Remembering Larry Levan, 'The Jimi Hendrix Of Dance Music'

Dec 6, 2011
Originally published on December 6, 2011 5:36 pm

The audio link above is a radio story for All Things Considered about the late Larry Levan, the producer and DJ whose residency at New York's Paradise Garage between 1977 and 1987 remains the most storied in clubland. For the story, I spoke with music writer Will Hermes, whose recently published Love Goes To Buildings On Fire deals with part of that period in New York City's history, and a pair of DJs who were profoundly influenced by Levan.

Justin Berkmann is the founder of Ministry of Sound, the London superclub and record label that this fall released Live & Remastered 20th Anniversary, a box set containing five DJ mixes originally recorded during Ministry's early years. The easy highlight of the box is the earliest mix, by Levan — the inspiration for Ministry, and widely fêted as the greatest DJ of them all. He spoke to me from NPR's London bureau.

Native New Yorker Danny Tenaglia was a Garage regular from its early days, and went on to some major DJ residencies of his own, particularly at Twilo and the Tunnel. Currently, he headlines clubs and events worldwide, and holds down a legendary stint in Miami during the annual dance-industry confab, Winter Music Conference, at which he plays some 12 to 14 hours a shot. I spoke to Tenaglia at 84 King Street, the former home of the Paradise Garage. Today, it's a parking garage. We started at the building's entrance.

DANNY TENAGLIA: "This is the ramp you would enter. It's totally the same. We would actually enter on the side there. This was always a parking garage, as is it is now. There were always trucks down here. They would have a little barricade. This building goes all the way to the next street, so it's very, very big. So we would approach here, and this is where doorman security staff would be. You would queue up, but they would try to keep [it] as minimal as possible because they had plenty of space up the ramp."

"It was a very friendly welcome. It was not tense with bully-security-type people. You had to have a membership card to get in the Garage, or be with a friend [with one]. In the early days, you had to often notify them that you were bringing a guest. They were really, really smart. This is the first nightclub I went to — or anywhere besides an airport — where they had a metal detector. I never saw much trouble here at all, like fights or drama. It was all about prevention. I realized today, on the way here, that my membership card says "80-'81.' I'm like, 'Wow, 30 years! Ouch.'"

"After you paid your admission fee, there was a wonderful corridor entrance. If you went straight ahead you were in a lounge, and off to the right was a locker room. You could actually check your clothes here. Not all your clothes, but you could change your clothes, and some people did that. They got out of their jeans and put on tank tops and shorts, they even sold some garments like that, for more comfortable dancing."

"If you went to the back where the lounge was, it was sort of like a bar, but there was no liquor served. I think that was one of the most precious things about the Garage: there [were] no drunken people here, and it was very minimal on the drug usage — maybe some marijuana, a little bit of something else, but it wasn't obvious and blatant. They always had fruit out on the bars, and free juices and water. It was so many different rooms to go in and be free. You were so happy to be here that you never wanted to leave."

MM: At the Saint or Studio 54, some of the really legendary clubs of the time, people were having sex under the stairs. Did that happen much at the Garage?

DT: "I am so happy to say that I have never seen that here, and I can't say I have heard any stories about it. I'm sure they would have stopped them if they saw something like that. They did have a movie room but it wasn't porno videos. They would show anything from The Exorcist to whatever was current. It was just like a chill-out room with movies playing. I've never seen anything disrespectful."

"I would [arrive early] in the early years, because then it would get so crowded at times, and hot, and sweaty. I was already a DJ, so I wanted to absorb as much as I could. This was also a school for me. I would say 75% of the time, I came here, I came by myself. Friday was predominantly straight and Saturday was predominantly gay, and also predominantly black. I would recollect [the Garage was] 65% black, 20% Hispanic-Latino, always a good mixture. It wasn't very white."

"I think the way to describe it was a house party mentality: when you got there, all the house lights were pretty much on. They had a lot of pin spots, and they really used them cleverly. It wasn't like fluorescent house lights. In the early days the opening time was 1 a.m. The light man might not even be in the booth yet. You might see him on a ladder putting gels up. That was also part of my education."

"Larry was, to us, the Jimi Hendrix of dance music. Which was both good and kind of freaky-sad in a way — like, the world lost Jimi, and then we lost Larry to drugs. But that's what made him legendary, an icon, and what we're standing here and talking about now. He was known to be moody, and I guess that acted out on his mood of the day. You hear stories of how he [would] come down and push a speaker a half a foot. [It] made a difference to him, and that made a difference to us that it made a difference to him, and we'd talk about it the next day: 'He knew something wasn't right.' I'm sure that there were times that he heard a speaker fatiguing and it would annoy him. It was nothing short of a performance. He was thinking along the lines of a rock band onstage."

"Larry would often take his shirt off because it was a very hot place, and that was his house. That was his place of comfort. Probably the happiest place on earth for him to be was right up there in that booth. When you went up the ladder to the booth, you would enter a zone. It wasn't open to that many people, just industry-type people, his friends. I got a job working in nightclubs and started to work in a roller disco, which back [in] 1980 was a happening thing. I got into For the Record, the same record pool as Larry. That's when I got privileged to become a member of the Garage — you had special access without having to wait on line because you were a member."

"I think, for the most part, I definitely preferred being downstairs in the dance floor. I was a dancer. For the most part it was definitely freestyle [dancing]. People just expressed themselves with their bodies. You wouldn't see what you were seeing in many other clubs. It wasn't welcomed to see people doing the Hustle. It was a predominantly black thing. They really would move their bodies in a very expressive way, in an artistic way, and you appreciated that. I certainly wasn't doing that, but I was being myself. If you think back to that era, so much was going on: punk rock clubs, Danceteria, the Mudd Club, and sometimes patrons would come there and just be themselves and nobody would care. It was about losing yourself."

[A bell goes off at the garage] "Pink Floyd, 'Time' — you wouldn't be surprised to hear that, too. That's Larry ringing the bell from heaven. He's adding a little drama to this moment."

JUSTIN BERKMANN: "If I had never gone to the Paradise Garage there never would have been a Ministry of Sound. Having gone there for the best part of a year and a half and experienced the whole situation there and fallen in love with the club and the scene and then going though the experience of it closing and not being there anymore, I came back to London to build my own version of it. That's what Ministry of Sound was — it was about 85% Paradise Garage."

"The whereabouts of the original, or the, Paradise Garage sound system is probably unknown. I heard that it was in a lockup, I heard [of] it being here and there, and it was used for this and that. I have to say I can't say there's any proof of [it] ever reappearing. It definitely was not installed into Ministry — [that's a] false rumor. Ministry's system was installed by Austin Derrick, who was an assistant to Kenny Powers, one of the original Richard Long associates — Richard Long being the installer of the Garage system. So it was a facsimile of the system."

"The Garage system was, I think I can quite safely say, the best sound system ever made in a nightclub. It was tuned to perfection. They made the room perfect for the system. It was created for 1970s production values, vinyl pressing — all the equipment in those days was much more rudimentary to what we have today, so it was all about getting the best out of what you had. Obviously the subs [subwoofers] were a key element. Those were the subs that Richard Long had designed for the Earthquake movie of '74, Charlton Heston running around Los Angeles — Sensurround, I think they called it, with the whole cinema vibrating at a few hertz to give you a feeling of earthquake. Those were the subs that were in the Garage. The other thing that was kind of cool about it was they had stuck up little horns and speakers into corners [that] pealed off at certain frequencies. You actually got three-dimensional sound."

"When I came to New York I didn't know anything about it. I came to New York on a long trip, and it was the only place I went. I was a wannabe DJ. I went on a Friday, unaware that Friday was straight and Saturday, gay. On a Friday night there was quite a bit of hostility to a white guy on his own walking around in there, and I was getting bumped and jostled quite a lot by the crowd. There was hostility still, especially in that era, towards black people and gay people in New York. So I think the Garage was an island for them to feel comfortable."

"Just as I as leaving a guy came up to me and said, 'You should be here on Saturday night, this is obviously not your scene, you should check it out tomorrow night.' I came back on the Saturday night. The vibe was completely different. I was there every [week], without fail, until closing."

"I knew Levan pretty well. I eventually [had] the honor of meeting him and convincing him to come to London, and then hosting over here for his rather extended stay. He was only supposed to stay for three days, and he stayed three months. My career as a DJ is mostly thanks to him. He said, 'Look, it's very simple: If you have a constant level of frequency, your ears fatigue quickly and your perception of the volume drops, so if you continually fiddle with the bass and the treble and change the frequencies, your ears fatigue slower and the perception of the music is louder for longer.' It adds so much more to it. Today the music has that built into it. It's all idiot-proofed. In the old days it was raw and you were given the opportunity to add more to it. With the advent of technology in the way it is today, it's a dying art form."

"Well, there was never a quiet moment when he was around, let's face it. He was quite a character. There's no question that when he arrived in the airport with no records, it was a rather interesting to figure out what he was going to play. No, he didn't have any. He just didn't have any. He didn't own any records. He would sell them on a regular basis. Apparently friends of his would be going to car-boot [rummage] sales and find records that were his and go around and give them back to him and he would sell them again. He didn't have any particular connection or any emotional attachment to his vinyl, and to be honest, having gone through that 24 hours with him, it's understandable. He didn't really need it. He had maybe gone beyond that point where he didn't need any connection to the music, he could just create it through being Larry, I guess."

[Levan and Berkmann visited four London disco collectors and ended up with about 120 records for the evening's performance.]

"That set was absolutely outstanding. I DJ-ed before him, very pleased with myself. I was still extremely green at that point. It was right at the beginning of my education. And when he came on, the first record he put on it was like someone turned the screen from black and white to color, it was just all of a sudden there was a new dynamic, there was a new dimension, it was just like night and day. I probably just stood back and just thought, 'The master has arrived. The lesson has started.' It was an amazing experience. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, in the club I had built around my experiences in New York and around the Garage, to have him there and stamp his authority. It was very emotional."

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Lynn Neary. Dance music is the domain of DJs and one of the most influential DJs was Larry Levan. He helped create the dance club scene in New York in the 1970s and '80s. Now, a new box set and a new book celebrate his role and his sound. Michaelangelo Matos has Levan's story.


MICHAELANGELO MATOS, BYLINE: Levan was a producer and one of the early pioneers of the dance remix, taking a song back into the studio and extending it to keep a club floor moving.


TAANA GARDNER: (Singing) Now, you know this just don't make no kind of sense. I'm walking around here so intense. You make my heart beat. You make me feel so weak.

MATOS: His classics included Taana Gardner's 1981 R&B hit, "Heartbeat," and "Don't Make Me Wait" by his own group, the New York Citi Peech Boys.


NEW YORK CITI PEECH BOYS: (Singing) Oh, I (unintelligible) over you. You're truly a fantasy. And, oh, I got to have you. Yeah, I think so.

MATOS: But it was behind the turntable that he made his deepest mark. Every weekend for a decade, beginning in 1977, Levan presided over his Soho club, the Paradise Garage, playing disco in the broadest sense. He was as likely to drop The Clash as he was Gloria Gaynor.

Justin Berkmann, who went on to open London's Ministry of Sound, was at some of those shows.

JUSTIN BERKMANN: My feeling is he's probably historically the most important DJ of all time. I think it's just the mark he left. It's how big the splash was on the river and the ripples that went out from it and the fact that all of us leaves a mark, but eventually, those ripples eventually fade away and they're gone. His - he just rocked the sea and it's been choppy ever since and it's probably never, ever going to be flat ever again.

MATOS: Former Paradise Garage regular, Danny Tenaglia, went on to become a headlining DJ in his own right.

DANNY TENAGLIA: Larry was really, like us, the Jimi Hendrix of dance music.

MATOS: Tenaglia is standing outside of 84 King Street, the former home of the Paradise Garage. Today, it's a parking garage, but in its heyday, it became a second home for serious dance music lovers, in many ways, the real prototype for the massive clubs where disco's children, such as house and techno, now live.

Tenaglia walks to the entrance.

TENAGLIA: This is where the doorman, security staff would be. It was a very friendly welcome. It was not tense, you know, with bully security type people and I can't even say that I've ever seen one incident of violence here. For us, this was like - almost like going to church. You could actually even check your clothes here. Not all your clothes, but you know, you could change your clothes. They even sold some garments like that for more comfortable dancing.

MATOS: That welcoming scene is part of the new book about 1970s New York music called "Love Goes to Buildings on Fire." Its author is music critic and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED reviewer Will Hermes.

WILL HERMES: Larry Levan posited a totally inclusive space where people could come. It was not about celebrity. It was not about people hitting on each other. It was not about having sex in a back room. It was about achieving a sense of communion with your fellow man and woman through the ecstasy of dancing. And dance music, at its best, still is that and I think its great popularity is a testament to those ideas still being pretty valid and pretty potent.

MATOS: It was certainly potent for Justin Berkmann.

BERKMANN: If I'd never gone to the Paradise Garage, there never would have been a Ministry of Sound. I came back to London to build my own version of it.

MATOS: To help, Berkmann invited Larry Levan to come to London to DJ.

BERKMANN: When he arrived in the airport with no records, it was a rather interesting day to try and work out how and what he was going to play. He didn't own any records. He would sell them on a regular basis. Apparently, friends of his would be going to car boot sales or pop markets and find records that were his and go around and give them back to him and then he would go and sell them again.

And after panicking and him trying to calm me down, we decided to go on a tour around London to find some music for him.


MATOS: After scouring the crates of a number of London DJs, Levan hit the decks at Ministry with around 120 records.

BERKMANN: I DJ'd before him - it was right at the beginning of my education. And when he came on, the first record he put on, it was like someone turned the screen from black and white to color. It was just, all of a sudden, there was a new dynamic, there was a new dimension. It was just like night and day, okay. The master has arrived. The lesson has started.


MATOS: In addition to being a great teacher, Larry Levan was also a hard partier. He died of heart failure in 1992, only a year after playing Ministry of Sound. For NPR News, I'm Michaelangelo Matos in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.