Paul Winley’s life neatly joins the dots between 1950s doo-wop and old-school hip-hop. In fact, he views both artforms as part of an unbroken oral tradition that binds every facet of black American music.
Winley was impeccably placed to make such an observation. As a young man, he worked in Manhattan’s fabled Brill Building, penning songs for the likes of Big Joe Turner and Ruth Brown. In 1956, he set up his own label, which became home to groups such as the Paragons and the Jesters. By the late 1970s, however, Paul Winley Records had shifted its focus to New York’s burgeoning hip-hop scene.
The imprint was at the vanguard of the movement. In addition to releasing some of the earliest rap records, which featured Winley’s daughters Tanya and Paulette, it was the first label to record Afrika Bambaataa and pioneered the breakbeat compilation with its unauthorized Super Disco Brake’s series.
Speaking to Frank Broughton for this interview in 1998, Winley remained a genuine Harlem character. As both men walked along 125th Street, Winley was greeted by almost everyone over 40. Over breakfast at Sylvia’s – a diner where he was a regular for many years – he flirted with the waitresses, revealed that Al Sharpton was his godson and told stories of being “cursed out” by Billie Holiday and sharing a venue with Malcom X, as well as providing insights on the birth of hip-hop.
When did you first arrive in New York?
I was born in Washington, but my brother was in a group called the Clovers. I came up here when they were recording with Atlantic Records. I got close with Ahmet Ertegun and started writing songs for them. I wrote songs for the Clovers [and] for Big Joe Turner, who had a hit with “Shake Rattle and Roll.”
You wrote that?
No, he had [a hit with] “Shake Rattle and Roll.” The guy that used to do all the arrangements, Jesse Stone, wrote it. I wrote one called “Hide And Seek.” After he did “Flip Flop & Fly,” he did “Hide And Seek.” And then I wrote for Ruth Brown, I wrote one for her called “Smooth Operator.” I stayed around Atlantic, writing songs, and I started going all over just writing songs… I had some friends from Detroit… they had a group called the Pearls, and they had a kid in there that played piano, and him and I got very close. His name is Dave Clowney. He ended up calling himself Dave “Baby” Cortez and I ended up writing songs with him. We wrote songs for a living – there was a group of us, guy named Otis Blackwell–
He wrote for Elvis, right?
Yeah, there was Otis Blackwell, and then there was Winfield Scott – he wrote “Tweedly Dee.” There was a lot of us.
And this was all in the Brill Building?
The Brill Building and 1650 [Broadway]. Otis used to be like a teacher. Him and Jesse Stone. Jesse wrote a lot of songs. “Don’t Let Go” for Roy Hamilton, a lot of old songs.
Do you come from a musical family?
Not really. My brother was a singer, my other brother was a singer. We just picked it up, you know – just took it from there. After a while just writing songs, there on Broadway, a lot of people started trying to start their own record company. I saw it wouldn’t get in the way of writing songs, so I thought I’d start mine. What the hell… had nothing to lose, wasn’t getting nothing anyway, so I started the record company.
The doo-wop era and the hip-hop era, in the beginning it was the same thing. It was kids – young kids.
What year was that?
That was 1956. It was called Winley Records. The first artist I had was a group called Little Anthony & The Duponts. Then I recorded Baby Cortez… and, after that, we found this group out of Brooklyn – group of hoodlums – called the Paragons.
They were real hoodlums, believe me, rough guys. So, I finally got them to cool down and ended up recording them, you know. They did a record called “Florence” with me, which was a very big hit. That was the beginning of the doo-wop thing. And then I had another group come along called the Jesters. Then I had another group come along called the Collegians, they made a record called “Zoom Zoom.” From there, I just went into recording everything. I recorded jazz, I recorded classical. I recorded an old jazz saxophonist, his name was Gene Ammons. And I tried to get Billie Holiday to record for me, but she wouldn’t, she cursed me out.
Yeah. Billie Holiday was a rough woman. She cursed me out.
You met with her to talk about it?
She used to hang out here behind the Apollo on 126th and 8th Avenue. That’s where all the old musicians and old hustlers would hang out… the Banks bar and the Braddock bar – she was round there, and I was backstage to record. She cursed me out a few times.
Talking about the doo-wop days it sounds very familiar – it was young kids, some were hoodlums…
Same thing, same thing, same thing. The doo-wop era and the hip-hop era, in the beginning it was the same thing. It was kids – young kids. So, after going from the doo-wop and recording all these different things, in the late ’70s I started hearing about rap. My daughter, Tanya, would come home from school and they would be doing all these rhymes. Where she went to school, there were a lot of other people that were doing rapping, guys like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Moe Dee, Melle Mel, all in the same junior high school, and then everybody used to [go] up into the Bronx to Bambaataa’s thing – the Zulu Nation. That was the main stomping ground for the rappers. I used to listen to my daughter rhyming and rapping, and I said to her, “I’m gonna take you [to the studio], and you can let me hear what you can do.” So my daughter, she was just messing around in the studio, told the musicians to get with her, and she ended up doing this thing called “Vicious Rap.” We put that out and she was the first female rapper.
What year was that?
That was ’78. Then Tanya and my other daughter Paulette, they started hippin’ and hoppin’ and rhymin’ and rappin’ around the house, so I took them [both] into the studio, and we did a thing called “Rhymin’ And Rappin’.”
After a while, Afrika Bambaataa used to call me about recording. He had this group called the Zulu Nation, which I knew of – there was a million of them. One day I told him to come down to the store so we could talk. When he came down, as far as you could see, there was this group of kids. I was like, “What the hell’s all this?” The whole Zulu Nation came down.
Really. How many people were there?
Jazzy Jay, Red Alert, all of them… I mean, a whole gang from the Bronx. They were from the Bronx River projects. So, I started talking to Bam and he wanted me to record Soulsonic Force and Cosmic Force, so I told him, “OK, we’ll listen to them and see what they can do.” We got a date in the studio, went in and we recorded [them both]. They ended up as pretty good records for that time, because records weren’t really played. Radio stations wouldn’t play them, so we had to go by the route of the hip-hop clubs and the dances.
Which records were from the studio? Death Mix was from a tape…
Well, Bam had did the Death Mix up in the Bronx. He did that in the [community center there]. Said he couldn’t do that in the studio…
It was a live tape?
It was like a novelty to me. I just wanted to get out something to show people how rapping in the raw was. Not from the studio, you understand, [but] how they were doing it in the dancehall, in the centers, and whatnot. That was my purpose for recording it all.
Did you go up to the parties?
I didn’t, but I went to other places where they were… But after recording a few raps I saw it was changing, getting more gangsterish and kind of rough. It was a bad move on my part, but I just didn’t want to record any gangster rap. It was very heavy… We’re talking violence. Shootings and killings and all that stuff.
A couple of people I knew started getting deals, and after a while we had [our] work cut out, because radio stations wouldn’t play rap. I ended up taking the bulk of [the hard work], because I [was] the leader of it. It was hard for me to get those records played.
Hip-hop was grassroots people. Grassroots kids. Just like the blues, just like gospel.
But the records were selling without airplay, right?
How quickly did people hear about your tracks?
Immediately when they came out, because there weren’t that many of them. We used to go into The Wiz [a chain of electronics and music stores centered in the New York area] – the guys [who started the company] were very good friends of mine – with 1,000 records two or three times a week. It was just underground. The kids knew about it. They were selling like hell.
There were a few other guys, like Bobby Robinson, who had the Fury and Fire labels – Enjoy Records, I guess he called it at the time – and a couple more who were selling rap records underground. Then Sugar Hill Records came along. The Sugarhill Gang, they were Sylvia Robinson’s thing, from out in Englewood [New Jersey]. They got the first big rap records. [The label was financed by] Morris Levy [of] Roulette Tecords – that was the whole mob. Whatever they wanted, they got, so they got Sugarhill Gang promoted all over the country.
What was it that you saw in it?
It was grassroots people. Grassroots kids. Just like the blues, just like gospel. It was grassroots and it was earthy. It was just soul, it came from the soul, and it was natural writing and what they felt. Like a blues singer would just sing from his heart, making it up as he goes, the rappers would do the same thing. The bands with the rappers, they became very competitive with each other. In school, these kids would become competitive, seeing who had the best rhymes. I saw this as part of their education. It was very good in that sense, because it showed their ability to create.
Was that competitiveness something that the doo-wop groups would have?
Yeah. Same thing.
Did they ever have battles, in the same way the rappers did?
On the stage.
So, you’d get two doo-wop groups–
Yeah, always had them. I used to give those shows. Did shows at the Apollo like that.
How did they work?
They were good.
No, what was the format?
Nothing. It was a show; it wasn’t a contest. They were just shows.
It wasn’t the same as hip hop.
In hip-hop, they had the contest among themselves. It wasn’t a thing of a prize. It wasn’t that kind of competitive thing. It was just to the people out there in the audience. They would pick whoever they liked the best and would talk about it. That’s what I saw in hip-hop.
I just wanted hip-hop to get a chance. I didn’t see it going worldwide, which it ended up doing.
You said you saw it as very down-to-earth, but it didn’t sound like doo-wop or the blues.
The blues is the blues, doo-wop is doo-wop, hip-hop is hip-hop.
But a lot of people heard it the first time and just thought, “This isn’t music!”
I saw it as rhyming. Rhyming with a beat, with music. I just saw it as entertaining. I didn’t say that it was music or that it was going to be a big thing. It was something that kids enjoyed doing. And I always look at things from this perspective – anything that the masses like to do and anything that the masses can compete and participate in would be big. It’s like baseball, like football, like basketball, like boxing – if the masses could get into it and get involved, it would be big.
As to how big was another story. I just wanted it to get a chance. I didn’t see it going worldwide, which it ended up doing. What happened was that they got back to the basics, back to the beat. It wasn’t about big productions… Just a good rhyme, a good beat. That’s where it started from and that’s where it’s at now.
I’m just glad to know that it went as far as it went. It’s big in Japan, Italy and South America... It’s a pleasure to know that.
Where did the idea to rhyme came from?
People have been doing that forever.
So it’s an unbroken tradition.
Yeah. people like Jocko [Henderson] used to rhyme and rap on the radio. Frankie Crocker was a good rapper. Talking about “hips, lips” and all that stuff. The first one, as far as DJs are concerned, was [Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert] out of Baltimore. Jocko stole his whole format… The old-timers [also] used to do a lot of rapping, in jazz.
Yeah, they were rapping. That was their way of doing things.
Where did the kids get it from? What were they listening to that inspired them?
I used to ask them. I said, “Where y’all get this junk from?” They said, “Well, we picked up on a commercial for Great Bear [Auto Repair].” This man was in his car and he was driving his car and his brakes went, and he said something in a rhyme. That’s where my daughter picked it up from.
How about the disco DJs, like Hollywood and people like that?
Hollywood used to play in bars. There were always DJs in bars around here.
From what sort of time?
Instead of jukeboxes?
Yeah. They would turn the jukebox off and let the DJs play the records.
Yeah, Saturday nights. Bobby Robinson used to do that. Place called Wellswood, 126th and 7th Avenue. He used to go in there and take his records and get in his booth and play the blues and all that stuff. They’d cut the jukebox off and party like hell.
I used to do it. I did it. I owned a dancehall named Jazzland, right there on 125th between St. Nicholas and 8th Avenue. In those days, if you were a licensed dancehall with the musicians’ union, they didn’t want you playing records in a union hall. They used to threaten me about playing records in my hall.
They’d say, “If you play records, we ain’t gonna let no musicians play here no more.”
I said, “I don’t care. No musician’s telling me when I play records.”
What year is this?
That was 1959, ’60, ’61, ’62, when I had a dancehall. I left in ’62. Me and Jocko got together and went to the Audubon Ballroom. I stayed in the Audubon Ballroom from ’62 to ’67. I had a thing up there, I used to have all the acts up there. Frankie Crocker, Jocko, Rocky G. I’d bring acts up there. Smokey [Robinson], Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Isleys… I had 1,500 kids in there every Sunday. We charged 99 cents and played nothing but records
[Someone from] the musicians’ union would come up and give me a hard time, but I’d have my crew take him by the arm and read him the facts of life and slip him a couple of dollars, tell him to take a walk. “Be nice, you know, so that you [can] walk out of here.” They knew me, and they knew that I was serious. They knew that I wasn’t gonna stop just because of no musicians’ union.
And you were actually paying records yourself?
Yeah, sure. I used to be on the radio doing a commercial, and a lot of people, especially Frankie Crocker, used to pick up on what I was saying. I used to say “Hey, hey, hey y’all, This is Paul, Paul Winley. Come on up to the Audubon Ballroom, 166th and Broadway, 99 cents.” I did that for a long time. until I got tired of it, after Malcolm X got killed up there. [Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity held weekly meetings at the Audubon, and it was there that he was assassinated in 1965]. Him and I used to be up there every Sunday, until he got killed.
Were you there the night he was killed?
No, they had a dance that night, a calypso dance, so I wasn’t there. But when I heard he had got shot, me and Ralph Cooper, we went up there, because he was very close to him. After that, I stopped giving dances at the Audubon. I just backed out in ’67, ’68, and then in the ’70s, I did other things.
How about the hip-hop DJs – the fact that they were scratching and cutting, when did you first hear that?
Well, Flash and them used to do that with Bambaataa. That’s when that started.
Because you put out breakbeat albums.
Yeah, [a lot of DJs] couldn’t get the records, and even when they could find them I was disgusted [by the prices] the record shops was charging. They used to charge so much, just because the record was hard to find – $25, $30 just for one record. I mean, not a 12" – there were no 12"s – just for a 45. Then they’d put it on a 12". They would go to a studio and have a 12" plate made.
When did that start?
When the DJs first started, so ’76, ’77. Getting plates made cost them a fortune. I was pissed off with a lot of that stuff, so I started putting out the breaks and it picked up from there… I put out six volumes of those things.
Where did you first see a DJ cutting and scratching?
One of the dances around here… I liked to watch them, because these things were educational and it was artistic. Those kids took a lot to [learn to scratch]. My son was one – called himself DJ Gangster, played with Flash and them, and he would collect records. I used to watch him a lot, and then when I bought my [store on 125th], I used to let a lot of them rehearse there. They’d be cutting and scratching, and they’d get gigs and they’d do all the dances. That’s when I really paid attention to it. Bambaataa brought it in from Bronx River, and there was a club where they all used to go, in the Bronx.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was a madhouse. I used to go past there. Bobby Robinson used to hang in there. I didn’t… They were fascinating times. You know, you go through these eras and you don’t pay it that much attention, when you’re involved with it. It’s just a day-to-day thing. You look up years later, and people [are asking] you about this and about that, and at the time it wasn’t that important.
You really saw hip-hop as [part of an] an unbroken tradition, from jazz and blues and doo-wop?
It was just taking another step higher.
Is that how most people saw it?
Most people saw it as just a lot of noise?
Yeah, and today a lot of them resent a lot of the language. It got to the point where it got disgusting. When it became commercial, the dirtier it got, the more violent and ugly it got, the bigger it got. That’s what happened, until people started putting their foot down and screaming and hollering… It [used to be] like dance music – play it in the clubs, and people will start looking for it. That way, it’s still underground.
Where do you think it’s headed?
It’s headed wherever it is headed. I wouldn’t put an end to it. I may put a change to it. People change, their tastes change, times change, [things fall off] and then come back years later. It’s like anything else – like the old blues, the old jazz… At this time, I would say to people, “Just enjoy it… because it’s gonna be here a while.”
This interview was conducted in October 1998. © DJhistory.com