Interview: Sharon White

Sharon White has plenty to tell. From the dancefloor of The Saint to gigs at legendary New York clubs like Limelight and Studio 54, her marathon sets were known for their emotional nature. As she puts it, "There have been times when I've done a night, a performance, and the only thing to do when I was done was cry." She describes her gigs as cathartic experiences filtered through a savvy selection of records, carefully sequenced so that the music always has a narrative. It's an approach she learned from listening to and DJing on the radio. (She cut her teeth on a number of stations before ever stepping into a booth at a nightclub.) We caught up with White last year, and found out about some of her most memorable nights behind the decks in New York.

Do you remember the first time you DJed in a club?

Yes, I do. It was kind of — I guess would say this: When you’re really young and the world is your oyster, you really have no fear. I walked into situations that were way beyond my knowledge, and walked in fearlessly because I didn’t know any better. And I aced it every time. I guess that was just Lady Luck being on my shoulder, I really don’t know what that was about.

The first time that I played in a club, it was for women. It was a lesbian event at a club on 24th Street, and a friend of mine called me and said, “Listen, do you think you can play in a club?” and I said, “Play what?” They said, “Basically dance music” — well, disco or whatever. I was like, “Well yeah, how different could it be from playing at the station except that you’re playing to a live audience?” Who knew that I would get that wrapped into having the immediate reaction of an audience? Even though they didn’t react as much as I would have wanted to, because women are very restrained. Well, unless they’re really drunk, and then they go off the deep end. For the most part, there was really no communication between the DJ and the women on the dancefloor, but it was the beginning.

From that gig, some women who were opening a club called Sahara asked me to audition for them, and I became their resident DJ for the next four or five years. I really honed my skills because I continued to go to the boys’ bars and go out to Fire Island and blah blah blah. I would sit in every private club and every after hours club, every underground club you can name. Plus, on the other side of the coin, I was still running around on a rock ‘n roll tip. For a while I went on tour with Bonnie Raitt. Way on the other side of music, but I love live music. I used to write music and play guitar and stuff like that.

Can you describe to me the craft of DJing and the skills you have honed and value?

For me, when I play, it’s very emotional for me. No matter what I’m feeling, whether I’m angry or happy or sad or even indifferent, playing is like a cathartic experience for me. I never get so wrapped up into myself that I don’t realize that I’m playing for an audience, but I use their energy to help me channel through stuff, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, so that I can rise above it and get to a better place.

The more the audience gives you, the more you give the audience and you feed each other back and forth. The trips like I did at The Saint, where you played for a minimum of 12 hours — the kind of stamina that it takes to concentrate for 12 hours straight with three turntables in front of you and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and 6,000 people on your dance floor, is unbelievable.

Also, 98% of those people are high on drugs, high as kites on every drug in the universe. It’s not like, “Oh, everybody’s high on Ecstasy, or everybody’s high on coke or pot.” Everybody’s high on everything. To get all those people to kind of focus and get into the same groove when they’re all jagged edges is insane, yet it can be done. You have to have the audience trust you. The craft itself developed over time. It went from kids that liked to play records to young men and women who could actually take their audience on a trip, emotionally, physically — if you’re an audiophile, the sound systems we played on were beyond anything that anything that anyone could even imagine. For instance, The Saint had 28,000 watts of power and 10,000 watts of backup. Just to give you an idea of how much idea actual sound that is, the Giants’ stadium held 80,000 people and their sound system had 20,000 watts. That’s insanity, but it was tuned to absolute perfection.

Standing behind the controls was like flying a spacecraft. If you did it right, you’d get to the moon, you’d go to the stars — literally. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you’d crash, because it’s so sophisticated. Everything in that room depended on everything else. There had never been lighting like that in a club. There had never been sound like that in a club. The capacity of the club was 6,000 people — there had never been anything like it. It was a theater, and it was a landmark building; it used to be the Fillmore East, where I used to go as a kid and listen to every rock band in the world. So, the building itself had history, right there. It was built on history, and it was all about music. Every square inch of that building was built on music, and so it was a magical place to be.

It’s hard to imagine, because once again, the entire dance floor was encased in a geodesic dome that was translucent. The club itself cost like $8.5 million in 1980. That was some serious cash then. Now it would just be unaffordable. Nobody in their right mind would put that kind of money into a club now. It’s just never gonna happen again. Never.

I find DJ culture’s performance aspect so different than a rock show — with the DJ there’s more of a sense of privacy and more of a coded language in terms of expressing yourself.

I have a reputation for being one of the most emotional DJs in the booth. I have never been ashamed to cry during a performance. I think, for me, it’s such a release. When you hit a point where you feel like you just touch bliss, it’s like when some people reach orgasm. They cry because there’s nowhere else to go but tears. It’s almost like that.

I remember the first time that happened to me. It was probably the defining moment of my career in the end. It was the moment that I had waited for my whole life. Patti LaBelle had given me a copy of “Over the Rainbow,” and she had recorded it with her sister who was very ill and dying. She said to me, “I don’t know what the label is going to do with this if anything — probably nothing — but I’ll let you have it.” I had bumped into her in England, so I came back from England with this acetate of “Over the Rainbow.” I told Mark Ackerman at The Saint — who is probably my best friend and probably the best lighting designer and lighting operators in the business — “Meet me in the dome, I’m coming in from Heathrow, and I’m coming back with all kinds of shit. Meet me in the dome at 2 AM.”

Who said that all these people couldn’t feel one emotion in a room this big?

So the two of us were there at the Saint by ourselves, listening to these tracks and working on putting together production numbers between what I’m laying down. Just thinking about where we’re going to put this song. Anyway, so this Patti LaBelle song is amazing, I mean, Patti just sails. I had gotten this toy that was called the Holographic Generator, it cost five grand and it was like a prototype. No one really knew how to use it because basically the prototype was built for me, so I said to Mark, “I want to use the Holographic Generator on this song.” He was like, “Whoa, are you serious?” And I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “Man, you’re going to blow the fucking pipes out of the place, man,” and I said, “Trust me. I know how to run that machine better than the person that designed it, and that’s why it’s in our house.” Those guys are engineers and they know how to build it, but when it comes to running it and using it like a musical instrument, that’s when the DJ comes in.

That night I said to Mark, “Okay, I’m going to take an encore now,” and he looked at me like I was crazy — I mean, the place was fucking packed, wild, and I was playing like 135 beats per minute. I said, “No, I’m gonna do it after this song,” and he said, “No, it’s too early.” I said, “If I’ve got their attention, I’ve got it now,” and I said, “Black the room out so they can’t even find the exit signs.” He had like this master switch that shut everything down in the room. When I tell you that it was as still as your mother’s womb... I mean it was black — nothing. It went from this intense bright light down to, boom, nothing. And then I started with “Over the Rainbow.”

Mark was really well-schooled in theatrical lighting, so he added to the drama and just gave things layers of warmth that other people didn’t even think of. Mark was all about subtlety, so we made a great team. When the song was over, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Thousands of people just holding each other, just sitting down, hands up in the air, screaming “Mark,” screaming “Sharon.”

The two of us just hugged each other and just cried like babies. He just said, “You did it, you did it,” and I said, “This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life.” Who said that all these people couldn’t feel one emotion in a room this big? I said, “Look, there it is.” The encore went on forever. I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it.

I had many other nights — the night that Leonard Bernstein walked into the booth and said, “I’ve heard that you’ve done special edits of a few of my pieces and I’m here to hear them.” And I said, “Please, maestro, have a seat.” I was shitting my pants! You know, you want to talk about an audience of one — my hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t get the needle on the record. Mark just looked at me and shook his head and laughed and goes, “Well, you invited it by doing what you did, you knew it would get around,” and I said, “Yeah, but the maestro himself!” He goes, “Well, let’s sail,” and he did a production number. When it was over, Leonard Bernstein stood up and we bowed to him, and everyone realized that he was there in the booth, and they went completely nuts. Everyone knew that I had done his stuff as a production number, and there was the maestro himself, giving me the nod like, “Yeah, pretty good.”

Someone came into the booth one night and said, “I saw this guy up in the booth earlier, he looked just like Freddie Mercury,” and I said, “That’s because it was Freddie Mercury.” They were like, “What’s he doing here?” and I said, “Well, he’s a friend of mine and he’s here to hang out, just like you. He’s here to hear the music.” Then later on, we went to his apartment and watched Star Trek until we were blind, and then I took him to the opera because we had the same favorite opera in common, which was Fidelio by Beethoven. It was being performed at Lincoln Center, and I had a box at the opera, and I took him to see it the next day.

Did you encounter a lot of sexism throughout your career?

I definitely did not. Everybody thinks that I did, but if I did, I was so oblivious to it that I never let it bother me. I know in the beginning I did, when I was a kid. I was still in college and we were fooling around with cart machines and stuff, way, way back in the day. I would get a gig for, say, a month for our crew, and they’d say, “Okay, that’s all good — we’re gonna hire the group, but you can’t play.” I’m the one negotiating! I’m like, “Wait, what do you mean I can’t play?” “A girl? Nah. I can’t see a girl in the booth.” “It doesn’t matter, I can play as well as any of these guys.” “No, no, no, you can’t be part of the package.”

So I’d get really pissed off, but then I’d say, “Hold your tongue, because you’re going to ruin it for everyone else.” And then Roy [Thode], who was like my big brother, would be livid, and he would say, “What the fuck! I can’t believe you let them get away with that!” and I would say, “Roy, look. When you’re ready, I’ll be there. I’ll blow them the fuck out of the room. But I have patience, I really do.” He would get incensed, and I would be like, “It’s all good.”

Bruce Nailman (who owned The Saint) once said that there would be “no women in the booth in my club.” I was the second DJ who was hired to play The Saint, and then I was fired before I even got in the booth. The reason that I ended up coming into the fold was because Mark Ackerman said, “If you don’t hire her, then I quit.” He was basically the lighting designer and technical director for the club, and they couldn’t run the club without him. Nailman said, “OK, fine.” He gave me one fucking date, and that was it.

So, Mark said, “You got a date, and I put my career on the line for it, because I believe that much in you.” I said, “I won’t disappoint you. What option do I have?” They did the schedule way, way in advance, and I said, “Give me the last Saturday in March.” I remember in January Jim Burgess was doing his final gig at The Saint because he was going to apprentice to Pavarotti, because he was really invested in opera. So he was leaving the dance music thing behind, and he was off to the Met. So he was doing his swan song in 1981, and he was getting paid $6,000 for his final performance as a DJ. Think about that kind of money for a DJ back then, for anybody — for right now, even. In 1981 to get six grand cash off the top, that’s some serious shit.

I hadn’t gone out in a bit, but I showed up because he was a brilliant artist and I wanted to bid him farewell. I figured he was gonna go out in style. That night, though, the dude packed his shit up and walked out at 8 AM. At the Saint, at 8 AM, shit was just kickin’. By all rights, you should not have ended anything before noon. Basically the shift was from 10 PM to 10 AM, and that was without pushing it. If you worked as a DJ, you could easily take the room until noon.

The longest I ever played in that room was 10 PM until 7 PM the next night, and I was so exhausted after that that I couldn’t even be approached. I was beside myself, I was stuck on stupid — my brain was all over the place. Everything was all about marathon, marathon, marathon and we were supposed to be superhuman. You never questioned it, you just did it until you couldn’t do it anymore. Anyway, so Burgess walked out, and left like 6,000 people on the dancefloor in winter. Back then, they had those coat checks, like when you go to the cleaners and they punch in your number and it comes around at The Saint. They were huge. You can imagine how huge they were because the legal capacity of the room was 6,000 people.

That night both coat check things broke, so it was January 31, it was bitter fucking cold, and the boys were still on drugs. Where were they gonna go? So they all just milled about and sat around and had question marks dancing over their heads because they didn’t know what was going to happen next. One of the managers came up to me and said, “You gotta do something!” and I said “Like what?” He said, “Well go in there and play music!” I said, “Oh, hell no. Where’s Mark?” All of this is going on and there’s a whole fucking dancefloor with no music on. It was epic — nobody knew what was happening. Mark came downstairs, it was the first time he was off in a year, and he was tripping on acid, poor thing. He looked at me and said, “Go up to my apartment and get records now.”

All of his records sounded like he had eaten spaghetti on them.

I went, “Oh my God,” because all of his records sounded like he had eaten spaghetti on them. On that sound system, you couldn’t have anything pop or scratch. I said, “Okay, whatever,” and so me and another DJ and two friends of ours went up to his loft, which was above The Saint, and brought down all the records that we possibly could.

So when we got down there people start seeing these crates of records, and they’re like “buzz buzz buzz buzz.” I got upstairs, and Mark said, “Put something on.” He threw everybody else out of the booth — it was craziness. So I just grabbed a random record and dropped the needle. When I dropped the needle on the song and I turned up the volume — the name of the song was “Dance and Leave It All Behind You.” Thematically, what a perfect statement for that moment in time — but I didn’t think about it, I just dropped the needle on it, knowing the album up one side and down the other, and it was the perfect place to start.

Then I said, “I need three guys to go to my apartment and get all the records that are in the living room, in this color bag, that color bag and that color bag.” They came back, and I played till 1:30 in the afternoon, and everybody was like, “Who was that girl?” And I’m like, “The same girl that’s been on the dancefloor standing next to you playing tambourine for how many years! The same girl who’s played at this club, this club, this club, this club, and that club.” They had never paid any attention until then.

By Elissa Stolman on February 4, 2013

On a different note