview before they were accepted into the family. These membership days were kept virtually secret. Nevertheless, as DePino remembers, ‘so many people would line up at the door, there’d be a line round the corner twice.’

Initially the Garage only opened on Saturdays, and efforts were made to keep it almost exclusively gay. However, in answer to the growing number of women and straight men who wanted to get in, a mixed Friday night was launched which was, as people recall, much straighter and blacker. But the Saturday nights kept their reputation for being wilder and more explosive and straight guys would swear that they were gay to try and get Saturday night membership. Few succeeded.

For those who danced there, the Paradise Garage felt like home. It was run for the benefit of its members, and changes were made not with profit foremost, but with the impact of the party in mind. It was open during an unprecedented boom in nightclubbing and all around it businessmen were raking in the disco dollars. The Garage could have easily shared in this, yet its owner Michael Brody rejected commerciality as far as possible. ‘He could have made a fortune,’ says DePino. ‘But he was never money greedy. The party was first.’

Fruit, coffee and soft drinks were served free, as were lemon ices in the summer, while at Christmas and Thanksgiving clubbers were even served turkey with all the trimmings. ‘In the winter time we’d be baking brownies and popping fresh doughnuts and pastries,’ laughs DePino. ‘We’d be in the kitchen tripping our brains out wondering if we turned ovens on or not and then screaming when we touched them. Then we’d realise that Larry was pumping it, run out onto the dancefloor, and forget we were cooking in the kitchen, and all the muffins would be burnt. So I’d go up into the booth and say, ‘Larry, don’t play any more of our favourite records, we’re trying to bake brownies.’ Then we’d be back in the kitchen but he’d put on our favourite records and we’d run back up to the floor. Then it was like, ‘Get the fire-extinguisher, we’re burning all the muffins again.’ That’s the kind of thing that went on.’

There was no alcohol, a reflection of the serious focus on dancing. This also let the club escape the scrutiny of the notoriously draconian New York Liquor Commissionand stay open as long as it liked. Most of the dancers energised themselves with drugs, however, selecting from the era’s range of misappropriated chemicals: speed, poppers, cocaine, acid and angel dust, with newer confections like MDA and ecstasy creeping in as the years progressed.

It is an open secret that for the first three-to-four years – until the crowds grew too big, increasing the risk that someone would get hurt – the punch was spiked with acid, ‘In the early days, you took a glass of electric punch and you were going, boy!’ recalls DePino. ‘It was never enough to actually make you trip, just enough to make you have a fantastic time and not know why. We knew what was in it though, so we’d drink 12 or 13 cups of punch and we’d be flying!’ Surprisingly though, the euphoria on the dancefloor had less to do with illegal substances than it does in most clubs today. ‘It was the music,’ continues. DePino. ‘There were lots of kids there who did drugs and there were a lot of kids that didn’t.

The Garage opened around midnight and allowed admissions until 6.30am, after which the doors were closed and the party would continue until midday or later. As well as Levan’s music, there were live acts, and Chaka Khan, Dan Hartman, Loleatta Holloway, Gloria Gaynor, Al Hudson and the Jones Girls were all regulars on the club’s stage. One weekend Michael Brody booked Patti Labelle to perform for the princely sum of $20,000. A snowstorm on the ‘straight’ Friday night kept all but 500 people at home. But on the Saturday, raging blizzard or not, there were 4,000 queens there for her, some crying as she sang, and the club scraped through to break even.

DISCO CHILDREN

Disco was revolutionary. In its spirit it rescued the best elements from the swinging sixties and refined them for a new decade. As rock turned into a ‘progressive’ head trip, disco reclaimed its peace and love agenda, together with its original emphasis on dancing, and made them its own. Indeed, while disco is usually seen as glittery and mindless, it actually had a tangible political agenda – an enduring obsession with equality and togetherness. The 1969 Stonewall rebellion had opened up American gay life forever, black people too were enjoying greater equality. In the first disco clubs, as gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor danced together, the word ‘love’ in a hundred songs took on a forceful reality.

The Paradise Garage was perhaps the grandest expression of this. In its intimacy, in the way it treated its guests like an extended family, it was a direct descendent of the earliest disco clubs. It was from two places in particular that Michael Brody took his inspiration.

Opening on Valentine’s Day 1970, David Mancuso’s Loft had been a clear bridge between the decades, a place that would redefine clubbing forever. Mancuso filled his home, a Broadway loft, with balloons, friends and beautiful music played on an audiophile quality sound system. At this time nightclubs were the preserve of the jet-set, scenes of aspiration and exclusivity. The Loft showed that a club could be in-clusive, an interracial, pansexual celebration of humanity. With guests who shared a love of music and dancing, brought together by invitation and word of mouth, it was a professional house party. It would stay open, in various locations for the next 25 years.

In 1971 the teenage Nicky Siano opened the Gallery, the first properly commercial club to follow Mancuso’s inclusive, dance-driven blueprint. He hired the city’s leading sound engineer Alex Rosner to repeat the magic he’d worked for Mancuso, and armed with a similarly shattering sound system, drove New York wild with his soaring mix of music.

And, as DJs, Siano and Mancuso were also Larry Levan’s main inspiration. (He had brief affairs with each) and he never hid his obvious debt to his forebears: ‘Nicky Siano, David Mancuso, Steve D’Acquisto and Michael Cappello, David Rodriguez,’ Levan told Steven Harvey. ‘This is the school of DJs I come from.’

Lawrence Philpot was born on 21 July 1954 in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn, the son of a dressmaker named Minnie Levan. Her other children, a twin brother and sister were 18 when baby Lawrence arrived, so he enjoyed the attention usually granted to an only child. His parents never married and in later years he chose to take his mother’s name, becoming Larry Levan

Most of Levan’s teenage years were spent in the company of his lifelong friend Frankie Knuckles from the Bronx, also destined to become one of history’s most important DJs. The two met at a Harlem drag ball in 1969, while sewing beads onto a costume for a lavish queen known as The Duchess. They became so inseparable that people regularly confused their names. And as they danced across the city together, they were soon known in Manhattan’s clubs as energetic party catalysts. Their adventures started in a tiny gay bar called the Planetarium, but soon they were regulars at the Loft, where Levan was mesmerized by David Mancuso’s musical mastery. When Nicky Siano opened the Gallery, he recruited the two club bunnies to put up the decorations, set out the buffet and pop acid blotters into the mouths of arriving guests.

Siano also schooled the duo in DJing, as Frankie recalls: ‘He showed us how to work the equipment and taught us an appreciation of the music, how to put it together and what a song is supposed to do. Nicky was the first DJ at that particular time that came remotely close to making beats match, and what happened was that Larry pretty much perfected it after that.’

By 1971 they were making money as DJs. Knuckles landed a six-month stint at a midtown club called Better Days, and Levan’s job working the lights for DJ Joseph Bonfiglio, turned fortuitously into DJing. ‘I was doing the lights and the DJ walked out,’ he told Collusion magazine. ‘The manager, who was like a six-foot three-inch Cuban guy, said, “You’re going to play records tonight!” I told him that I didn’t have any records. “You’ve got five hours!” It was Memorial Day weekend. I went back to Brooklyn and borrowed records from my friend Ronnie Roberts, who had everything. I went back and worked three straight days.’

This was at the famous gay spa complex, the Continental Baths, and at first Knuckles refused to visit his friend in the Bacchanalian ‘Tubs’, as it was known, even though Levan was now living in an apartment there. When he finally set foot in it, he didn’t leave for three weeks. After Levan left, Knuckles became the Baths’ resident, playing there until its closure, when he, famously, moved to Chicago and forged house music.

Levan’s next great break came when he started dating Richard Long, a talented sound designer who had once worked on the door at the Planetarium. Together, the couple turned Long’s showroom, at 452 Broadway, into a club that became known as The SoHo Place. Levan, still only nineteen, built this up to bursting point. From here he went to Reade St, starting his long partnership with Michael Brody, and when this was forced to close promised not to play elsewhere until bigger premises could be found. These would of course be the Garage.

INSPIRED ANARCHY

‘The Paradise Garage was open for so long and it was so obviously and blatantly superior to anything else going on,’ insists François Kevorkian. ‘You had the best sound-system around, the most talented DJ you can imagine, with amazing records that no one else could get: things he’d made himself and things others had made exclusively for him.’

The Garage holds an almost supernatural place in the history of dance music, and it would be pointless to try and separate the myth of the club from the legend of its controlling genius. Larry Levan is regularly hailed as the world’s greatest ever DJ. Listen to this performance and you’ll get a hint of his power, a glimpse of the way he could turn mere records into a soaring, probing, energising narrative.

You may well be surprised to hear a few sketchy mixes, but surprise turns to excitement when you see the bigger picture –the connections he makes with the meanings and feelings of songs, the way he teases just the right moments from each record. The variety of styles and tempos. Levan’s greatness is proof that technical prowess is but a tiny part of DJing. Technically speaking, he was no match for the likes of Walter Gibbons or Nicky Siano or, indeed, most of the early disco-mixers. His mixing was slapdash, and he’d often prefer to slam something in awkwardly rather than seamlessly blend. What made him great was his sense of drama, his obsessive control of all aspects of his clubbers’ experience, and his heightened ability to transmit his personality through the very grooves of his records.

‘He yearned for more than technical perfection,’ writes Cheren. ‘He wanted inspiration. Ecstasy. He wanted to spin the way he lived – in inspired anarchy.’

‘Larry himself was a wizard when it came to DJing,’ says Joe Claussell. ‘But I don’t think many DJs today understand his philosophy. Everyone is still with the pretty mixes, making sure that it’s all on-beat but they don’t have a clue what it takes to present their music to a crowd.’

For Claussell Levan’s greatness came from his almost psychic understanding of the people on his dancefloor: ‘It was his combination of different music and the fact that he knew how to read a crowd, he knew what record to play at what time; he knew the crowd intimately and what record would move what part of the dancefloor. It was magical to watch.’

Kenton Nix, who produced some of the classics most closely associated with the Garage (including Taana Gardner’s ‘Heartbeat’), agrees. ‘He would have a feel of people’s records, he would read peoples’ minds. He was the puppet master and he controlled your emotions.’

Justin Berkmann, a Garage regular and later the DJ who envisaged the Ministry of Sound (originally based firmly on the Garage) remembers watching Levan standing in his booth, conducting the crowd as if he was controlling their very movements.

‘He’d go into the booth and say, ‘Those people over there aren’t dancing, watch this,’ recounts Berkmann. ‘Then he’d put on a record, and they would just go off. That’s how well he knew his dancefloor. After ten years, he knew everyone in the club and he knew what got each group going. That’s something very few people get. Most of the big DJs now are flying all over the world, and most of the time they go into a club and they haven’t got a clue what people want.’

François believes Levan was the first DJ to show that such a profound understanding between DJ and dancers was even possible. ‘To have a relationship with the crowd. It’s not larging it; it’s a lot more spiritual than that, and it’s something that’s life-long. Not just something that lasts for a couple of hours while you’re on drugs. That’s what the spirit of The Garage was about. Something that was so powerful, it actually changed your life, and let me tell you, it sure changed a lot of our lives.’

Larry’s idea of control went far beyond the music. Thanks to his different club jobs – from decorating the room and spiking the punch at the Gallery to doing the lights at the Continental Baths – he strived to make a visit to his nightclub a total experience. At Reade Street, where the dancefloor was in a refrigerated meat warehouse, he even used the temperature as a way of manipulating mood, letting the airless room heat up to extraordinary levels and then cranking up the cooling equipment. Frankie Knuckles recalls stepping in as the temperature dropped suddenly below zero. ‘I would go into the booth and yell at him, ‘Somebody’s gonna catch pneumonia, you can’t do that.’ And he’d just say ‘Miss Thing, you’re getting on my nerves!’ and throw me out of the booth.’

He also loved to work the lights. Although the Garage had a very talented light man in Robert DaSilva – who had also worked the lights at the Gallery and Studio 54 – Levan had a second set of controls fitted on a rail along the top of the booth. When the mood took him – when he was ready to take people for a ride – he would draw the console towards him and decant the booth of its occupants. It was like clearing the flight deck for take-off.

‘They used to do these blackouts and they would switch all of the lights out,’ recalls Johnny Dynell. ‘Exit lights and everything. Totally illegal, you can’t turn exit lights out! You couldn’t see a hand in front of your face.’ He would build the intensity to a peak and then let fly with an acappella or sound effect – one time Dynell recalls him playing the Wizard of Oz – before the system would crank up and – BAM! – he’d hit the crowd with another favorite. ‘Oh, man, it was fabulous. He would just take control,’ sighs Dynell.

Jellybean, Larry and a young David Morales in the booth at the Garage

PLAY ME A STORY

One facet of Levan’s performance which is all but lost today, is the use of lyrics. Disco was largely centred on real songs, and the words they contained were far from mere vocal decoration. The era’s messages of inclusivity, love and togetherness may sound banal after decades of repetition, but back then they were vitally important to people. Following his mentors, Mancuso and Siano, Larry rejoiced in telling stories with his music.

‘Larry was able to use songs – songs with lyrics – and he used those lyrics to talk to people,’ says François. ‘It was very common for people on the dancefloor to feel like he was talking to him directly through the record. ‘He built sets that were built on stories that went into each other.’

Mel Cheren had first-hand experience of this kind of communication. ‘Larry and I had our ups-and-downs. He did a lot of mixes for my West End record label, and we’d have a disagreement and sometimes we wouldn’t be talking. And if he was upset with you, you knew about it. If he was angry with me, he played songs that said, ‘Fuck you, excuse me’ – he actually had a record that said that.’ Other times, as Cheren recalls, Larry would use music to ask forgiveness after a fight. ‘One night we hadn’t been talking for a while, and I was dancing, and he was playing ‘Gotta Get You Back Into My Life’ and songs like ‘I Love You’. All of a sudden I turned around and there he was. He’d left the DJ booth and gave me a big hug.’

Levan explained his technique in Collusion magazine: ‘Out of all the records you have, maybe five or six of them make sense together. There is actually a message in the dance, the way you feel, the muscles you use, but only certain records have that.’ He went on to give an example. ‘Say I was playing songs about music – ‘I Love Music’ by The O’Jays, ‘Music’ by AI Hudson and the next record is Phreek’s ‘Weekend’, that’s about getting laid, a whole other thing. If I was dancing and truly into the words and the feeling and it came on, it might be a good record, but it makes no sense because it doesn’t have anything to do with the others. So a slight pause, a sound effect, something else to let you know it’s a new paragraph rather than one continuous sentence.’

MASTER OF SOUND

If Levan was a virtuoso, his instrument wasn’t just the turntables, it was the whole system, the whole room. Elements of the Garage’s sound system are copied to this day in clubs around the world. To most who heard it, it has never been bettered. Designed by Richard Long, it managed to recreate the intimate crystal clarity of Mancuso’s Loft on an unimaginably vast scale. Levan rejoiced at having this phenomenal instrument at his disposal and used it to the full. He became a master of the crossover controls, using these to cut out certain frequencies, to boost particular instruments, even to isolate particular words in a song.

He would spend hour-after-hour lovingly honing, manipulating and adjusting the sound system. Often, Richard Long would optimise the room’s EQ levels, only to come back and find Levan holding a screwdriver changing the whole thing around. Several times, with the club about to open, he’d insist on rewiring or repositioning speakers, making his disciples wait outside while he made perfect some tiny – but to him, essential – aspect of the peerless system. Klippschorn speakers, a quartet of JBL bullet tweeter arrays, a Bozak mixer: these were items of recently-perfected equipment that came together wonderfully in the Garage. And Levan would experiment ceaselessly, doing things like progressively upgrading the cartridges throughout the night from the most basic up to $150 Grace models.

‘Larry managed to fine-tune the sound over the club’s 10 or 11 years until it was so incredibly superior to anything else you ever heard,’ says Francois. ‘There has never been anything remotely close to it ever since. The Ministry system is a copy of what the Garage was 10, 15 years ago, but The Garage was never a static thing. Larry’d spend all these hours after the club was closed moving speakers around, changing amplifier levels and trying out different cartridges and other different things. It’s not just about building it, it’s about maintaining it, improving it, tweaking it and taking care of it. No one does that now.’

‘It was the antithesis of The Saint,’ says Sharon White, recalling how different the Garage sounded compared to the other great room of the time. The only DJ to have played both clubs, she told DJ Jaguar: ‘The Garage was all highs and mids, and The Saint was bottom and hard.’ Sharon makes it clear how much the club was inseparable from its DJ. ‘I was a resident at many clubs, but at The Garage I was considered a guest. We did special functions in the space or held the room for Larry Levan, but that was HIS house.’

‘He didn’t want the biggest sound-system and the best booth to fuel his ego,’ says David DePino. ‘He just wanted what he thought would be incredible for the people. Speakers got moved around every week. Lights got changed every single week to give a different atmosphere. And if it didn’t happen, he’d go crazy and fire people. He never wanted it to become stale, he never wanted it to become regular. He always said, ‘The people won’t come. They’ve gotta know that it’ll be different.’ And they did. People never came into a stale place.’

On occasion, Levan’s attention to detail would even mean a pause in the music. ‘I’ve seen nights where everyone was rushing around to get things open and they’d forget something like cleaning the mirror-balls,’ recalls DePino. ‘It’d be 1am and Larry would run onto the dancefloor with a ladder to clean all six mirror-balls. The record would run out and everyone would be standing there waiting. Not booing, nothing mad… just waiting. And when he finished, he’d go up and put the next record on and people would go mad again. They loved that. The fact that even though he was the DJ, he’d spend half an hour cleaning all the mirror-balls. That would never happen today, DJs are such divas!’

DJ BRAVERY

As well as his fierce controlling instinct, Levan had a dark self-destructive streak. In his personal life this manifested itself in tireless drug abuse. In the club it provided an aura of intense drama. Each week was a lesson in improvisation, an unscripted performance on the emotional level of high opera. What would be served up on a particular night depended on any number of variants, with only one thing certain: Levan gave good show. He could shock you. He could thrill you. He could amaze you. He could even appall you. The only certainty was that he would surprise you. He was an audacious programmer. His high-octane, seat-of-the-pants DJ style was the aural equivalent of a highwire walk across Niagara Falls.

Rarely has a DJ’s mood been broadcast quite so powerfully to a dancefloor. By the records he played and the order he played them in, you could tell whether he was feeling good or bad, whether he’d just had an argument, whether he was tired or whether he was ready to party.

David Morales, who was lucky enough to play at the Garage as a young DJ, says Levan’s mood swings were dramatic. ‘He could be shit for seven hours and he could take 15 minutes and kick the shit out of you, and that made your night! That’s what it was about. There was nobody that was able to do that.’

He could drive dancers wild with desire or work them into a fury of frustration, often at the same time. Sometimes he would simply disappear from the booth. Occasionally, he would play an hour of dub reggae, or the same record three times in succession. Once (while sitting on a rocking horse), he had the whole club dancing to nothing more than a few of his live keyboard doodles, unaware that the record he was accompanying had finished minutes ago. Occasionally he would collapse in a stupor; somehow always managing to keep the party – if not himself – going. One time François remembers him putting on a movie instead of music. ‘What are you gonna do? There’s two and a half thousand people there and you suddenly play Altered States. That’s the kind of freedom that I think people need to know exists.’

‘He had attitude,’ remembers Cevin Fisher, another DJ/producer whose formative years were spent on the floor at King Street. ‘He would leave the DJ booth and the record would end and just spin around. Who knows what he was off doing… Actually, we all know what he was doing! And he would come back into the DJ booth totally trashed, lift the needle off the record and start it again. People got off on that.’

DJ Harvey, who played with Levan on his 1992visit to London, recalls how perfectly he could tease an audience. ‘He’d be playing one of his favourite records and just when it was getting to the best bit, he’d turn the system off, put the record back to the beginning and let it play again. He could do that three or four times and then not let the record play in full until an hour later. So people have been waiting for their favourite bit of that record for quite some time and they go barmy to it.’

‘There was no norm for Larry at The Garage,’ says David DePino. ‘It was his home and he didn’t follow no book. He didn’t care what happened. The freedom and the nonchalance he had up there was what made 2,000 people come together as one.’

Sharon White lived close to the Garage and was often called to cover when Levan hadn’t appeared. But she would always stick around when he finally did. ‘I’d go down and start the room up and then at 8 o’clock in the morning he’d come sliding in, fresh from wherever, with a smile on his face. He’d always come with gifts because he’d know attitudes would fly. Then the night would start all over again. You wouldn’t leave when Larry arrived, because that was when the party really started.’

‘Everyone has certain talents, natural abilities,’ adds Mel Cheren. ‘Some people are born with the talent to paint; some people are born with the talent to write. Larry had the talent for music and he could take 2,000 people and make them feel like they were at a house party.’

GARAGE MUSIC

‘Garage’ is one of the most mangled terms in dance music. The term derives from the Paradise Garage itself, but it has meant so many different things to so many different people that unless you’re talking about a specific time and place, it’s not much help. Part of the reason for this confusion (aside from various journalistic misunderstandings and industry misappropriations) is that the range of music played at the Garage was so broad. The music we now call ‘garage’ is a very distant relative, evolved from only a small part of the club’s wildly eclectic soundtrack.

The Garage opened just as disco was enjoying its greatest mainstream success, and the music played there initially would be broadly categorised as disco by modern ears. Yet as Eurodisco took hold and the sound grew ever more formulaic, Levan took his sonic palette in the other direction. ‘It’s boring when it’s the same thing all the time,’ he would say, arguing that dance music should have as much contrast and diversity as possible. So he married solid gold disco classics, burnished at the Gallery and the Loft, with disparate elements that took in rock, pop and weird electronic oddities, as well as soul, rap, funk and post-disco releases. The Garage was Yazoo’s ‘Situation’ as well as Loleatta Holloway’s ‘Love Sensation’. The Garage was Steve Miller Band’s ‘Macho City’ as well as Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Seventh Heaven’, Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ as well as Diana Ross’s ‘Love Hangover’ and Chaka Khan’s ‘Clouds’. The Garage was Grandmaster Flash and Eddy Grant. The Garage was MFSB, Marianne Faithfull, Talking Heads and the Clash. In short, he played anything good, accepting no boundaries of style, tempo or ‘coolness’.

Levan could even take records that every other DJ in the city had long been playing and make them recognisably his, ‘Love Is The Message’ being the most famous. The fact that it all converged so seamlessly and effectively is testament to his personality. ‘Garage music was kind of breaking the rules,’ says DJ Danny Krivit. ‘It was what he felt like playing. It was really about having no boundaries.’

Levan took this to extremes and was a determined manipulator of his clubbers’ tastes, pushing unusual, sometimes bizarre records on them and making them work through his immense force of will. One such record was Yoko Ono’s sonic sonnet, ‘Walking On Thin Ice’. A rock mantra in which Yoko’s dissonant eastern wail weaves around a wall of heavy percussion, it was the song John Lennon had been working on the night he was murdered. Levan loved it. Another example was Pat Benatar’s ‘Love Is A Battlefield’, one of several extremely unlikely Garage anthems. ‘Someone said he could never play that there,’ chuckles Danny Krivit, a key New York DJ. ‘That was reason enough for him to play it – and make it happen, too.’

And he would just as easily champion a commercial record as the most obscure underground cut. Dave Piccioni remembers him playing ‘Fascinated’ by Company B, a real electro-pop commercial record. ‘It was tacky in the extreme. But, fuck me, he played that for 20 or 25 minutes and you could not help but get into it. He thought, ‘I like this record and it’s gonna sound great in the club, and I don’t really care if you like it or not.’ And he got away with it because he had talent and creativity.’

‘People would be gagging,’ adds DePino bluntly, ‘but eventually they accepted it. He was the bravest DJ I ever knew.’

LEVAN’S LEGEND

There is no doubting Levan’s magnificence as a DJ. His famous inconsistency was the payoff for his bravery in exploring the power and the freedom he had in his booth. In truth, however, his legend grew from several sources besides his actual performances. Remember, he had the city’s most intensely dance-oriented nightclub at his command, a fact which greatly magnified his genius. Even more importantly however, he was a shining example of the new possibilities of his profession. This was a time when DJs were first emerging from their booths and entering the recording studio as producers and remixers. They started having the power not just to tailor their music live for their dancefloor, but to record original material and have it released commercially. With the support of a growing network of independent dance labels and with the inevitable attention of key radio DJs, they could even use their clubs to push records (including their own) into the mainstream charts. Few DJs expressed this new power as well as Levan. More than anyone else at the time, he showed where the DJ profession was heading.

He was a powerful tastemaker. Knowing they’d hear the best and latest tunes at the Garage, the city’s other key DJs would attend religiously ‘Two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon after the night before, he’d have a thousand people sitting on the floor,’ recalls DePino. ‘He’d be playing these obscure wild records and they’d be snapping their fingers and moving their heads around. Then he’d run down and dance, then run back up to change the record.’

‘After several years of being open, the word got around that this was the place where you had to break your record,’ adds François. ‘So everybody would bring Larry their tapes months and months ahead of time. He had access to the very, very best music months in advance.’

His friendship with radio DJ Frankie Crocker (the airwave equivalent of Barry White, known variously as ‘Lover Man’, ‘Fast Frankie’, ‘Chief Rocker’ and ‘Hollywood’) gave him even greater influence, to a level unprecedented for a club DJ. A record could go from the floor of the Garage one night and find itself on the platter at WBLS the next. After that the rest of America would join the party. It became an informal industry test centre. Veteran producer Arthur Baker recalls bringing ‘Walking On Sunshine’ by Rocker’s Revenge to the Garage for Levan to play. The following day, Crocker gave it its first airing on the radio. With such influence, Levan naturally shot to the top of the list of DJs when it came to receiving new product. One record promoter pointed out, ‘He’s someone to whom top record industry people hand-deliver new albums. When a record goes here, we know we’ve got a hit.’

But Levan rarely dwelt on his growing commercial power. Instead, he concentrated on increasing the pleasure of his clubbers and extending the range and possibilities of his music. The result was a striking combination of artistic freedom and commercial influence. By the early eighties, just 10 or 15 years after modern DJing was born, Levan was everything a DJ could be. No wonder he remains the central inspiration for almost every New York DJ above the age of 50. David Morales, Danny Tenaglia, Cevin Fisher, Junior Vasquez, Danny Krivit, Kenny Carpenter, François Kevorkian, Joe Clausell and many, many more. They all readily acknowledge their debt to Larry Levan. So many clubs too, have been based on the Garage. The Shelter, now Vinyl, home of the well-known Body And Soul nights, was founded more or less wholly on preserving its memory. The mighty Sound Factory too was a conscious copy of the Garage and at its early best came close to the same feelings of community.

And besides all this, Garage lore has been made more enduring by the fact that Levan died at the tragically young age of 38, after suffering heart failure (Levan had a life-long heart condition, though his legend-affirming drug habit can’t have helped). Music mythology loves nothing more than a good-looking corpse, which lends Danny Tenaglia’s description of Levan as the Jimi Hendrix of dance music yet more aching resonance.

DISCO’S REVENGE

Another crucial reason that Levan enjoys such a prominent place in the history of dance music is that his club presided over its most creatively fertile period: the death of disco and its rebirth in a hundred forms. As the eighties dawned and the mainstream was twisting disco into a camp cartoon, the Garage was paving the way for its many offspring to take their first steps. House and techno would soon emerge from the experiments of several innovative young DJs (Levan and his great friend Frankie Knuckles included). And the silicon revolution would make bedroom producers out of a generation of clubbers. Already in New York there were hectic collisions of underground energy and music. Hip hop and electro were blossoming onto record, funky new wave was rising from punk’s corpse, and after Bob Marley’s passing in 1981, reggae was about as popular as it would ever get in Gotham City. As disco boomed and busted, DJs were forced to search that little bit harder, that little bit longer to find the right records to feed their dancefloors. Levan was already the master of this magpie approach. Naturally the Garage became a key link between disco and the musical forms which evolved from it.

Levan’s role in this was to transfer his eclecticism to the studio ‘If you could see my collection, you’d know I like all music – you’d think it belonged to four different DJs,’ he explained. ‘And because of this, I found myself taking things from here, from there – reggae, pop, disco, jazz, blues – and using lots of things as a base to take things from.’

His first studio sortie, in 1978 was, bizarrely enough, to remix a novelty disco record by Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster called ‘C Is For Cookie’. The following year he remixed Taana Gardner’s debut single ‘Work That Body’, but his real breakthrough was the international hit ‘I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)’ by Instant Funk. The record went Gold and suddenly Levan’s studio career snowballed. His most prolific period was in the early-to-mid eighties when he created a series of classic productions many on Salsoul and West End. These included his dense, hypnotic remix of Gardner’s sensual disco workout ‘Heartbeat’, Jocelyn Brown’s anthemic remake of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, Edna Holt’s funky ‘Serious Sirius Space Party’ and a string of productions and mixes for Gwen Guthrie including ‘Ain’t Nothing Goin’ On But The Rent’. 

His late seventies remixes – such as Cognac’s ‘How High’ and Dee Dee Bridgewater’s ‘Bad For Me’ – sound much like the regular disco mixes of his peers. But by the turn of the eighties, he was experimenting with drum machines and synthesizers and, like François Kevorkian around the same time, forging a new electronic, post-disco sound. This was epitomized by his group Peech Boys – Levan, keyboard player Michael de Benedictus (who had worked on ‘Heartbeat’), and vocalist Bernard Fowler – and their digital-funk excursion ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’. It took Levan a year to complete the final single mix; he constantly tested the latest version in the club, before going back into the studio to make adjustments. When finally released it was a significant breakthrough; one that gave him worldwide acclaim in the dance community (it was even a minor pop hit in the UK).

Everyone was influenced by the Peech Boys record,’ says Arthur Baker. ‘When those handclaps started whipping around the place… oh, man.’ Fired by this new sound, Baker produced ‘Walking On Sunshine’ by Rocker’s Revenge. ‘ ‘Walking On Sunshine’ was specifically made for the Paradise Garage,’ he says emphatically.

With reggae making its presence felt, Levan had started absorbing dub as an influence. His interest in its warping basslines and luxuriant wide-open spaces came, no doubt, from the people he encountered while doing remixes for Island Records. Jamaican producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and in particular the engineer Steven Stanley, were to exercise an important influence on his tastes. He started airing many of the tracks coming out of Nassau’s Compass Point studios – records like Will Powers’ ‘Adventures In Success’, Ian Dury’s ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, and a succession of Grace Jones singles.

Levan would use echo and reverb to dramatize records in much the same way that Jamaican sound system DJs had done. The flitting handclaps on ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ were an approximation of a reverb trick he would often do live. And on the Garage’s superb system, certain dub-inflected records sounded simply awesome.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

But the Garage couldn’t live forever. In 1987, with Michael Brody tiring from AIDS and with some ugly financial conflicts within the club, when the lease expired he made no effort to relocate the Garage. The club finally closed on 26 September 1987. The last days were a truly bittersweet affair.

Judy Weinstein, one of Levan’s closest friends, now manager to Frankie Knuckles and David Morales, recalls the loss people felt: ‘It was a very sad moment when the club closed. It was devastating to both Larry and the 5-10,000 people that were members. But in retrospect it closed probably at the right time for where music was going at that point.’

‘It wasn’t until the last few weekends of The Garage that Larry really realised that it was definitely closing,’ remembers Mel Cheren. ‘Somehow he thought that Michael was going to come back and say that he’d found another space and everything was OK, but he didn’t. The last few weekends he finally realised this and began playing like it was a funeral march.’ However, Levan eventually saw it was wrong to bow out in a petulant sulk. And from then on the music was incredible.

The Paradise Garage ended its eleven-year house party with an amazing closing event that ran for more than two days. An estimated 14,000 people came through the doors, it was rammed to bursting throughout, and Levan played music as if his very breath depended on it. People came from all over the world to be there. Artist Keith Haring, whose graffiiti paintings decorated the club, flew in from Tokyo to attend. Regular Garage performer Gwen Guthrie, whose biggest hits were also produced by Levan, was carried on-stage garnished in diamonds and furs. ‘You know why I’m wearing these?’ she asked the ecstatic crowd, ‘Because you bought them for me.’

After the marathon session, the exhausted crowd gathered at the front of Levan’s DJ booth on a dancefloor littered with ‘Save The Garage’ stickers, and pleaded with him not to go. But the sands of time had finally run out.

‘There can never be another Garage,’ reflects Judy Weinstein. ‘It was what it was. There was a time for it and that’s what it was. ‘There are all these clubs that fancy themselves to be the next Garage,but when I go to The Ministry, or places of that magnitude, with their huge sound-systems and their claims to be the best club in the world, I realise that nothing could ever come close to the warmth and the feeling you got from The Paradise Garage. It wasn’t just the sound, it was the whole thing, and there will never be anything like it again.’

KING WITHOUT A KINGDOM

The closure of the Garage, though long anticipated, had a deadening effect on New York clubland. ‘It was like somebody had died in my family,’ says Charlie Grappone, whose Vinylmania record store was almost an annex to the club, built on selling, as so many customers requested, ‘the tunes Larry played last night’. Then, on 28 December, only two months after the club closed, Michael Brody died. In the last five years, AIDS had been claiming more and more of the club’s family and now it had taken its creator.

For Levan himself, it was all simply devastating. He knew that without the Garage he would never achieve that same level of communion with a crowd. ‘He was now a king without a kingdom,’ says Mel Cheren. ‘Even before it closed, he had entered into a steep decline in which his DJing was running second to his drug use, which now included heroin. Friends began to view the DJs actions as a kind of slow, deliberate suicide. In the final year, he was relying increasingly on the club’s alternate DJs, David DePino, Joey Llanos, Sharon White and Victor Rosado.

‘When Larry knew The Garage was going to close, he freaked,’ exclaims DePino. ‘He went on a self-destructive binge. He took drugs to spite people, to hurt them. The more you would say, “Larry, please don’t do so many drugs”, the more he would do them, right in your face.’

He put his records in storage but missed the payments and the stirage company sold them. After the closure of the Garage, whenever Levan was booked to DJ, his friends had to trawl the rummage sales to buy back his collection, just so he could fulfil the date. Danny Krivit remembers finding Levan’s unique acetate remix of Syreeta’s ‘Can’t Shake Your Love’ on a record stall and realizing that most of the other records there were his also.

Frankie Knuckles recalls a night in 1992, when Levan paid a visit to his Friday residency at the Sound Factory Bar. David Morales was there too, and they stood together in the booth, playing records and having a ball. Larry was moved to confide something in Frankie: ‘He said, ‘I’m really proud of you and what you’ve done with your life. I hope you use what I’ve done with my life as an example of what not to do.’

Shortly before his death, Levan went on a successful two-month tour of Japan with Mel Cheren and François Kevorkian. He was treated like a star, a living legend. ‘Larry went into a set of Philadelphia classics which was just so poignant,’ recalls François. ‘It was so emotional because the message of all the songs said he was really hurting. We all felt it at the time, but I think he pretty much knew he was dying and all the songs he played were so deeply related to how fast life goes. He played Jean Carne’s ‘Time Waits For No One’ and The Trammps’ ‘Where Do We Go From Here’, and I realised that this was one of the best moments of greatness that I had ever witnessed in my life. It was so obvious, so grand, such a drama to it that you just knew.’

Larry Levan died two months later on 8 November 1992. He died of endocarditis, an inflammation of the lining of the heart, which was exacerbated by his excessive drug use. He was 38. Nearly 800 people attended his memorial service, friends, colleagues and Garage kids alike. He was, as DePino puts it ‘the last DJ who could touch people in that way’.

JIMI HENDRIX OF THE TURNTABLES

Now that the world is so full of DJs we need a few more Larry Levans. We need people to remind us that playing records is fun; that up in the booth you have a joyous freedom which you should revel in. DJs who make no mistakes are just not taking enough risks. There’s no safe road to paradise.

‘Larry was awful, he was too loud, he’d leave big gaps and let records jump, he’d play ballads in the middle of the night,’ laughs DJ Bruce Forest, one of his contemporaries. ‘But that was only five per cent of it. On the other hand, he had an atmosphere nobody will achieve ever again. He made it seem like he was playing records to you in his living room. His rapport with the crowd was immense. If you went to the club one week and a light bulb was red and the next week when you returned it was blue, people would say, ‘Larry changed the bulb this week.’

David Morales remembers his wilfulness: ‘Sometime the audience would get uptight with Larry – but it was his home and he did what he wanted to. If he wanted to go off on a Samba kick for an hour, that’s what he did. But make no mistake he was my hero and a genius. It’s only now that I fully realise just how much of a genius he was. Now that I’m older and a little wiser I can understand what’s required to entertain an audience. It’s more than just a tune. It was how he handled the system, how he talked and related to people. How he was able to work them up into a frenzy with them standing in the same spot.’

‘He was like the Miles Davis of the trumpet, the Jimi Hendrix of the guitar, the John Coltrane of the sax,’ reflects Joe Claussell. ‘He was the man of the turntables.’

Johnny Dynell says Levan showed him what DJing was really all about: ‘When you’re creating that magic on the floor. When they’ve thrown their hands up in the air, and they’re totally lost and abandoned into this other world. And you’ve taken them to that other world. That’s what DJing is. Before that I was just playing records, which is not DJing at all.’

‘There’ll never be another Larry Levan, just like they’ll never be another Paradise Garage,’ concludes David Morales. ‘There are a lot of other great DJs and awesome great clubs, but there’s never been a DJ that commanded an audience as strongly as Larry Levan.’

In recalling Levan, most people are also thinking back to their nights in his club, for many the best times they can remember. But equally, for those who were close to him, memories of the Garage are inseparable from memories of Levan himself. ‘He was very special,’ says Mel Cheren. ‘He was a genius. I miss him a great deal. So many people do. But you have to go on and keep things going.’

‘Larry was adventurous, he was daring, he was a risk-taker,’ reflects Frankie Knuckles. ‘He was a dark character, but a lot of young kids gravitate towards dark sounds, feelings, moods. He was very, very funny. He was always the odd man out, but he had something about him that automatically drew people to him. People were just drawn to Larry like a magnet.’

Another close friend, David DePino sums up what Larry brought to the world. ‘He was able to get 2,000 people to feel the same emotion and peak at the same time. He could make them feel like one. They loved him for his insanity and his genius. I miss him. I miss him very much. It was just like going over the rainbow every Saturday night.’

© Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster

This is a lightly edited version of the sleevenotes to the album Larry Levan live at the Paradise Garage (Nuphonic), which in turn was an extended version of the Paradise Garage section of our book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. Thanks to DJ Jaguar and Lewis Dene. And a big shout out to the Nuphonic diaspora.

Larry Levan and Keith Haring’s Party of Life, celebrating Larry’s birthday in 1984, from The Vinyl Maniac fanzine, courtesy of Charlie Grappone.