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Was this Man the Best DJ in the World? -by Kevin Lewis
Larry Levan, who died six years ago, is still considered to be the most influential DJ ever. At the height of his popularity at the legendary Paradise Garage he was like a god for the 2,000 regulars, the creator of skills and tricks that elevated DJing to the artform it is today. Kevin Lewis traces his history and speaks to the passionate people behind the club. All wannabe DJs and promoters: Take Note!
Talk to any New York producer old enough to have been to the Paradise Garage, in its heyday, and they’ll swear that there never has, and never will be, anything like it. Ask any of them. From Danny Tenaglia to Dave Morales, and they’ll all say the same thing. The Paradise Garage was a one-off. And resident DJ, Larry Levan, was probably the greatest DJ ever to stand behind a set of turntables.
From when it opened in January 1977, to its last party in the Autumn of 1987, the Paradise Garage was the clubbing focal point of New York. A place where dance artists like D-Train and Loleatta Holloway would come to perform. And the place where people like Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Grace Jones and Keith Haring would all hang out. It was the testing ground for labels like West-End and Salsoul, and producers like Francois Kevorkian and Levan himself. It was all these things, and much, much more. For the 2,000 regulars, Larry Levan was like a God. They even tagged his late-night sessions ‘Saturday Mass’. He did things with records that other DJs just didn’t do. He would tell a story with his music. Sometimes sending the crowd crazy, and minutes later, making them break down and cry. There was, and still is, no DJ like him. He was an insanely talented genius, both behind the turntables and in the studio. And he made the Paradise Garage the legend that it is.
“He was the inspiration for all the important DJs in New York today,” says Mel Cheren, owner of disco-giant West End Records and executor of Levan’s estate. “People like Junior Vasquez, Frankie Knuckles and David Morales became DJs because of Larry.” Judy Weinstein, director of Knuckles and Morales’ Def mix organization agrees: “He was brilliant. A true genius. He was, and still is, the best.” And, as for why, six years after his death, Levan and the Garage are still placed at the pinacle of the clubbing world, fellow disco producer and regular guest DJ at the Garage, Francois Kevorkian, says this: “The reason why it is so important is because everyone and their mothers were there every week-end checking it out. It was so obviously and blatantly superior to anything else going on. 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.”
And yet it was more than just that. Levan was obsessed with perfection. He would spend hours re-arranging the speakers in the club until the sound was absolutely perfect. Then change it all again the next week so that the crowd didn’t get bored. “He was a technical wizard,” explains Weinstein, who got to know Levan working at Dave Mancuso’s NY Record Pool. “He could re-build a radio from scratch. He helped Richard Long create the Garage sound system. Larry would tell Richard what he wanted and if Richard told him that they couldn’t do it, he would keep on at it until it was invented for him. Larry would always find a way to make things happen.”
David DePino, Levan’s best friend and the DJ who used to warm up for him, remembers his perfectionism on a different level: “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. I’ve seen nights where everyone was rushing around to get things open and they’d forget something like cleaning the mirror-balls. It’d be one o’clock and Larry would run on to the dance floor 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. They loved that. The fact that even though he was the DJ, he’d spend half an hour cleaning all the mirror-balls.”
He produced his music with a similar passion. There were times he would be in the studio week after week as he tested new versions of songs on the Garage crowd. Some records took over a year to complete.
His passion for DJ-ing lead him to play on three turntables working studio effects and his own special edits into the mix. He invented the now commonplace trick of a capella mixing. The presentation of the music and the pure entertainment of his crowd was paramount. He would use video clips on the huge screen above the dance floor to accentuate certain records and, as the night wore on, he would upgrade the turntables to ones with state-of-the-art needles for the ultimate aural experience on the floor.
Communication with the dance floor was his motivation. His message was one of love, hope, freedom and universal brotherhood. And the set of songs he played was the dialogue he used. He’d even leave gaps between certain parts of the journey. So if he played three songs in a row about music, and the next one was about freedom, he’d leave a short pause or drop in an effect.
“He built sets with stories that went into one another,” explains Kevorkian. “I’m not saying that he only played vocals, but there was a concept there was a concept that he studied and became an amazing practitioner of. He was able to truly use songs, and when I say songs, I mean songs. I’m talking about songs with a voice speaking to you and inspiring you, not some crappy sample repeating 175 times until you’re made to feel like you’re very stupid because it has to be repeated that many times until you understand it. Songs with lyrics. And he used those lyrics to talk to people. It was very, very common for people on the dance floor to feel like he was talking to them directly through the record. And it was a two way thing. Not just the DJ saying, ‘Here is the law,’ or the crowd saying, ‘We’ll only listen to this,’ there was an unspoken mental energy flowing back and forth. I think, more than anyone else I’ve known, he was the one that could pick this up more than anyone else.”
That ability to talk to the dance floor is one of the main reasons why Levan is still revered today. He created something so special between the hours of midnight on a Saturday night and whenever the club closed on Sunday afternoon, that the crowd came back religiously, week after week, for more.
“You had 1000-1200 people actually on that dance floor communing together,” continues Kevorkian. “Sharing their energies together to the music. Singing the lyrics and ad-libbing on top of the music. Today I see 1200 people on the dance floor each in their own little mental head-space. Isolated from each other most of the time. Sometimes clubs get off a little, but not at the level of the Garage. And if you haven’t seen it, I’m sorry to say, but you can’t understand it. It’s like telling me you’ve seen a bicycle ride and I’ve seen race-cars and rockets. It’s a whole different thing.”
“If there were 2,000 people in there every Saturday,” adds Depino, “a good thousand of them knew each other by name. And it was the same, year after year.”
The one thing, however, that really made Levan different from DJs today was that people actually loved him. Not just the hero figure. They loved Levan the person. They loved the fact that he would stop the music and spend half an hour cleaning the mirror-balls. They loved the fact that on membership days, when Michael Brody, the owner, would hold interviews for those wishing to join the club, Levan would open the back door, let the huge queue of hopefuls into the club and start playing the biggest records of the week (much to Brody’s annoyance). They loved the fact that he would put on a record, then run straight down to the dance floor and join in the party. They loved it when he hooked up his radio the sound system and played the Garage mix show on WBLS back to the crowd. They loved the fact that his passion for the party was completely all-consuming and that sometimes, he was just plain crazy.
“There was one time when the owner of the club had a brainstorm,” remembers Weinstein. “He tried to make it a very white gay club and kicked Larry to the curb for three weeks. And so Larry freaked out at the owner and bit his leg. It was a very traumatic moment. And then the nights became Larry’s again. I guess he just didn’t like getting bitten.”
Harvey, the resident DJ at the Ministry of Sound when Levan played there back in 1991, remembers a similar kind of madness: “One time Larry came back to my house, leaping around, which he had a tendency to do when he was excited, smiling and bouncing and screaming, “I’ve found it. I’ve got it. This is the one, Harvey. You’ve gotta come with me. I’ve found this boutique that’s got the best style and fashion around. Will you come with me?’ SO we go all the way down to Croydon high Street, into this ‘Everything Under $20’ boutique that specializes in snow-wash denim. And he bought half the shop to take back to New York. Stuff like jeans with grey snow-wash on the back and red snow-wash on the front, and leather jackets with studs and padded shoulders. He was over the moon and I just thought it was rather amusing. Basically, he was just right out there.”
As a venue, the Paradise Garage was awesome. A converted parking garage situated at 84 King Street in the Soho area of Manhattan, it featured a movie room, changing area and cloakroom, two chill-out rooms (one with music, one without) and a roof garden that opened up in the summer. Maximum capacity was near to 4,000. It took quite some time to build and from January ’77 until it opened fully in late ’78, they held construction parties in what later became the cloakroom. And, as things were tight, Levan and Michael Brody actually lived in the Garage during those early years.
However, what made the Garage completely out-of-this-world, was the way it was run. From the very start, it was never looked upon as a business venue. It was about dancing. Pure and simple. It was that reason alone that made it such a success.
“This is not like the small-minded, profit-orientated club promoters that we’re seeing today,” explains Kevorkian. “This was about someone who said, ‘I’ll give this money to these people. Let them do what I think they can do because I think they really have the talent and let’s see what happens with it.’ That’s what Mel Cheren did. There was no-one at the cash register thinking, ‘How can I save money? How can I make it busier? How can I sell more drinks?’ It was a real, true, private club. In other words, if you don’t have a membership, you cannot come in. You are not allowed to come in. We don’t care if you have money. Please don’t come in. This is a private club. A house party. It might be a house party with 2,000 people. It’s a big house.”
And from the day that it opened until the day that it closed, it stayed true to that motto. It was a party. And the point of the party was dancing. You had the best sound system money could buy. The best lights – there to enhance the dancing experience, not to perform flashy shows. There was free food: 10 different flavours of lemon-ice and all kinds of fruit in the summer, freshly baked brownies and doughnuts in the winter. Coffee and soft drinks were free too. Because if you’re going to dance for 12 hours, you’re going to need to replenish your energy at some point. The y even served turkey with all the trimmings at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Yet there was no alcohol. And if you ask Kevorkian why, he simply replies, “That was not what it was about.”
Drugs, however, were a different matter. “Sure, there were lots of kids there that took drugs,” states Depino, quite plainly. “And there were a lot of kids there that didn’t. In the early days of the Garage though, they’d do things like spike the punch. But only for the first three or four years. After that point, the Garage was too big for us to do that. You took a chance that someone would get hurt or OD. There was too much of a risk. Three thousand people dancing and tripping insanely was too much to control. So when the Garage got that popular, they stopped doing that. But in the early days, you took a glass of electric punch and you were going boy. It was never enough to actually make you trip, just enough to make you have fantastic time and not know why. I mean, we knew what was in it, so we’d drink 12 or 13 cups of punch and we’d be flying.”
The Garage was all this and much more. There was the time Michael Brody spent $20,000 putting on Patti Labelle only just to break even. There were all the other amazing artists that played there; Chakka Khan, Gloria Gaynor, The Jones Girls and Billy Ocean. In the days when it wasn’t just about a pretty singer and a DAT machine in the back, but a full live band. And the days when you couldn’t just hire a big name DJ and wait for the cash to roll in.
“They did have some guest DJs,” offers Kevorkian. “I was lucky enough to be one of them until I stopped DJ-ing in “83. But there was no large-billed Seb ‘Pleased” Healy kinda thing. All those inter-changeable figure-heads. It was just a home crowd that kept themselves to themselves and it grew international because Larry was making all these incredible records that all of us would come and listen to know what time it was. That’s it.”
Yet even once it had become a phenomenon, and people traveled all over the world to experience the magic of the Garage, it was never commercialized.
“They never tried to blatantly and grossly exploit it,” agrees Kevorkian. “There were no new compilation albums advertised in the press every two weeks or things of that nature. Because that was against the nature of the club staying like a house party.”
“We were so close to Frankie Crocker (the programmer at WBLS, a big disco station) that we could have had so much publicity out of it,” adds Depino. “But we didn’t. Sure Frankie used to talk about it, but only from a personal viewpoint s something fun to do because he actually went himself. And even then Michael Brody used to get so mad about it. He’d be like, ‘Frankie, please don’t talk too much about the club. I don’t want people just coming because they hear about it on the radio.’”
It’s hard to imagine any club of the same size today having a similar stand-point. Imagine Cream without the car-stickers and bomber-jackets. Or the Ministry of Sound without ‘Dance Nation’.
“If people go to clubs today and think that what they’re experiencing might be somehow like the Garage,” states Kevorkian, “then that’s bullshit. They’re nothing like the Garage at all. They’re just commercial operations where everything is done for profit. You serve liquor until a certain time and then that’s it, you get the people out of there. I remember playing at Bar Rhumba and the security got really upset because the customers wanted more music. Their attitude was, ‘We’re not getting paid, so it’s time to close the party’. This is NOT what the Garage was about. You have to understand the basics of it.
“Everyone who worked there from the guy that swept the floor all the way tot he general manager were people that really understood the party. I can relate tot he fact that security people want to get paid by the minute and that the party has to end because people have better things to do. But when that kind of atmosphere happens, what you DON’T get is the magic that used to happen at the Paradise Garage. The basis of the party was that you stayed open until people left. You didn’t clear people out. So the party lasted until 10, 11, 12, whenever. And over the course of months or years o things like that happening, you give opportunity for something to develop. A philosophy, an attitude, a way of seeing things.
“And to explain this you have to understand that there is no place like this now. You can’t get it. And if there is, tell me where it is. Tell me where there’s a club where people do what they do and they’re just in control? Where the DJ takes care of the music. He decides who plays. If he wants to play the whole night, he plays the whole night. If he doesn’t want to lay, he’ll call his friend to play for him. He stays open as long as he wants. Where they don’t have to sell alcohol an the owner is on the floor dancing. Please tell me where there’s a club like this?”
As incredible as the Garage was, however, it had to close. The owner, Michael Brody, was too ill with AIDS to go on and on September 26th, 1987, Larry Levan closed his final set, rather fittingly, with the Trammps ‘Where Do We GO From Here?”. It was the end of an era. For people like Mel Cheren, it meant that all the kids that had been brought off the street into the warmth of the all-consuming groove inside were left to the crack-infested neighbourhoods of New York. No longer could people dance away their weekly stresses in such a welcoming world. The magical domain of the Garage where race, wealth, colour and sexual preference meant nothing, and the dance meant everything, had ceased to exist.
For Levan, it seemed like the end of the Garage marked the beginning of the end of his life. His rock-star style addiction to cocaine and heroin took over. Record companies lost interest in his productions and night-club owners sacked him for his brattish tantrums. He was like a king without his crown and, despite the fact he had known he had a heart condition since he was a child, he continued to take the drugs that he must have known would eventually kill him. And on the 8th November, 1992, Levan died of endocarditis, an inflammation of the lining of the heart, spurred on by his excessive narcotic intake.
“People should remember the positive things though,” cautions Cheren. “Of course he had a drug problem, like many people do. But he was a genius and people should remember that first and foremost.”
Depino agrees: “He was such a brat, but people loved him. They loved him for his insanity and his genius. And they loved the Garage too. I’ve heard mothers today with little kids telling them about the Garage. And there’s these little Garage babies running around with their little Garage T-shirts from their parents screaming, ‘My Mammy used to go the Garage. My Daddy used to go to the Garage. Patti Labelle played there.’ And they don’t even know who she is. It was just such an amazing place. I miss it and I miss him very much. It was just like going over the rainbow. Every Saturday night.”
By Kevin Lewis (Jockey Slut magazine) 1998?
Larry Levan & The Paradise Garage According to the DJs:
No club is ever going to come close because, for everybody involved, that room was their passion. From Larry to the person that owned it to security. And the sound system was so professionally maintained. On a weekly basis he would check every speaker with audio gear, alter speakers that were wobbling or move them an inch if it was necessary. I have so many great memories of that place. It’s been a major influence on me and my career.
David Depino (warm-up DJ)
He was wild. There was no holding him back. There as no norm for Larry at the Garage. It was his home and he didn’t follow no book. The freedom he had and the non-chalance he had up there sometimes made 2,000 people come together as one. He made them feel like they were at a house party. And I never saw to this day a DJ do that. Ever.
It’s amazing now when I think about it. Things could have been so different. Just before I went to work at the Warehouse, these people from Chicago came looking for Larry to move there and for them. Larry, however, had no intention of doing that. He’d just moved to Soho and anyway he was a true diehard New Yorker. Larry was one of those people that refused to move. And after he refused, they asked me.
He kinda lived up to being Larry Levan, d’you know what I mean? He lived up to the legend. Whether it was to do with drugs, music, DJ-ing, or whatever. He was quite full-on in a lot of ways and passionate about stuff. The actual control of the sound was a great thing for him because it wasn’t like he was a great mixer particularly but the records came on in the right order. And the way that he would just use the volume knob, for instance, to accentuate certain parts of the song or lyrics or whatever was incredible. Working the record using the volume, bass, mild and treble. He was a master at that for sure.
Larry himself was a wizard when it came to DJ-ing and I don’t think many DJs today understand his philosophy. Everyone is still with the pretty mixes, making sure that it’s all onbeat but they don’t have a clue what it takes to present their music to a crowd. And he’s the only guy that’d be able to teach them. He was the best. The man of the turntables. Like the Miles David of the trumpet, the Jimi Hendrix of the guitar or the John Coltrane of the sax.
The Disco Years
One of the first DJs-as-artists, Francis Grosso, invents slip-cueing (holding one record on a slip-mat then cutting across at the right point). ‘Underground’ clubs with the DJ as the focal point appear. David Mancuso opens The Loft, one of the most Influential. Nicky Siano’s Gallery is another. Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan hang out together at both places.
The resident DJ at the Continental Baths walks out and the owner tells light-man Larry Levan that he’s got six hours to find a record collection. Levan becomes resident. The nightclub soundtrack of Motown and Soul gives way to Gamble and the Huff’s Philly sound. MFSB release, ‘Love Is The Message’ typifies gay clubbing in NYC.
Larry Levan outgrows the Continental Baths and Richard Long employs him at The Soho Place. He soon packs it out.
Dave Mancuso starts the first ever record pool (a means for record companies to distribute promos to DJs). Promo 12 Inches appear with Calhoun’s ‘Dance Dance Dance’ rumored the first.
Salsoul release the first commercially-available 12 inch. Walter gibbons takes double Exposure’s Ten Percent’ and works it into an 11 minute disco extravaganza. Repetitive beats and club music as we know it are born. Francois Kevorkian arrives in New York from France. He is hired as Gibbons’ percussionist at Galaxy 21.
In January, Levan, Michael Brody and Mel Cheren, the co-owner of West End Records, open the Paradise Garage. It’s a disaster. The sound system gets stuck in a blizzard and people wait outside in the freezing cold.
Everyone and their mother has made a disco record. Levan performs his first remix. It’s a disco-novelty record by Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster called ‘C Is For Cookie’.
Disco continues to be a powerful underground force. Levan remixes Taana Gardner’s ‘Heartbeat’. It sells 100,000 copies in New York in one week. Dance music expands to include the new sound of rap as the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rappers Delight’ sells 200,000.
The use of electronics rises. Levan and Kevorkian add it to their mix while Arthur Baker drops ‘Planet Rock’. Electro arrives. Peech Boys release the definitive Garage record ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’.
Levan makes the move from remixing to production when the NYC Peech boys release the ‘Life Is Something Special’ LP.
Manuel Goettsching releases the proto-techno masterpiece of ‘E2-E4’. Another Garage classic.
The 110bpm original instrumental of ‘Mysteries of Love’ by Mr. Fingers becomes an anthem at the Garage after Levan gets hold of it on acetate.
The badass jacking sound of Chicago filters through to New York. Records like Mr. Fingers’ ‘Washing Machine’ and “Can You Feel It’ are massive at the Garage.
The Paradise Garage closes on September 26th. Michael Brody, the co-owner, is very ill with AIDS.
Levan fails to find another club to call home in Manhattan. He gets sacked from the World nightclub in the East Village after playing ‘ABC’ by the Jackson 5 three times in a row to an entirely disinterested floor.
Levans is contacted by the Ministry of Sound to help set up their sound system. After the club opens he plays both there and at Harvey’s Moist night.
After his Harmony tour of Japan on November 8th, Levan dies of a heart condition.