Interview: NYC Radio Pioneer Ted Currier
Chances are that if you’re an avid fan of any number of NYC radio’s classic, storied mix-show innovators – from Shep Pettibone to Tony Humphries to Marley Marl – then Ted Currier is the DJ who profoundly inspired your favorite DJ. Originally from Maine but raised on the edge of Harlem on the “upper, upper west side” of Manhattan, Currier popularized club style DJ mixing over Gotham’s airwaves – his skill at holding blends (or “overlaps” as he’s affectionately prone to calling them) for minutes at a time a tightrope walk of mix wizardry that’s the stuff of lore amongst those who’d regularly tune into his 3-hour weekend “Studio 92” sets for WKTU/”Disco 92,” and later his “Midnight Musical Mix” blocks for WBLS.
An underappreciated figure in dance music’s development, Ted’s career trajectory – from working DJ to radio mixologist to record executive/producer – forged a path many others would also follow. And his instincts as a mix maestro served him well as a producer, resulting in a string of successful and stylistically diverse recordings through the ‘80s – including pop/R&B/rap/freestyle hits for Sly Fox, the Boogie Boys, Sweet Sensation and Tony Terry, and most impressively, Parliament-Funkadelic overlord George Clinton’s canine-fueled comeback “Atomic Dog.” Here, he recalls how beats at Beefsteak Charlie, parties in the Hamptons, cutting sessions with Shep Pettibone, and the sound of body-building weights dropped backwards all played integral parts in his musical evolution.
You’re known for being one of the first DJs to bring club style mixing to radio. But when did you first experience club style mixing yourself?
I wanna say I was in my last year at Hunter College. I believe that was ‘76. And it was part of my dating and mating pursuits – which were other than school my number one pursuit. (Your hormones don’t give you much choice at that age.) I was walking down Broadway and I had gotten down to the 60s, and there’s a Beefsteak Charlie and I heard music and I glanced inside and I could see that it was some kind of bar scene. So I go in and there’s a DJ playing. I’m there just checking out the girls.
I worked my ass off. Eight hours a day, 12 hours a day.
There’s a DJ playing and I what I remember is the Trammps had an album with “Disco Party” on there. And I heard [the DJ] do some transitions where I did not know that the record had changed and it caught my attention. And so I became one of those faces that hangs out right in front of the DJ. DJs know those faces as wannabe DJs. They’re more interested in what you’re doing than what’s going on around them. So I was really dumbfounded by it. I had to see, I had to understand.
I saw the set up – the two turntables and a mixer. So I bought two Technics 1200s and a GLI mixer. And I started practicing. I had a lot of 45s already. I’d buy 20 of them a week, I did that for years. And I started [practicing] on those. I realized though I’d need two copies of every record to make this work because I had to practice transitions. At the time the thing DJs did was to extend specific passages. So you needed two copies of a record to do that, phase the records, the standard stuff. And I learned. I really worked it. I worked my ass off. Eight hours a day, 12 hours a day. I did that for a couple of months to the point where I kind of had a clue of what I wanted to do.
After I decided to be a DJ I would go to listen to Jim Burgess at 12 West, Walter Gibbons, and anybody that exemplified smooth transitions of changes going from one record to another. I found a lot of the DJs at the time did what I call thunder mixing – which was just offbeat transitions that made the crowd stop dancing. And I wanted nothing to do with that. So I ended up really focusing on keeping it going, a seamless flow of records where no one had to change feet during the transition or stop dancing.
How did you wind up cutting your teeth professionally as a DJ?
Danny Glass - [who later became] the president of CBS Records. He was the DJ at this private club in the basement of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel called Doubles. And he hired me to replace him and really, really helped my career a lot. That was a private club for old money [and it] was an experience no other DJ had. I learned to play everything from big band, Frank Sinatra and the latest disco – all of it. It really made me appreciate songs too because before that I was more rhythm, groove oriented. I began to understand the power and value of melody.
I started as a mobile DJ at that point because the people at Doubles almost all had big estates out in the Hamptons. I bought mobile DJ equipment to go and do these lawn parties and house parties out there during the summer. And, man, was that an experience; a look from the inside at the rich and famous. They wanted to hear disco. The rich have always loved being chic. And chic is whatever the latest music is. It’s kind of their form of rebellion, I suppose – rubbing shoulders with people at night in a party atmosphere that they wouldn’t talk to perhaps in the daytime in their 9 to 5 lives. It’d be 100, sometimes up to 200 or 300 people. And they got drunk and did the things people do.
How did you get your gig at WKTU?
It was pure luck. Everybody listened to the radio. It was summer; the streets had a sound. And all of a sudden I began hearing the same music no matter where I went and it was disco! And, of course, word of mouth rapidly spread: “Hey – didja hear there’s a disco station now!” And that was WKTU, “Disco 92.” It was a format change for the radio station; a day before they started playing all disco I think it was [soft rock]. After about five days of just non-stop disco music, I thought, I’m gonna call the radio station. I called because I thought, you know, a mixed music show would be really good for the station. And that’s what I wanted to do. And I was fortunate – it was good timing, to put it mildly. The Vice President, Ed Kozman picked up the phone and I started talking to him. The executives were all dying to know what people thought; was this [format change] the right decision or not? At that time their programming needs were wide open. I suggested a show in which expertly mixed disco music could be presented to the public much the same as happens in clubs on a weekend night. And that’s how it happened. He gave me a time slot.
What was your approach to doing these mix blocks – was it the same as what you’d been doing as a working DJ?
At KTU I was somewhat oblivious to the art of programming. I simply played records that would make people dance as if it were a club. I could play whatever I wanted. I was told [by Kozman] when he hired me, “If I ever find out you’re taking money to play records I’ll break your legs.” That was it. That was the only thing he wanted me to know about. They gave me a salary, took me to the programming office, introduced me to the program director and the station manager, and lent me a tape deck – an Ampex 15 IPS half-track. And they gave me the tape and I went from there.
I kind of was operating in a vacuum. [People] didn’t know where I was, they didn’t know what I looked like, they only knew the show. My Facebook friends today are almost all people who became fans during the WKTU/WBLS period. And they all have one comment, which is I’m the reason they became a DJ. Because I identified the thing that made DJing interesting, which was the transitions. That was the fun part of it, the skill part of it. And it was something that I hope they reacted to the way I did when I first heard a seamless transition. It was just exciting. I did some [blends] that lasted a minute, two minutes, three minutes. People will tell me records that I mixed and exactly how I did it and to me it was disposable art. It’s part of what kept it fresh – that I wasn’t enslaved to a particular set of records and making mixes a particular way. I liked to stumble into good records; it just kept it interesting for me.
You said you were getting good money as a mobile DJ. Were you getting paid well as a “Studio 92” DJ?
No. Realize that money then was worth at least twice what that same amount might be today. I was making $200 a week then. But I was still DJing [elsewhere] so it became an income supplement.
That’s the interesting thing talking to a lot of these guys from back then that were on the air – they were either making not much money or zero money to do what we now recognize as important, innovative work.
Comparable status today would have me earning [much more], but who knew it was going anywhere? There was just no way to know what the future had in store. But we created the bedrock, we opened the door for a profession.
KTU premiered at the height of disco’s crossover appeal, 1978, and did enormously well. When were you aware that ratings for the station were going through the roof? I was told I had the highest rated show in the history of Arbitron ratings. I had what I think they call a 14 share. They did an extended ratings sweep because normally ratings stop somewhere around 10 or 11 and they wanted to know about my show. And I really had some really good ratings. But I was the beneficiary of both doing a really good job and being on the number 1 station.
Yet you wound up leaving KTU.
The behind the scenes story at KTU was that the executives were not that happy about the format change [to disco]; they were more comfortable in their comfort zone, which was the previous format.
I read the handwriting on the wall – I said, “Ehh, people don’t survive this kind of vibe.” So I called Frankie Crocker who at that point was competing with them – he was WBLS and gaining on WKTU, but KTU was still number one. He said, come over and meet me. He did all his meetings on air; he never took meetings off air. If he had a meeting with somebody, they were sitting in the same room with him, and spoke to him during commercial breaks. So he hired me and the rest is history. It’s funny when I moved from KTU to BLS it corresponded to the change in #1 status in the market. I’ve really had good luck with my timing like that.
Many folks believe the sound of clubs like Paradise Garage exerted some influence on Frankie Crocker but you view clubs and Crocker as being more of a separate phenomenon. Why?
Frankie didn’t care about clubs specifically; he was trying to compete with WKTU and he wanted [the songs he programmed] to meet his sensibilities and to have a commercial element because of the tune-out factor [with radio audiences]. When Frankie went [to clubs], he was the celebrity. Now, if while he was there he saw an unusual reaction to a record that would pique his interest. Or if he heard something that he especially liked that would have some influence on him if that same record got played again on Record Day [at the station].
But Frankie wasn’t takin’ orders from anyone and was known for being a genius programmer and stepped out on records. He moved ‘em into power rotation from light rotation, knew how they were affecting the sound of the station, which records really reflected the sound he liked and took away [those] he didn’t think were hooky enough or changed his mind about. But it was all up to him. They hired him for his ability to identify hit records and I learned a lot from him. It taught me about how you can hear a record, think it’s not good and then love it two days later – which I also saw as a DJ. “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor cleared the dance floor when it first came out and two weeks later they couldn’t get enough of it! It just goes to show you: new records have their own little obstacle course to run to overcome their newness before they get accepted.
You met Shep Pettibone via a mutual friend, and Shep ended up becoming a regular presence while you prepared and pre-recorded your mixes for radio at this mutual friend’s apartment. What was that atmosphere like? Was he strictly a spectator?
He started as a spectator. But, of course, it became competitive. We had the whole living room. And I would practice and listen to records and it developed to a point where I would get lots of records in the mail, and go to the record pool once a week or once every two weeks. [I would] have an accumulated amount of records during the peak, of maybe 50-100 records. And most of those are gonna end up in the garbage, they’re not useful. But you had to go through them. So we ended up going through them together. And Shep started participating by saying, “Hey, how about this idea?” Or, “I can do that,” or “What do you think about this?” And not being a super egotistical person or an extreme type A personality, of course I was interested in what he was thinking. So he was there pretty much whenever I was making shows.
He knew all about what I had to do, when I had to get to the station, what would happen afterwards, what he station wanted. Because I’m kind of a talkative person, detail oriented, I filled him in on everything. So he was obviously the perfect replacement for me [when I was ready to leave WBLS] to work for Capitol/EMI doing A&R. He had a personality where he could sublimate what he was thinking and put on a very pleasant façade. And that’s what Frankie needed because Frankie was definitely a type A personality.
When you moved on from radio did you monitor what Shep was doing at BLS and then Kiss?
No, I didn’t. And what’s funny is we never talked again after I gave him the job at BLS. My job with Capitol/EMI as an A&R person happened really, really fast. The offer, the decision and my actually entering the job all happened within two weeks. It wasn’t much notice. I lost my records at the Funhouse [where I’d been DJ-ing] too because it happened so quickly. I had a special custom built case with wheels, about three decks or four decks and it probably weighed about a hundred pounds. I had to leave it there and I couldn’t get back to it. And I never saw it again.
How did you come to co-produce George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”?
I came to work with George Clinton at a time when George was, I guess the term would be, blacklisted by the major labels. And that’s probably the only reason I had access. I was told that he was available, but with that information came the advice that I should not sign him. The reasons why were various so who knows which ones are the true ones.
I had also heard through the grapevine at Capitol that my head of promotion was not going to promote any of my records. Apparently, he had wanted the A&R job that I got, and I was considered an outsider. And I was facing the prospect of losing my job because no matter how good my signing was it wasn’t going to see the light of day if I was going to believe the rumor. So I needed an artist that had a sales base. A sales base is when an artist can release a record and without [radio] airplay sell X amount of copies. And George Clinton was one of those artists. He had a loyal fan base. So I said if sales are happening, promotion is gonna have to deliver radio. And I thought that’s my way around it.
The way A&R seemed to be done at the time was you represent the label while the artist is in production and you visit them, you compliment them, you take them to dinner, and you wait for the record to get delivered. And I just felt so helpless [at the thought of being] victimized by this delivery system. So I inserted myself in the process. I went out on the road with [George] to get a sense of who he was. I changed locations from my New York office to Detroit, Michigan to make sure this album came through.
I’m not a big boisterous personality, a “look at me” guy.
“Atomic Dog” happened after we had recorded several other records and I did not think that I had a definite hit record so far. I was getting to know George, and I got to understand how he thought. George is both a lyrical and melodic genius who’s blessed by a candy box of unconventional thoughts and a powerful dose of the clever. Every time he’d say a title he’d have his wife of the moment write it down. And I heard him say the title “Atomic Dog.” And I thought, hmm, that’s a good title. It fit the times we were in. “Planet Rock” was out. And from past experience as a DJ I knew that backwards-sounding music was striking in and of itself. It made everybody’s ears perk up when something went backwards.
I had a production meeting with the [P-Funk musicians] I wanted to participate. And I set a direction verbally, and [at] the session told the engineer to flip the tape. Flip the tape over – this record is gonna have a backwards rhythm component. And we laid down a click track. And then we laid down a “man in the box,” which is a guitar accessory – a cheesy sounding drum machine. I set the tempo and told the engineer to hit record and we recorded this “man in the box” until we’d done four minutes of it. At the time I was a body builder and I’d brought my weights to Detroit via airplane. And I’d brought a bunch of different things that could make sounds. And I started creating rhythms as the tape was moving backwards, different overdubs. The weights clanking. I would lift one up and drop it on the other in time. And we did handclaps, we had cowbells. These meaty claps could be created using something called a slap stick, which was a 2 by 4 that was split with a hinge. You’d lift one part up and smack it against the remaining part. And we used those forwards and backwards. And we used 20, 30 people clapping.
Different people would show up for the session on different days. And the vocals were recorded in sections according to the day. So that the first day had a different group of people than the second day, but the melody continued. So the actual sound of the vocals does change subtly as the song proceeds. Also something that made his recordings unique was how many people including non-singers were out in the vocal area being recorded. It’s part of that gang sound, that imperfection that makes the perfection.
After that you enjoyed a number of hits, including Sly Fox’s “Let’s Go All the Way” featuring Gary Cooper of Bootsy’s Rubber Band.
It started out as Gary and Gary, which was Gary Shider and Gary Cooper. And when George got wind of that he would not allow it. And I understand why. Gary Shider was his right-hand man. That was the Starchild, the guy who wore the diaper [in Parliament-Funkadelic]. And they were very close. Shider was really talented. Really good singer and was yearning for his own career. So I kind of picked from among the talent I had gotten exposed to while working with George. But I didn’t think I would be removing him from George, I thought he could do both. I wasn’t trying to poach in my mind, though I guess that’s how George would have seen it. So I had to come up with a new concept and change the concept on the fly. One of the things as a producer everybody runs into is how do you get noticed? I looked around the landscape and I saw that well, there’s not many duos and there’s not many black and white duos. The white guy [Michael Camacho] was a guy who I had heard about who was doing Levi’s commercials. And I checked him out and he was down for the concept.
Was the beat for “Let’s Go All the Way” intended as a nod to Queen’s “We Will Rock You”?
No, it was really a nod to “Atomic Dog” - because I had confirmed the potency of backwards component to a track via “Atomic Dog.” Queen didn’t have that. It was one of those beats that was easy to do going backwards and forwards. You didn’t have to write it out musically.
How did the Boogie Boys “A Fly Girl” happen? Did you go into it thinking, I will flip “Let’s Go All the Way” as a hip hop record?
No, after doing the track I heard the charm. I knew it had a certain appeal. Again, to be noticed is step number one. You’ve gotta naturally get noticed. And that track had that quality. It was there, I played it for the Boogie Boys. And the next day Stro [from the Boogie Boys] came back with a rap and I liked it and it kind of just matured from there. I mean, why not? Totally different song but same track – with some overdubs and ommissions. The pulse of the record demanded attention. And how often does that happen?
Is there any kind of creative thread that you see that connects all the different things that you’ve done in your career?
A desire to succeed and do a noticeably good job, really. I kind of bring that to anything that I do. And to never ever knowingly fool myself, trick myself to see myself re-define reality to suit myself. I loved music all my life so it was a natural extension. It allowed me to do something I liked doing. I’m not a big boisterous personality, a “look at me” guy. I’d rather have my work speak for what I do. Which is a bit subtle and goes against the [idea that the] squeaky wheel gets the oil. But ultimately if you’re all talk nothing’s gonna happen. If it’s all work and it’s quality you’ve got a shot.