Nightclubbing: Guy Cuevas and the Paris Disco Scene

A forgotten DJ and two of the French capital’s most hedonistic nightclubs

January 28, 2016

Released in 1982, François Kevorkian’s mix of Guy Cuevas’ “Obsession” became one of the most sought after 12-inches to emerge from the famed Compass Point Studios. And, by the time this mutant boogie cut had reached the Nassau mixing desk, Cuevas had recorded an even more esoteric and hard-to-find Loft classic called “Ebony Game.” Today, those two tracks are probably the best-known legacy of Guy Cuevas, an elusive figure and footnote in the history of disco. But to those who partied in Paris in the ’70s, he was one of the most dramatic DJs of the era, arguably as important to dance culture in the French capital as Larry Levan was to New York.

“I was a very lonely little boy,” Cuevas reveals, sitting across from me in a neighbourhood restaurant in Paris’ 14th arrondissement. Born Juan Guillermo Cuevas Carrion in Havana in 1945, Cuevas immersed himself in music at an early age. “Usually little boys are playing with friends and always in groups. But I was very solitary and listening to music that was on the radio, and that my mother and father played. And so my company was all this different music – Brazilian, tango, classical and, of course, Cuban music with Celia Cruz, Beny Moré, Elena Burque and Celeste Mendoza.”

La Lupe, the Queen of Latin soul

In his early teens, Cuevas snuck into Havana’s clubs to watch many of these great singers perform. “I was too young to get in, so I used to wait outside for the singers to arrive and used to come in with them. And that’s how I became friends with La Lupe,” he recalls. The most extravagant of Cuba’s female singers, La Lupe made a big impression on the inquisitive teenager. “She was fabulous and absolutely mad – very dramatic and theatrical,” says Cuevas. “So when I was growing up these were the people who I built my personality around. I really liked all these explosive girls. I was also really attracted to the night world – the clubs and cabarets.”

But it wasn’t just at the clubs where Cuevas sought inspiration. He watched avant-garde films and attended acting workshops at the National Theatre of Cuba. Then, with the support of a literary project for young writers called Ediciones El Puente, he published a book of short stories.

Cuevas was 14 by the time the Cuban revolution ended. “I was too young to really have political opinions, but like everyone I was happy when Castro arrived, because before it was a mess. Too many murders, too many prostitutes, drugs and all these things,” he says. But as a free-spirited teenager, Cuevas became increasingly worried about how this new regime would affect his lifestyle. “They were announcing that they were going to introduce military service for three years, with all the lessons in Communism and politics and I didn’t want to do that, so I had to get out of there,” he says.

What I was doing was creating a style, but I didn’t know it at the time.

Guy Cuevas

Arriving in Paris in the winter of 1964, he was helped by a number of Cuban émigrés, including the cinematographer Nestor Almendros. “I used to live with him, sleeping on the floor. It was a poor life but also a romantic one,” says Cuevas. Surviving through the money he earned from cleaning and working at a gas station, he was introduced to Paris nightlife through the famous Café De Flore. “Someone then took me to the great club Chez Castel and also this amazing place called Le Cherry Lane on Rue des Ciseaux,” he says. “Until then I really only knew poor or normal people, and all of a sudden there with these beautiful people, the outfits they wore were fabulous as was the music. The DJ was a boy called Ralph and he was the first DJ that I ever heard. He was mixing everything up – from Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ to Julie Driscoll’s ‘Season of the Witch’ and lots of American soul music. And I was transfixed.”

Inspired by the eclectic sounds at Le Cherry Lane, Cuevas imagined how his own set of music might sound. “But it was all in my head to begin with. I had no money to buy records so I just had to imagine things.” When Cuevas eventually had some spare money for the first time – through a scholarship for Cuban writers awarded by the Ford Foundation – he headed straight for the flea markets to buy records. Armed with a growing collection, he got his first job spinning at a club called Nuage. “I had moved to Lille to live with my boyfriend for a time and the director of Nuage, Gérald Nanty, asked me to come back to Paris to work at the club playing music,” he recalls. “I had started to get together a bunch of records, some I had brought from Cuba but most from the flea market. It was everything from jazz to the existentialist stuff of Juliette Greco mixing with West Side Story, Marvin Gaye, Philadelphia International and all the Latin records I knew. I used to play all these different types of music. What I was doing was creating a style, but I didn’t know it at the time.”

Nuage attracted a flamboyant crowd. “It was very fancy because it was in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, so people would come from (Café De) Flore and all the other cool places,” Cuevas says. “It was a gay bar and people dressed really beautifully. That’s where I first saw Karl Lagerfeld and also Kenzo. Karl would be surrounded by all these stars from New York like Pat Cleveland, Jane Forth and Donna Jordan. It was very fabulous. And to see them all reacting to my music was incredible.”

My music at Le Sept really did become something else. I took it much wider.

Guy Cuevas

While DJing at Nuage, Cuevas was spotted by the most influential figure in French nightlife: Fabrice Emaer. The son of a wool merchant from the small French town of Wattrelos, Emaer had settled in the bohemian heart of Paris after travelling around North Africa, arriving with a head full of dreams. In 1964 he opened Le Pimm’s Bar, in what would soon become the gay enclave of Rue Sainte-Anne.

In 1968 the streets of Paris erupted in riots. Emaer was too busy plotting his next move to notice. He set his eyes on another venue a few doors down at from Pimm’s. Emaer and his business partner Claude Aurensan named the new venue Le Club Sept. “It was a much bigger place than Le Pimm’s – it had a big restaurant on street level and this great big fabulous discotheque downstairs,” recalls Cuevas. “In the beginning, Claude was playing records there. I already knew him from Le Cherry Lane. When he heard my fabulous nights at Nuage he had told Fabrice the kind of music I was playing. So they came to hear me and then afterwards said ‘You have to come and play for us.’ They could imagine the kind of DJ I could become at their new club. And my music at Le Sept really did become something else. I took it much wider.”

Mixing everything from Philly classics to Fania Records album tracks, Cuevas became renowned for an incongruous mixing style that would jolt dancers out of their comfort zone. He once said he liked to “break rhythms, surprise, innovate, dare, violate your ears.” An orchestral MFSB track would segue into the psychedelic soul of Undisputed Truth before being violently cut by what he once described as “stuff that wasn’t at all danceable, like Marilyn Monroe or bird sounds11“Birds you found in South America but you didn’t find in France,” Cuevas clarifies., whatever passed through my head.”

At the heart of Cuevas’ style was a love of theatrics born from his early years in Havana. “In the movies there were moments to cry, there were moments to be happy and that’s what I wanted to do with the music,” he tells me. To add to the drama and storytelling, Cuevas controlled the whole environment of the club, in a similar way to David Mancuso at The Loft in New York or Bobby Viteritti at Trocadero Transfer in San Francisco. “You know that bit in Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living For The City’ with all the traffic sounds? I would add all these loud police sirens over the top. Then I used to ask the bartenders to take lamps and turn off the lights and shine their lamps onto people like the police had arrived to arrest everybody,” he says. “It was all about using effects and creating drama like in the films.”

I never ever wore headphones. It had to be a real interaction, so I needed to be able to hear what they were hearing and to feel the vibrations in the air.

Guy Cuevas

The effect of all this was heightened by the various drugs being consumed by dancers. “Mescaline was still popular, as was a new wave of amphetamines taken with alcohol for a more enhancing high,” wrote Alicia Drake in her book The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris. “Those going up took the amphetamines and poppers, those going down opted for Valium, Quaaludes or the most fashionable downer at the time, Mandrax.” Joining the dancers on the floor as they peaked to the heady mix of music would be Cuevas, dressed in one of his fabulous outfits. “I used to put on a record and then go and dance,” he says. “I love dancing because I’m explosive like La Lupe. So I used to get down and dance with all these beautiful people, kissing them and making them sing with me.”

To connect with the crowd even more, Cuevas dispensed with his headphones. “I never ever wore them, which really surprised people,” he recalls. “It had to be a real interaction, so I needed to be able to hear what they were hearing and to feel the vibrations in the air. Any artist will tell you the same; they need to feel the crowd. And it’s the same for a DJ, or at least it should be.”

It is completely sterilized, a ghetto for model agencies.

Fabrice Emaer on Studio 54

The glamorous crowd at Le Sept rivalled that of its New York counterpart Studio 54. “It was a really fabulous crowd with a lot of the fashion people there, so people like Karl (Lagerfeld), Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo. Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler alongside actresses like Claudia Cardinale and the artist Francis Bacon,” says Cuevas. “There were lots of models and actors coming from New York as well, so people like Andy Warhol with Freddie Herko.” But Le Sept was also known for the diversity of its crowd. “It wasn’t just about being famous or rich, it was about being beautiful with a nice smile, a good outfit and the right attitude,” says Cuevas. “There was also no racism there at all, the doorman was allowed to let in every kind of people so it was really mixed.”

Becoming a star amongst the fashion crowd, Cuevas was introduced to a whole new world, far away from his humble roots. “Yves (Saint Laurent) asked me to do the music for his fashion shows,” he says. “And then Kenzo asked me to do the same, so I used to do a lot of these fashion shows. And I used to love dressing up myself, I had so many beautiful outfits.”

With the crowds at Le Sept growing in relation to its fame, Fabrice Emaer became restless for a new club after a visit to New York with Cuevas in 1977. “Studio 54 was fabulous and really mad. And Fabrice said, ‘That is what we have to do in Paris, but even bigger and better,’” says Cuevas. “But he had very European tastes so he wanted to do it our own way.” The glitz and glamour of Studio 54 enthralled and appalled Emaer in equal measure: “It is completely sterilized, a ghetto for model agencies,” he told writer Brice Couturier. “Totally clean, beautiful, they look like they are fed on high quality corn.”

Grace Jones - La Vie En Rose

Emaer returned to Paris determined to find a space to create an even more glamorous club than Le Sept. He found it in an old theatre on Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, a famous music hall in the 1920s. After removing the seating, Emaer set about building a futuristic playground amid the old Art Deco interior. Every detail was to be addressed – down to red and gold outfits for waiters, designed by Thierry Mugler. Le Palace opened on March 10th, 1978 with a performance by Grace Jones. “Everyone was there that night: the real fancy crowd with Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and all these people,” says Cuevas. Surrounded by dry ice and roses, Grace opened the club by singing “La Vie en Rose” on top of a pink Harley Davidson. “At the time, Grace was not the girl she would become,” says Cuevas of his longtime friend. “She was only just beginning. But she was fabulous that night... Everyone was screaming.”

It was the perfect opening for this most theatrical of clubs. “Fabrice made us rehearse all the effects we would use that night, like all the smoke and confetti falling down,” says Cuevas. “And then all the different lights and lasers spelling out messages to the audience like ‘vous êtes notre plus belle histoire d’amour.’22You are our most beautiful love story. It was real drama and I really loved that.” Cuevas had seen Apocalypse Now and would play Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ with added helicopter sounds, recreating the film’s most famous scene. “That really suited Fabrice, because actually he didn’t really like clubs. His thing really was theatre,” says Cuevas.

The highlight of the club’s design was a state-of-the-art light show. The centrepiece was a great sphere of neon tubes that hovered above the dancers. In an article for Vogue Hommes in May 1978, the literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote: “At Le Palace... light occupies a deep space, within which it comes alive and performs like an actor; an intelligent laser, with a complicated and refined mind, like an exhibitor of abstract sculptures, produces enigmatic traces, with sudden mutations: circles, rectangles, ellipses.”

Le Palace soon became known as a hotbed of hedonism, where the rich and famous partied with impoverished artists, writers, intellectuals and designers. “Fabrice thought if we had the chance to do our thing we had to do it different to what we had seen in New York. And that included the crowd,” says Cuevas. “We used to have drag queens off the street next to the King of Sweden, next to the choreographer Maurice Béjart and the dancer Régine (Chopinot). It was every kind of people.”

On the door was the Queen of Paris punk Edwige Belmore, who Fabrice trusted to mix rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white. “He asked me to represent Le Palace at the door,” recalled Edwige, who passed away in 2015. “I was 20 years old, I was in my little tuxedo, bleach blond crew cut, big red lips, six bodyguards and I was the person who decides who comes in and who doesn’t. That was a huge responsibility. Fabrice told me, ‘Just imagine if this was your house. You take it upon yourself to decide, do you want this guy in my house?’”

The club became famous for its theme nights and balls, hosted by the big fashion designers. “There were lots,” says Cuevas. “Loulou de la Falaise, who was Yves Saint Laurent’s right hand person, did a huge party called Angels & Devils. It was fabulous. Luolou was wrapped in red like the devil and her man Thadée (Klossowski de Rola) was dressed like an angel with real feathered wings. It was a fabulous party.” Cuevas revelled in his star status, as flamboyant as any of the partygoers. At the wedding of Loulou and Thadée he came dressed as the Roman goddess Minerva, his bald head painted gold.

I wanted to create something, to invent, but I got stuck slapping the same hits on the turntable.

Guy Cuevas

With his love of the avant-garde, theatre and the outer realms of dance music, Cuevas eventually became tired of the inevitable requests for crowdpleasers like “Disco Inferno” and “Love to Love You Baby.” “It sounded so repetitive to my ears I had to fight against boredom,” he complains. “I wanted to create something, to invent, but I got stuck slapping the same hits on the turntable.” Actress and journalist Paquita Paquin, who later hosted the exclusive downstairs club Le Privilege with Cuevas, wrote in her memoirs: “At the end of the night, he would sometimes agree to put on some of our requests, but if not, would explain about balance, strength and the rhythm he was looking for in his program that didn’t always leave room for our endless hits.”

Tiring of his regular gig at Le Palace, Cuevas yearned for new creative outlets. “This Argentinian producer Roberto Valencia asked me if I wanted to do a record with Gaumont (Musique) which was a huge label at the time,” he recalls. “I suggested we do something like a jam session mixing all what I am – all the music right from the beginning. So the Afro-Cuban jazz, African beats, and lots of Latin with plenty of shakers, claves and stuff. At the same time we also wanted something that sounded like Curtis Mayfield.”

Guy Cuevas - Ebony Game

Produced by Valencia and Hervé Le Coz at Studio Musistud, “Ebony Game” was released on Gaumont Musique in 1981. As exotic as it is funky, this heady piece of leftfield boogie sits somewhere between Lamont Dozier’s “Going Back to My Roots” and Arthur Russell’s “In the Light of the Miracle.”

“Ebony Game” would go on to become one of the holy grails of the Balearic scene. If you can find the 12-inch, you will also be rewarded by the dubbed out brilliance of the Cuevas composition “Everywhere Is My Home” and the space soul of “Inside My Mind.” The cover was a black and white photograph by Alice Springs of Cuevas, dressed in an outfit designed by his old friend Thierry Mugler.

Cuevas eventually moved downstairs from Le Palace to become a host at Le Privilege with Paquita Paquin. “I couldn’t stand being the DJ at Le Palace anymore,” he says. “Working every day, finding the records, rehearsing and then playing at night was killing me. I took lots of cocaine to stay awake and then became an addict. I never slept. So I had to stop. I said I needed a break – my head was burned.” At the door of Le Privilege he wore a white silk suit and monocle, taking on the persona of actor Erich von Stroheim. The basement club was the ultimate in ‘80s French chic, with décor by Gérard Garouste and furniture design by Elisabeth Garouste – the perfect setting for the Paris fashion crowd.

Guy Cuevas - Obsession (Nassau Mix)

But Guy Cuevas’ name was about to reach well beyond the French elite once François Kevorkian and Steven Stanley reworked his track “Obsession.” “The first record was really the work of Roberto Valencia and co-producer Hervé Le Coz, but ‘Obsession’ was all my ideas, my music and my words,” says Cuevas. Originally recorded at Le Chien Jaune (where Manu Dibango recorded “Abele Dance” with producers Hervé Le Coz and Martin Meissonnier), the Nassau mix of “Obsession” went on to become an underground hit at Paradise Garage and The Loft.

How had Cuevas ended up recording for Island Records in the first place? “I had already met Chris Blackwell because he released all of Grace Jones’ records, and she was my great friend, we were very close,” he says. “So I went to London with my French producer Hervé Le Coz and recorded ‘Obsession’ at the Island studios. But Chris Blackwell was not that convinced with that mix, so he said we had to send it to Compass Point and François Kevorkian will do something fabulous. And he did – he really did. It worked, honey.”

This time the cover was done by Grace Jones’ lover Jean-Paul Goude. “He used to do all the covers for Grace as well, of course,” says Cuevas. “I loved that sleeve he did for ‘Obsession.’ Jean-Paul was mad but really incredible. A very illuminated person.” A year before Jones’ famous Island Life cover, Goude also provided the artwork for Cuevas 12-inch Gallo Negro. “That was completely my idea and came from the cock fights we used to have in Cuba,” says Cuevas. “I had to stand there all day while he cut feathers out of old curtains and heavy black paper and stuck them on me to look like a black cock. It was like torture, but I was proud because I knew it was going to be a great image.”

Released on Island Records in 1984, “Gallo Negro” was initially inspired by the dramatic Hi-NRG pop of Liverpool’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood. “We used to talk a lot about ‘Relax’ and thought that was fabulous. So Goude and I wanted something like that,” says Cuevas. “Then, Hervé Le Coz, who was the producer, decided to put some electric guitar solo in the middle, and it became something else, much more rockish.”

Guy Cuevas - Bo Mambo

After “Gallo Negro,” Cuevas was to record one more record, a version of Yma Sumac’s “Bo Mambo,” produced by Martin Meissonier and Hervé Le Coz. Featuring Congolese musician Ray Lema and Cuban band Los Van Van, it was as exotic as anything Cuevas had recorded, and very much in keeping with Meissonier’s mid-’80s productions. “I did a Latin version of opera on LSD,” suggests Cuevas. It was to be his last foray into dance music.

After Fabrice Emaer’s death in 1983, Cuevas left Le Privilege. He later became an artistic director, first of Les Bains Douches, then Barrio Latino. “I was doing the same thing there that I had always done, just provoking the same creative references,” says Cuevas. As well as designing the music for fashion shows, he also pursued a successful career as an actor appearing in films like The Jewel of the Nile, Pirates and Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon. “I was in many movies and kept doing the music for Kenzo for over 30 years. But I never DJd at a club again,” he says. “It all burned me out – it really did.”

After years of partying, Cuevas has now chosen the quiet life. In the English language press, at least, this means that his story has largely been forgotten. Ask anyone who partied in Paris at Le Sept or Le Palace during the ’70s, though, and they’ll tell you that he was as just as important to the disco story as anyone.

Header photo: Philippe Heurtault

Header image © Philippe Heurtault

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