Disco and the Evolution of the DJ Part II Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

Disco(In Part I we looked at the roots of disco and how this musical form came about. Before we follow disco on its towering ascent, let’s look at the interplay between the early club DJ and this fledgling musical genre and how each impacted the other.)

 

There are plenty of guys who would love to tell you they were the “First Club DJ.Jimmy Savile wrote a book to tell people he was. Savile’s the guy who, in 1943, rented a function room in West Yorkshire England, wired his gramophone to some Marconi radio parts and spun his large collection of American Swing records for any guest willing to shell out the one shilling cover charge. Bob Casey will try to tell you that too. Bob had his Dad (a sound engineer) build him a “double turntable” in 1955 so when he played his 45’s at sock hops he wouldn’t have dead air in between each song like all the other jocks at the time. Ian Samwell might try to tell you that too. He became the resident DJ at London’s Lyceum in 1961– he replaced the electrician as the guy to play the records, that’s how well thought of the position of “DJ” was before Ian arrived. Samwell’s Sunday night spot became incredibly popular and his large collection of American R&B records became the talk (and the envy) of every “mod” in London. If Guy Stevens hadn’t ODed in 1981 he would definitely try to convince you that he was the first club DJ. Stevens’ residence at The Scene in London in the mid 60s began a career in the music industry that would lead to signing, managing, and producing bands like Ike and Tina Turner, Bad Company and The Clash.

Whether he was the first club jock, or just the most influential early club DJ, Terry Noel and his importance to the industry cannot be overlooked. Terry began his career in nightclubs as a “professional twister” at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City in the early 60’s. In the Spring of 1965, when Richard Burton’s ex-wife Sybil opened a New York club called Arthur she installed Terry Noel as the resident DJ. Noel proved he wasn’t just a pretty boy dancer as he took control

Terry Noel
Terry Noel

of everything at Arthur. He had the sound system rebuilt, took over control of the clubs lighting and most importantly began to “mix music.” He didn’t just segue songs like everyone else before him. He saw the song as a canvas on which he could be a bit creative. He’d drop a guitar lick from one song over the break of another. Or tease an a cappella line over the intro of another song. Keep in mind this was years before pitch control and Noel was working with the most primitive equipment. His reputation grew to where music producers would bring him previews of their work before sending them off to be pressed, like the one Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson dropped off one day.

Noel had a long run as the cities most prominent and influential club jock. How many aspiring and future jocks danced to his music, listened to his mixes and dreamed one day of being the powerful guy “up there” rather than the awkward guy “down here” can never be known. But what can never be questioned is that Noel’s popularity, and his treatment of his profession changed the way the club DJ thought of himself, and how the clubber thought of him, forever. There is a legend from Noel’s days at Arthur that says something about how high the “DJ” had climbed on the celebrity ladder under Noel’s stewardship. If you have ever spun music for a crowd, you can picture this scenario:

It’s a typical night at Arthur. Celebrity bumping and grinding with the laypeople. Dance floor too full, spilling over into the bar, into the hallways. Noel has created a mood, an energy that couldn’t be found singularly in any of the songs he is playing. They are simply pieces in his puzzle. Spokes in his wheel. The sweat that glistens from the dancers is his sweat. Their energy is his energy. Their high is his high. He is the DJ and this is his domain. Then, a guest approaches and asks him for a song. A song so absurd this guest must be some imposter, some poseur at this club where the only thing cooler than the guest list is the ice and the only thing hotter than the dance floor is the DJ. Noel looks up from his spinning platters, his hands frozen over the vinyl.

The requested song is “Yellow Rose of Texas” and the yahoo asking for it is John Wayne.

Sybil Burton, owner of Arthur and current queen of the nighttime world, is within earshot. She is relaxing and entertaining other celebrities. The way Noel tells the story Lauren Bacall is sipping a fruity cocktail and Judy Garland is leaning forward to hear Noel’s response.

Now, Terry Noel is not the DJ of 5 years ago. He’s not the electrician turned record spinner. He doesn’t get anyone drinks or wipe down any tables. Noel fancies himself an artist and you don’t tell Picasso to put a little pink there in that corner. You don’t tell Michelangelo that David’s penis is too small for his body (even though it clearly is.)

Noel thumbs through his record case and pulls out the Ernest Tubb 45. He makes eye contact with The Duke (The Duke!) and says, “Gee I happen to have that.” Then he snaps the record in two and tosses it on the dance floor. “But oh, it’s broken.”

Wayne called him a faggot or homo or something and the women cracked up and maybe with that one broken, tossed record the club DJ staked his claim. He stood up and pointed to the dance floor (which couldn’t get anymore packed, mind you) and said, “leave me to my art. Let me entertain them.”

One man was definitely there. Definitely listened to Noel play and definitely thought to himself, this is an art and I can run with this. His name is Francis Grasso. Grasso filled in for Noel one night at Sanctuary Too and was immediately asked to take over the slot. Noel had taken the art of mixing records to a new level but there is some debate about whether he actually “beat mixed.” There is no question that Grasso did. And did it masterfully – especially considering the rudimentary equipment he had to work with. Grasso saw songs not as individual pieces but as movements in an entire night’s soundtrack. Each song worked to take the energy from one step to another. And keeping a consistent beat was the key. Keeping a dancer moving without even realizing that one song had changed, or, more accurately, being aware of the change and yet having no ability to stop dancing, that was Grasso’s goal. After Grasso, beat mixing became a job requirement. You didn’t even approach a club to take over a night unless you could do it.

Steve D’Acquisto learned the art of beat mixing at Grasso’s feet. So did Michael Cappello. This was still the early 70’s and disco was just now evolving from the collective gene pool of R&B, soul and funk and these three, in a friendly yet competitive spirit would out-do each other nightly on the wheels of steel. Record mixing, just like disco itself, was evolving and a strong argument can be made for the fact that neither art form could or would have reached its pinnacle without the other.

David Mancusso
David Mancusso

While these three men were creating the very techniques (no pun intended) that would become the tenets of club DJing, a man named David Mancuso was taking the club concept to a new level. In the early 70’s he opened a place in lower Manhattan called The Loft. Aptly named since this club was in his loft. It was a small place, invitation only at first until its reputation spread, but its impact on this burgeoning club scene was anything but small. Mancuso, and fellow audiophile Alex Rosner, built a sound system unparallelled for its time. And his record collection put any other DJ’s to shame. Mancuso may not have had the technical skills of Grasso and his crew (in fact as their collective friendships grew Mancuso learned many mixing techniques from them) but his passion for audio quality and his absolute love of music were inspirational to generations of DJs. As Mancuso’s reputation grew he became something of a musical missionary. Discovering unknown artists and breaking great dance songs became his outspoken goal. “Woman” by Barrabas and “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango are two early disco hits that began their rise at The Loft. Other DJs would hear Mancuso play them and would run out and get their own copy. The DJ and club community in New York at the time were very close knit and records could break from one club to the next to the whole city in a matter of nights. The Loft is considered by many to be the place where it all came together. All the goals and aspirations of this early form of music called disco. The awesome sound system, the original music, the equality of clubber. Black, White, Spanish, Gay, Straight, Man, Woman. Didn’t matter at The Loft. And though these early “Unalienable Rights” of the disco lover weren’t always upheld as the music and the culture grew in popularity, they were always dear to Mancuso’s heart.

Now that the torch was lit, talent and creativity became a prerequisite for the DJ. As we’ll see, so many innovations and new techniques were created in the frenzy of activity that marked the early disco scene. Space does not allow for appropriate tributes to all the influential club jocks. Nick Siano, Larry Levan, Richie Kaczor and so many others deserve our attention, respect and even gratitude. Pick up a copy of Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life”or Ulf Poschardt’s “DJ Culture” to read so much more about this era and the club DJs that forged it. Whether you spin music at a club or entertain party guests on the weekends, your career began with some courageous men who were willing to take risks and experiment with music and sound.

 

By the early 1970s, record labels felt they had it all figured out. Each of the majors had a nice balance: a stable of classic rock Gods and a number of soft rock acts. Promotion to radio stations was easy and the entire industry had sold their souls to the time tested promotional treadmill of record and tour. Record and tour. With very few exceptions, record executives could predict each years hits and threw their promotional energies and dollars accordingly. The few early Disco songs that did chart like “Rock Your Baby” or “Kung Fu Fighting” in 1974 did so with the appropriate radio promotion. Then, in late 1974, a virtually unknown from Newark, New Jersey named Gloria Gaynor began climbing the charts with a remake of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Even Gloria’s own label, Polydor Records, was surprised. After all, Gloria Gaynor was not high on Polydor’s list of hot talent. Polydor had adopted the roster of MGM records when it bought that label and MGM had bought Gaynor’s contract from Columbia Records when no one there felt she had a future. This was a little known singer even at her own record label. And there was virtually no promotion of her debut album. So how was it that her song was climbing the charts?

That’s the question that record executives pondered and the only logical explanation they could come up was the clubs. That’s the one place this song was getting exposure. Could it be that enough people would hear a song at a club, dance the night away to it, and then go out the next day and buy it? Records labels began to bet on it.

Twentieth Century Records had a promotions man at the time named Billy Smith. Smith decided to test the theory that a club hit could “break” a song. He looked through the songs at Twentieth Century Records and found an instrumental

Bobby Guttadaro
Bobby Guttadaro

track that had died in the water. A song that had been out for months and gone nowhere. It had a slick beat, a snappy guitar and a string section that seemed to invite the listener in. So he brought it to Bobby Guttadaro, or Bobby DJ as he was known at Fire Island’s Ice Palace and Manhattan’s Le Jardin where he was the resident DJ. Bobby DJ literally wore the grooves out and then other DJs around the city began to spin it too. Soon, without a bit of radio play, the song, “Love Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra and produced by Barry White (yes that Barry White) was selling 50,000 copies and eventually would get to #1 on the pop charts. An article in the disco trade publication Melting Pot declared: “God Bless Billy Smith.” Bobby Guttadaro was the first club DJ to receive a gold disc for his help in breaking the song. The gold disc was handed to him personally by Barry White.

Records companies follow promotional opportunities like sharks to blood in the water. They learned quickly how to approach club DJs and how to get their records in the rotation. Songs like the Hues Corporations “Rock the Boat,” B.T. Express’ “Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied) and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” all benefited greatly from strong club play. Record companies began to hire promotional men specifically to work the club scene. Often gay, always flamboyant, these new promotional men called themselves the “homo promos.”

Record companies soon discovered though that keeping track of all the new clubs, and all the new club DJs, was an impossible task. Where ten years earlier the labels sent promotional copies to each radio station, now they were being asked to send them to every club jock. Verifying the veracity of each person requesting free records, and keeping track of this mushrooming number of recipients was a daunting task. In the summer of 1975, it was the DJs themselves who came up with the solution.

Three of the earliest and best known club DJs on the Manhattan scene formed The New York Record Pool to serve as a distribution center for promotional records. David Mancuso, Eddie Rivera and Steve D’Aquisto signed up over 50 DJs who met regularly at Mancuso’s studio apartment. The DJs received free promotional records in exchange for their written feedback on each song. This was an ideal resolution for both parties. A true win-win. The DJs got their free records (always stamped with the “For Disco DJs Only” promotional warning) and the labels not only got their music played at the clubs, they got instant feedback from the men who were beginning to gain the respect of the industry. The men who clearly knew, better than anyone at the time, what got people dancing.

Though The New York Record Pool dissolved after not too long amidst many battles of egos, the concept works, and continued to work for almost 30 years (free downloading of music has, of course, made record pools obsolete.) By 1979, record companies were sending out almost three thousand promotional copies of each record to pools in Manhattan, Miami, Los Angeles and every other major city.

As mentioned before, one of the earliest concerns of club DJs was the length of songs. Someone, somewhere had determined that 3 minutes was the ideal length for a pop song. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, coda was pretty much the template that the vast majority of popular music followed. And the early disco songs (eager to fit in as popular releases and be played on the radio) were no exception. When it came to radio this formula probably was, and is, dead on. But what’s a poor club DJ to do? With no pitch control to adjust the speed of a song and no break to get out of one song and into another. Anyone who has ever mixed music for a six hour clip knows the pressures and demands of such a task. And that’s with today’s longer songs and remixes that are ideal for club jocks. Now imagine having to mix 3 minute Motown songs all night!

Many early club jocks, out of desperation more than for creativity, began “re-mixing” or more precisely “re-editing” their own songs before actually playing them live. Using reel to reel tape, a DJ could reconstruct a song, splicing and taping together a new version that would be longer and more danceable. Tom Moulton, who wasn’t a DJ but became fascinated by this process that DJs had to go through, became the first prominent “re-mixer.” As his reputation grew he was asked by B.T. Express to come in and do a studio remix of their newest song “Do It (‘Til Your Satisfied).” This was a much more creative process because now Moulton had the original multi-track recording at his disposal. He was able to construct a new version from its component parts rather than simply from the finished product. It’s like the difference between cutting a cake and actually separating the original ingredients.

Moulton’s remix of “Do It (‘Til Your Satisfied)” nearly doubled the length of the original. Initially the band hated it but they learned to love it when the song reached number #1 on the R&B chart and #2 on the Hot 100. They appeared on Soul Train and when Don Cornelius asked them about the uncanny length they told him that’s the way they had recorded it. Moulton was furious, but his stock was on the rise. He remixed Gloria Gaynor’s soon to be disco hit “Never Can Say Goodbye” and he also had a hand in one of the happiest accidents to happen to club DJ-hood.

As Moulton’s mixes became more and more popular he became more and more brazen about them. They grew longer and longer. Pretty soon they wouldn’t fit on one side of a seven-inch record (like all good singles should.) The closer the grooves of a vinyl record are packed, the lower their volume and sound quality become. Moulton’s remixes began appearing on both sides of a seven-inch record. DJs would have two copies and when one ended they’d start the other, playing a full Tom Moulton 5-7 minute song in full hi-fi stereo. Then one day Moulton went to have his latest remix pressed onto vinyl only to find out the recording house had run out of the seven-inch discs needed to cut the master. Moulton was told he could have the song pressed onto one side of a twelve-inch disc or he could wait till new seven-inch discs were in. Moulton decided to take the twelve-inch but told his engineer to spread the grooves and make it louder. This historic record, “So Much for Love” by Moment of Truth, would become the very first twelve inch single and once this format got into the hands of the club jocks, there was no going back. Easier to handle and better audio quality made the twelve inch single very popular with the professional club jock. And though record companies initially looked at the twelve-inch single as promotional fodder for DJs only, they became commercially popular when Salsoul released Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent” on the new format.

Early disco is the music of the club. It is the sound of 2am. Better than any music before or since, it captures the energy of the dance floor. It demands the listener to pay attention to the beat. Rhythm, melody, even lyrics are secondary to the beat. By the mid-seventies, disco also had its shaman. The club DJ had gained the respect of all interested parties. Record labels handed him free copies of their newest releases. Producers and artists tested their unreleased material with him. And most importantly, the clubber turned to him and said, “Make me dance.” Disco was about to emerge into a cultural phenomenon rarely scene in our country. The combination of the gossip column and Hollywood would lift this music higher than any DJ ever could. But without the contributions of the early club jock, there would have been no “scene” for Hollywood to steal. Disco is the music of the DJ.

2 Responses to Disco and the Evolution of the DJ Part II Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

  1. ABSOLUTELY-FLIPPING-AMAZING ARTICLE..PEOPLE AFLOAT TODAY CANNOT REMEMBER ANYTHING PRIOR TO THE PHRASE “DISCO SUCKS” which is a state of SADNESS and tells me their SOCIAL SHIP COLLISION in a REALM of FOG for a time of true, true greatness of THE ARTS. DISCO was not JUST DANCE MUSIC. Thoughts of this line shows a lack of clarity and insight; also, it would be like labeling THE BEATLES as just another 60’s musical group. I took DISCO DANCING LESSONS at the age of 12 in 1979. I remember my mother taking me to the movie theatre for a showing of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and purchasing a copy of the soundtrack. I still have that VINYL TROPHY to a time of past Glory-n-Grandeur.

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