*** Originally published in 2009 ***
With the popularity of traditional deep house sounds seemingly the latest trend in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of electronic music, we went back in time to Paradise Garage
Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage, the DJ and club that changed everything and shaped the next 20 years of dance music culture.
Levan was born Lawrence Philpot in Brooklyn 1954 and was influenced by contemporaries like Nicky Siano and particularly David Mancuso, one time partner and host of the seminal parties at 'The Loft'. Then at the Paradise Garage from 1976 to 1987, Larry was resident DJ, a tag that in the modern sense does no justice to Levan's immense contribution to the club.
Not only did he help design and assemble what is regarded as the most legendary club sound system to have existed, but he spent immeasurable time testing it, fine tuning it and improving it, even if the changes seemed trivial or minute. That was Larry Levan. The music and the Garage were his life; an addiction.
Sadly, it was the other addiction in his life, heroin, which would eventually indirectly lead to his death in November 1992 at just 38. Enjoying somewhat of a revival in his fortunes since the low of the Garage's closure in 1987, and death of owner Michael Brody shortly after, it was a devastating loss. This compilation of words from Levan's friends, contemporaries and devotees form our tribute to a legend.
The Paradise Garage:
Mel Cheren (Financial backer of Paradise Garage and former partner of owner, Michael Brody and whom Levan used to call his stepfather.)
"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."
"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."
François K (New York resident since the 1975 and one of only a few other DJs to have played at the Paradise Garage)
"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."
"The Paradise Garage was open for so long and 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."
David Depino (one of Levan's closest friends and one of the few other DJs to have played at the Garage)
"The Garage was underground. There was no advertising. We were not an off-the-street club - it was a private, 100 per cent membership thing, but so many people would line up at the door, there'd be a line round the corner twice. They could have made a fortune but there was never money greedy. The party was first."
David Piccioni (New York resident in the 1980s and now Azuli Records boss)
"My memories are a general really. Firstly, it was a real 'club' in the true sense of the word, in that the members (you had to be a member to get in) were all likeminded people and there for the love and appreciation of music. There was a real sense of identity and history with the music, the black gay dance music scene was almost like a large family and people came together united by the music. I would often meet people in their day jobs and they would immediately say 'hey you are a member of the Garage right I saw you there?' and you would have an immediate connection. It's rare to feel that vibe in modern clubs, it happens sometimes but rarely."
Danny Tenaglia (native New Yorker and close friend of Levan)
"You felt special, 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."
Joe Claussell (who ran Body & Soul, the New York club based on the Paradise Garage)
"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 [the club's entrance] as much. 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."
Larry the Music man:
"Everyone has certain talents, natural abilities, 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. He yearned for more than technical perfection, he wanted inspiration. Ecstasy. He wanted to spin the way he lived – in inspired anarchy."
"He was THE reason I devoted my life and work to dance music. I was DJing in the UK before I moved to New York, but I had not really taken it seriously till I heard him play. Once I heard him I realized that DJing was not just a question of playing records but was a real creative art form in itself."
"Larry was able to use songs - songs with lyrics - and he used those lyrics to talk to people, 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."
"Larry would 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."
Marshall Jefferson (Legendary Chicago DJ and producer)
"Larry Levan was one of the best two DJs I've ever seen breaking new records, the other was Ron Hardy. Both of these men had extremely similar styles: go with the feeling. Both had every DJ in a 500-mile radius and beyond asking what they played while simultaneously blasting their mixing technique. I think American DJs as a whole can learn a lot from these two, because with all the hot mixing going on now, it takes ten or more jocks to do the job of one Larry Levan."
"Larry himself was a wizard when it came to DJing, 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. 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."
"No club is ever going to come close to the Paradise Garage 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."
DJ Harvey (who brought Levan to play his night 'Moist' at the Gardening Club in London in 1991)
"He kind of lived up to being Larry Levan, 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."
"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 was wild. There was no holding him back. There was no norm for Larry at the Garage. It was his home and he didn't follow no book. The freedom he had and the nonchalance 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."
Frankie Knuckles (New Yorker and friend of Levan, who became resident after him at The Continental Baths. It represents the starting point of both their DJ careers.)
"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 [Siano] 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."
Robert Owens (Chicago producer and vocalist)
"The first time I walked into the Paradise Garage back in 1980, I knew that this was unlike any club I'd seen before. For that matter, any club since. The spirit and energy in the room, which seemed to pour out of the DJ, was overwhelming. From that Saturday, and almost every Saturday till it closed, Larry Levan would make records that I had heard hundreds of times before sound brand-new and expose me to so much new music. He changed the way I felt about DJs and the way I played records, because it wasn't just about playing records, it was about communication. When he played tapes of mixes he was working on or had finished, I would be amazed to hear what he had done. He inspired me to get into the studio and create. He had a vision and took his music to the limit. Like his DJing, Larry was truly unique. When the Garage closed its doors, Saturday nights were never the same. The Garage was like a family and I feel grateful to have been able to experience it."
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. Say I was playing songs about music - 'I Love Music' by The O'Jays, 'Music' by Al 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."
The Ministry of Sound connection (Justin Berkmann - Ministry of Sound Founder)
"I invited Larry Levan to come to London to DJ at the club in October 1991. Larry arrived 8 days late and without any music. He had come over to play along with Victor Rosado, (who did arrive on time), and was supposed to stay for just a week, instead he stayed 3 months. I brought him over because Ministry of Sound had been more or less conceptualized by me at Paradise Garage in New York, and being a core member and devotee of the club and Larry, I wanted to have the 'Levan Stamp of Authority' on my creation in London."
"Larry had no input into the initial sound system design or installation; Austen Derek, the system creator, designed, installed and tuned it. But once Larry had arrived, he wanted to 'fine tune' it and set to work with me making it as close to perfection as possible. Changing the angle of the speaker stacks 1 or 2 degrees left/right, moving them minute distances around, they slowly got the speakers into their best position to eliminate any cancellation and after a month or so, by Xmas/NYE 1991, had got it pretty close to perfection. Larry was a natural teacher, keen to pass on his experience to whoever wanted to learn, and made many friends in the process. Larry played at MoS 4 times, I also introduced him to Paul Oakenfold do some studio work for Perfecto, and sent him to do a couple of gigs in Munich, Germany. Larry was very happy during his stay in London."
Paul Oakenfold continues the story
"I was fortunate enough to commission his last ever remix, and I remember him coming in to my office and playing music and talking through the direction of mix and realizing that he had a wealth of knowledge in the world of dance music."
"I met Larry the opening night of Ministry of Sound; a very soulful, playful spirit of a man. Then on another Friday night when I was playing his remix of 'Hey Boy' he came charging into the booth like an excited kid in a toy shop, amazed that I was playing his track, which sadly was his final production one of my all time favourites that never leaves my bag."
Larry the person:
"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. The other night when 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."
"He was very special, he was a genius. I miss him a great deal. So many people do. But you have to go on and keep things going."
"He was an eccentric person, a real free spirit, totally devoted to music. As with many creative people, he pushed things to the limit constantly."
"Some of his sets were just unbelievable, I remember dancing to Liz Torres 'Can't Get Enough' for 35 minutes, it was beyond hypnotic and the end people just stood there and screamed for more. Unfortunately he pushed himself to the limits too and it became self destructive."
Francois K (describing the 1992 Japan tour, 2 months before his death)
"Larry went into a set of Philadelphia classics which was just so poignant, 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 life goes. He played Jean Carne's 'Time Waits For No One' and the Tramps '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's legacy:
"After about 3 months in London, sometime in February 1992, Larry left for home and sadly wasn't seen again. The immense success and raw emotion at his memorial party in 1993 was living proof of his impact and effect on London's clubland."
"I caught Larry at the end of the Paradise Garage era, which for me was a wonderful experience. In terms of his impact on me, from a DJ perspective it was huge. M.O.S was based on Paradise Garage at the time I was resident when it first opened and a lot of the music I played was inspired by Larry."
"Sadly I'm not so sure that Larry and the whole scene at the Garage has much relevance any more. It was a deeply spiritual scene, and whilst people did take drugs, the music was emotional and all important to the experience. These days too often the music in clubs is just there as backdrop for people to take drugs to."
"The club owners like Michael Brody of Paradise Garage who booked Larry Levan or clubs like The Gallery that started by deejay Nicky Siano or The Loft by David Mancuso - the reason that clubs was so incredible back then because the people that created the clubs had a passion for, a passion for the party. Today clubs are owned by businessmen who think more about how many shots of whisky they can get in the glass. They don't care about the music."
"To leave a legacy is the greatest achievement in anyone's lifetime, especially one that so many people aspire to. The garage and Larry inspired a generation of DJs in the USA and beyond and the garage system was the benchmark of quality that all the great clubs since have tried to model."
"Larry's legacy is second to none just watch the film 3 hour extended version of Maestro the story of the Paradise Garage. Everyone who has an interest in club culture needs to watch the movie; it will bring tears of joy and sadness to your eyes as it does me every time I watch it."
"I grew up at the Paradise Garage afterhours on Saturday nights with Larry spinning. I watched the big room with sawdust on the floor and a closet, become the Crystal Room and the booth of life. Larry threw me out of that booth many times. Still, it was because of him that I wanted to be a DJ and have my own club (Sound Factory) - he was my idol. I love that man for what he gave me and so many others: a place to grow."
Many thanks to Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster for their kind permission to reprint some of quotes used here from David DePino, Frankie Knuckles, Joe Claussel and David Morales. Their new album Le Disco - Tele Music Remixed (Unreleased 1979 disco reworked by an all-star cast) is available now.
Other Related sites and medias:
The excellent documentary "Maestro."
Written and directed by: Josell Ramos. Featuring: Larry Levan, David Mancuso, Frankie Knuckles, Nicky Siano, Francis Grasso, Francois K., Louis Vega, Danny Tenaglia, Tony Humphries, Jellybean Benitez, Danny Krivit, Joaquin Joe Claussell, Richard Long, Alex Rosner, Keith Haring, Derrick May, Roberts Clivilles, Jose Padilla, Sven Vath, Patricia Field.
The Godfather of Disco
The Godfather of Disco is a feature-length documentary based on Mel Cheren’s powerful autobiography, My Life and the Paradise Garage: Keep On Dancin’.
West End Records
Rules and Regulations 1982