Interview: Terry Noel
From the DJ History archives: The first superstar DJ dishes about a remarkable career to Bill Brewster
In New York City in the 1960s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more in-demand DJ than Terry Noel. Getting his first big break through winning a dance contest at the Peppermint Lounge, Noel transitioned into DJing at the behest of Sybil Burton at her venue Arthur, which earned a reputation as a celebrity hotspot throughout its existence in no small part due to Noel’s refined taste and turntable trickery.
Following his time at Arthur, Noel took his psychedelic style to Salvation, where he began DJing with three turntables to a tripped-out crowd and interacted with groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones while forging a lasting relationship with Jimi Hendrix. In this interview from 1998, presented as part of RBMA’s partnership with DJ History, Bill Brewster spoke to Noel about his extensive innovations and memorable stories from the ’60s scene.
How did you come to be in New York City? Are you from there?
I grew up in Syracuse and I was going to Syracuse University, but I hated it because it was so gung-ho. I transferred down to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. This was 1960. By 1961 I was down here [New York]. In 1961 I entered a dance contest at the Peppermint Lounge and won; so they hired me.
What was Peppermint Lounge at that stage? Supper club?
No. They started twisting in there, so celebrities started mobbing the place. It only held about 140 people. It was a hustler bar; a gay hustler bar on 45th Street, right off Times Square. Then it got very chic. Then they had this big celebrity contest with celebrity judges and I won. I said, “To hell with this school.” I fell in love with the whole thing, because I was in the middle of every celebrity in the world.
What kind of people judged the contest?
Suzy, the society editor for The News, I have the article for this on my website. It’s in the article. We won $100. I got into that, it got bigger and bigger, to the point where we had choreographers coming in, costume designers. I had redesigned the place so we had a stage, which it hadn’t had until that point. We knocked out the columns and made it twice as big; put in dressing rooms; all kinds of lights. In fact, I was the first person to use black lights and strobe lights in the show.
At the end of the show we did “Shout,” and we would cut off the lights, put on the black lights and all the gloves on the girls’ palms would turn pink and they’d stand there with a fringe on going like that. Then we’d put on what was called the Lobster Scope, which was just a wheel with a bright light behind, with like a lobster claw in the wheel. And the wheel would turn fast and it would be a strobe light.
Was it motorized?
Yeah, it had a motor on it. It was the original strobe light. The Wild Ones were working there at this time and Sybil Burton comes in and she had just divorced Richard Burton – which was a big scandal. She picked the Wild Ones to be the opening band for Arthur.
Who were the Wild Ones?
They were just a group. They never had a hit or anything, but their big song was “Wild Thing.” Of course, Jordan the lead singer was gorgeous. He was my roommate. It comes to opening night at Arthur and I wanted in on this real bad. So I snuck into the opening and Sybil was dancing with someone, so I tapped her on the shoulder and said, “You know, the music sucks. This is horrible. Do you now who I am, by the way?” She says, “Yeah, aren’t you the dancer from the Peppermint Lounge?” “Yeah, my name’s Terry Noel. Jordan knows me.” She didn’t even know Jordan at that stage, but she ended up marrying him. So I said, “I’ll knock your socks off. I’ll show you music. It’s not working right. I know what your concept is.”
They didn’t have any special lighting there. They didn’t even have pin-spots then. Just little white light over the top of the stage. There were these little bars that came down from the ceiling, like track-lighting. They had these little bulbs: green, blue, yellow, blue. They didn’t blink or anything. It was black, except for smoke-tinted mirrors around the entire room, with banquettes going around and little tables with stools.
Every drink came in a goblet. Every drink, no matter what you got. Which I thought was the coolest thing. Sybil took care of every detail. Every detail of the club. I was just very impressed with it. Then, of course, every celebrity in the world came. So she hired me on the spot and said, “You come in tomorrow at 9 o’clock.” I said, “I’ll bring in records.” I worked on the first night.
[Jim Morrison] saw Andy [Warhol] and his superstars all whipping each other in black leather on the stage, then he started getting a bit loose. Next thing you know he’s got black leather pants on; he’s into all this stuff.
So you were a record collector already?
All my life. I got records in storage; original Buddy Holly 45s, Ricky Nelson, everybody. I had tons of albums. Then I started knowing what I was doing and began blending the music and she just fell in love with it. And she said, “I love this; it’s just what I always wanted.” So I said, “I told you I could do it.”
What kind of stuff were you playing?
At that time soul was very big. WWRL up in Harlem was the big station and that’s where I would get most of my music from at that stage.
Any DJ from there that sticks in your mind?
Frankie Crocker. He’s been around a long time. WWRL was it. It’s been through loads of stages and now it’s back to what it was originally, playing stuff from the ’60s. And it’s a hit! It was so cool. It kind of tears my heart out sometimes when I hear them play a song after a song after a song. ’Cause I would start out slow, and then I would build the pace and build the pace until it was totally frantic. Then I’d make everybody sit down and order a drink. Then start building again. The idea was, I felt my job was to make people buy drinks. Today you don’t have to do that, I don’t think. Then, you really did. I used to write down every song that I played. The time, the date, everything
Y’know, Arthur really didn’t last that long. The gangsters started coming there; they had a shooting there, so I was like, “I can’t take this any more.” And then I left and went to California for a year. Then I came back. Bradley Pierce had a club, Ondine, and I told him about these bands: the Buffalo Springfield, the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors, because I was living with Jim Morrison out in California. I told him that these bands are so great, so hot, that you gotta bring them. We literally paid for their airfare, their rooms, their amplifier. This was at Ondine, which was underneath the 59th Street bridge. Little place again.
Then Andy [Warhol] started coming in; Jim started getting wilder and wilder. In Los Angeles he used to stand in the corner at the back of the stage and do the whole set there; he wouldn’t come out front. He was so shy. Then he got here and saw Andy and his superstars all whipping each other in black leather on the stage, then he started getting a bit loose. Next thing you know he’s got black leather pants on; he’s into all this stuff. I said, “Jim, you’re going the wrong way. If you’re with him, you’re not with me. That’s it.” The last time I heard from him, he and his manager came over to apologize to me and they rang my doorbell. I just said, “I don’t wanna talk to you.”
Going back to Arthur, there used to be a guy called Jerry Love – he was the biggest record distributor in the city. He’d come in and sit there; he’d bring me 20-30 records a week. Then I’d start going over to his warehouse. “What’s this?” “Oh, I don’t know.” “Lemme try it.”
I’d just pull out all these records, any I wanted, and take them home in a cab and listen to every one of them. I’d only listen to them for a few seconds, and if sounded really interesting I’d throw it on in the middle, then if it was really interesting, the end. I’d go through hundreds of albums and singles a week. Hundreds. Then Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson would come in and bring metal discs. I’ve still got “Don’t Mess With Bill.’
One night Murray Drucker, one of the owners, had cut me off and said I couldn’t have any drinks. I used to drink scotch and Coke. I said, “Bring me a drink.” “Murray cut you off, he says you’re drinking too much.” So I say, “Oh, okay, no problem.” So the place is packed (they used to get packed earlier in the evening, but it would be bridge and tunnel traffic; 9 PM they’d start coming). So by 11 it’d be packed full of nobodies looking for celebrities. We used to laugh at them because their clothes were so tacky, even though they must have spent a lot of money on them.
So, Murray comes and the place is packed and there’s not one person dancing. Normally, he’d come in and the dancefloor’s mobbed. And he walks over and says “What’s going on?” I said, “What do you mean?” “There’s nobody dancing!” “Would you like to see some people dancing?” “Of course!” I put up my glass of Coca Cola and said, “There’s nothing in this glass of Coca Cola.” “Well, you’ve been drinking too much.” “So, do you wanna see people dance?”
I took the needle, threw it, landed on the record and boom! It was Frank Sinatra. Because I knew the crowd that was in there would feel okay getting up there, slow dancing to Frank Sinatra. Straight after that I went into the Mamas and Papas, then something else until it got hotter and hotter and these people who wouldn’t be caught dead on the dancefloor are now going wild. “Anything he wants! Anything he wants!” says Murray.
John Wayne used to come in and ask me for “Yellow Rose of Texas” or something like that. I said, “Gee, I happen to have it.” And the booth was not isolated like they are now, I was right on the floor, just one foot up. And he’s standing there, slightly looking down. And I go – snap! – “Oh, it’s broken” and I threw it on the dancefloor. He goes, “You faggot!” His toupee was falling off his head! Sybil was sitting behind where he was; Judy Garland was sitting beside her and Lauren Bacall next to her. And they’re watching this whole scene and they go, “Teeerrrry!” They loved it, because they hated him, you know.
What kind of equipment did you use?
Technics turntables. They were wonderful, except I kept breaking the rubber band on them. I didn’t like anything they had, really. For a mixer, I had a dial for turntable one, and a dial for turntable two; and you’d just blend them in one from the other. I thought that I wasn’t getting everything I wanted out of it.
We had four major column speakers in the room, which was rectangular. And I said that we were getting vibrating noises when the bass gets up too high, so Chip Monk, who became quite famous with Woodstock, I said to him, “Chip, I wanna be able to get separate controls for each speaker, and separate bass and treble controls, too.” I wanted to be able to swing the sound around so that – boom! – when the full song comes in, I put it through all the speakers with dynamic bass, and the hi-ends and lows. He did all that for me. He changed everything for me.
Six months after I was there, I realized that I couldn’t excite these people the way that I wanted to excite them. I wanna thrill. I want them to feel like they’ve never felt in their life before. I’d watch people’s heads on the dancefloor going, “Wow! What was that?” It’s like those movie theatres today where you hear the gunshot behind you. It was the same with me. Except I was doing it in the ’60s.
What were you doing in terms of the mixing?
Sometimes I’d have to put the needle on the exact spot where I’d want it, and I used to have a felt mat instead of a rubber one, so that the turntable wouldn’t hold if I held the record. I knew what I was coming in with, and I knew what I was going out with. I didn’t wanna lose a beat. I didn’t want people to even know that the song changed.
Many people would come up to me and say “I was listening to the Mamas and Papas and now I’m listening to the Stones and I didn’t even know.” I used to try some of the wildest changes without losing a beat. I used to get people coming in who wouldn’t even dance. They’d just come in to listen to the songs.
Tell me about Ondine.
When the place opened, [Bradley Pierce]’d been trying to recruit me. When I came back from California, he hired me then. Prior to me being there, Jimi Hendrix was his busboy. He used to sit there and play his guitar with his teeth at Ondine and Bradley said, “I don’t know what do with you. It’s like a freak act.”
Ondine wasn’t about the records, it was about the bands, because we had all the greatest bands in there. I don’t remember a lot about it, for many reasons.
I’m doing lights, I’m pulling strings. I was like the Wizard of Oz.
Was Arthur mainly drinking or were there drugs?
Oh yes, there were. But it was very, very subtle. There was nothing blatant anywhere; you’d never know anything was going on.
What kinds of drugs?
Amphetamine was the number one: crystal meth. Coke. And acid, of course. I had my first trip at Arthur. We had these people, the teenyboppers, that they’d let in for free. The mob would be out there, but we’d let these in for free; and they’d get free Cokes just to dance on the floor and look gorgeous.
They were all after me, because I was gorgeous then. And I’d say, “No, I’m not taking any drugs. No.” I’d take maybe a toke on a joint once in a while. Before I left, I gave in. Then I went to California and met Owsley. Do you know him? Owsley Acid. He invented the purest acid in the world. Well, forget about it. I’d never take acid today. I haven’t taken it in 20 years because it’s not real, it’s all pumped up with things that make you hyper. If you ever had real acid, you’d know.
Anyway, Salvation was very much about the records. That was when I went into three turntables. The Chambers Brothers’ “Time” was like the theme song to Salvation. I’d build up to that and everybody would know it was coming. I’d turn off all the lights and you’d hear – thud, thud, thud. We were so primitive then, we had this ball that had a light inside it. It shot out little rays of light and it actually had a string on it and I would pull it to make it rock across the dancefloor. “Time has come today.” I’m doing lights, I’m pulling strings. I was like the Wizard of Oz. I had great lighting, I was in control of the whole thing.
That’s another thing about today that would make me crazy is having someone else in control of the lights, because I know what I’m doing and I know where I’m going. And somebody else in another booth playing lights would drive me out of my mind. It’s gotta be subtle. This is a play. You’re directing a play. It’s very dramatic. It has to be dramatic, and no automatic programming is ever going be any use, because it’s different every night and every time you play the record.
Prior to Salvation, there weren’t any lighting effects. Once I’d started to lose control of the lights, I couldn’t build the drama the way I wanted; where I’m going with this particular audience. That’s another thing: I don’t understand how these guys in their bullet-proof glass booths five floors above the dancefloor can ever comprehend what’s going on. You gotta feel the people.
I’d take my earphones off and I’m looking to see who’s there tonight. I know the crowd, I know the people who are coming in. Possibly it’s too intimate. Sometimes, of course, you’d hold out on them, because you knew what they’d want next. But you tease them.
But some of these people... They don’t tease them, they say, “I know what you want and you’re not going to fucking have it!” So sometimes I’d hold out for two or three songs, play some new ones, because I know they know that song is coming that they want. I’d slip in a new song and they’d be, “Whoah, yeah.” The next night, they’d be asking for that song.
How did the three deck thing come about?
I got to the point where I would play two records at the same time. I’d mix them. You’d be hearing “Foxy Lady” by Hendrix, and you’d hear the lyrics from the Beatles. At that point I’m good friends with Hendrix and we’d hang out together, sometimes two days at a time.
Jimi walked in one night and I did exactly that mix. He turned around, gave me the finger and walked out. I was part owner of this club and my partner Larry Buckner comes and says, “Terry, you’ve just chased Jimi Hendrix out of the club!” “Don’t worry, he’ll be back.” Around closing time he came back. And we go back to my loft and hang out for a day. In fact, I called in that night, couldn’t come in, and we were up two days.
At Salvation, it was set up like an amphitheater with seats going up and a sunken dancefloor and there were people who would just come in and sit there. A lot of them were on acid. And they’d just listen to my music. I didn’t know this at the time; I met people subsequently who told me this.
I did care about what I did and I did have some mastermixes that were wonderful, but I usually tried to be incredibly creative so I wouldn’t do the same thing. So I’d try mixing this with that, bring that into there and slide another one on top of that with the third turntable. So you’ve got a beat going perfectly, and I’d throw a little riff or something from the other turntable. By that time I had controls for everything. I wished I was an octopus – I just didn’t have enough hands to do everything, along with working the lights.
So Magical Mystery Tour was coming out and we had a party at Salvation. They were flying over from England. I had put out a flyer: “Terry Noel Invites People To A Surprise Party For Two.” I didn’t even know what the surprise was going to be. Sid Bernstein calls me and says, “I’ve got Magical Mystery Tour, the film, would you like to show it?” “I’m saved!”
Jerry Love is here with me and he goes out the back and makes some punch. Acid punch. And I start playing “Fool on the Hill” and then bring down the lights and start the movie. Everyone just sits down. After the film, everyone just stands up like zombies and files out of the place like the Living Dead. Brad says, “Terry, it’s not even 2.” So I said, “The whole club took off, flew out into the universe, came back and landed. You gotta go home at that point. Everyone was exhausted.”
Next night everyone came in: “Wasn’t that unbelievable?!” And everyone had had the same trip: been picked up by a flying saucer, flew out into the universe, circled around and came back down again.
Was Salvation open every night?
So you’d DJ seven nights?
Yeah. Nine until four. I was getting beat. At this point, the clubs were starting to get like they are today. Arthur was much earlier, then Ondine was later, and then Salvation was even later. It started to change at that point. We were so exclusive. One night the doorman turned away Mick Jagger. He was so proud of it. He said he’d turned away Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. So I ran out into the street and said, “Mick, Mick, you can come in the back door here with me. Come on.” So he sits down; he’s steaming. Then he says, “Fuck this.” And walked out.
Towards the end of Salvation the Beatles came in. “Lady Madonna” was out, and Magical Mystery Tour. I was pissed with them because I felt they were just trying to do Sgt. Pepper’s over again. I went up to Paul, “What is this stuff? Come on, give me a break! It’s like Sgt. Pepper’s II.” They dragged me away because he was pissed. They were afraid that once I got on the turntables, I’d start talking to them. Because everyone was aware that I’d talk to you.
What stuff were you playing at Salvation?
Chambers Brothers, definitely soul music. Not a lot of rock. Mamas and Papas were long gone. I would never have used a Frank Sinatra record at Salvation, because it was a much hipper crowd at Salvation.
I moved to Salvation II because Bradley thought I was getting too outrageous with what I was playing; and that I was getting too personal. He wanted straight music. So his bookkeeper came down there, got turned on to drugs and starts wearing a bandanna and makes a deal with someone, and that’s when we opened Salvation II. It’s now an Indian restaurant called Nirvana on Central Park. The guys who had muscled in with Bradley down at Salvation – who thought they were wise guys when they weren’t – they found them dead out in Queens, with the ritual bullet through both sides of the temple, one through the center of the head. Insane. So Bradley immediately runs off and joins a convent and becomes a priest. He’s still a priest, up in Connecticut.
This interview was conducted in October 1998 in New York. © DJhistory.com