Few DJs lived lives more like Greek tragedy than Walter Gibbons. In 1976, this unassuming music nerd was the very first DJ to become a remixer, and he changed how dance records should sound and be structured. After building an enviable career at the afterhours nightclub Galaxy 21, and introducing elements of early dub and what would be known as hip hop to disco, he challenged the industry with his personal beliefs, paid the price and fell into obscurity, until his creativity rebounded at the very moment his health began a slow and painful decline. He died alone, blind and penniless while his peers and followers became famous. They still consider him both a renegade and a true artist.
“I’d heard a lot of DJs,” says John “Jellybean” Benitez, the first DJ-turned-pop star. “I’d heard Nicky Siano, David Mancuso, Larry Levan and Richie Kaczor, but Walter did a lot of things that I had never heard anyone do. Technically he was brilliant, and he was adventurous, and not only did he do long blends, but he also did lots of quick cuts similar to what I heard in the Bronx growing up.”
“I always tried to figure out what he was like mentally, why he did what he did,” says Tom Moulton, pioneer of the dance mix. “Finally I just gave up, because he was a really unique soul.”
“We were all drinking from that cup that was so obviously genius, even though, back in those early days, I think very few people could tell the difference,” says François Kevorkian, the drummer who accompanied Gibbons’ sets at Galaxy 21, and would eventually remix for Prelude Records, Kraftwerk and U2. “But there were just DJs, and then there was Walter.”
Aside from being gay, Walter Gibbons was unlike most DJs at disco’s dawn. Born April 2, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York, he was slight, introverted and Irish-American when his rivals were outgoing and black or Italian-American. “I know he didn’t have a great childhood,” says his best friend Tony Smith, who played at the Barefoot Boy, Xenon and The Fun House. Walter had siblings and a mother, but like many folks who lack a supportive family, he didn’t talk about his early years; his father was never mentioned. Back in the day, he hung with the bad black sistas-in-training of Walt Whitman Junior High. “The eyes he used to roll, that was all teenage black girls,” Smith reasons.
It’s likely he formulated the poles of his taste – the shriek of James Brown and the sweetness of Motown – through hanging with these honeys. Walter loved the raw, drum-crazed funk most white gay DJs at the time shunned, as well as the sophisticated sass of the girl groups they all worshiped. When old-time DJs talk about Walter, three records inevitably come up: “Erucu” from the Mahogany soundtrack, “Two Pigs and a Hog” from the Cooley High soundtrack and the percussion-only intro to Rare Earth’s “Happy Song.” All three were Motown tracks too short for other DJs to touch until they heard him tease them out into extended orgies of thunderous bass and tribal bongos. Walter reveled in big, frantic, ecstatic breaks.
Long before he got his own first big break at Galaxy 21 in 1975, Gibbons made things happen for himself. In 1972, at age 18, he met his lover Rich Flores, and the pair lived together with an acetate lathe that made possible their own acetate label, Melting Pot Sound, which bootlegged the underground club jams of the early ’70s. In 1974, he worked both at Melody Records in downtown Brooklyn, where he prevailed upon his bosses to stock the latest club hits, as well as the Outside Inn in Jackson Heights, Queens; a small gay club that boasted an early Richard Long-installed soundsystem. By the time Galaxy 21 – an afterhours Chelsea club at 256 West 23rd Street – opened in August 1975, he’d broken up with Flores, and was more than ready for Manhattan.
As the club’s initial DJ Dewane Dixon described it, Galaxy 21 was started by five investors, one of whom was George Freeman, a young black man who eventually took control. Like so many of the era’s hippest discos, this membership club was predominantly gay but also attracted the kind of straights who cared so much about the music they didn’t notice or care that there was a lounge in which men freely had sex. Like many afterhours spots, alcohol was given away; management avoided Mob involvement by buying their booze from the neighborhood liquor store. Unusual for a black-run club, it was predominantly white, but it also attracted Latinos and, to a lesser extent, African-Americans.
Fellow Galaxy 21 DJ Joey Madonia – who later became Levan’s lover and lighting man – describes the multi-floored main room as a simple, unadorned space, later echoed by the Paradise Garage: Nothing distracted from the lighting and music. You couldn’t even tell it was a club from the outside. The ceiling was low, which helped with the clarity of the Alex Rosner-designed soundsystem; in the booth, there were early Technics SL-1200s and a GLI mixer. One night when Dixon was behind the turntables, he felt a foot pounding the floor every time he tried to mix, and it messed with his timing. Infuriated, Dixon put on a reel-to-reel tape, came up around the interloper, and tapped him on the shoulder.
“I said, ‘Who the fuck are you?’” recalled Dixon, who passed away during the writing of this story. “Walter said, ‘I’m the fucking DJ who’s taking your job next week.’” Dixon ran up to the office to confront the five owners. Gibbons was correct; he was about to replace Dixon, who was appeased by a bigger salary and a managerial position. Because Galaxy 21 opened at 4 AM, many of its patrons were comprised of workers from conventional clubs that closed at the same time. The situation couldn’t be more suited for a previously unknown DJ’s DJ; if you’d played in Queens, you didn’t exist until you cracked Manhattan. Galaxy 21 made Gibbons audible to the most essential sets of ears.
Walter was doing what hip hop DJs did five, six years later, but doing it with disco songs.
“I was working at Barefoot Boy,” Tony Smith recalls of the cruisy dance bar popular with the Fire Island circle. “At the end of the night, the bartender always tried to talk me into going out to an afterhours club. Finally, I said yes, and he took me to Galaxy 21. Immediately, I wanted to hear this guy again. He was white, which freaked me out ’cause most of the DJs I knew who were white and gay had a different style of mixing. Walter was an expert in editing live. He was doing what hip hop DJs did five, six years later, but doing it with disco songs – not just beats, but also melody. Next thing you know, everybody is coming to hear him because he was doing things no one else was doing.”
“He was an instinctually great DJ,” concurs Nicky Siano, who briefly played weekdays at Galaxy 21 between weekends at his own super-hot club, the Gallery. “He just knew what to play next. The whole thing about DJing is that it’s not about controlling the night; it’s about letting go of control because you’re working off inspiration. In order to open yourself up to inspiration, you have to let go of your ego. You have to let go of control. People would often say, ‘I was thinking of a song and then you played it.’ That’s because we’re all hearing the same thing, the same inspiration coming down, and Walter was very much like that.”
Since the Gallery opened in ’73, Siano had been extending tracks by cutting back and forth between two copies of the same record to prolong their breaks or instrumental passages. Walter would be on the floor, observing.
“He would look at me when I’d do it, and he’d smile,” Siano continues. “Sometimes it would work really well, but it was never perfect. When he did it, perfection, every time. He was a great technician, he really was. In all the years the Gallery existed, I took off one Saturday night, and that night I chose Walter Gibbons to step in for me. Obviously, I had a lot of respect for his talent.”
We would practice to recreate what Walter was doing on the fly.
This admiration blessed Walter with a social circle that wasn’t huge, but tight. At first, Smith would hang out right next to Walter’s DJ booth; he did the same thing with future Studio 54 DJ Richie Kaczor at Hollywood. Soon enough, Walter – who was consistently partial to dark-skinned men – invited him into the booth. Rather than becoming sexual partners, Gibbons and Smith became inseparable pals. “The only reason I even know about the [club’s] lounge area,” Smith recalls, “is after the night was over, me and Walter would hang out there, talk about his night, and then go to breakfast and talk about his night, then follow up in the afternoon, and talk about his night.”
The pair were joined by fellow DJ Johnny Colón and Dixon, who for a time became Walter’s boyfriend. They ate together, shopped for vinyl together, combed Midtown Manhattan record companies in search of the newest promos and even hung out at Orchard Beach together after Galaxy 21 shut its doors at nine or ten in the morning. Sometimes Walter would share his love of movies, particularly the vintage ones staring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other Hollywood icons beloved of the era’s gay men. But usually they’d talk about nothing but music.
Serious DJing in those days demanded this total immersion. Most records during disco’s formative years were played by session musicians who were recorded live in the studio without click tracks. This meant that they often speeded up – and occasionally slowed down – as they went along. To smoothly overlay two of them for even a few seconds meant you had to sense each of their tempo fluctuations. At this point, Moulton was the only disco mixer/remixer, and – by his own admission – he wasn’t always structuring his mixes with the DJ in mind. “I don’t make dance records; I make records you can dance to,” is the line Moulton repeats even today.
Thanks to Van McCoy’s “The Hustle,” which topped both the pop and soul charts in the summer of ’75, the popularity of touch dancing exploded. If a DJ messed up a mix, couples might literally stumble. The situation got even more intense by the spring of ’76, when a modified Hustle spread out into a line dance called the Bus Stop that would often fill the floor with rows of people counting, kicking and turning. A trainwreck mix could turn an entire club against a DJ: Everyone would have to jump back in again. Walter didn’t have that kind of problem. Instead, he made things as difficult as he possibly could for himself by laying breaks back-to-back right in the middle of all that Bus Stop-ping. Legend goes that he never dropped a beat.
“It made me go home and practice,” Smith admits.
“Here I am this guy that practices every day in my room,” Jellybean recalls, “and doing little high school dances and clubs in the Bronx. I went to hear him with another DJ from the Bronx, Tony Carrasco, and we would be looking at each other with our jaws practically hitting the floor. Then we’d go home and try to do the same thing he did, and we’re like, ‘How the fuck did he do that?’ We would practice to recreate what Walter was doing on the fly.”
The degree to which they remember his moves reveals how profoundly other DJs were impacted by Walter and how closely they strove to copy him. First-generation jocks are often hazy on details; many remark, “If you remember the ’70s, you didn’t fully live them.” With Walter, some have total disco recall.
“I remember him playing ‘Disco Party’ by the Trammps,” Jellybean remembers, “and he brought it in at the break – just flat, like a quick cut. Then when the break ended, he played the break again, and then again, and again, like five, six times so the place was going absolutely insane, and when it would come out of the break and go into the vocal, he’d mix it back to the beginning of the song. Then when the break came, he’d do it again, or he’d turn off the amplifiers that were for the bass, or he would turn off the amplifiers that were powering the tweeters or the mid-range, and I’m talking like six or eight a time. They had these switches, so he’d just move his hand, and they would just go ‘ch, ch, ch, ch, ch, ch,’ and they would all go off perfectly. You’d only hear the highs, then he’d turn on some of the amps and the vocals would come in. Then he’d turn on the rest, and the bass and the rest of the track came in. It was amazing. By the time Larry [Levan] was doing it, he had a crossover.”
Everyone was learning from Walter; even his eventual light man, Kenny Carpenter. Accounts conflict as to how the latter-day Studio 54 DJ started working at Galaxy 21. Dixon maintained that he both introduced him to Carpenter and hired him as well: “Boy, that day I brought him in, you should’ve seen Walter’s eyes. They got along so beautifully after that.”
Carpenter recalls it differently: “I was 18 and I went out clubbing to meet girls, and we first went to this club Hollywood. Afterward, the girls, they were saying, ‘There’s this club Galaxy 21, it’s afterhours.’ When I saw that DJ booth and all the equipment in there, I thought, ‘I’ve got to find a way to get into that booth.’ Walter was standing right in front of it, and he had sort of come on to me. He said, ‘Come into the booth.’ The lighting console was there, but no one was working the lights. Toggle switches for lights, that’s what they had, no controllers. I started messing around with the lights, playing. ‘What’s this? What’s this? Oh, boom.’ Afterwards, he said, ‘You know, you’re good at that. How would you like a job?’ The second time I went to the club, I played there, ’75 to ’76.”
I didn’t want to say this, but Walter was playing really loud, and I love loud music. It was loud.
Gibbons was rarely the most outgoing guy in the room; he simply didn’t trust many people. Compliments flattered him, but only from those he trusted, whom were very few. The only way Walter gave you the benefit of the doubt was if you were A) black, male and hot; B) exceptionally knowledgeable about music; or, most preferably, C) were all of those things. Smith was a C. Denise Chatman, which we’ll get to in a moment, was a B. Carpenter was an A, which meant trouble in the close quarters of the booth.
“I didn’t have no big feelings for Walter Gibbons,” admits Carpenter, who ultimately came out. “He was going out with this guy named Eddie. After that, he was like, ‘You know, I broke up with my lover.’ I told him, ‘I didn’t ask you to break up with your lover.’ He was mad at me after that. The relationship was never the same as it was.”
Fortunately, Walter had plenty to distract him from love-life disappointments. One major diversion came in the form of Salsoul Records, a recently created NYC dance indie founded by the Syrian-American brothers Joseph, Kenneth and Stanley Cayre, who’d been hugely successful supplying tricot for Sears to make pantyhose. When a gay man in the mailroom took Ken and his top employee Denise Chatman to Le Jardin, a mixed but upscale Midtown club, their minds were blown. What grew out of that night soon became one of disco’s most productive, consistent and respected labels.
At that early point, disco was often recorded in Philadelphia, so Ken tracked down drummer Earl Young, guitarist Norman Harris, bassist Ron Baker and vibraphonist Vince Montana Jr., who as MFSB played behind nearly every Philly soul act from the O’Jays to the Spinners, and wrote and produced as well. Frustrated with their principal ties to Philadelphia International Records, the foursome defected to Salsoul, which also signed vocal groups like First Choice and Love Committee, as well as Montana’s studio project, the Salsoul Orchestra, who soon became to Salsoul what MFSB was to Philadelphia International – an astoundingly adept and cohesive house band akin to the Funk Brothers of Motown. Unlike Philadelphia International’s founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who prioritized fellow African-Americans and their radio stations, Salsoul favored soulful but emphatically pan-racial disco: Its name stood for Salsa Soul, and it rode a rainbow in the label’s logo. It was only natural that Galaxy 21 – largely thanks to Walter – became its key early showcase.
“When Kenny [Cayre] and I would come out of Sigma,” Chatman recalls of the famed studio where most Philly soul was recorded, “we would always have them burn an acetate for us. We’d take it right to Galaxy 21, and Walter would put it on. Another DJ would be like, ‘Whoa, I’ll have to figure this out. I don’t know how to go into it and get out of it. No, I don’t want to empty my dancefloor.’ That was never the case with Walter, and that’s why [the DJs] hung out at Galaxy 21. They’d write down, or make a mental note: ‘That’s how I can get into it and that’s how I can get out of it, like Walter did.’ They’d leave there with such a wealth of information, it was like going to school.”
Having excelled at editing and extending via turntables in the club, Gibbons learned how to replicate these live edits by recording his records on reel-to-reel, and then cutting up the tape; Dixon taught him this skill, then Gibbons bought his own equipment well before most of his contemporaries. Tracks that everyone played for years, like Eddie Kendricks’ 1972 proto-disco monster “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” Gibbons edited to make his.
It’s likely that Salsoul wasn’t the first label to ask Walter to create a personalized edit: Pyramid Records had him extend an unusually disjointed track, Jakki’s “Sun... Sun... Sun.” Although Gibbons’ name is nowhere on the label, the 12” features many elements that would soon become Walter’s sonic signature: unconventional structure, bongo-driven percussion even more prominent than the disco norm, vocal and instrumental elements that dramatically swoop in and out of the mix, and significant length – in this case, nine-and-a-quarter minutes. It wasn’t released until the summer of ’76, presumably to capitalize on the song’s sunny vibes, but Smith confirms that not only did Gibbons mix it, but he was also the only DJ to play it long before it appeared in stores. Back then, an exclusive track was a rare and prestigious thing.
But Salsoul’s initial project with Walter is the one that’s entered the history books. Opinion is divided whether Gibbons’ version of Double Exposure’s “Ten Per Cent” qualifies as an edit or a full-on remix: Moulton argues it’s an edit. Bob Blank, the engineer who ran Blank Tapes Studios, considers it a remix, one created under adverse circumstances: Salsoul paid Blank Tapes for only three hours of studio time. “That was a vote of no confidence with Salsoul,” Blank asserts.
Whereas subsequent DJs typically gave instructions that the engineers implemented themselves, Walter immediately sat at the console and asked Blank to come back in a half hour. When the engineer returned, Blank added some EQ, but the results so far had already been sounding good. Then, Walter started running the master through to isolate instruments while copying the results onto quarter-inch tape. By the point his allotted time was over, he’d recorded an hour’s worth of these elements.
“I said, ‘Well, aren’t we going to edit it?’” Blank recalls. “My specialty was using a razor blade and I figured I could help him. He said, ‘No, no, I’ll do it.’ He goes home and puts it on his TEAC four-track. He wound up editing the whole thing and handed it in. That was the record. It was very impressive.”
“Walter starts the song like it’s gonna go straight to the vocal, and his first edit is to the break,” Smith points out. “It blows every DJ away because we were used to Tom Moulton, who had a smooth flow to his mixes and maybe took out the vocal just to create an instrumental part. No one had ever put a break in the beginning. So before they even started singing, you heard the break, which usually was the most important part. You save it; you have it in the middle. ‘Ten Per Cent’ had three breaks when most songs then had one. Before that, there weren’t many nine minute songs you played until the end. Moulton had a stable type of mix where it wasn’t peaking at the end. Walter wanted it to go through peaks and valleys, like being a DJ throughout the song.”
For the first time ever, the DJ-driven club experience was captured on a single slab of 12-inch vinyl that the public could buy. Before that, the few 12-inch singles that existed were promo-only, reserved for big-city DJs and their growing record pools. Stores that hadn’t catered to disco fans didn’t know what to do with this new format, and many outside urban areas didn’t stock it: The title only reached #63 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart and #53 on the magazine’s Hot 100 pop chart. But the 12-inch entered Billboard’s Disco chart in April ’76, and peaked at #2 for six weeks. Jakki’s quirkier “Sun…Sun…Sun” hit #5 shortly thereafter. Buoyed by back-to-back Gibbons mixes, Salsoul Orchestra’s “Nice ’n’ Naasty” and “Salsoul 3001” reached #3 in fall 1976.
If all this wasn’t enough to distinguish the spinner and his club, Galaxy 21 got another wildcard in the form of François Kevorkian, a newly immigrated Armenian-Frenchman. He’d already crossed paths with George Freeman, who often entertained in his stunning apartment. “I figured a guy who can own an apartment like this must be able to afford a housekeeper,” Kevorkian recounts, “and I was proposing my services.” Freeman declined, but upon learning that young François was a drummer, he offered him a job to accompany Walter’s already percussion-heavy sets – much to the dismay of the DJ and his lighting man.
“François would go at it with these drums,” Carpenter recounts of the musician, who was situated on the opposite end of the dancefloor. “BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM. I absolutely hated it. I would go down there and try to tell him, ‘François, stop!’ He didn’t understand English so he didn’t know what the hell I was saying. He never stopped.”
“Walter was really upset,” Kevorkian admits, “because there was a delay by the time the sound of the drums gets to him. We had a couple of battles, where he’d throw every drum break known to creation at me, like the drum solo from Chicago’s ‘I’m a Man’ or things like that. I’d heard those before, so actually those were the easier records for me to play along with.”
Kevorkian’s background was in jazz-fusion and prog rock; he could jam out intricate rhythms for hours on end. What he didn’t know was the disciplined disco and uptown funk that dominated Walter’s sets. Between the DJ’s continuous cutting and the line dancers’ demands for rock-steady rhythms, Kevorkian had his work cut out for him. To maintain his own concentration, Gibbons upped the volume.
”I didn’t want to say this,” Siano relates, “but Walter was playing really loud, and I love loud music. It was loud.”
This was the first issue that brought about Walter’s end at Galaxy 21. Freeman persuaded Alex Rosner to secretly install a limiter, which the audio expert knew would bring trouble. Sure enough, the first night that Freeman repeatedly turned Gibbons down, the DJ cranked up his mixer until he reached its maximum, realized what had been done behind his back and walked out through a packed dancefloor. Freeman convinced his talent to return, but once again violated his trust: When Gibbons and Smith followed a wire that led from the DJ booth to Freeman’s office, Walter learned that his sets were being secretly taped and sold without compensation. This time, he left for good.
Initially, the DJ rebounded better than Galaxy 21. Without Walter, many patrons drifted away, and the club closed in early ’77. According to Dixon, the landlord who owned the attached buildings didn’t pay his electric bill for the upstairs apartments. When the power for them was shut off, all of his real estate in the area lost electricity, and the club owners couldn’t afford to pay his bills.
“I never knew really what the deal was,” Kevorkian adds, “but there was some infighting; some security staff held up the cash proceeds during one night with a gun, all sorts of stuff.” Having squatted in those next-door apartments, Kevorkian saved up to buy enough records to fill a set. He’d been studying a master every night at Galaxy 21, so he soon scored DJ gigs. Gibbons landed at Better Days, a much blacker, even gayer afterhours club at the rough northwest edge of Times Square. Like the neighborhood itself, Better Days attracted hustlers and transsexuals, but virtually no white people besides Walter and the occasional slumming celebrity like Mick Jagger. Gibbons didn’t last long, but it’s likely his Better Days experience helped shape his next masterpiece, a sprawling 11 minute reconstruction of Loleatta Holloway’s “Hit and Run.”
To fully comprehend the significance of Gibbons’ changes, one should understand a little sociology of the ’70s. As created by Gamble & Huff, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Norman Whitfield and others who built its prototypes, disco was originally a manifestation of black pride. It was meant to reflect the growing black middle class, and to inspire those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to similarly rise. This wasn’t empty fantasy: Thanks to social programs funded by the U.S. government run by and for inner-city communities, African-American poverty shrank. Black folk got the help to provide for their own, and so the music that reflected this shift wasn’t assimilationist. Decked out in sparkling diamonds and pastel suits that contrasted sharply against his ebony skin, there was no doubt that Barry White was a black man, and that he was funky. But with the funk he also brought the beauty and opulence of orchestral largesse, and that combination of sweat and sophistication also attracted the first generation of gay men who could celebrate collective eroticism, as well as women who joined the sexual revolution with the newfound freedom of the Pill. Disco was tribal, yet upscale, maximalist. The more producers and engineers added to it, the better it sounded.
With his 1977 remix of “Hit and Run,” Gibbons was the first to make a track more club-friendly through subtraction. The album it came from, 1976’s Loleatta, had already been out for months, and DJs were bypassing the lead cut in favor of the far sassier “Dreamin’.” Holloway had both stratospheric vocal chops and authoritative charisma, but neither were served by the crowded LP mix of “Hit and Run.” Walter discovered she’d recorded several minutes of vamping long after the song itself was over; ad-libs that definitively proved Holloway’s disco credentials.
Gibbons ripped out everything that didn’t make Holloway a superstar. He knew most hip clubgoers couldn’t relate to lyrics about being “an old-fashioned country girl,” and so he dumped the verses, stripped down the strings and other finery and showcased Holloway’s outtake vamps in ricocheting bongos, buzzing bee guitars, boxing horns and hissing hi-hats. He put Philly’s omnipresent but otherwise subtle Sweethearts of Sigma background vocalists right in the foreground, and added zingy echo effects on Holloway’s already piercing screams so they careened against the percussion, cutting through the track like sharp nails tearing into chiffon.
“Between me and you, AH, good gosh almighty, between me and you/I wanna one-one, one, waaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhn WOMAN man,” she wailed. “Woah, can you hear me?” Disco audiences – particularly black and gay ones – heard Holloway all right. They’d scream right back, and the intensity of the instrumentation as Walter presented it suspended dancers in groove where there is no center, no verse/chorus/verse, no beginning nor end; only euphoria. The result was a truly radical hit – the first to parallel what reggae outlaws like Lee “Scratch” Perry did via dub. Gibbons the remixer had arrived.
Meanwhile, Gibbons the DJ was in flux. Without a club to call home, he accepted an offer from his old boss George Freeman, who in ’77 opened the Monastery, a predominantly gay all-ages afterhours club in Seattle where Dixon recalled Gibbons wearing a costume and being helicoptered down for its opening night. Whatever happened didn’t last long for Walter. As documented in Vince Aletti’s Disco Files column for Record World, Gibbons’ playlists at various New York clubs like Fantasia, Pep McGuires in Queens and Inferno deviated further and further from the hottest tracks, and not always in the hippest way. None of the playlists are from the Monastery.
Shortly into ’78, however, Walter’s charts completely disappear. Yet he received so much remixing work that Gibbons literally lived at Blank Tapes: According to Blank, Walter moved his belongings into its empty loft space, where he also recorded mix shows for reigning R&B station WBLS. That year, the quality of material he accepted matched its quantity. It also varied from the smooth and relatively straightforward soul-disco of True Example (“Love Is Finally Coming My Way”) and Sandy Mercer (“Play With Me”/“You Are My Love”) at the beginning of the year to far more provocative revisions he created for Love Committee (“Law and Order/“Just as Long as I Got You”) and Holloway (“Catch Me on the Rebound”) as the months progressed.
In these works, Gibbons’ confidence and daring grew exponentially. The difference between foreground and background became even more pronounced as vocals and instrumentation fluctuate further than they would on anyone else’s mixes, as if to say, “THIS is what you should be paying attention to! Check out these horns! Now forget them, and concentrate on the bongos!” And his flair for subtraction takes even greater risks: He holds back the bass on his remix of “Law and Order” until nearly five minutes in – a risky move for a genre built on rumbling rhythmic frequencies. His sense of proportion even challenged the singers he showcased.
“I really didn't care for the absence of singing and more track, ’cause it was all about dance and I'm not a dancer,” recalls R&B vet Bettye LaVette of Gibbons’ 11 minute overhaul of “Doin’ the Best That I Can” that was too long for radio, but a smash in the clubs. “I didn't know that they were remixing it, so when I got back to New York – I was doing a play, Bubbling Brown Sugar – well, they were playing [Gibbons’ remix] in the gay bars and all my gay friends were telling me, ‘Oh, you gotta go to wherever and hear this.’ It came on, and it was going and going, and I thought, ‘Did they take my voice off?’”
“But no, I was not pleased at all. Maybe if I were an arranger, having 98% of the song be track would be appealing to me, but being a singer, that's totally unappealing.” LaVette – who at age 70 is now one of the world’s most respected blues singers – performed her sole release for West End Records only once, and that was at the Paradise Garage, where she relied on friends in the audience to cue her when to sing. In frustration, she persuaded her then-teenage producer to terminate her contract – a decision she’d later regret. That producer, Cory Robbins, soon sold millions as the president of Profile Records, home to Run-D.M.C. and other smash rap acts.
But even more drastic than all of his remixes in 1978 was something that happened that year in Gibbons’ personal life: He met a guy who was religious, and Christianity started to fill the hole that opened when Walter left Galaxy 21. He had Blank Tapes, but he no longer had an audience that treated him like family. Instead of the clubs, Gibbons would go to church.
I think that his attraction to religion was a reaction to real levels of persecution. He was quite an outcast amongst the regular guys.
Unlike, say, Siano, who was nodding off on heroin while spinning at Studio 54 and would literally pick himself up off the floor just in time to mix in the next record, Gibbons’ drug use – except for nicotine – was never excessive. He’d chain-smoke cigarettes and light a joint or two while mixing or DJing, but the latter never impacted his reflexes. As they admit, Smith and Jellybean, both hugely talented mixers, couldn’t do sober what Gibbons only sometimes did stoned. Occasionally he’d drop acid, but even Blank – who was with him in the studio day after day for three years at the peak of his popularity – never saw him touch cocaine or anything stronger. Gibbons’ problems were bigger than drugs.
Smith figured if he could find his friend another club to call home, he’d snap out of his religious phase, so in 1978 he got Walter a gig playing weekdays at Barefoot Boy. By this point, the disco world had changed dramatically. Saturday Night Fever had happened. Studio 54 was happening. The willfully synthetic Eurodisco of Donna Summer spread from gay clubs right to Top 40 radio. Even funky disco by Chic and Bionic Boogie had a clean, clear, sparkling quality that wasn’t around two years ago. Everyone wanted to dance to it, even at the Paradise Garage, which now attracted the Gallery and Galaxy 21’s old crowd. A weekday DJ at a gay white disco was simply required to program this bright hit sound. Instead, Walter favored leftfield cult favorites that only worked for afterhours weekend revellers – not guys looking to get laid on a Tuesday night.
“When disco was underground and Walter had all that power, the owner never came into the booth,” Smith remembers. “Now they did, and they’d say, ‘Can you get Walter to play more popular stuff?’ I’d say, ‘I’m trying,’ but Walter was Walter. For me to all of a sudden tell him what to play was just weird. He was my idol.” Nevertheless, Smith had to fire him.
When his Christian boyfriend caught Gibbons cheating and left him, Walter was filled with remorse, and at that point became “born again.” Feeling the pain of being a black-loving queer ostracized by his lover, his family, the straight world and even homogenous gay “clone” culture, Walter funneled his alienation into sincere spiritual beliefs that snowballed into fundamentalism.
“I think that his attraction to religion was a reaction to real levels of persecution,” Blank reasons. “He was quite an outcast amongst the regular guys.” Walter was a Teena Marie without a Rick James.
Like “ex-gay” zealots who warn against the evils of homosexuality from the dark side of their own mental closets, Gibbons didn’t dial down his intensity: He simply switched his act from pleasure-seeker to self-appointed preacher. Music that had filled him with unconditional joy now required re-evaluation. This process was painful for friends to witness. Here was the guy with whom they’d spent years searching for the latest and boldest music suddenly making snap decisions to forgo floor-filling platters he’d previously adored. Out went C.J. & Co.’s “Devil’s Gun.” Out went Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Bad Luck.” It didn’t matter that both records were steeped in the spirit and harmonies of gospel. Both had to go simply because their titles didn’t strike this new Walter as godly. And it wasn’t enough for just him to give those records up – he wanted Smith and others to do the same.
The music was real nice, and all of the sudden I heard Walter’s voice reading scriptures over the records.
A more decisive turning point took place at Blank Tapes, where Gibbons and Blank had been remixing a track produced by Philly mainstay Bunny Sigler that featured his backing band, Instant Funk. Salsoul had generated one club hit after the other since they started, but lately the label struggled to incorporate Eurodisco. As such, Salsoul hadn’t scaled the pop charts since their earliest Salsoul Orchestra records. Cayre had even passed on “Dance, Dance, Dance” by Chic, which soon became one of disco’s definitive bands. Instant Funk’s “I Got My Mind Made Up” had that same obvious hit quality, and this time Salsoul strove to make the most of it.
“We remixed that so many friggin’ times that everybody’s sick of it,” Blank recalls, but the multiple versions released throughout 1979 and even 1980 prove how much Salsoul believed in this overtly sexual record: One of its more memorable lines goes, “If you want my money / You got to make it sweet as honey.” Another one in the chorus says, “You can get it, get it girl, anytime,” followed by an incredulous female drawling “Say whaaaaaat?” as if flabbergasted that a brother would come on this strong. The longer mixes included an inspired moment of engineering: You can clearly hear producer Sigler telling his woman to scream as if he were a porn director whispering off-screen instructions. The effect is awkward, sexy and hilarious all at once.
At least three different versions bear Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan’s name, and this remixing credit was a key one. Heavy club play helped the single top both the soul and disco charts, reach #20 on the pop chart, push the similarly chart-topping LP into gold certification and bestow upon Levan star remixer status. But according to both Blank and Chatman, Gibbons had worked on the track until the lyrics made him uncomfortable. He wanted the group to change them – an utterly delusional request for a thoroughly sexual song. When that requirement couldn’t be met, Gibbons bowed out. Blank finished the LP version, and enlisted Levan to complete the 12” mixes. On the definitive ten minute mix, the meat of the song doesn’t begin until nearly four minutes into the record – much like Gibbons’ LaVette mix. Cayre has denied Gibbons’ involvement, but Chatman remembers personally delivering the check to Walter for his contribution, and encouraging him to share remixing credit with Levan. “You’ve created the foundation for it,” Chatman told Gibbons. “Just stick with it.”
“I don’t want my name on it,” Walter insisted.
Gibbons’ relationship with Salsoul never recovered. Cayre did hire Walter to create the 1979 remix album, Disco Madness; it features six Salsoul catalog tracks given fresh treatments. None of Walter’s mixes became hits, but his remix of Salsoul Orchestra’s 1976 LP track “It’s Good for the Soul” – no doubt chosen by the Christian for its titular good cheer – is notable for the nervy way Walter put his voice on top of Vince Montana Jr.’s production: That’s him hammily squawking the title, chanting, ”Alright, alright;” and telling the Sweethearts to “Sing it girls, sing it,” as if he’d taken charge of the original session. Many disco records include party sounds, but this one features the kind of carrying on particular to gay men and black girls.
“Vince Montana hated it,” says remixer Keith Dumpson.
According to Moulton, the bandleader also wasn’t pleased with Gibbons’ stripped-down version of “Magic Bird of Fire.” “Vince called me screaming, ‘I’m going to have him rubbed out,’” Moulton recollects. “‘I’ll kill that motherfucker if I ever see him. He doesn’t know shit about music.’”
Gibbons may have been Salsoul’s original DJ remixer, but by 1979, the label had employed several others – Levan, Jim Burgess, Bobby “DJ” Guttadaro and Tee Scott – and would soon add John Morales and Shep Pettibone to their stable. None of these jocks went as far out on a creative limb as Walter, and that made their work more accessible to radio and less likely to infuriate their artists. By ’79, the year of total disco overdrive, the only Gibbons-remixed Salsoul 12-inch is his sole stinker – the Robin Hooker Band’s ghastly rendition of Tammy Wynette’s anti-feminist country anthem.
“For years I used to tell people, ‘I was there when a guy walked in, said ‘This is the next number one record,’ and it was ‘Stand by Your Man’ disco,” Blank recalls. “It was really depressing to work on.” Shortly thereafter, Gibbons’ Salsoul affiliation ended.
“We had trouble even having conversations,” Chatman admits. “It reached a point where it was almost unbearable. I would cook for him, and I had to think about the lyrical content before I put anything on because everything, if it was overtly sexual, he didn’t want to hear about it.”
“One time I was at Sunshine Sounds,” says Dumpson of the acetate-cutting store beloved of DJs. “He had that red beard and hair like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, and he was going to submit a mix show tape for WBLS, so I listened to it on the radio. The music was real nice, and all of the sudden I heard Walter’s voice reading scriptures over the records. They took it right off the air, like, you hear silence, and then they put somebody else’s tape in. He was real upset about that.”
The few projects Gibbons accepted from other labels in ’79 weren’t much better, and the sole one up to his usual standard, an ever-shifting rendering of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “It’s a Better Than Good Time,” was only released in Canada, and in drastically abbreviated form. The drop in his productivity wasn’t solely because every record he took on had to meet his strict Christian principles. The major problem was that Gibbons still wasn’t playing in a prominent club.
After moving on to Xenon, a massive Midtown disco that competed with Studio 54, Smith tried once again to change this. He couldn’t maintain his everyday Xenon schedule, so in early 1980, Smith offered Gibbons some weekday slots. But once again, Walter wouldn’t bend. Here he added back-to-back Salsoul to his obscurities as well as full-on gospel. This was for a club where Smith once witnessed medical-grade poppers shot out of a cannon; when the dancers stomped on them, the resulting amyl nitrate fumes were so strong that the entire club felt the rush.
“At least Barefoot was, when full, maybe 500 people,” says Smith. “Xenon held 1,500 people, and mostly rich and white.” That’s when Walter started on gospel, which cleared the floor. “The owner Howard Stein says to me, ‘What is he doing?’ [I had to ask Walter,] ‘Why are you so stubborn and trying to make people listen… Some of them waited outside two hours to get in this place and he was playing gospel songs that no one knew, restricting his music to these messages, which you couldn’t do at Xenon. It was hopeless; I had to fire him again. Jellybean got the job and became famous.”
He was lonely [at the] end of his life.
After this debacle, Gibbons’ club engagements never came back, and his mixing work stopped completely until 1984. To pay his bills, Gibbons got a full-time job at Rock and Soul, a record and DJ supply store in Manhattan’s Garment District. To satisfy his creative side – and tend to his own little flock – he hosted decidedly casual house parties.
“One time he found this couch on the street,” recalls Dumpson, who worked with Gibson at Rock and Soul and remains there today. “People were sitting on the couch and they start scratching. We laughed so hard about that. He’d just have a party and invite anyone to come down. He would give you a card like a ticket when you’d go to the club, and it would have his number on it. He’d play ‘Law of the Land,’ ‘Love is the Message.’ It was very private and very personal.”
Things went that low-key way for a few years until the Gibbons saga suddenly produced an unexpected second act. A childhood pal of Kenny Carpenter, Steve “Strafe” Standard had a record he needed remixed. An ominous collision of percolating drum machine percussion, nervous staccato guitar, horror movie synth riffs and a strangely arresting song about dancing by a black guy whining like a New Wave white guy, Gibbons’ hypnotic ten minute mix of “Set It Off” crisscrossed so many genres that the only thing pure about it was Walter’s nerve. Strafe himself hated it.
“So I threw on this record and it cleared the floor,” Smith says of the first time he played it at the Fun House, Smith’s post-Xenon gig. Now a hugely successful remixer/producer nicknamed “Madonna’s Boytoy” in the tabloid press, Jellybean Benitez had hired Smith to work as his alternate, and Gibbons had dropped by with a test pressing for the star DJ. But the lighting man taped Smith’s set that night, and so Gibbons’ old pal started playing “Set It Off” from that tape. A month later, Gibbons came back, and Smith put it on to show Walter the effect the track was now having on the Fun House’s young Latinos: They went crazy. All around town – at hip hop clubs, rock clubs, the Garage – people didn’t know what to make of it at the outset, and then it caused pandemonium. Once again, the prohibitive length of Gibbons’ mix prevented radio from jumping on it, but it crept into mix shows until it became one of the longest-lasting dance hits of the ’80s. Smith remembers watching the 1987 movie The Principal, and people in the theater screaming when “Set It Off” came on; Jellybean, of course, was the film’s music supervisor. Today, it’s one of the most sampled, quoted and covered dance records of all time.
But because this self-distributed record got no higher than #50 on Billboard’s dance chart in ’85, the mainstream record biz barely noticed. Another renegade, Arthur Russell, gave Walter some work, and that was fitting: Russell’s biggest club hits – Levan’s remix of Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face” and Kevorkian’s remix of Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang” – were like Walter at his peak, simultaneously crowd-pleasing and avant-garde. Gibbons’ mixes of two Russell records – Indian Ocean’s “School Bell/Treehouse” and his own “Let’s Go Swimming” – leaned much harder toward the latter. At the other end of the Gibbons spectrum, his remixes of “Time Out” by gospel’s Clark Sisters were reduced to uncharacteristically brief a cappella and instrumental fragments. None of these records generated significant sales or club play. But his discovery of the Celestial Choir’s “Stand on the Word” – an irresistibly uplifting gospel obscurity recorded live at Brooklyn’s First Baptist Church of Crown Heights – infiltrated the same clubs that incubated house music. Even today, it’s not uncommon for DJs to end their sets with this roof-raiser.
He was able to go much further than most of us in exploring the very remote confines of rhythm and music.
Somewhere around this time, Gibbons learned he had AIDS. “He told me he’s sick,” says Rock and Soul’s Shirley Bechor, an Israeli immigrant who started the store 40 years ago with her husband, a former University of Tel Aviv chemistry professor. “I didn’t mention to nobody. I find out this is not contagious sickness. I have to honor his privacy. He start to be ill more and more. He ask me if he can work part-time. I said, ‘Four days, no problem.’ Three days after that. After that, two days. He got [some DJ gigs] in Japan. He get four thousand dollar, which was a lot of money, besides expenses. We were so happy.”
In Japan – where jazz and soul vets are routinely deified long past their U.S. expiration date – Walter guested at some of the country’s most celebrated clubs, including Tokyo’s Space Lab Yellow. In September 1992, Gibbons crossed paths in Tokyo with Kevorkian and Levan; he checked out that pair’s Tokyo spot on their “Harmony Tour,” and the trio’s meeting resulted in a historic photograph; Levan died two months later. The reverence with which the Japanese received him meant more to Gibbons than the big-screen TV the soon-to-be-housebound DJ bought with their generous remuneration.
“I think he was very, very deeply touched by that,” Kevorkian remembers, “because he was able to find there a reaffirmation of everything he believed in.”
“After that, he cannot work,” Bechor continues. “He was in very bad situation with the money; I used to send him $200 every two weeks. He became blind, so he’d order Chinese food on the phone. All of us, my family, we went to Queens in the hospital to watch him. He became very ill, swollen and no hope. After two days, the doctor said he died. I call his family. His sister, she said she have nothing to do with that. His mother came to funeral, older lady. Her brother-in-law, he brought her in this church, and he was outside until the service finished. Not sister, not brother. Nobody came. It make us so mad. Something in my religion tell me, ‘Don’t forget.’”
For 15 years until his death on September 23, 1994, Walter had driven people away with his Christianity. It’s no small irony that at the end of his life, his best friend was Jewish. He preached to many, but to her – perhaps in deference to her own beliefs – he spoke of other things. When Belchor saw that his apartment was packed with religious artwork, she was surprised. Nevertheless, she understood their motivation: Walter struggled with the issues that both figuratively and literally plagued gay men of his generation.
“He was a little bit sad because he was lonely [at the] end of his life. He had a boyfriend years before, and he loved him so much. The guy broke it off with him because he didn’t want to mention to his mother he is gay.”
Kevorkian – who, along with Moulton, reconnected with Walter at the end of his life – makes a convincing argument that Gibbons was a bona fide genius. “He could completely abstract the normal elements and the perfunctory details out of a record,” Kevorkian observes, even if that meant Gibbons sometimes robbed his source material of its coherence and denied it the niceties of smooth engineering. He could do this, Kevorkian argues, because his outsider status freed him, at least artistically, from conventions.
“He was able to go much further than most of us in exploring the very remote confines of rhythm and music,” the remixer summarizes.
But all of Walter’s talent and innate knowledge couldn’t teach him how to not undermine his achievements, or how to accept in himself what he could not change. For all his Christianity, he could not see what was godly in himself. He transcended the pain of ordinary life only when attaining what was extreme, and no one, not even a genius, can maintain extremes throughout even a short life of 40 years. But the audacity of his best work – he built that to live forever.
“That ‘Hit and Run’ mix, I still play it today,” says Siano. “That has lasted 40 years, and the kids today know that mix. I travel all over the world and I see them singing along to that mix, hear them go ‘Yeah!’ when it comes in. And for me, that stands out. It's perfection. And when you hit perfection once in your life, that's all you need to do.”