When disco began to sweep New York clubs in the mid-1970s, Tony Smith was at the center of the action. He was an early adopter of the seamless disco-mixing style, having been turned onto the potential of beatmatching after hearing early disco mixers David Rodriguez, Nicky Siano and Richie Kaczor at such key clubs as the Limelight, Hollywood and the Roundtable.
By 1974, Smith had a DJ residency of his own, becoming a fixture behind the decks at infamous New York record industry hangout Barefoot Boy. Over the years that followed Smith became a central figure in New York’s club scene, developing close friendships with a veritable who’s who of DJs, including Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan, Tony Humphries, David Mancuso and Danny Krivit. He was a frequent guest behind the decks at such lauded New York and Fire Island institutions as Studio 54 and Ice Palace 57.
Smith moved from Barefoot Boy to Xenon in 1978. There, he worked with another new resident DJ, Jellybean Benitez. The two would later go on to become residents at the Fun House, one of New York’s most celebrated parties of the early 1980s.
As a respected DJ and tastemaker, Smith was regularly asked to create club-friendly remixes. He completed his first rework in 1979 – Bambu’s “I Don’t Wanna Lose It” – before going on to remix tracks by Narada Michael Walden and Ecstasy, Passion and Pain. He later devoted more time to studio work, becoming an in-demand engineer and songwriter.
In August 2003, Smith met up with journalists Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton to share his memories of the halcyon days of New York disco, touching on key records, pioneering DJs and landmark clubs.
Let’s start at the beginning.
I was born 20 blocks from here, in the projects, lower Manhattan. I loved music since I was a kid. My brothers and sisters had a group, you know in those doo-wop days? So I was always listening to music.
Was it a professional band?
No, it was a home thing. There were a lot of people who never made it big, but they were great singers.
These must’ve been older than you.
Yeah, they’re like 14 years older than me. A brother and two sisters. I’m the baby, by a longshot. I’ve known music since I was little. And that whole R&B, Little Anthony and the Imperials, that whole sound. I started a band when I was 13 and we played in the projects, in schools and colleges and talent shows.
What year would this have been?
In 1966 or 1967. During the band breaks, I used to play the music for the party or whatever. Not calling it DJing then, just playing music.
How would you do it?
Using the PA system and two volume controls, so there would be continuous music. It wasn’t mixing, it was more blending. So what happened was the band broke up, because everybody got greedy and, you know, personal things, and I just started playing music outside. I got harassed to play music outside. Because that was before the police knew what was goin’ on; disco wasn’t out, so we could do whatever we wanted.
You say outside. Where exactly?
Right out in the park. You could hook up your system in the light sockets; in the streetlights.
Pier 1 Park and the park right in the middle of Smith Projects. But then I went all around Lower East Side. Most people don’t know, but there’s project after project after project on the Lower East Side. All along the East River edge, so I would expand all along there.
Was that an unusual thing to be doing with two turntables?
Oh, nobody knew what I was doing. Until I had a competition. There was a battle of the DJs. There was a Puerto Rican kid and his brother who started doin’ the same thing. And we would compete for the crowd.
Do you remember his name?
Yeah, Spanky and Ice. It was just me, but I always had people watching my records, watching my soundsystem, things like that. We started competing. I was still only 16 then. The whole thing then was to get records he didn’t have and him to get records I didn’t have, just so we would draw the crowd towards us. Probably when I was like 17, I went to a gay club in the West Village. Totally freaked me out. I didn’t know that existed. It was called the Limelight, where David Rodriguez was the DJ and he just blew me away.
When would that have been?
In 1971. I would have been 17 then. Before then I used to go to black straight clubs, but it was a totally different thing.
What were black straight clubs like?
Most black people’s clubs were either recreational centers or restaurants in the day and they would turn into a black club at night. Or colleges: Hunter College, NYU, they would always have parties for black straights, so that’s all I really knew till I was 17.
What was the clientele at the black clubs? All ages?
Yeah, we were goin’ in there when we were 14 and underage. No ID, no card, no alcohol, you always brought your own, they always had BYOB. The music was... everything. I call it black music but it was all in those days. They were playing Chicago in those days, Rare Earth, Steve Winwood, Boz Scaggs, a lot of white groups mixed in with the black, James Brown, Dr. John. There was a lot of white groups that had maybe one club or R&B song and somehow or other the word would get around about it.
There was maybe about four DJs who rotated around: Flowers, Maboya, Plummer and the Smith brothers. And whenever you went they had really loud soundsystems and they had a lot of exclusive records. So what happened to me was I was always around the DJ booth, this is 14, 15, 16, and I finally found out where they went to buy records, because they always had records that none of us had.
With the gay crowds, it was more about programming and mixing. You had to know how to mix, too, or they’d walk off.
So that was Nicky at Downstairs [Records]. I finally got to Nicky’s in the train station and that’s when I finally wiped out everybody in my area, because I had the music that nobody had and it was like my secret store! No one knew about Nicky’s. And while I was there I got to know other DJs, because I didn’t really know that this was going on.
What was Flowers like? Because everyone says he was the best.
He was the best, but he was the most egotistical, too. He was a bastard. He just wasn’t nice to you. He wanted to be so exclusive. He wanted to be the best and I guess he thought that’s the way he had to be to be the best.
So if you went to ask him about a record he wouldn’t tell you?
Yeah. In those days that was the one bad thing with straight jocks. As a matter of fact, they used to cross the records out, so if you looked you couldn’t even see what the record was. I started doing that when I was 14 to 16, epecially with exclusive records that you knew people were gonna come up [and ask about]. Maboya and Smith brothers were definitely more friendly. Flowers had the best music. He had a really great soundsystem.
Were they mixing back then?
It was more blending, it wasn’t mixing like when I heard David Rodriguez. That’s when I knew I had to do some work because in black clubs it wasn’t about mixing, it was about programming. You could mix horrible, but if you played the right record everybody would keep dancing.
With the gay crowds, it was more about programming and mixing. You had to know how to mix, too, or they’d walk off. They might come back on, but you’d still have a reputation for not being a good mixer. Straight clubs, it was definitely more about programming than mixing. Finally one black disco opened up called the Cheetah.
It wasn’t the one around 18th Street, was it?
No, it was different. They had Latin on Thursdays. They had all the groups playin’, like Kool & The Gang. I found out later that the DJ there was David Todd, which freaked me out because I was a kid then and I didn’t know there was a DJ there. I remember the strobes, because it was the first time I’d seen strobes. We went every week.
When was this?
I’m trying to remember some of the songs that came out then. Kool & The Gang, there definitely had to be their first couple of songs, stuff like “Funky Stuff.”
Little Sister, those sort of things?
Yeah, but that was Sly, so those weren’t the kind of groups you’d get there. It was more local groups, like New Jersey and stuff, Kool & The Gang and a lot of slow groups, too, like the Chi-Lites. But I didn’t really know about mixing until I saw David Rodriguez, and it blew me away.
Describe to us your first visit to the Limelight.
I was scared. Scared shitless. [laughs] All these guys are staring at me and I just wanted to hear music.
So how did you hear about it?
I walked by. This is how I was in those days. Anytime I heard music and it was something I’d never heard before. At that time I think he was playing things like Everyday People’s “I Like What I Like,” so that draws my attention. I used to just stand outside and listen to the music.
Finally I got the courage to go in. Come on! I’m 16 or 17 and I’m scared. I didn’t know there was gay clubs. I had no clue. I stood right next to the booth until he got to know my face. Every time I went there I’d stand next to the booth and tell him how great he was. He was my first idol. My second idol was Richie Kaczor who worked at Hollywood. And that was like on 44th and…
It was what had been the Peppermint Lounge, wasn’t it?
Yeah. Once I’d heard about Limelight, I knew they existed, so now when I go to Downstairs I’m gonna ask about other clubs. Some clubs I liked, some I didn’t. Bobby DJ was good at Le Jardin. After that, I started going everywhere!
What was it that struck you about David Rodriguez? Was it the mixing?
The mixes. But the one thing I took from him was enthusiasm. Some DJs don’t look like they’re having a good time. David always looked like he was having a great time in that booth! So that’s how I always felt when I was DJing. I always felt connected to him because he looked he was having a ball up there. Always smiling, always in a good mood and his music always showed.
He never played filler music – you know that stuff you play to get to other things? – he didn’t really play that. He wanted you to always dance. Even if they didn’t always, he wanted you to dance. He was the type that wanted to educate the crowd, which was another thing I learned from him. You know, you can play it safe, play everything they know. But David was the type that wanted to expand their taste in music because he was playing like black club stuff, gay music and just these different styles, but blending them so they went together.
Do you remember the kinds of things he was playing?
He was playing Bohannon’s first record with “Stop & Go,” he was playing “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind,” he was playing “I Like What I Like,” he was playing “Hum Along and Dance” by the Jackson 5. It was a wide range. That was the best thing about him. He was never boring.
Some DJs are boring and I can’t really hear them more than once or twice because I know what they’re gonna do. One thing I learned with David was that every night is a different night and you don’t know what you’re gonna do. He’s totally spontaneous. He could see someone he knows and feed off of that. It was like a science to him, but at the same time he was having a good time.
Then I went to Richie Kaczor. Richie was more technical than David. He was a better mixer than David. I can’t say a better programmer because they were both really good programmers. Richie could blend much longer. Now there’s a new skill I didn’t know about.
Blending for more than five or ten seconds. For that you gotta memorize the record since all these records are different drummers and different beats, you have to know each record, because a lot of DJs would try and they’d make mistakes. Richie was good at things like “Newsy Neighbors,” which came out around that time. It wasn’t really disco yet but it was almost; on the cusp before disco. He was playing “Blue Magic,” “Dance Master” by Willie Henderson; he was going into imports and all that stuff.
That was when I first went towards the imports. Now Nicky’s making a mint off us, because imports were costing so much more. I don’t really remember David playing imports. You could tell Richie was hunting for records. He was more expansive, his range was wider. I listened to him for at least a year, didn’t want to miss him. Come to find out later that they came to hear me play, which was my biggest thrill. My four idols at that time were David, Richie, Nicky Siano and Walter Gibbons. Walter had more influence on me than the other three.
What was Nicky Siano like?
He was just crazy! He got famous even younger than I did. Nicky was like really young and his style was like... just crazy. He could throw anything on, he had such a rapport with the crowd. He would take any chance, that’s what I liked about him, he was very courageous. He’d play the most insane things, like soundtracks, not disco soundtracks, just soundtracks. He could throw anything on, it would work.
Can you think of any of these things?
I can remember him playing the Carrie soundtrack and then going into “Love Hangover.” Which is just totally bizarre, but it worked! That’s what I learned from Nicky: get your crowd to know you and then you can get away with more stuff than you can if you’re just a guest DJ.
So the one thing I really wanted was to get a club. A friend of mine told me there were ads in the Village Voice for clubs. There was a club called Barefoot Boy, and it said: “DJ Wanted.” I thought, “I know I’m not going to get this job.” I’d only worked in straight black clubs and this was a gay white club and I only watched DJs. I hadn’t really played. So anyhow, I auditioned for this and I got the job. It still amazes me. It was like seven days a week, $25 a night.
Would that have been considered a lot of money then?
It was for me! I was getting paid for something that I liked to do. I would’ve done it for free. Once I got that job, I’m in the record store every day because now I’ve got money to buy records.
And was there much competition for the slot? What did you have to do?
I had to play five records and after I’d done that he said, “You’ve got the job.” And I had never really used a mixer before. And they had these horrible turntables, but I was just amazed because I knew a lot of the gay jocks wanted this job. The karma musta been there or somethin’. There was competition after I got the job, but my skills kept getting better. Because the skills that I had, that I’d seen Richie and Nicky and David do, now I’m practicing and practicing at the club, getting my identity established.
Where was Barefoot Boy?
It was on 39th and 2nd Avenue. A block away was a bar called Uncle Charlie’s, so Barefoot was opened every night and it was packed every night. So there’s this packed night and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!
And what hours would it be?
It was nine to four.
And what year was it that you got the job?
This was 1974 and I was 20 years old.
What did it look like?
It looked like this. [points to the bar we’re sitting in] It looked like a bar and this part here would be the dancefloor, except twice as big [maybe the size of the Plastic People dancefloor] and there’d be a lot of people in the bar and a lot of people dancing, all gay, white. Which I knew I had to integrate, which I did eventually. I knew that to get to play all the music I wanna play, I couldn’t just have all gay white. I already found out certain records that I couldn’t play. Like I couldn’t play James Brown.
The manager would just look at me like I was nuts.
Even though the gay scene was relatively new then, was it already that segregated? Did you go to any black gay clubs?
I guess Nicky’s club. It was mixed but at least blacks could go and feel comfortable.
What about David’s crowd?
That was mixed, but it was in the West Village, so it was predominantly white. They all had a little mix, but there was one black club and when I went there I was just like frightened out of my mind! It was Better Days and Tee Scott. I wanted to expose myself to everything, so when I do finally get this job I’d be prepared for everything. And a friend of mine took me to Better Days.
Everyone else knew how to mix, but Walter Gibbons, he could remix a record live and you don’t know he’s remixing it. I never saw anyone else do that.
Tee was just unbelievable and the crowd just scared the hell out of me because it was all black men staring at me and I just wanted to get into the music. I went there a few times but I was just too intimidated, at 17 or 18, to hang out. But I made friends with Tee.
In the beginning, he was in that older group, too. So I wouldn’t say he was an idol, but I respected him deeply. I know how black gays are really harder to play for than white gays, but he could do that. I couldn’t do that. Mainly because I had white taste in music, but I also didn’t wanna play in a club where I was restricted. That’s why I liked Richie and David and Nicky’s clubs, because they had a mix and they could play anything. I didn’t want to play just black gay music or white gay music, I just wanted to play music.
So you had a strategy then?
Oh! At the beginning I had my straight friends come down, totally offsetting the whole thing! Straight black friends from Little Italy. Finally, the Latins came in. Once Latins come in, then everyone can come in. I don’t know why, but that’s how it is. Then my music widened even more. Barefoot never turned black, but there was always blacks in there. In the beginning, all the bartenders, busboys, coat check, waiters, everybody was white except me.
So was it a conscious thing to bring your friends in?
Totally. Also because they thought I was this queeny guy! But now I gotta job! The other people in the projects, they all talked about leaving and getting a job, but no one was doin’ it and I was doin’ all this homework without them knowing about it. A lot of them were jealous, so the rumors started, but I didn’t care any more.
How did they react to you getting a job in a gay club?
Well there are rumors about everything, but once I got a foot in the door – which was the hardest thing to do – I didn’t really care.
Do you remember the first night?
The first night was just... I couldn’t wait until it was open. I just wanted to give a good impression on my first time, and it was packed and I really didn’t know what to play, so I’m playing safe. So my inner soul has to do something crazy so they remember you, otherwise it’s just like, “He was okay,” which I didn’t want to be. But after the first night the owner came over and said, “You played good.” Anyway, I’m there every night and I’ve always got a crowd, which is really good. You can play and practice in your own house, but it’s no good for the club. Even though I learned my technical skills there, I still don’t know about the reaction of the crowd. I stayed there three years. In the second year there, I got offered Garage and Studio. I turned them both down.
Who offered you the Garage?
Mel Cheren. And Steve Rubell used to come to Barefoot. Picking up kids! I guess I shouldn’t say, but I remember it all vividly. Rubell was in there all the time and he had a club called Enchanted Gardens. I used to guest there, Nicky used to guest there. I got some award from something like After Dark [magazine], I thought it was hokey, but you know, it was top ten and I was in it and so were my idols.
This was when I knew Barefoot was big. I had started to find out on Mondays that Nicky, David, David Mancuso, all of them were coming to hear me on Monday nights, but I didn’t know it, they were downstairs at the bar. One day I’m going down to get a drink and I see them all at there, Richie Kaczor, all of them listening to me, at Barefoot! And Monday night was like my boring night, so now I gotta make it a better night! I felt like I was a peer to them who were totally my idols. And in Barefoot, too, which was such a dumpy little club, but there used to be lines outside the club.
That was the other thing, it was free to get in, but maybe $2 at the weekend. So it was always packed. Now DJs are coming to watch me play and promoters are coming. All of a sudden I’m getting “Free Man” on white label, Mel Cheren’s bringing me “Doin’ The Best That I Can.” I was totally overwhelmed. I was getting everything and I didn’t even have to go to a record store.
Do you remember what you were playing at Barefoot Boy?
I’d play everything from Deodato to Yvonne Fair’s “It Should Have Been Me.” I used to play what I called sleazy music; slow but not boring. The only thing I couldn’t really play there, still, was really black urban music. But I still got away with “Doin’ It To Death” by the J.B.’s, but I couldn’t get away with “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose” or “Sex Machine.” I was playing Fatback Band “Bus Stop,” which was a dance. There were about three or four records about the Bus Stop. Salsoul made one: “Chicago Bus Stop.”
Oliver Sain did one, too.
That was the third one that I was tryin’ to remember! I could play African music, I was playing Osibisa “Music For Gong Gong,” Latin-sounding music, but I couldn’t play a lot of the stuff I was playing outside.
That stuff was a bit too progressive for gays at that time, but... at the time they really liked female vocals. Instrumentals I always loved, so I’d try to incorporate [Lonnie Liston Smith’s] “Expansions” and stuff like that.
So were you still doing block parties?
I did Fire Island, I used to do Ice Palace. Since I was working seven days, I didn’t wanna give a day up because I knew I’d get backstabbed. After a while I knew I couldn’t work seven days, so I started giving a day to friends I knew like Wayne Dixon, Walter [Gibbons], a few others.
The one who backstabbed was Jerry Bossa who used to work at Buddah [Records]. I gave him the job and he undercut me. I tried to give it to Walter, but he was too progressive for that crowd. Walter worked at Galaxy 21. The first time I heard him I think it was my first year at Barefoot. He blew me away. More than Nicky, Richie, all of them. Walter was just way ahead.
In what way?
Mixing. See, everyone else knew how to mix, but Walter, he could remix a record live and you don’t know he’s remixing it. I never saw anyone else do that. Most of the time you can hear when someone’s remixing it and I couldn’t believe he was doing it.
First of all, I couldn’t believe it was a white guy that was doing it and somebody I didn’t know, because he was really somebody who was unknown then. What happened was the bartenders used to bug me to go out and I was always exhausted. I was like, “Alright, I’m gonna go to Galaxy.”
I heard him remixing “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind.” You know the remix that you hear? It’s on a bootleg that loops the bongos? Walter used to do that live. And he would come out with records that no one else was playing, like Doc Severinsen. He had unbelievable programming, unbelievable mixing.
But he was really a bastard. He was really stuck-up. He drove everyone crazy, but somehow I became friends with him and I was let through that barrier of Walter’s. Most people don’t really know what a nice person he is. He didn’t trust nobody. Come to find out later, he was smart not to trust anybody, because everyone stole his stuff!
“Girl You Need A Change of Mind,” “Erucu,” which Walter invented, Rare Earth, “2 Pigs And A Hog.” He used to do these live! And they used to be really hard work. I don’t know if you know how small [the part from] “Happy Song” is.
He used to do this live, with a GLI mixer, which was just amazing.
What he was doing was like hip-hop DJs, wasn’t it?
Yeah, and what was funny was that everyone was going to buy “Happy Song,” not knowing it’s like 12 seconds long! So what he did – because after a while there was just too many songs – he did quite a few Eddie Kendricks songs, but the best known is “Girl...” What he did was he went to Sunshine Sound and, next thing you know, everybody had his music. Nobody knows what happened.
Well, François went down there and did some stuff for them, didn’t he?
Ah, François was playing the drums at Galaxy. He probably didn’t tell you that!
Yeah, he did.
He didn’t know any English or nothing. He was just this annoying guy – who we all got to love later – because he didn’t know how to play drums. But he knew the owner and the owner let him play drums right in the middle of the dancefloor. It used to drive Walter crazy. Every once in a while he’d be on beat, but with Walter’s mixing he’d be – Da! – but he was a friendly guy.
We came to find out later that people were recording Walter secretly. There was a wire we found and we followed it all the way up. And this is when Walter became even more distrustful and went into God. He kind of alienated me and everyone else because he didn’t trust anyone. But he was such a genius. I remember he used to talk with me on the phone while he was editing “Ten Percent” and asking me, “Should I make it three times or two times?” – [mimics the stabs] – he used do things so easily, whereas with me it would have been a struggle.
Once I met him, I knew I gotta practice some more. The one DJ skill he had that most DJs don’t know how to do – and I still freak out people when I do it – is the drop mix. To mix like hip-hop DJs do, where you have to just let it go and it was on beat. It was amazing and it used to fuck up the whole crowd. This volume is up and this volume is up and he would do that continuously. So me and this other guy, Jannie Komone, who used to be his best friend if anyone was, would be at home practicing.
He didn’t have a crossfader and he’s cutting on beat, without a crossfader?
Without a crossfader. “Happy Song” and “Two Pigs And A Hog.” “Erucu” was about 50 seconds and they came out with a 1:30 version… I told everybody about Walter. I told everybody about Nicky, too. My big mouth was telling everybody at Downstairs, “You gotta got to Galaxy, You gotta go to Hollywood...” Then the Garage came out and it was totally different to Walter.
Just before you go on to the Garage, do you have any experience of those really early guys like Francis Grasso, Michael Cappello?
Oh, I forgot about that. Francis I heard at Footsteps. I didn’t know he was there till afterwards. You know Union Square? It was right around the corner, maybe 18th and Broadway. You’d have to go up 200 steps, that’s why it was called Footsteps. There was no elevator and it was a long walk up to the club. I never heard him at Sanctuary. I always heard he invented mixing. Then I heard that Alfie Davison invented mixing, then I heard it was Flowers, so I don’t really know who invented it.
Who is Alfie Davison?
He was this really big DJ at the time and I know he probably hung out with Francis. He was a black guy, gay, he even made a record on RCA later on. I never really heard him DJ, but the word of mouth I heard when I was young was it was him and Francis.
Gays and straights always argue about who invented that stuff. I don’t really know. But I remember straights when I was 15 or 16 who were mixing, so there was no pause. I remember when there was a pause and I remember when Flowers and them came out there was no pause. Walter I would go and see every week.
Since the music was changing, at one point I was playing rock. That’s how bad disco music got.
Sometimes, later, I would find out he had been tripping when was doing this stuff. I can’t even smoke and DJ! Kenny Carpenter was absorbing all this stuff, because he used to do the lights. And he’d be amazed, too, because he’d be looking over: “How can he do this?” And he rarely made a mistake despite doing all these crazy things.
The only bad thing about Walter was you really wouldn’t want him to come near you, because Walter was critical because you couldn’t live up to his skills. You’d do your best and Walter was still going to diss you a little! He did it live, in front of 1,000 people, on acid, and never made mistakes! But, for some reason, once he left Galaxy, he never got big.
People say when he got religion he lost a little something.
Yeah, that’s true. Then he started working at a record store. I got him a job at Xenon, which was like a really big mistake by me…
That was quite a commercial club wasn’t it?
Yeah, and he tried to put this religion thing and I’m like, “Walter, I’m trying to get you back into the flow of everything, you can’t do that. Xenon’s competing with Studio.”
And they don’t want to hear gospel music all night!
They don’t wanna hear gospel or Salsoul all night, because he did a lot of Salsoul records. So I was like, “Walter, you gotta play the list,” meaning you heard me play there, you know what this crowd wants. And that was when it was mostly all white. I hadn’t integrated it yet. But he influenced me so much I wanted to try and help but he would not... Once he got into religion, it was over.
So is it true that he really wouldn’t play anything unless it had “the message”?
I’ve seen him break “Devil’s Gun.” I’m like, “Walter, that record’s hot!” There were certain records he would not play. And I said to him, “If you listen to the words, it’s not really saying what you think it’s saying.” He wouldn’t play “Bad Luck” by Harold Melvin, either. “Bad Luck” wasn’t a bad song either. But I think it was the titles.
When he went into the extreme religion thing, we fell apart. When he didn’t keep the job at Xenon, he kinda blamed me. I said, “Walter, you’re playing gospel and it’s not gonna work in Xenon!” I wish he would have stayed because I knew how great he could be.
How did you first meet Larry Levan? Did you go to Reade Street?
I went to Reade Street once. I thought Larry was really good. He was a programmer. He knew what to play. Mixing was secondary to him, sometimes he mixed good, sometimes he didn’t. But that wasn’t the priority. The priority was the next record. He liked to play with words, so sometimes his records connected with the words, which I used to love, because you had to think about it. He was more cerebral than most people give him credit for. Nicky was just crazy. Nicky could think of words, but maybe just for a couple of seconds before he was somewhere else! I got to know Larry really good at the Disco Convention in California because we were like New Yorkers in California.
What year was this?
I guess 1979. Even though I knew him, this was the first time we really hung out and acted like normal people rather than DJs. We were New Yorkers in California. And we were black guys in California. I didn’t know that Larry was like cool and funny and all of these other things you don’t get to see when he’s working. It was cool for him to see me when I wasn’t working, too, because I was working in a white club and he was working in a black club, but we both still had the same musical heads on.
A year or two later we spun together at Area, which was just like the best times, with Gwen Guthrie. It was a birthday for Gwen Guthrie. One other person I gotta bring up, because I haven’t brought him up yet and he’s one of my best friends, and that’s Danny Krivit. He didn’t influence me DJing, but influenced me musically. We’ve known each other so long it’s ridiculous. Danny influenced me more in black music and I influenced him more in disco music because Danny knew black music... I remember as a 16-year-old kid, I couldn’t believe this white kid could know black music so well.
We met in a music store and we were both going for the same record and I got the record. I think it was “Yellow Sunshine.” We became friends after that. When I went from Barefoot to Xenon there was this weird transition where Xenon was tryin’ to compete with Studio. And Ray Caviano – I’m gonna tell this story, but I don’t know whether it’s totally factually true.
But it makes a good story!
Yeah. No, but the sequence makes it seem like it’s true. Ray Caviano gave a list to Xenon of seven top DJs. They were going through DJs every month. He gave them all the white jocks like Roy Thode, Jonathan Fearing and I was the last person on the list.
Every two weeks they would try a new DJ because none of them worked, but they didn’t wanna try me. Finally Howard Stein gave in. I happened to be there one night and the music Jonathan Fearing was playing was so bad they said I could have the job, right there. Just because I was there! I told them no, out of respect to Jonathan and also I was working someplace else. I remember the mix I did that just blew them away and next day I had the job.
What was it?
The mix was Pattie Brooks’ “After Dark” with, in the break, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by the Supremes, just in the background low in the mix. It was one of those things I learned from Walter: no voices crashing. Because Walter, if the voices clashed, he’d give you a look! And the keys matched, too. I also did it with Inner Life “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “When Doves Cry” in the background. Everyone was blown away and was asking me to do it again, but the old school way is not to repeat it, but think of something better!
I got the job at Xenon and now I’m playing for 1,000 people. At Barefoot Boy it was only 200 dancing. I love challenges and this was a challenge. But they wanted me to work seven nights a week. I can’t do that when I’m in my early 20s, so I also had to find DJs. I wanted Wednesday through Sunday. I went to hear Richie at Studio, so I could know what kind of stuff he’s playing. I was always trying to do my homework.
What was the difference between what Richie was playing at Studio compared with Hollywood?
He had to play more commercial, which was understandable. But I did too, unless it was a special party, which I loved. But what I did – and Richie didn’t do – was try to make the crowd last longer so it would have a reputation of staying open longer, after the bars had closed. In the beginning the owner resisted that, but I’m telling him if the people start coming in at two in the morning, they’re gonna drink until four and they’re gonna dance and come back.
I’m trying to tell him this is going to be better in the long run and he didn’t have to be here, just let me play till I wanna finish. I don’t want no extra pay, I just want control of the crowd, because that’s what most DJs want. And I finally had it. I didn’t really have that at Barefoot, but I did at Xenon, where I could play anything I wanted. I brought my whole collection, eight thousand records, so whenever I had a whim I could go with that. I had a tremendous time.
When did you play from and until?
From ’79 to ’82. That was one of the best years of music because you could still play all the stuff from ’73 onwards; ’79-’82 they had a lot of great music. In those days, I was mixing new wave, rock, reggae, disco, club. Anything.
So did you play at Barefoot from ’74 to ’79?
To ’78. I was rotating and there were so many people on that list I had to wait my turn before I got to Xenon. I really had thought my career had gone down the drain until Xenon. I only had a tea dance at Ice Palace on 57th, not the one on Fire Island, but that wasn’t enough.
You played at Xenon around the time that disco was collapsing, really. Did that make a difference in the kinds of records you were playing? Was that Disco Sucks feeling prevalent?
What I did was play new wave.
But did you feel resistance to disco from certain sections of the clientele?
No. I could feel it in other clubs, but as I had my crowd trained – I don’t wanna say the word trained, but they were trained – they accepted what I played. I learned that from the older DJs that I watched. If you had the crowd on your side, they accept what you’re doing. Because you’re right, when the music changed, at one point, that was one of the few points I didn’t like and that’s why I went into new wave, you started to play more oldies because the new music is not as good or creative and you put more oldies in your programming to compensate for the bad music. I really hated that late disco stuff, you know, “Enough Is Enough,” and a lot of that garbage was just…
What new wave were you playing?
It was English imports. I was playing “Pop Muzik,” Generation X, “Moskow Diskow,” “Jet Boy Jet Girl.” Plus they’re still hearing “I Got My Mind Made Up” and “Disco Circus.”
Was it a regular crowd?
There was a hardcore crowd. As a matter of fact, it was a mescaline crowd!
A mescaline crowd?!
Yeah. They would have the sticks, they would have the tambourines, they would really give the crowd excitement. They were usually Cuban, from New Jersey, and they weren’t supposed to be in the club because they were from New Jersey, but what they did was, they used to have a bag of clothes and they would change once they were in. Meaning they would dress like Xenon people on the outside.
So they’d come in in suits?
And then change into shorts, outfits and take mescaline. You know the rest of the crowd was taking coke, and coke don’t make you dance, it makes you talk. Mescaline makes you dance!
So these kids knew each other?
No, but they got to know each other week after week.
That must’ve felt quite subversive.
It was the best.
Because even if the crowd’s a bit lackluster you can turn them?
I know! You turn them on and you turn the crowd on! I focused on them and the good thing about them was that their taste was as wide as mine. As a matter of fact, they turned me on to some new wave stuff that I wasn’t up on, like “Moskow Diskow.” At that time Americans weren’t playing this music. The cokehead crowd, they like the commercial disco, but the regular dancers were the ones who were always gonna be faithful if you please them. There was never this fear of making the crowd angry at you. Since the music was changing, at one point I was playing rock. That’s how bad disco music got. Really bizarre stuff like “Secret Agent Man.”
No, the original! You don’t remember the TV show?
Hawaii 5-0, the Beatles, the Stones.
What was your relationship with Larry Levan and the Garage? You said you were offered a gig there…
That was one of the few times Xenon hated it... Because I could decide when to close early and if something was happening at the Garage, I would close early. And they’d all know, too: “Tony’s going to the Garage!” Bobby Shaw I took the first time and he was totally resistant. It had this connotation of being too black and too raunchy or whatever. And, of course, once you go, you’re addicted.
He said the first time you took him he didn’t like it.
But he went back! He’s used to me mixing and Larry’s not that kind of technician, so I’m telling him, “You gotta forget about all these things you have in your head and go and listen to the music. Once you do that, Larry’s gonna be incredible to you. You just gotta let go of all this stuff you expect.” Bobby was addicted to it!
Then he got to know Larry and since he had that booth – which was the ideal booth for any DJ. It was as big as this bar! It was two booths. One for us and one for him. We could look out and see the crowd. You’d be happy just hanging out in the booth, but sometimes you just had to go out in the crowd, because even though some records would sound good in the booth, you gotta hear ’em on the dancefloor because of that system.
There was also a Larry Levan lookalike when he wasn’t there. He fooled a lot of people. Larry would do it when he didn’t feel like spinning or he was pissed off at the crowd.
There was never anything like that system. There will never be anything like that system. Records that would sound adequate in your club, they would sound tremendous in the Garage. So you have a whole new outlook on the record. You play it in your club and wonder why the reaction is lackluster and then at the Garage they’re screaming and stomping to it. That’s not Larry, that’s the system and how Larry worked the system. David Mancuso’s system at the Loft was crisper and clearer, but it’s not heart-rendering.
What kind of records do you remember him playing?
I remember what records he wouldn’t play! He wouldn’t play too much commercial. He’d play commercial, but once they came out he wouldn’t play them. So he always wanted to be exclusively first. The best thing we all liked about Larry was how many records we heard there that never came out.
So many of us DJs were salivating, “Oh, can’t wait till that comes out!” And then when they came out, it was a totally different mix from the one Larry was playing.
Was this stuff he’d mixed himself?
Sometimes. Sometimes it was just stuff people gave him.
Do you remember any examples?
Well, I always wonder who has all this stuff.
François is supposed to have a bunch of things.
Really? Well, how come when I went to Body & Soul I never heard any of it? I would notice! Most of the West End stuff, Peech Boys, “Is It All Over My Face,” what happened was that Larry would have like several drafts. Like Colonel Abrams records? We would hear versions you would not believe. Then, when it came out, it was so commercial sounding. Larry’s versions would sound so raw.
There were records like “Stay Free” by Ashford & Simpson and “Razzamatazz,” you’d hear them in there and they sounded like #1 records. You play them in my club and they sounded tinny. You know they sounded cute and you liked the song…
Another one is Labelle’s “What Can I Do For You.” You don’t know how many DJs tried to play that in a club and the crowd would just be like, “phht.” But you go to the Garage and it’s a 20 year-old record and they’re still singing it like it was #1.
You say it’s Larry but it’s the system, too. But without Larry, there is no system because when he had guest DJs there, he would take out certain things. There was also a Larry lookalike.
Somebody who looked like Larry when he wasn’t there and there’d be a tape playing!
Oh, he fooled a lot of people. He would do it when he didn’t feel like spinning or he was pissed off at the crowd. I always wondered how he got this guy, because when you were on the dancefloor, he looked like him.
Surely they’d have rumbled him?
Oh, he would never get close up and he did look like Larry! Ask Bobby Shaw about this one. In the old days Larry used to live in the Garage, so he might have been sleeping or he might have been pissed off with the crowd.
So Larry would come back later?
Yeah. But you would know when he came back. He made sure that you felt it. The lookalike was definitely a fact. We definitely knew it existed. You could tell it was a tape in the Garage.
What did you do after Xenon?
It was a down point in my life. I went to Magique. Tee Scott used to call it Tragique! [laughs] It was an East Side club which was already a no-no and an Upper East Side club… I got fired from Xenon for not playing “Happy Birthday” for Bianca Jagger. It was the middle of the night and I just did not want to do it. She was a Studio person, I was like, “Why are you sweating it, she’s not coming back anyway?!” I was pissed but… if Bianca got me fired so what! The whole crowd didn’t know. Then they got a Tony lookalike! I swear to God! Everybody came and told me, because they could tell it wasn’t me. It only lasted about another month and then it closed. Every club I went to closed after I left.
After I left Xenon, I had all these offers and I wanted to transform Magique, because Magique was a B&T crowd, very John Travolta. I love a challenge, so I thought if I can do Xenon then I can do this. It didn’t work. This crowd was so bad. If you didn’t play a radio song... This was ’82 and new wave is the hottest thing, Thompson Twins, Ian Dury, everybody. They said they wanted to hear Xenon music, but Thompson Twins and Ian Dury weren’t on the radio. The only time I had a good time at Magique was the porn parties. Ron Jeremy and a few of the porn stars used to give a party about once a month and there was naked girls everywhere and I could play anything I wanted.
How long did you last?
A year. I took a vacation for a month or two. I knew I was going to lose it. You never go away if you’re a DJ. From there I went to Limelight, which Tee used to call Slimelight. I hated that, too. Then I went to the Palace, which is Palluccio’s restaurant on 14th St. It only lasted a year, but that was a lot of fun. After that I went to the Fun House.
I wasn’t really a rap fan, but I liked it, so I had to evolve my DJing style to accommodate this. Some of the music was creative, but there wasn’t eight hours of good rap music to play. I liked variety. Jellybean, you know, if a record was a hit he would play it four times a night. I didn’t like to do that. The one credit I give to Fun House is discovering “Set It Off,” which nobody knows about.
Which was the first version, Strafe?
Yeah, because Walter mixed it. Walter brought it to Jellybean two or three times, but Jellybean wouldn’t play it. The whole sound then was the Roland drum and Arthur and Shannon and it’s totally the opposite of that.
I was doin’ a guest spot and Walter didn’t know I was gonna be there or that I was tapin’ the night. I taped it when I played it. It cleared the floor. All of us in the booth were goin’ crazy! This was at the time when even Loleatta was doin’ that drum sound and I hated that sound.
He gave me two versions, a vocal and another one. Walter takes the record and he’s totally disappointed. A month later he comes back and they’re screamin’ to this record! They were callin’ it “On the Left” because they still didn’t know the name of the song: “Tony, play the ‘On the Left.’” He didn’t know I’d taped the song! It was just so different for the time.
So now Strafe wanted to do a PA at Fun House but I didn’t know that Strafe had this thing against Walter. He didn’t like his mix. Even though Strafe’s mix was like puke. At this stage nobody’s playin’ it. Not radio, not Larry. Finally I’m telling Walter, “You gotta go take this to the radio and Larry.” He was still skeptical because no one would give Walter the time of day. If I can get these 16-year-old kids to like it, don’t worry about everyone else! Strafe came and did it and the crowd went ballistic.
Then he tried to do a new song, I think it was “React,” and he got booed off stage. Kids are very reactionary like that. But then I got undercut again by a friend, Randy. He’s not a friend any more. Then I went to an all-girls club. I had a new challenge. I’d played for all men, all black, all straight, all gay. Networks it was called. ’84 or ’85. Now I’m like this guy who’s a total threat to these women. If I could play for them and learn about what they like compared to men.
What do they like?
They like a lotta meaningful words. Not just “party down.” They liked a lot of female vocals. What I find out, once I got to know them, they liked everything that everybody else liked. There were a few things I played there that I didn’t play anywhere else, like Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks. That lasted two years. The last club I played in was the opening of the Palladium with Jellybean. And that was because Jellybean hadn’t DJed in ages, but his name was still big so he got me to play with him. Even though I’d retired, he knew I still kept up with the music.
This interview was conducted in August 2003 in New York. © DJhistory.com