Interview: Nicky Siano on Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles and The Gallery

The legendary DJ tells the tale of his famed ’70s nightspot The Gallery, witnessing the beginning of disco and beyond.

No summary of New York City’s dance music history would be complete without Nicky Siano. As the owner and resident DJ at The Gallery, Nicky was electrified by a visit to The Loft and became hooked on New York’s emerging club culture of the 70s. As a DJ, Nicky Siano was not only one of the first to understand which tracks gave the right vibe, but also how to mix them together. He also pioneered DJing techniques such as beatmatching, EQing, and using three turntables, creating the proto-disco sound via his preferred funky soul and R&B records.

Leading the way for a host of legendary figures like Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, or Grace Jones, and Loleatta Holloway, he laid down the blueprint for iconic New York clubs like The Garage and Studio 54. But Nicky wasn’t just confined to the club, and in 1977 he teamed up with Arthur Russell in the studio as Dinosaur, for one of his earliest records, “Kiss Me Again.” After a hiatus, Siano came back to DJing at Body and Soul for Larry Levan’s birthday celebrations in 1998, and now joins the dots between the hedonistic abandon of New York’s original dance culture, and today’s rave generation. His documentary film, Love Is the Message: A Night at The Gallery 1977 features a ton of great vintage footage and interviews. In this edited and condensed excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio, Siano talks about the disco era and reveals an exceptional story about Larry Levan defending The Gallery from a potential robbery with a shotgun.

How did your passion for music start?

I was a music fiend, but mostly fed by my brothers, who were very into rock & roll. Laura Nyro was a big passion of mine. She’s an underground artist who wrote so many hits, but nobody knows who she is. I played her album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession until it was totally worn out. I had a real passion for music, and the sonics of music. I used to listen to Mantovani. He was an orchestra leader, and I used to buy orchestrations by him, just to hear how they sounded sonically on this expensive sound system I paid for by delivering newspapers.

When did you start going out to hear music?

I was 15. 1970. I started going out to listen to music, and shortly after that was brought by my brother’s girlfriend to [David Mancuso’s] Loft, and that is where another switch went on. When I heard the music, I was ignited with a passion and wanted to have the records. When I went to The Loft, I wanted to be a DJ. David was in control of the atmosphere within the environment. When we were dancing, a little lamp was on at the end of the room, and then the song would change just a bit and that lamp went out. It blew my mind.

You wanted to play records. How did you get to the point where you were actually doing it yourself?

My girlfriend knew that I was passionate, and we went to this club called The Round Table, and, somehow, she convinced the guy into hiring me. That was my first job, the Round Table 1971. I was 16 years old. I played 7 nights a week. The off nights were $15 a night, and the weekends were $20 a night. It was empty during the week, and at the weekends, it was 1,500 people each night. There was no cue system. I had to listen to the other record that I was going to bring on through the speaker right near the booth. I would put it on very lowly to see if it would... I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought it had to sound good, and then a year later, I understood I was matching beats, and that’s what I developed into beat matching.

At the beginning, all the DJs were talking about were blends. It was a blend. It wasn’t a mix. And a blend had to really sound good, and it was up to the dancers to weave through the change in tempo, and they did. They weaved through... as long as it sounded good, they didn’t stop dancing. Now, today, if you miss a beat match, the whole dance floor could stop dancing, depending on where you are, and that seems so weird to me.

We put together a business plan. We didn’t know what we were doing. But when we put it together it came to $10,000, $12,000, we said, “That’s not that much money.”

Can you take us through how the idea for The Gallery formed, and you guys putting it together?

The Gallery started almost as soon as I started playing records, and I saw that I could never do exactly what I wanted to do, unless it was mine. My girlfriend and I... Again, so many of these things you need a partner for. You need that person behind you saying, “Go. Yes, you can do it, and I believe in you,” and that’s what she was. We started walking through the city streets, and at that time, in Chelsea, when you walked down, say, 22nd, between 6 and 7, you would see hanging panels outside each loft, and it said, “Loft for Rent, 3,500 square feet, enquire within.” So we went into a building, and they said, “Well, we have a 3,500 square foot on the 2nd floor, for $385 a month.”

We went up and we saw it, and together we went home, and we put together a business plan. We didn’t know what we were doing. But when we put it together it came to $10,000, $12,000, and we said, “That’s not that much money.” We went to my brother, and he had just gotten money from an insurance settlement. He thought it was a great idea. Originally, we wanted to do something similar to The Loft, but for straight people, and then it just happened. David closed, and everyone came to The Gallery, and there it was.

You described how influential The Loft was, as far as creating an environment. So what things did you do for The Gallery?

I looked at it as my home, but I didn’t look at it as a place I would decorate like my home. I wanted to make things that would blow your mind if you were on the dance floor. It was really important for me to have a separate room for dancing. When we first opened, we had three Altec Lansing speakers in these little cut-outs in the wall. And, with the first money we got, I built a wall around that area and put in a fourth one, and put them in the corners.

When all the lights would go out, people would be blinded because it would be so dark, and then the tapestry would start glowing.

In addition, I wanted each area to have a different vibration. I would paint one area red, and white, and blue, and then I would paint another area all dark colors, like grays and black. Each area, I would light it differently. I would put in a different kind of sound. One had a small speaker; one had huge speakers in it. I wanted each area to be like a lounge in someone’s house.

Then, when we were closed, and we had the opportunity to open the new Gallery, everything was designed to blow your mind when you stepped on that dance floor, if it was manipulated correctly. We had a big tapestry on the wall, and we put little Christmas lights underneath it, around the edge. When all the lights would go out, people would be blinded because it would be so dark, and then the tapestry would start glowing. It would be on a dimmer, and it would just start glowing, and it would get brighter and brighter as a song got more massive. As I’m building with the song, Robin, my girlfriend, is bringing in that brightness, and then it would just explode with white light, and the mirrored ball would come on. Everything was designed to heighten the dancing experience.

You opened the first Gallery on 22nd street, like you said. Can you describe it a bit?

That first gallery was … That’s where Larry Levan started. That’s where Frankie Knuckles started. There was something about the time and the place that it also became a fashion industry watering hole. Billie Blair was a famous model back then, and they all came, Calvin Klein, Stephen Burrows, Willi Smith, Giorgio di Sant' Angelo. Every designer came to The Gallery, because the kids would wear fashion. The designers took that, and next week, you would see it in Bloomingdale’s. Larry [Levan] was going to be a designer. That’s what he wanted to be. He was going to FIT when I met him.

What are your lasting memories of that era of Frankie and Larry? Obviously, you had a very close personal relationship with Larry.

Larry and I lived together during that period for a long time. Plus, there was a thing that happened at the club. We were robbed twice. The second time we were robbed, they took about $10,000 of equipment. It almost closed us.

And then... BOOM! Larry blows this big hole in the floor, like 2 inches wide.

We had to get an alarm system, and it was going to take 30 or 60 days before the company could schedule an appointment with us. My brothers and I decided that someone had to sleep there every night. So my brothers would... One brother had a shotgun, another brother had a 22, all licensed and everything. When Larry and I would sleep there at nights we’d turn on all the lights, listen to music, take some acid, paint the walls… Paint big scenes of clouds and stuff.

One night, we’re painting and having fun, and we hear someone breaking in at the back. We hear them come around the wall, and we’re waiting right there. Larry comes out with the shotgun, and goes, “Hold it right there, bro.” I never heard such a butch voice out of Larry. So we chained this guy to the pipe, and Larry went out and called my brother. He’s holding the shotgun, on the pay phone in the hallway. And he’s dropping the shotgun on the floor, playing with it. “Yeah, yeah, we got him. He’s all tied up...” And then... BOOM! Larry blows this big hole in the floor, like 2 inches wide. Here’s me and Larry, the two queens from Brooklyn, and we’re like, “We caught the guys. We caught them.” I just think that’s hysterical.

Can you talk a little bit about the music? You’ve described The Gallery as the proto “disco,” but the music itself is so soulful, earthy, and funky.

Because it wasn’t disco yet. There was no word “disco,” yet. In 1972, when we opened, we never said disco. No one ever said that. We played jazz, what I considered R&B, gospel, and some rock & roll, if it was danceable. At the time people were making records built from the frustrations, and also the gains that they had overcome in the ’60s. When it really came into the heart of disco – say ’76, ’77 – it became, “I shake my ass on the dance floor, boom boom. I love to shake my ass.” Bullshit. I never liked the chintzy disco songs. If you played me “Love Hangover,” I knew it was fabulous, but if you played me Donna Summer’s “Bad Girl,” I knew it was fabulous, but, I don’t know if I would play it to death. It was a formula, and it just didn’t do anything for me.

I was the first person to beat match, the first person to have three turntables, the first bass horns ever built for a club.

Can you talk a little bit about your technical innovations, and the things you brought to DJing. You mentioned beat matching, but also doubling up on records, and extending them...

Forget about records, I built the first bass horns. I built the first crossover. I said to Alex Rosner, “I want to control the bass horns and the tweeters on a separate knob,” and he said, “You want a crossover? I’ll have to build it for you. No one make that.” Now every club has them. I was the first person to beat match, the first person to have three turntables, the first bass horns ever built for a club. At the first EQ, there’s a thing where people go in, and they run pink noise through the system, and they flatten the system with a very sophisticated EQ. The first time that was done was at The Gallery. Rosner said, “You don’t need it. That’s only for theaters...” And I said, “No, I want it,” and it changed the way that the sound systems sound.

Alex Rosner RBMA Lecture (2003)

How did you meet Alex Rosner?

Robin and I, we’d go out dancing everywhere, and when we decided to open the club, we started looking in the DJ booths, and everywhere we would go we’d see Alex Rosner. Then, we went ice skating in the rink at Rockefeller Center, and we were just peeking around, and we’d look in the booth, the sound booth: Alex Rosner. We were, “Oh my God. He does the fucking ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center. This guy’s a fucking miracle worker.”

We did everything, so that we could afford that sound system. It was the most important thing to us, to have the best sound system.

So, we had him come down. We had $10,000, and he sat there, and he said, “I’ve got an idea. I’m going to take these three window holes and put in speakers in them, and they’ll have the reflected sound, and a Bozak mixer, and we’ll get this and …” It was $5,800 dollars, and we had $10,000 to open the club. That was a lot of our budget. But we did it, and we did everything else by hand. We laid down the dance floor, plank by plank, nail by nail. We painted the place. We did everything, so that we could afford that sound system. It was the most important thing to us, to have the best sound system.

Every time I would think of something new, I’d call Alex. I’d say, “I want to add a turntable,” and at the time, I couldn’t just bring in a turntable and plug it in like now. You have to actually change the resistor cards, change the circuit cards. Rosner had to come in, change the card on the mixer, so I could plug in my third turntable.

MFSB - Love Is The Message

Can you recount why you wanted the third turntable?

I had a dream that I was playing “Love Is the Message” back and forth, over and over, and while it was mixing over and over, I was playing this sound effect, this jet plane, so I needed three turntables to do the sound effect and the mixing at the same time. It was unbelievable.

How did “Love Is the Message” become your …?

Theme song? I’ll never forget. David Rodriguez and I went to meet LaVerne Perry from CBS Records around Christmas 1973, and she said, “I’m going to play you guys a new record”, and she put on “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).” It was such a good record, and I thought, “This could be the Christmas record.” She said, “I only have one copy.” I said, “But, look, LaVerne, David plays at The Limelight. I play at Gallery.” “I’m sorry guys, I only have one copy.” We saw another copy there in her records. So we said, “Okay,” and left, and then David said, “Excuse me, I have to use the bathroom,” and he went back in, and he stole the other copy.

We had a “TSOP” Christmas. I’ll never forget walking into The Limelight that Christmas. Everyone was dressed in white. There were white Christmas trees, white lights, and they were playing “TSOP,” and it was just … sparkling. It was like a Dove commercial, “My skin is so clean, it shines.”

I said, “Neil was the one who found it,” and Larry used to say, “Yes, but you worked it. You worked it.”

Around February, I was playing at my other job at Le Jardin. (I played at Le Jardin during the week.) John Addison, the owner, he was from South Africa, the owner had this little boyfriend, “I want Neil to play a record. Nicky, can you let Neil play a record?” I said, “Sure.” Neil puts on “Love Is the Message.” I had never heard it before. It was on the other side of “TSOP.” I remember David Mancuso was there that night, and he came up, and asked what it was.

I went home and listened to it, and I said, “It’s a really good song, except the best part is this three minute 21 second groove at the end of this great instrumental.” I said, “I’ll get my other copy, and I’ll keep looping it.” That weekend, I kept looping it, and then when it came to the low part I would turn the bass up, and all of a sudden I heard, “Turn this motherfucker out.” It was the first time I ever heard that. And the whole dance floor started saying it. It was like an eruption. Then I would start playing it from the beginning, and played it every which way, and everyone started asking. “What is that? What is that? ‘Love Is the Message.’” I said, “Neil was the one who found it,” and Larry used to say, “Yes, but you worked it. You worked it.”

Then, all of a sudden, it became Larry’s theme song, and that really killed me. One night in 1999, I was playing “Love Is the Message,” and I had the jet plane going, and this guy comes up to the booth, and he says, “You’re doing a Larry Levan.” I said, “No, honey, I’m doing a Nicky Siano.”

Loleatta Holloway - Hit And Run

What do you recall about some of the performances, like Loleatta Holloway?

I remember that night. Her record was a big hit, and I’m in the booth. They called me on the phone. They said, “She’s here,” but they didn’t say, “She’s going on stage now,” and I was playing “Love in C Minor” by Ceronne. I see her get on the stage. The stage was straight across from the booth, so I’m looking straight at her, and the people are in the middle, on the dance floor, and she’s in front of the microphone, mouthing something. I didn’t know, so I turned the mic up, and “Love in C Minor”’s going, and she’s going, “Hey, hey, hey.” She’s scatting to “Love in C Minor.” I had it on tape. I played that tape for months and months afterwards. People just started going crazy, and I turned “Love in C Minor” down, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen: Miss Loleatta Holloway,” and she went right into “Hit and Run.” The place went bananas.

Remember, if you are working in the club scene, what you do impacts on the patrons.

How about Grace Jones?

I met Grace Jones at her manager’s office, the same week she was going to perform. It was Halloween, and I was going to go as Diana Ross. People were... They didn’t know what she was, or what she did. They thought she was a drag queen, actually, but she got signed by Island that night. Then I went on as Diana Ross, and she came to me afterwards, and she said, “I didn’t know you did stuff like that.” I remember when I met her in that office, I was so stoned out of my mind, and she sang her songs to me, and she leaned in, and she said, “Whatever you’re on, I want some.”

What do you want people to remember about The Gallery?

An interviewer asked me once, “How did you get that feeling of camaraderie in the club?” How’d we get the feeling? We appreciated our customers. We loved them. We didn’t mistreat them. We didn’t push them around. None of that shit went down. You were welcome from the moment you saw the first person at The Gallery.

A club can exist with camaraderie, with love, with harmony. It doesn’t have to be a pushy distasteful thing, which a lot of clubs are these days. Clubs can be very harmonious, and it starts at the staff, and then it comes down to the patrons. Remember, if you are working in the club scene, what you do impacts on the patrons. How you’re feeling that night impacts on the patrons, so get your head together because you’re giving a party. Let it be the best it can, and let it be with your best friends. And even if they’re not, act as if they are, until they are.

By Jeff “Chairman” Mao on August 14, 2014

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