Interview: Francis Grasso, NYC Disco DJ Pioneer

From the DJ History archives: Frank Broughton talks with the New Yorker that founded the craft of modern DJing

Soul music DJ Francis Grasso is a certified pioneer – without him, DJing wouldn’t be the same. But the New York City native, best known for being one of the first people to beatmatch (where two records are mixed or blended together), started off as a different sort of artist, dancing with a live band in Greenwich Village before landing his first DJ gig at a club called Salvation II around 1967. A stint at Tarots in Union Square followed, as did another at Sanctuary and the Haven.

DJ History

It was after he got two slide faders and started to notice the grooves on the vinyl that he developed his skills at beatmatching, leaning on records like Little Sister’s “You’re the One” and James Brown’s “Hot Pants.” Grasso soon opened his own Club Francis around 1974, but after another half-decade decided to retire from DJing, leaving behind a legacy that’s still felt to this day. In partnership with DJ History, Grasso explains how he altered the course of music over the past few decades.

So you’re from NY originally?

Brooklyn. Born and bred, lived in many different places.

And you started off dancing, didn’t you?

Yep. One of the original Trude Heller go-go boys. Dancing on a little platform with a live band. It was in the Village, Sixth Avenue, on the corner of 9th Street. You had 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off, and you could only move your ass side to side, because if you went back and forth you’d bang off the wall and fall right onto the table you were dancing over.

The Temptations - Cloud Nine

What were you wearing?

Slacks, you know, and you’d have a partner, and they’d play “Cloud Nine” by the Temptations for about 38 minutes. [laughs] It was the most exhausting job I’d ever had in my life. I was beat that night.

What was Trude Heller’s like? Was it ritzy?

Kind of. Kind of like date-oriented. Couples, very few recorded records and she was just somebody who became famous. It was the hardest 20 dollars I ever made in my life. I’m going home, my muscles were killing me. I remember on the train it was–

How did you get into that?

What? Dancing? I got into three major motorcycle accidents, so I couldn’t coordinate my feet and the doctor suggested for therapy that I try dancing.

So it was a therapeutic thing?

Yeah, sort of. Very, very wacky sort of way. I never thought I’d go down that sort of trail, cos I’d gone to college for literature, and I never thought I’d go down the trail.

How did dancing turn into DJing?

Well, I was managing a clothing store on Lexington Avenue between 57th Street and 58th Street. It was upstairs. And the bartenders used to come in from a club called Salvation II, and I’d become familiar with Salvation and Bradley Pierce. So they said come by. Back then it was couples only. And there was a disc jockey named Terry Noel in Salvation II, and I went there on a Friday night, and he didn’t show up for work. Which later I found out when he showed up at 1:30 and he’d taken acid. It’s not a good start to a Friday night! And they so liked me, and they asked me if I wanted to try.

You were dancing there for money or just–

No, just dancing there. It was a Reco-Cut fader with two Reco-Cut turntables and the fader was just somewhere in the middle of both turntables. I was pretty familiar with the music, and I had a ball.

And the club had the records at that time; they didn’t belong to the DJ?

The club had the records. For a long time that was the way it was.

What was the set-up? What were the turntables?

They were Reco-Cuts, probably not even in existence now, like radio quality at the time, motor-driven. Not belt-driven.

And all you had was a switch to cut between the two?

No. It was a knob, a fader. It was a fader, so you could do mixes. Sort of. If you knew what you were doing. But this was my first night

Do you remember the first record you played?

I don’t know, but I had a hell of a good time. And they paid me a lot of money, and I said, “Wow, they paid me this much money,” and I would have paid them. I had that much fun. I know when Terry showed up he was fired.

Because he was unreliable and you were the new kid?

Well, I played better, too. He used to do really weird things, like he’d have the whole dancefloor going and then put on Elvis Presley. I kept ’em juiced. He would play bizarre records… He’s still bizarre, but anyway. But he showed up at 1:30, which is now Saturday morning, the club closes at four. It’s not the right time to show up for work. And the owners had probably had enough of his attitude.

? & The Mysterians ‎- 96 Tears

Can you remember the kind of records you were playing the first few times?

“Proud Mary” was very popular. I played things like “96 Tears,” Temptations, Four Tops, Supremes. There was no Jackson 5 then.

Can you remember the date when you first played?

Ooh, no.

You remember the year?

1967 or ’68. Then Salvation II closed, so I was sort of out of work. I was doing air conditioning work. And I was at this club in Union Square called Tarots, which was on 14th Street. And I asked them if they needed a disc jockey one night and they said go. And he just had a switch, he didn’t have a fader. He just had a switch; you went from one to the other. And back then it was basically the same tunes. “Knights in White Satin” was very popular.

Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity - This Wheel's On Fire

How long did you play there?

Until the bouncer from the Sanctuary came to the club on a Sunday night. He turned around and said to me, “You know, the guy we’ve got at The Sanctuary really sucks, so would you like to, you know, audition?” I said sure. And at the time I had Brian Auger & the Trinity and Julie Driscoll. I went there and they were practising for a fashion show, with models. In eight records, I had the job. I thought if I can’t do it in eight, I’m not going to do it all night long. Next thing I knew I was at the Sanctuary.

And they were the wild years.

No. Those were the quieter years. It was when the Sanctuary was straight and it was mostly couples like Salvation II. But what was really funny was that the manager of Sanctuary used to be the manager of Trude Heller’s. And we all thought the day manager and the night manager hated each other. But in reality they were shacking up, and they took off with like $175,000.

This is from Sanctuary?

The original Sanctuary, the original owners. It’s the one that was called the Church first; open two weeks and the Catholic Church got an injunction to close us down, cos we had this mural that I would face that was unbelievably pornographic. And what was interesting about it was the devil; this guy painted a distinct feature of it, so that no matter where you stood in the club he was looking at you. Angels were fucking and… So what they did was they changed the name to the Sanctuary and reprinted everything, and they stuck plastic fruit in various places, bunch of grapes here, you had red grapes, you had green grapes.

To cover everything up.

Yeah, cos it used to be some kind of German Protestant church. But cos this guy took the $175,000 they had to change hands. So they wanted to make the first gay bar.

This is what year?

1969? And they fired everybody, cos they didn’t want women. Cos this was after Stonewall, suddenly… Well, it was the first time they’d taken the concept of a gay bar without a jukebox.

And not being secret…

Well, I remember the Stonewall. I was at the Haven the night of the Stonewall riot. I remember seeing the police come in a city bus. It was, like, wacky. They locked the doors, the cops were clubbing people, they were throwing bricks and bottles. It was a wacked-out night that night. Anyway, they were gonna keep me, to try me out or whatever. So it became evident that I had the job. We used to close Mondays and Tuesdays, now we’re open seven days a week. And we’re packed.

I used to go to the men’s room, and customers always tried to pick me up, so I remember one time I was in a urinal pissing and this guy was in a business suit, and he said something to me. I said, “Employer policy is that employees cannot date customers.” Then I started going to the ladies’ room cos there were no ladies. I remember one time there was a fellow named Alan who used to stand by the door and greet people. And somebody was doing an article with somebody and they said, “Do you get straight people here?” And he went, “Yeah, there he goes.”

James Brown - Live at the Apollo

I had such power at that time that two female friends of mine came to visit. They were just friends, at two o’clock in the morning, a weekday night, and I had James Brown Live at the Apollo on, 25 minutes and 32 seconds, and I said if you don’t let them in, you better get somebody up there to change that record. So after about five minutes of this stalemate, they let them in.

Jane Fonda filmed the movie Klute there. She had a big argument with Seymour and Shelley because they wouldn’t permit lesbians in the club. I’m the disc jockey in the movie, and I had like three weeks work, doing the whole thing. It was fascinating to watch. Only thing is I was doing double duty, I was showing up at the movie set at 7.30, driving home, to Brooklyn, walking my dog, shave and showering, going back to work, till four o’clock in the morning. It took its toll.

I bet.

It was like summertime, and they would have a big table with coffee and bagels and doughnuts and everything that you wanted. And then the cops came in, cos to get the feel of real hookers they had real hookers. Then they sent the cops in cos there was a lot of drug-dealing going on – in between takes! It was a lively crowd!

So you didn’t play at the Sanctuary that long?

Oh, about a year. Then I remember when I was working at the Haven, the [Sanctuary] manager, Michael Crennan called me up and said somebody been fooling around with the cartridge in the back, and could I take a look. I said I could stop up there before I go down to the Haven to work. And when I walked in and the customers saw me behind in the booth, they all applauded, there was this big cheer. I’m like, [shrugs] “I’m not staying.”

From what I’ve read, the Sanctuary was a wild place. Did it change?

It got wilder. In the summertime they were having sex in people’s hallways.

Not in the club? Did that go on?

Only me! Cos we were open all night. We’re a juice bar now. We lost the liquor license. So they had to be doing something. We were staying open till twelve o’clock in the afternoon – Saturday afternoon. And Sunday afternoon, and they’d be so smashed, in the summertime they’d be in peoples vestibules, in their hallways… I have articles on it. I still have them. Daily News used to call it a drugs supermarket.

What drugs were people doing back then?

Back then? The biggest drug people were doing back then was Quaaludes, the small ones, 300 milligrams, the pills. And you had the capsule which was 400 milligrams, and back then they went for five dollars apiece. I had a pharmacist friend of mine and he used to get them in a sealed bottle and I’d sell them for a buck apiece to my friends who came in. Made a lot of swaps for tapes, back in those days. It got pretty… I’d be out walking my dog; people scream out your name on the street, in the supermarket. I would do average things; they’d yell “Francisss!”

But that must have been great! It must have just been people you knew from the clubs.

You’d be surprised. If you put an average of 1,500 people in a room, for however many years I was playing, 17 years, a lot of people are gonna get to see you… I made a lot of fans in New Jersey. I made a lot of fans everywhere.

Cos you were pretty much the first DJ that had that kind of following. There were guys before you. What were you doing differently?

There wasn’t really guys before me. Nobody had really just kept the beat going. They’d get them to dance, then change records. You had to catch the beat again. It never flowed. And they didn’t know how to bring the crowd to a height, and then level them back down, and to bring them back up again. It was like an experience – I think that was how someone put it. And the more fun the crowd had, the more fun I had. I really loved the atmosphere. I just wouldn’t have wanted to have been a customer. I loved being in the room, but I couldn’t see myself like being amongst one of the customers, being on the dancefloor, because I couldn’t handle that. I really hate crowds. But it’s fun to absorb it.

So how did you develop all of that?

I was a dancer! I was a dancer, so it was rhythmically… not hard. And I play a few instruments.

Really, what do you play?

Well, I started on the accordion. I was young then. Then I went to guitar and then drums and saxophone.

You say musically it wasn’t a problem, and I can understand that. If you’re a dancer you know what you want to dance to, but technically it must have been a real problem. With the equipment you had back then...

Today you’ve got a disc jockey that puts on a 20 minute 12". I’m changing records every two minutes and 12 seconds, on average. These guys don’t really work today. Unh-uh. I mean, if you’re playing mostly 45s… I had certain bathroom records, records you played only when you had to go to the bathroom.

What were they?

James Brown Live at the Apollo, then I used to play the Befour album by Brian Auger & the Trinity. I played a lot of English music. I had gotten a lot of imports over my time. I would hear things and I would have a deal with the record store where I used to live. He would let me take in all the new 45s, go in the back with this little portable Victrola, listen to them.

So technically, you pretty much invented slip-cueing, right? How did that come about?

Well, to tell you the truth, when Bob Lewis was a disc jockey on the radio, at CBS, before they went to oldies, way back when they played rock & roll, the engineer had taught me. But I found with the two slide faders, that I had gotten so good, cos you see the reflection off the record, you can see the different shades... of the black. And I got so good I would just catch it on the run.

You would just drop the needle on it?

No, I could catch it in the beat.

Abaco Dream - Life And Death In G&A

But that’s by holding the record.

No, without. The record’s spinning, you put the needle in it, right into it. And you just practiced. I guess I practiced live. You start out with records like, say, The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” – now that’s a slow beat, and you build slowly and slowly, till you get them dancing fast. Like, I used to play “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin – I loved playing that. I discovered a lot of records too: Abaco Dream, which was really Sly & The Family Stone; [a tune] called “Life And Death In G&A” was a biggie; discovered James Brown’s Sex Machine.

So when did slip-cueing come in with felt pads?

Not till around the disco convention started. And the Bozak started coming in, the Bozak mixers. But by this time I had already been tired of disco, because they had basically put everything except “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with a disco beat. It was just the same sound; there was no variance. Went to a club, it was, like, moronic.

So what year were you able to beat mix, and completely segue?

I was able to beat mix right away.

That must have been so difficult with the records back then.

It was very difficult.

Little Sister - You're The One

What were your peak records?

“You’re the One” by Little Sister, which was also Sly & The Family Stone. “Hot Pants” was very big, by James Brown, when it came out.

How long were you at the Haven?

Oh, I think about ’69 to... Things were starting to happen. People were approaching me with business deals and stuff, always wanting to make a dollar quick. And I always loved that phrase, “Well, we don’t have enough money!” And I would make a deal with them, “Could you invest it in equipment?” Cos I had always believed I was only as good as my equipment. The only limitations I would put on myself was the equipment I was working with.

Who were you working with equipment-wise, Alex Rosner?

At first it was Alex Rosner, then it was Dick Long. Not [Bob] Casey that much, he came in later on. Richard Long used to be Alex Rosner’s fix-it man. If something happened during the night, he’d send Dick Long out. Then they had some kind of disagreement or whatever and Richard, he outbid him, he outperformed him and he out-equipment-wised him. Dick and I used to have some really serious conversations about… Dick was into perfecting it and making it more and more reliable.

What was the first system he built for you?

Richard Long? I would say the one I had in my apartment, when the equipment was stolen along with my records. It was called Disco Associates; it was a Bayer with a triple volume control, single headset. Richard was really on the cutting edge. And gave me a separate microphone, and he was always toying with improving it.

Was it a big celebrity scene at Sanctuary? Did famous people come in?

Oh yeah, all the time. I dated Liza Minnelli for a while. When it’s people like that, you’d just nod hello. Recognition is like… people expect it to be really cool, but a lot of times it isn’t, cos you’re expected to be always on. My second fiancée took a picture of me once, waking up. My hair was like this, you know. She caught me in the middle of a yawn. And she went, “This is the real Francis.” Because I was so vain and my hair always had to be impeccable. Even my dungarees had a crease. I’m serious.

It wasn’t until the middle ’70s when everybody got into disco and Saturday Night Fever, and then it became so routine and mundane, and everybody wanted to be a disc jockey.

That’s what you wore in the booth.

At Sanctuary? No, I wore dress clothes. But at the Haven I made dungarees popular. The 501 Levis. Button fly.

Were you able to see what your influence was on other DJs?

Yeah. I taught two of the most prominent: Michael Cappello and Steve D’Acquisto.

How did you meet up with them?

Hanging out, from them coming in as customers. And I basically needed somebody reliable and who knew what they were basically doing, at least had an idea. I had to teach somebody. I was teaching in secret because it was really hard to do what I do. I may teach you the basic moves, but it’s your interpretation that makes or breaks you. Then I had that business of opening Club Francis. I had this idea of starting like the Apex Technical School – see that commercial? – I said I wanted to open a disc jockey school. They said I was crazy. Then we had Club Francis, which was the old Cafe Wha.

What was the story behind that?

I forget what year.

But that was after everything else?

It had to be around ’73, ’74. I knew a lot of famous people. Knew Jimi Hendrix very well. In fact, when he died, his main old lady, after she flew his body back to Seattle, when she came back to New York, she moved in with me. She wasn’t a fiancée, a little off the wall! Not too stable. But nobody was stable back then.

What kind of kick did you get out of it? When you first played.

It was just feeling, the excitement, the electricity that was in the air. It was just phenomenal. I said I would pay them (they didn’t know it). It was that much fun. It wasn’t until the middle ’70s when everybody got into disco and Saturday Night Fever, and then it became so routine and mundane, and everybody wanted to be a disc jockey. Like, hey, everybody’s a disc jockey. Everybody and their mother’s a disc jockey, actually.

Tell me about Club Francis. Did you actually open it in the end?

Yeah, we did. I dissolved the partnership.

Wasn’t the story that you got really badly beaten up? What was that?

That was opening up Club Francis. My nose has been broken about 12 times. Least that’s when I stopped counting.

That was from another club?

Yeah, the Machine.

Cos you were so successful.

Yeah, they didn’t want me to leave. And they had the Mafia sit-down. The guy in the corner had instructions not to hit me, but to scare me. Only the guy they sent got carried away.

Shit! How bad was it?

Kept me home for three months. Bad. I remember sitting in St. Vincent’s hospital. I told the cops that I went out to get a breath of fresh air, from the club, and these guys were coming up MacDougal Street, and they hit me with beer bottles. And I remember these two doctors, I was in the emergency room of St Vincent’s hospital in Manhattan, said, “Shame, must have been a good-looking guy.” I had to reinvent myself so to speak, sitting at home for three months. And really, when I walked my dog, people thought I was Frankenstein. I was a teenage Frankenstein with the bandages, the whole bit.

Was that the end of Club Francis?

No, that was the beginning. That was the first night of Club Francis.

You were home for three months. What happened with the club?

It went on…

Where was it?

On MacDougal Street, over the old Cafe Wha.

And were they the real wild years? I mean, if there were women in there…?

Oh, I was caught so many times getting oral sex in the booth it was disgusting.

While you were playing?

I would tell the girls, “Bet you can’t make me miss a beat.” Gave them a little challenge and away they go! In fact, one time the manager waked in. Michael Krenne. He walks into the disc jockey booth, in the Sanctuary, and he sees this girl on her knees, and I says, “Don’t bother me now. If you’re gonna yell, yell later.” I had such an amazing experience with women over the years.

What were the other rewards? You got pretty well-paid?

Oh, I was making a lot of money. I think my drug bill was… at that time drugs were a lot cheaper, was about 250 a week. And that was for what I’d give away. I’d go to work, I’d have 20 joints. I’d buy pot by the pound, bring 20 joints to work with me. Buy an ounce of speed.

Did you get any interest from the record companies, recognizing the promotional value of what you did?

Yeah, some, but back then everyone was caught up in their own thing. It was like, “I’m doing my thing, leave me alone.”

Chicago Transit Authority - I'm a Man

I know you were noted for your mixing. What sort of records were you mixing together?

I had been known to make mixes like Chicago Transit Authority’s “I’m a Man,” the Latin part, into “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. I played a lot of African music. I started African music in nightclubs. Michael Olatunji’s “Drums of Passion,” which bothered me when Santana came out because they didn’t give Michael Olatunji credit for “Jingo,” and it’s not even pronounced that way.

What were some of the other big mixes that you would do?

I was responsible for bringing Osibisa’s “Music For Gong Gong,” Earth, Wind & Fire, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Mitch Ryder went with the Memphis sound. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels went to Memphis and it was called the Mitch Ryder Experiment, which was very good.

Did you ever have two copies of the same things and extend things?

“You’re The One” [by Little Sister] was similar, with part one and part two on the other side.

So how would you work that?

Well, you always get two copies, cos you only had like two minutes.

You had two copies of everything?

Mostly. If they were really big, like James Brown’s “Hot Pants,” that was big. Cos people wanted to dance, it’s summertime, the tube tops were in, no bras, the whole bit.

If you had two copies, how long would you work it?

I’d never push it more than three times. On Little Sister’s “You’re the One,” part one ended musically, part two would begin with a scream, so you could blend right into the scream, and then go back to “You’re the One.” Or the scream twice. Play it twice, part two, flip it over and play it, twice. They didn’t know I was playing two 45s.

Guys that work at weddings, they work four or five hours, they get paid 500 dollars. I went to two weddings. I sounded better than that practicing.

But you didn’t cut it up any more. You didn’t say, “Right, I’m gonna play the intro, then another outro,” that kind of thing. Did you do that?

Occasionally. It would depend. I just basically tried everything there was to try.

When did you call it a day?

1980, ’81.

And that was because…?

I got disgusted… this bullshit. And the people had changed. As it turns out, I was lucky to get out, cos it was just the advent of AIDS and I had always thought that AIDS would develop into a heterosexual disease, too. And Richard Long died of AIDS. I lost 38 friends. Then I found out Richard Long died, it was 39, all of AIDS.

So what’s your greatest memory behind the booth?

I think it’s that one night, when I went in to fix the cartridge when they just saw me up there and applause just started. People stood up; the house lights were all on.

Did you ever make tapes and sell them?

I traded. For clothing. I’d make like cassettes for clothing and things like that. But as far as going into making a tape... I’d do it for friends. If somebody… Albert Goldman had a Fourth of July party one time; I made a tape, reel-to-reel, that he played at his party.

You were friends with him?


Did he get it right in his book [Disco!]? Is that all correct?

Basically he got it right. The Penthouse article that it was taken from, my mother went out and bought so many copies. She had framed the picture of me in Penthouse. It’s like a centerfold, they took the staples out. So you see this naked broad Ginger and then the next page is me.

How come you never wrote a book about it all?

It’s not over yet. My life is an adventure.

What do you think makes a great DJ?

A lot of persistence. And a lot of being aware of your surroundings, and you gotta have a natural feel for rhythm. I mean, guys that work at weddings, they work four or five hours, they get paid 500 dollars. I went to two weddings. I sounded better than that practicing.

What makes a bad DJ then?

[laughs] The wrong records.

This interview was conducted in February 1999 in Brooklyn. ©

By Frank Broughton on November 15, 2016

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