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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Scene THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Documents Link Studio 54 to Mob

The Ties That Bind: Documents confiscated from Studio 54 reveal some interesting connections

A detailed inventory of all documents seized Decem­ber 14 by federal agents in the Studio 54 raid reveals ties between the disco’s owners and alleged organized-­crime figures.

Contrary to disco attorney Roy Cohn’s claim that all the IRS Organized Crime Strike Force found was  “… an appointment book and a list of parties coming up at Studio 54,” agents confiscated materials linking owners Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell to Sam Jacob­son, the alleged Queens-Williamsburg loan-shark king and racketeer.

Rumors of Studio 54’s link with organized-crime figures began when it became known that Ian Schrag­er’s father was the late Louis Schrager, also known as ”Max the Jew,” the legendary chief of Williamsburg loan-shark and racketeer operations. Louis Schrager was described in the State Liquor Authority file on Stu­dio 54 as “… a convicted felon who was a known as­sociate of Meyer Lansky and was second only to Her­man Siegel in Lansky’s loansharking and numbers rackets.”

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Meyer Lansky, the mob’s financial wiz and a key figure in the development of Las Vegas, turned gangsters into “businessmen,” fun­neling much of the mob’s activities into the high-profit, cash-laundering businesses of entertainment, night clubs, and resorts.

The late Louis Schrager left a large estate and trust for his wife Blanche and son Ian consisting of various businesses and real estate. According to State Liquor Authority files, the late Schrager’s alleged Queens-Wil­liamsburg criminal activities were taken over by the Jacobson brothers, Sam, Dan, and Ralph.

Ralph Jacobson was convicted on income­-tax charges and extortion in 1975. Ralph and Dan were both indicted in 1972 for the mur­der of Queens nightclub owner Conrad Greaves, in an alleged loan sharking and ex­tortion con. They were never convicted. Also indicted for the murder were Tommy DiLeo and Pasquale Macchairole (Patti Mac), whose bodies were found recently in plastic bags in the trunks of their cars. Sam was indicted but not convicted of tax fraud in 1972.

When Studio 54 applied for a liquor li­cense in the spring of 1977, the SLA inves­tigator asked Ian Schrager about his relation­ship with Sam Jacobson. The investigator’s sources indicated that Jacobson not only took over the late Louis Schrager’s business but moved in with Schrager’s widow, thus be­coming Ian Schrager’s surrogate father. Ian Schrager, in a sworn statement to the SLA, denied any connection with Sam Jacobson, stating that while he knew Jacobson, he hadn’t seen him in many years, that he had “… no contact with him and have no per­sonal knowledge whatsoever about him or his activities.”

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However, the IRS inventory, a matter of public record now filed at the U.S. Court Clerk’s office, appears to show that Sam Jacobson managed aspects of the Louis Schrag­er estate. The evidence includes two letters concerning Schrager estate matters labeled “441,” addressed to Sam Jacobson and dated May 8, 1970, and March 13, 1970. Also found in the raid was a brown accordion fold­er marked SAM JACOBSON-PERSONAL. That file contained, among other things, one letter dated May 5, 1974, a promissory note dated March 12, 1975, a number of legal pads marked SAM, and a financial statement dated March 17, 1975.

The most damaging document that may indicate that Sam Jacobson had an undis­closed financial interest in Studio 54 is a five­ column payment sheet with the main head-ing, STEVE RUBELL—SAM JACOBSON. The first of 11 entries reads, “W/E [week ending] 6/25, $2500.” The final entry reads “$22,500.” More information will certainly come out as the IRS develops its case.

Unlike the State Liquor Authority, the IRS has muscle. And while the State Liquor Authority was on the right track in question­ing Schrager about the source of his funding, the agency failed to produce a strong case be­cause the co-owners balked at supplying requested financial records. The agency report states that some of the checks Studio 54 did present as evidence “… never cleared a bank, bearing no imprint on the front or back.”

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Roy Cohn also claimed that the search war­rant, obtained by the strike force on Decem­ber 12 from U.S. District Judge Robert Carter, was based on “a phony tip.” Who sup­plied the information that justified the search warrant? That fact is currently “sealed” by the courts, even from Cohn. Studio 54’s law­yers are challenging the order and demand­ing that the material be unnealed. (If it is un­sealed, the basis for the search might be chal­lenged, if and only if the information was in­deed “phony.”)

Meanwhile, Studio 54 is taking the matter very seriously, having hired two additional law firms to represent them. Caplin and Drysdale, a high-powered, Washington­-based firm, will represent Studio 54 in the matter of possible tax fraud. “We will be representing the corporation only,” says Caplin. “As individuals, the co-owners are represented by Paul, Weiss.” Mortimer Cap­lin was the IRS commissioner from 1961 to 1964 and is one of the nation’s best tax law­yers. The second firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, is highly respected in New York. Both these firms will have to ex­plain how it was that, according to the books, Studio 54 lost money at certain times, as its owners have sworn to the State Liquor Au­thority. They will also have to explain countless weekly cash payout envelopes. According to one key former Studio 54 employee and other sources, Studio 54 was not just skimming a few bucks here and there; they were walking off with from 50 to 70 per cent of the cash take. That’s millions.

Roy Cohn will be representing Ian Schrager in Schrager’s more immediate criminal complaint: “intent to distribute a Schedule II narcotic … cocaine.” While Peter Sudler, the assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the case against Studio 54, refused to comment any aspect of the case, his complaint states that Schrager walked into Studio 54 on De­cember 14 at 9:30 a.m. just after the federal agents had arrived. Schrager was carrying books, records, and other documents. After the agents identified themselves, Schrager placed these materials on the floor. On top of the pile an agent found a white envelope with five packets of what turned out to be unusu­ally high-quality cocaine — about 50 per cent pure, unlike common street cocaine that is usually only 10 to 20 per cent pure.

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Schrager’s indictment on the narcotics charge will be handed down in a few weeks and his trial must follow within 90 days. The charges could mean up to 15 years if Schrager is convicted.

While 300 Quaaludes were found in the Studio 54 safe, it is unlikely that criminal charges will result because of the difficulty in proving individual possession,

How will all this affect Studio 54? For the time being, it won’t. There are two agencies that license liquor-serving discos, the State Liquor Authority and the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Consumer Affairs is short staffed and al­most powerless in this area. Studio 54 has been operating without a cabaret license since August 28. All Consumer Affairs can do is send one of its three investigators charged with enforcing the cabaret laws for all of New York City to Studio 54 and slap them with a summons. The fine is usually $25 — a parking ticket can cost more — and the summons can be challenged in court and dragged out for years. Reno Sweeney, the 13th Street caba­ret, has never been licensed due to its resi­dentially zoned area. Despite this fact, Re­no’s has remained open for years. There is no reason that Studio 54 can’t do the same.

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Consumer Affairs Commissioner Bruce Ratner doesn’t think he should be in the dis­co-licensing business. “Ask me about TVs or unit pricing,” he said. “That’s where we can and should put our energies. Don’t expect us to keep organized crime out of New York night life!”

The State Liquor Authority has a wait­-and-see attitude. “We have nothing to do with the IRS case or the narcotics charge,” says Commissioner Lawrence Gedda. “And until there’s some resolution of the allega­tions, Studio 54’s status will remain the same.”

In fact, the State Liquor Authority tried to fight Studio 54 once before and lost. Accord­ing to a key SLA source, that attempt to deny the club a liquor license was a joke. Michael Roth, the head of the agency at the time, had political aspirations (he recently lost his bid for election as the state attorney general). Roth was at a party near Studio 54 when he heard that the disco was serving liquor with­out a license. Instead of sending in SLA in­vestigators night after night for a few weeks to establish continuous illegal sale of liquor, Roth stormed out of the party and raided 54 in grandstand style. The SLA’s case was therefore based on only one night of illegal sales — a minor charge. For this kind of ac­tion, Roth earned the nickname within the agency of “Mickey Mouse.”

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Even if Schrager is convicted, Studio 54 will no doubt be able to get around the State Liquor Authority. While it is illegal to have a convicted felon as the owner or co-owner of a licensed premise, Studio 54 can reincorpo­rate, dropping Schrager as a co-owner. That’s just a little paperwork. Then Schrager might be legally hired as a manager or consultant and paid whatever salary the “new” corporation feels he’s worth.

­

Studio 54 will remain the playground of the chic for now, pulling in $12 a head at the door, $3 a drink, and making lots of money  on private parties. The crowds will continue circling the door clamoring for admission. But the documented inventory of the IRS raid indicates that long after the chic set has moved on to a new watering hole, Rubell and Schrager will be busy with their battery of lawyers. ♦

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Scene THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Lost in Music: An Oral History of Disco

The Dancing Machine: An Oral History
Rock & Roll Quarterly, Summer 1993

GLORIA GAYNOR: I started out singing jazz, singing top 40 in clubs, and between sets, disc jockeys would come in to play and I knew that was the next storm coming; I saw that we were going to be phased out. We saw disco coming and decided we were going to furnish music for that.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: Disco was the greatest time ever, and I am happy that I experienced it. When they went out, they went out with one thing in mind, and that was to party. Today it seems like there’s always a lot of fights. People had no hard­ness or no bad thinking on their mind, and everything was free. And it seemed like the peak to me.

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BARRY WHITE: The ’70s was very glamor­ous — the very first time I ever saw regular jeans go from $5 to $250. The consumers dressed up like they were the stars.

FELIPE ROSE: Disco was like a sense of youthfulness and decadent innocence that the era had. It was just a hot, hot, hot time.

KATHY SLEDGE: I honestly saw it happening but I wasn’t allowed to go out dancing. We were minors at that time period.

BARRY WHITE: It was a freedom time­ — more people experienced things and tried new things, whether it was drugs or whatev­er. It wasn’t about sex but love and sensual­ity, communicating, relating. There’s a world of difference between making love and having sex, and the ’70s was ap­proached as if it was a woman being ro­manced and made love to.

FELIPE ROSE: You wanted to look your hottest, and damn if you forgot your tam­bourine when you got that hit of acid. (I stole that from David Hodo who says it in the show.) You were going to meet fabulous people and you were going to party not just for that night, you were going to party for days.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco snowballed the way it did because it got to be not just music, it got to be peoples’ social lives. People got to be stars and shine on their own.

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FELIPE ROSE: Every night was a different club, one after another, and there were real­ly no barriers in the clubs. There were blacks and whites, gays and straights — it was really more a harmonic thing. You never felt threatened when you went to a club. It’s not like today when you have to wonder who’s carrying a gun or something.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were very fond of disco because every artist needs some sort of movement to make them larger than they really are, and disco did that for us. It sort of gave us a niche, if you will, and a place in history. Some radio stations were calling us Dr. Buzzard’s Original Disco Band, and we never had a problem with that because we were all disco children. We used to hang out at Studio 54 so much that we should have been paying rent.

KATHY SLEDGE: When our song “He’s the Greatest Dancer” came out, it was after the Saturday Night Fever trend and everybody thought they were the greatest dancer. We literally had people come backstage and say, “I am the person you’re singing about.” They were definitely not introverts.

RAY CAVIANO: With disco, you were not an observer, you were a participant. You weren’t going to the party, you were the party.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: In a word? Drama.

RICHIE RIVERA: Party.

AUGUST DARNELL: I’d describe it as pas­sion or, better, neopassion — a passion for the modern times.

BARRY WHITE: Explosive, mystical, magi­cal. Disco brought a lot of smiles to peo­ples’ faces and I saw it everywhere in the world.

RAY CAVIANO: A disco record doesn’t let you dance, it makes you dance.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: The producers, like Norman Harris, took the music and stressed it in the studio; when they started playing they never stopped. When I put down the vocals on “Hit and Run,” they told me to come back the next day and just work out on the break and I thought, This is the longest song I ever sang in my life. The music just went on and on.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco music to me was musical elation. I think people forgot who they were for a minute: it had a way of lifting you, making you forget about your worries or your problems — almost like mesmerizing you. It was another way of reaching out and feeling like you’re a part of or belonging to the crowd.

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AUGUST DARNELL: Hurrah’s was one of the first clubs I went to, but I frequented Danceteria, the Mudd Club, Studio 54, the Continental Baths, Electric Circus — and there were at least a dozen after-hours places that  we used to hang out at. I’d have to look into my diaries to find out their names.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The first club I ever went to was in downtown Brooklyn, called COCP; it was all black and I snuck out there on the weekends. I was like 16. Then there was Salvation, Sanctuary, Tarot across from Max’s, and Max’s for a minute. The Loft, 12 West, Flamingo once or twice. The Gallery, the Garage, Better Days, Infinity, Le Jardin, Studio 54, but those were work-related — the other places I lived at. I was a Loft baby.

RAY CAVIANO: The first club I can remember going to was the Firehouse, early in the ’70s. It was the first place where gay people could get together in an uninhibited way away from the bar scene.

RICHIE RIVERA: The first club I played at was the GAA Firehouse, on Wooster Street. Then Footsteps, Buttermilk Bottom, the Anvil, the Sandpiper on Fire Island, Fla­mingo, the Cock Ring, the Underground, 12 West (which became the River Club after the Saint opened), Studio 54, and back to the Cock Ring.

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FELIPE ROSE: We were like G.I. Joe action dolls under the strobe lights. The intensity back then was stronger, the volume was bigger. We were one of the only groups to go live with a band into the clubs, and when we appeared in stadiums, we brought motorcycles, a tepee, a Jeep, and Portosans — for the construction worker — on stage.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were a band with a mission — to bring dance music back to the world — and we felt like the crowds almost lived by a credo that dance is everything. In England now they have all these rave par­ties, but when people say there’s nothing like a rave, I say I saw all this in 1976 at Studio 54. Studio 54 was like ritual escap­ism to the max.

RAY CAVIANO: There was no question about it: the DJ was in full control — almost mind control — of the dance floor, and he had the capacity to take you on a trip. In some cases people felt it was a religious experience of sorts. It was almost a physical thing too — quasi-sexual. The DJ was ma­nipulating the dance floor through a whole steeplechase of sounds. I wanna take you higher.

RICHIE RIVERA: People got to trust me and we bounced off one another. I had a feel for what they might like so I’d go two or three degrees further, and they usually went along.

DAVID MANCUSO: Rule number one: Don’t let the music stop.

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RICHIE RIVERA: It was difficult for me to accept [Donna Summer’s] “Last Dance” when it came out. It was such a drastic change. For years, everybody had been refining their style so the music flowed non­stop. And all of a sudden here came a song where it stopped — and people needed that. They’d been dancing nonstop for years at that point.

RAY CAVIANO: Never speak to a DJ when he’s got the earphones on and mixing. Know when to talk to the DJ, not to inter­rupt his artistic flow. You’re talking to him during his performance.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: A DJ should always pay attention to his dance floor and entertain­ — that’s his job, to read the audience and react to what they want. Make them scream when they’re good and punish them when they’re bad.

DAVID MANCUSO: A night at the Loft was like three bardos. There was the coming together, calmness. In the first two hours, it starts out very smoothly, gathering. Second bardo would be like the circus: music, lights going, the balloons. Third bardo would be the reentry — going back to where you came from, maybe not the same person, but you land back on your feet gently, a little wiser and a little more sociable.

RAY CAVIANO: Every club was different. At Flamingo the DJ was like the Svengali of the dance floor, the maestro. Funhouse was a little more casual; Jellybean was looser.

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RICHIE RIVERA: At Flamingo, it was like Moses in a scene from The Ten Command­ments. At the Anvil, the booth was right in the middle of everything and people’s faces were like three or four feet away from me, so it was really like being in the heart of the whole proceedings.

RAY CAVIANO: The most famous booth in the industry was at the Paradise Garage. It was literally a who’s who of the music business in New York — from Frankie Crocker to any number of record company promo people. If a hot new record got played, word would spread like a bullet from that booth and within 48 hours you’d have a hit.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: At the Garage, I was the godmother of the booth. As the evening progressed from midnight on, there was a pattern as to who showed up. Early on, it was members of the music industry who came to promote their records but not necessarily to dance. They’d try to set up the DJ, Larry Levan, with a test pressing. After two, those people would disappear and the serious record people would show up. That’s when the party would start. After four or five, the booth would be void of anybody who wasn’t there to seriously dance or listen to music, and those people stayed until closing, sometimes until noon the next day.

RAY CAVIANO: The Infinity booth was famous for DJ groupies. The booth was high above the floor at one end of the room and Jim Burgess ruled. But the groupies had a certain amount of influence; they could get the records they liked played when some promo person didn’t have a chance.

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AUGUST DARNELL: I’d have to say my favorite club was Studio 54, it was so deca­dent and so exciting in that period to be part of something you knew was a world movement. It was a bit magical and the music was devastatingly loud. I was never into the alcohol or the drugs, so the appeal of the club was different for me from its appeal to other members of Savannah Band who will go nameless here. I went primarily for the glamor of it — so many beautiful women hanging out in one place. Steve Rubell did make it ridiculous after a while. He could stagger around higher than any­one I ever saw and still be coherent.

RICHIE RIVERA: In the course of a night, the tempo would generally curve downward, but sometimes the manager thought it was too gradual. People needed a remind­er when it was time to take the downs. They told me, You’ve got to do something to make them realize it’s time to start com­ing down — something dramatic. Some peo­ple showed up at four because they wanted to hear all that down stuff, what came to be known as sleaze music. They didn’t blend in with the earlier crowd, who were like Saturday Night Fever and just wanted to take speed and fly.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Leaving the club, we’d hit the streets looking terribly ugly because we were all very worn out and soiled and everybody out there was fresh. We’d go out to breakfast and talk over the records, the show, the dish of the night, then go home and try to sleep. Come Sunday night, you were fried but not ready to call it a week­end, so Better Days was the dessert when Larry Levan had been the appetizer and dinner.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: I was working this gay club, right? And I talk a lot before I start to sing. And I said I want a lady to come up onstage that don’t mind being a bitch. I told her to look around for whatev­er man she wanted and I’d bring him up. And then I brought a guy — he was gay — up and instructed him to call up whoever he wanted and put his tongue way down their throat. He looked around for a minute and then grabbed me and turned me way over — you know how you do — and kissed me! The audience went crazy, but I never did that again.

FELIPE ROSE: In different clubs they would throw different things on the stage. Girls would throw bras, and guys would jump on stage and take off their shirts and flex for “Macho Man.”

KATHY SLEDGE: We did the club circuit in New York, and during the Son of Sam period, I learned how much people looked forward to going out at night and when they couldn’t how much they missed it. I re­member so clearly Disco Sally was at one of our shows. I saw her in the bathroom with this long brown fall on. They said Son of Sam was preying on women with long brown hair, and when I told her that, she just whipped it off and put it in her bag.

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BARRY WHITE:  I loved the people, the attitude of the people. The consumer participated not only listening to the music but dressing to the music.

GLORIA GAYNOR: I kind of liked trendy and funky clothes. I don’t like women showing more of their body than is really necessary, but I like fun clothes — sparkle blouses and all.

AUGUST DARNELL: The thing about the style of disco, in retrospect it was quite ridiculous and laughable. To be quite hon­est, I didn’t think much of the clothing, but the Beautiful People who came to 54, they did have style. The good thing was it gave people a reason to say “Let’s get dressed up and go out.”

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The downside was monotony — how a certain style of music I would be totally driven into the ground before a change would come. Like the whole Eurodisco thing: no change, no growth.

RICHIE. RIVERA: It did get a little repetitious. It became so “in” that everybody did it, or thought they could. I mean, Ethel Merman doing a disco album?

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KATHY SLEDGE: There was less pressure then. People came out to dance and have a good time, but it was kind of a double­-edged sword. Especially when the hustle came out, you could feel the cohesiveness on the dance floor, but it was also a lonely time. Like the place would be crowded with people, but a lot of them would be dancing alone.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: My best memory is standing in the middle of Paradise Garage in the early evening before the club filled up. Larry Levan was playing the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” and I was totally straight and just about totally alone and dancing by my­self and actually got lost in the music, trav­eled with the music and within the sound system — just me and the club.

DAVID MANCUSO: The night of the black­out, people stayed over all night. We had candles and played radios and people were sleeping over, camping out. It was very peaceful, a little Woodstockish. The party still went on.

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GLORIA GAYNOR: Disco started out as a sound and unfortunately evolved into a lifestyle that Middle America found dis­tasteful — and that was the demise of disco. It got into sex and drugs that really had nothing to do with the music but that was the lifestyle that identified with disco.

AUGUST DARNELL: The most decadent I got was dancing with two girls simulta­neously, but the decadence of it was great to observe. In the bowels of Studio 54, there was a higher high. But I was like an observer more than a participant. I was like a journalist witnessing a national event.

DAVID MANCUSO: If people were using drugs, they were mild and recreational, where today it’s all about economics. But three-quarters was purely spontaneous energy.

RAY CAVIANO: In hindsight, the experience was exhausting and the lifestyle was obvi­ously way beyond the call of duty. We were going to have a good time even if it was going to kill us. We wanted to take the trip as far as we could take it.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: What killed disco? The people behind the desks. They do what they wanna do. They changed disco into dance and they changed dance into house. But when you listen to it, it’s still all the same.

AUGUST DARNELL: I would imagine what happened is the same thing that will kill every innovative form: greed — people who don’t have the heart and soul of the music but just want to cash in on it. They think they have the formula without realizing that disco was much more than that at the beginning.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Disco killed disco. The word disco killed disco. Like pop will eat itself, disco ate itself. Anything that be­comes too popular is apt to be destroyed by the same people who gave it the name.

AUGUST DARNELL: The music today — I call it disco part five.

BARRY WHITE: Disco was a sexy smooth era, very chic era. Now things are mechani­cal, more raw, closer to the streets. The attitude in America is distrust and disillu­sion. Now it’s time to rip, take the money and run, sell the country, sell your mother.

AUGUST DARNELL: It was a good period to go through because it was exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you find your balance eventually. ♦

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THE PLAYERS

RAY CAVIANO: Parlayed his success as disco’s most persuasive promo man into a high-powered but short-lived deal for his own RFC label at Warner Bros. Al­though cocaine abuse left him broke and in jail (and landed him on the cover of the Voice in 1986), he bounced back to become a perennial promotion man of the year, most recently with MicMac, the New York freestyle indie, which let him go in March. Since then, Caviano’s dropped from sight.

AUGUST DARNELL: Cofounder of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, lead­er of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, whose 1992 album, You Shoulda Told Me You Were… was their last for Columbia; since being dropped by the label, the group’s been without a deal. Darnell spends much of his time these days in Manchester, England “playing daddy” to two children, Ashley and Dario.

GLORIA GAYNOR: Crowned the first Queen of Disco after “Honeybee” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Gaynor orig­inated one of the most imitated disco formulas but faded from the American scene after “I Will Survive.” Her recent work has been in Italy (where her Gloria Gaynor ’90 album went gold), the Middle East, and Asia, but she says,”I think I’m ready to come home.”

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: One of the clubs’ fiercest ruling divas with “Hit and Run” and her Dan Hartman duet “Re­light My Fire.” She still rules, both as sampled wail and featured vocalist, most famously on Marky Mark’s “Good Vi­brations.” She’s currently preparing a second single for the Select label, due early fall.

DAVID MANCUSO: Mancuso turned his lower Broadway loft into a balloon-filled private party once a week in 1973, play­ing both DJ and host. One of the earliest New York membership clubs, the Loft has moved twice and shut down periodi­cally since then but remains a fixture, with Mancuso in full effect.

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RICHIE RIVERA: One of New York’s most popular and powerful DJs during the disco boom, Rivera last played at a club in 1983. He’s currently working in the chart department at HMV’s Upper West Side branch.

FELIPE ROSE: Discovered dancing on platforms in New York clubs by French producer Jacques Morali, Rose, a Puerto Rican Native American, was recruited to play the Indian in the Village People. Still wearing a feathered headdress, still singing “Macho Man,” he’s among the original People celebrating the group’s 16th anniversary this year.

KATHY SLEDGE: Thirteen when Sister Sledge was formed, Sledge “grew up in the business.” “We Are Family” remains the group’s anthem, but Kathy, now mar­ried with children, went solo last year with the album Heart.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The cofounder of New York’s influential For the Record DJ pool in 1978, Weinstein is partners with DJ/remixer/producer David Mo­rales in Def Mix Productions which rep­resents Frankie Knuckles and Danny Madden.

BARRY WHITE: His “Love’s Theme” was the first disco single to top the pop charts in 1974. White continues his reign as king-size pillow talker with a retrospective boxed set on the market to be joined by a new album, Love Is the Icon, in September.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Sylvester: Staying Alive

In Sickness and Health, Sylvester Keeps Mighty Real

TWO IMAGES OF SYLVESTER:
It’s 1978, and disco rules. Donna Summer may be acknowledged as one Queen of Disco, but for gay men, Sylvester is the Other Queen. The falsetto singer has suddenly gone from drag infamy to hit records without giving up the gowns. “Dance (Disco Heat)” is hustling up the pop charts, and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” isn’t far behind. Sylvester and his background singers the Two Tons o’ Fun are whipping up audiences of every race and sexual persuasion with spiritual voices and sinful rhythms. Whirling and twirling and shrieking out gospel-inflected dancefloor exhortations like Little Richard’s kid sister, this San Franciscan man in glittering couture looks and sings as if he’s just seen God … boogie.

Now it’s 1988, and Sylvester has AIDS. He’s joined the People With AIDS group of the San Francisco Gay Pride March in a wheelchair. Although he’s just 40 years old, his thinning gray hair, sunken features, and frail body make him look 25 years older. This is Sylvester’s first public acknowledgment of his illness, and the transition from glamour maven to out-patient has made him almost unrecognizable. The few who spot him cry, or gasp in shock, or applaud his bravery. For almost 20 years, Sylvester has been an icon of San Francisco nightlife: outrageous, bold, proud. Today, Sylvester is a symbol of a totally different San Fran­cisco — a gay man struggling to stay alive.

“Sylvester is as he was then,” says San Francisco novelist Armistead Maupin, “one of the few gay celebrities who never renounced his gayness along the ladder of success. He’s allowing us to celebrate his life before his death, and I don’t know a single star who has the integrity to do that. In sickness and in health, Sylvester has carried on with the identical spirit.”

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LIKE SO MANY BLACK SINGERS, Sylvester learned how to sing in church, at the Palm Lane Church of God and Christ in South Los Angeles. But from the very beginning, there were factors that made this familiar rite of passage unusual. Sylvester’s mother, Letha Hurd, introduced the young Sylvester James to a minister, Jerry Jordan. Under Jordan’s guidance, Sylvester performed at gospel conventions around California. His showstopper was his interpretation of “Never Grow Old,” the first record by the woman who has remained Sylvester’s idol and major influence, Aretha Franklin. Already, Sylvester was being groomed for divadom.

“Sylvester was so small,” recalls his mother, “he used to stand on a milk box while he sang. He would tear up the church, people would be screaming and hollering, and then he’d go play in the parking lot.”

The Pentacostal church was also where Sylvester had his first homosexual experience. “I was abused by an evangelist,” says Sylvester, “when I was seven, eight, and nine! He really did a number on me, but it never made me crazy. But you see, I was a queen even back then, so it didn’t bother me. I rather liked it.”

“I wanted to take a shotgun to that evangelist,” says Sylvester’s mom.

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Sylvester’s precociousness made him a difficult child. His father didn’t like him, and he fought constantly with his mother. After living awhile with his wealthier grandma, Sylvester ran away to live with friends while still in junior high. He did finish school, and two years at the Lamert Beauty College in L.A., where he studied interior decorating. It was then in 1970, that the 20-year-old Sylvester was invited to San Francisco to teach the Cockettes how to sing gospel.

“What we did came out of smoking pot, dropping LSD, and watching old movies on TV,” recalls Kreema Ritz, one of the original dozen drag queens that made up the Cockettes.

The Cockettes grew out of a group of hippies who belonged to the Food Con­spiracy food co-ops. George Harris, son of an off-Broadway actor, took his new moniker, Hibiscus, in 1969, when he was picking drag out of dumpsters and mak­ing food deliveries to hippies in the com­munes. Hibiscus was invited by filmmak­er Steven Arnold and Bill Graham’s accountant Sebastian to appear with her friends at a special New Year’s Eve edi­tion of the Nocturnal Dream shows at the Palace Theater, a deco building that showed Chinese movies by day. To ring in the new decade, the Cockettes danced the cancan to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” The crowd approved, and the Cockettes became a regular Palace attraction.

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“The term gender-fuck was coined to describe the Cockettes,” says Martin Worman, a/k/a Philthee Ritz. This for­mer drag queen is now an NYU perfor­mance art doctoral student writing a dis­sertation on his Cockette past. “We were a bunch of hippie radicals. We’d wear our trashy drag in long hair and beards and sprinkle glitter everywhere. Rather than trying to reproduce an image of women, we’d do our take on the image. You must remember that we didn’t have the money to do faithful reproductions. We did our drag on welfare and food stamps.”

Sylvester made his Cockette debut in 1970 as an island mammy in Hollywood Babylon wearing a ’30s bias-cut dress and singing “Big City Blues.” For the next year, Sylvester played crucial roles in ever more elaborate and deranged Cock­ette stage shows. Opening for the Cock­ettes’ New York debut in 1971 was Syl­vester and the Hot Band, a white guitar group fronted by the singer in a new glitter incarnation. It was about this Cockettes performance that Gore Vidal made the often-quoted statement, “Hav­ing no talent is no longer enough.”

In early ’70s San Francisco, it was hip to be a homo, and if you couldn’t be it, you approved. “That whole peace and love thing sounds so corny now, but it really happened,” says Worman. “The hippie atmosphere bred tolerance for ev­erybody, and being gay meant an explora­tion and a celebration. Even the earliest bathhouses were playful. People hadn’t yet compartmentalized their sexuality.”

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The Cockettes’ influence blossomed. When David Bowie’s San Francisco de­but failed to sell out, he explained, “They don’t need me — they have Sylvester.” Ken Russell saw the Cockettes and bor­rowed their imagery for The Boyfriend. Future mainstreamers like the Manhat­tan Transfer, Bette Midler, and the Pointer Sisters — soon to become Sylves­ter’s backup singers — all followed in their high-heeled footsteps.

The Cockettes bridged the gap between hippies and glam-rockers, between dirty denim and gold lamé. Sylvester and the Hot Band, which included future Oingo Boingo bassist Kerry Hatch and future Santana/Journey guitarist Neil Schon, garnered more attention from Sylvester’s glitter drag than the backup band’s bland boogie. Their two 1973 LPs flopped. Syl­vester skipped town, hung out in London and Amsterdam with Bowie and Elton John, and marked time until returning in ’75.

During this period the influx of gays into San Francisco began, and the num­ber of gay establishments boomed. Syl­vester would now have a larger audience to draw on, and more clubs in which to stage his comeback. The hippie do-your-­own-thing philosophy was gradually re­placed by a kind of conformity — and sep­aratism — introduced by people from small towns.

“I moved to Florida in the winter of ’74-’75,” remembers Kreema Ritz, “and when I returned, the second half of the decade had begun — grocery stores had turned into bars and bathhouses. Then I noticed all these men with mustaches, and I thought, where are these people coming from?”

THE POST-STONEWALL GAY MAN want­ed heroes he could call his own. In the absence of other role models, gays have traditionally taken to singers like Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich because they embody conflicts similar to their own — these women take male songwrit­ers’ fantasies of feminine passivity and sing them against the grain, in anger. For the generation of young men who grew up with the Supremes and discovered gay lib, r&b singers became the new divas of choice. Early ’70s soul sisters had one major thing in common with gay men­ — their suppression exploded in a torrent of sensuality. These aggressive black women provided the nighttime dancing sound­track while they captured both the alien­ation and the fervor that gay men understood.

The female singers in Ecstasy, Passion and Pain, and in Faith, Hope and Charity (the names say it all), Lyn Collins, and Patti Jo were among the women to make their mark in gay clubs without ap­proaching the pop charts. Before disco reached the masses, gays asserted their identity in the marketplace as consumers of black dance music — if few gay people were allowed to declare their sexuality on record, then records would become gay when enough gay people bought and sold them. For both blacks and gays, the new nightlife was a frontier where identity and sexuality could be explored within a protective arena. But for straight white America, which already had such institu­tions, disco translated into mainstream escapist entertainment: a barely sublimated outlet to experience the sexual rev­olution without actually living it. Before white-picket-fence America was ready to listen to homosexuals, they learned how to shop and dance like them.

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SYLVESTER’S DISCOIZATION came in time for the genre’s commercial peak in 1979; according to Sylvester, “the year when queens ran the music business.” The disco department of Casablanca Rec­ords, the hugely successful independent label behind Donna Summer and the Vil­lage People, was run by many gay men like Marc Paul Simon, who died earlier this year from AIDS. The most famous disco promoter, Warner Bros.’s Ray Ca­viano, was also among the most open about being gay, and every major compa­ny had their own gay-dominated disco departments. The world wanted to party, and no one knew how like gay men.

But not for long. San Francisco super­visor Harvey Milk was assassinated in ’78, and the mood of gay San Francisco shifted. Anita Bryant’s campaign to re­peal gay rights ordinances had already brought the cult of respectability into gay politics — no one wanted to look or carry on as if they might be taken for a queen. Gay sexuality fragmented. It wasn’t enough to try everything: you had to de­clare yourself into leather, Levis, cow­boys, or chicken, or something.

Then the media announced that “disco sucks,” a catchphrase that attacked the music scene while making a homophobic slur. The record business was only too happy to give up on what they couldn’t control. Disco departments turned into dance departments, or were phased out altogether. As far as Sylvester was con­cerned, there wasn’t a reason for alarm. Unlike many disco artists, the singer had an identity that could transcend trends. People would continue to like Sylvester for reasons that went beyond the beat.

BEFORE HE MADE HIS DISCO MOVE, Syl­vester himself was no fan of the music. Harvey Fuqua, veteran Motown producer and former lead singer of the Moonglows, had signed Sylvester to Fantasy, a jazz­ oriented label. Sylvester, in 1977, present­ed a far more conventional soul singer, and by that time, he had acquired his background weapons, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, the Two Tons o’ Fun. “I was just not into those skinny black girl singers who would ‘oooooh’ and ‘aaaaah,’ ” Sylvester recalls. “I wanted some big bitches who could wail.”

But there was still something missing in Sylvester’s new r&b approach. He got what he needed from Patrick Cowley, lighting man at the City disco, the Bay Area’s largest and most important gay venue. Cowley had kept his songwriting and synthesizer experiments secret until his homemade remix of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” became the local rage. Im­pressed, Sylvester asked Cowley if he wouldn’t mind making similar synth ad­ditions to what was originally a ballad, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” and another uptempo cut, “Dance (Disco Heat).” The two songs became top forty singles and turned the next album, Step II, into gold. Sylvester had finally arrived in the lap of mainstream America, stilet­to heels and all.

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But when the disco market crashed, Fantasy Records panicked. They wanted to force him in the direction of black male vocalists like Teddy Pendergrass. First to go was Cowley’s synthesized Eu­ropean (which in clubs means gay white) influence. As time went on, Sylvester had used more and more of Cowley’s input — ­both his synthesizers and his songs — un­til Fuqua barred Cowley from recording sessions.

The resulting Cowley-less LPs, 1980’s Sell My Soul and ’81’s Too Hot To Sleep, were blacker and straighter — they sound­ed more like the kind of r&b played on black radio and less like the disco heard in gay clubs — but didn’t do well in either format. “I told them, ‘You can change my image, but I ain’t changin’ shit!’ ” says Sylvester. “So I went to the office in a negligee and a blond wig and ran up and down the halls. Then I terrorized their studio until they had to give up.”

Fantasy did relent, but only after pre­venting Sylvester from recording until his contract expired in 1982. By then, two things had happened to Cowley. Since he could no longer play with Sylvester, Cow­ley started his own recording career in ’81. His first single, “Menergy,” alluded to street cruising and backroom sex. Nev­ertheless, it became a No. 1 dance record in America, a pop hit internationally, and defined the future sound of gay clubs­ — hi-NRG. But before all that, Cowley started falling ill to unexplained things.

“We had gone on a tour of South America around 1979 or ’80,” Sylvester recalls, “and during the tour, Patrick got sick. We all thought it was the food. When we got back, he never could get completely well again. Soon he was com­ing down with everything you could imagine, and no one knew why.”

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Some assumed that Cowley’s illness was a psychosomatic fear of success. In truth, the possibility of never recovering drove Cowley to produce more. But he kept getting sicker, and eventually plead­ed with Sylvester to unplug his life-support machines. To give him something to live for, Sylvester told Cowley that he had to recover so they could record to­gether again. Miraculously, Cowley pulled through, and for $500, the pair made “Do You Wanna Funk?”

Shortly after “Do You Wanna Funk?” became one of the biggest dance hits of ’82 and gave Sylvester the needed career boost, Cowley’s death became one of the first publicized as resulting from AIDS. “At the end, he really got bitter,” Sylvester says. “The doctors didn’t know any­thing —  he died of some kind of pneumonia.”

After losing his friend, Sylvester kept his musical collaborations to a minimum. He helped write, produce, and mix three albums for Megatone, the local disco in­die, and because they were recorded cheaply, all turned a profit. The Two Tons o’ Fun went solo, became the Weather Girls, and scored big with “It’s Raining Men.” In 1986, Warner Bros. li­censed Mutual Attraction, which includ­ed the black radio and club hit “Someone Like You,” and then signed the singer. A hacking cough cut recording sessions for the next album short. Sylvester was hos­pitalized with pneumonia, and diagnosed with AIDS.

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SYLVESTER LIVES IN A MODEST apart­ment in San Francisco’s still tangibly gay Castro district. Aside from a few gold records on the wall, there’s nothing in his home that registers more than middle-­class opulence; a big bed, a big TV. A few things do clue you in on its owner’s per­sonality — a framed collection of gloves, Aunt Jemima pepper shakers, a giant Free South Africa poster hanging above the bed.

Sylvester and his manager Tim Mc­Kenna greet me. McKenna looks like most people’s idea of a San Franciscan gay man  — blond, mustachioed, trim. Only he looks a little too trim, and his eyes seem a bit sunken. I think, “Another sick person.” (McKenna, I find out later, does have AIDS, and has already lost his boy­friend to the disease.) Sylvester has the nurse pull out a portable TV, and asks if we wouldn’t mind watching it for a few minutes. Drag queens are on Donahue.

I ask all the difficult questions first. November of last year, the fevers began. He started taking aeresolized pentama­dine, a drug prescribed to prevent people at high risk from coming down with pneumocystis pneumonia, the most life-threatening disease associated with AIDS. But Sylvester had missed his treatment while on tour near the end of the year. On December 4, the last show of the tour, Sylvester appeared at a Philadelphia AIDS benefit. Once he got offstage, he couldn’t catch his breath. That night marked the end of his performing days and the beginning of trouble.

“When I came home from the hospital, I weighed 140 pounds,” says Sylvester. “Now I’m at 167, but my normal weight was 190 to 200 pounds. Thank God I always had a great fashion sense and I knew how to make myself look thinner. I was always on a diet. This wasn’t quite the way I wanted to do it.”

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AIDS once again hit too close with the loss of Sylvester’s lover Rick Cramner, an architect with whom he lived for two years. As with Cowley, Cramner’s illness was shrouded in mystery.

“Rick never told me he was sick — his pride wouldn’t allow him to ask for help. He was here one moment and gone the next. He went and died on me after promising he would never leave me. He promised me this. There were many things that only Rick knew. They’re gone now. I’ll never know them unless I see him someplace.

“It was two days before my 40th birth­day, and we had to turn off his machine. He was gonna die that weekend anyway. But if he had died on my birthday, honey, ooh, what a mess I would’ve been for the rest of my life. I need a boyfriend so bad. I’ve been in mourning for a year now and haven’t had sex for longer than that. It would be so nice to have somebody to wake up to in the morning. But where am I gonna find a boyfriend, hobblin’ around and lookin’ strange? I guess I’m destined not to have one again, and that saddens me. I really believed that Rick and I were gonna be together in sickness and in health. We were, weren’t we?”

Sylvester’s fame alone can’t pay the doctor’s bills. Although he says his insur­ance covers most medical expenses, he needs more than the revenue from back catalogue royalties. McKenna says the singer has virtually run out of money.

“A lot of people wanted us to put out a greatest-hits LP,” says McKenna. “I’ve been resistant because those albums can be so tasteless. But we had to put out something, because Sylvester has nothing to live on. (Megatone will release 12 by 12: Sylvester’s Greatest Mixes.) Right now I’m planning a benefit for him sponsored by the National Gay Rights Advo­cates that Warner Bros. is underwriting. There were times when I thought I could bring a mobile recording studio to his home, but I realized that was just me trying to continue like nothing has changed. It’s hard to let go sometimes.

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“Everywhere I go, I run into people who want to know how Sylvester is. I get a little crazy sometimes because it’s the only thing I’m allowed to talk about. And there’s the impending void that I still don’t know how to deal with.”

True to his exceptional self, Sylvester has the traits of many who live years beyond their diagnosis: he has a fighting spirit, he refuses to see himself as help­less, and he can talk openly about his illness. But AIDS is a great leveler, and like his music, he sometimes leaps from hope to despair.

“Who was I gonna hide the disease from?” says Sylvester. “I’m gonna die from it — if indeed that’s what will hap­pen. If I kept it a secret, what good would that do? I’ve been doing AIDS benefits for many, many years, long before it be­came fashionable. It would be ridiculous to be secretive about it now.”

But get him on a topic that spurs his feisty sense of humor, and he’ll straighten his back and make a little effort to lean forward. His hands will start dancing in the air, and expressions like “honey,” “child,” and “Miss Thing” will slip into the conversation. His eyes will light up, and then you can get a glimpse of the disco diva that lies behind the mask of illness.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to think the worst,” says Sylvester, “because I’ve been a queen long enough. I’ve been gay for 41 years — I’m 41 years old. I didn’t need to take the AIDS antibody test. I know what I’ve done. Why would I waste those $90 when I could go shopping?”

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SYLVESTER HAPPENED AT A TIME when disco had gotten too plastic,” says An­drew Holleran, author of Dancer From the Dance, the classic novel about the early gay days of disco. “But he mixed celebration and sadness in a way that I felt hadn’t been done in years. I hate to use the ‘f’ word, but Sylvester was fabulous.”

Disco is often remembered as a wild­ly — and sometimes annoyingly — upbeat music. But during its early formulative years in the gay clubs, disco encompassed everything from joy to pain, often in the same song. The disco classics that under­ground DJs now reach for in the early morning after a night of acid house or Latin hiphop are most often those rec­ords that took the bittersweet approach. Because his past encompassed both the emotional lows of blues and the spiritual highs of gospel, Sylvester became a major part of that melancholy party tradition.

The ultimate meaning of Sylvester’s voice lies in its ability to convey both the joy of the party and the horror that lies behind it. With the same phrase, Sylves­ter could evoke the delirious escape the party gave you, and the fear of what you’re partying to avoid. For gay people, the party began at that moment after Stonewall when they refused to hide anymore — it was both a celebration and a defiance. Through his voice and his suc­cess as an openly gay man, Sylvester em­bodied both of these things. That he could pull it off was understood by his audience as a harbinger of greater triumphs to come. For if he could be that wild, glittery, unreal thing up there, you could simply be you.

Just as his recording of “Do You Wanna Funk?” with Cowley was an at­tempt to give his dying friend the courage to stay alive, the second wave of success Sylvester had from that song was a sym­bol of the struggle to keep the party alive despite AIDS. And for awhile, the politics of dancing shifted from moving ahead to holding onto the small freedoms of pleasure. Now the party lives on in picket lines, in benefits, and in rallies to keep those like Sylvester alive. ❖

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THE SINNER’S GOSPEL SINGER

He didn’t learn to sing like that,” says Gladys Knight. “His talent was a gift. I am very critical, but my mom is even more critical than me, and she was the one who insisted I listen to him. She used to play his records all the time.”

When Sylvester took on disco, he found the music that his voice was made for. Disco grew out of multitrack record­ing technology, which allowed for a greater amount of instrumentation to be heard more distinctly. The classic Mo­town Sound was meant to be heard as one sound. Disco, on the other hand, was a structure of interlocking parts. The new way of making music brought out new elements of style — the hissing high hat, the guitar that scratched and plucked, the bass drum on every beat, the Barry White strings that would go up, up, up. Vocals, too, had to be ap­proached as another component in the mix.

Contrary to myth, disco generated more than its share of great singers. Disco was all about excess; with all the instrumentation going on around them, singers had little room left for subtlety. Since most disco was speedy, the singer often sang twice as slow as the beat, and therefore needed the breath control to sustain long notes or complete a lengthy phrase without coming up for air. And because the average disco song was low on lyrical content, a singer had to com­municate through the voice what the lyricist didn’t have the words to say.

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Good disco singers navigated all the changes in the musical structure and created some of their own. Not only did disco require singing about sex, one had to simulate it. The singer took an audi­ence through a musical climax, and the task called for technique and control, as well as total abandon. The best parts of disco records are often in the final mo­ments, when the singer vamps up a tor­rent of screams, swoops, and shouts to squeeze out every last drop of feeling before the DJ cues up the next record. To be remembered after a night of mul­tiple musical orgasms, a disco singer has to get under your skin, as well as in your pants.

Disco’s magnitude of sound demanded two approaches to singing. Either the vocalist was just another element in the mix — the passive, anonymous, breathy tones of Silver Convention and early Donna Summer — or one had to soar above it all — the aggressive, almost op­eratic assault of Loleatta Holloway and First Choice. Much of the Philly soul featured smooth, high-pitched male vo­cals, and the Bee Gees turned into pale falsetto imitations. When Blondie went disco, Debbie Harry mimicked Sum­mer’s confrontational pillow talk. Just as many disco songwriters avoided gender­-specific nouns so as to appeal to both straight and gay audiences, the disco singer often embraced androgyny or its opposite, an exaggerated and traditional sexual identity. Both tacks were central to the gay aesthetic.

It was Sylvester who brought the pas­sive/aggressive vocal approaches togeth­er in one voice. Like Luther Vandross, another singer Fantasy wanted to model Sylvester after, Sylvester worships Queen Aretha. But whereas Vandross sings in a manly register and reaches for Franklin’s sweetness, Sylvester assumes a heavenly tone while expressing it with Lady Soul’s hellfire ferocity. Through his falsetto, Sylvester became simmering blues diva, wailing gospel mama.

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“I thought that we were really the same person,” says Patti LaBelle. “We perform alike. We look alike. We even sound alike. I really like me — I like the way I sound. But I feel exactly the same about him.”

Disco was the gospel music of sinners. What Sylvester could convey better than any other male singer of the late ’70s were the final moments of sex — the ec­stasy, the release, the explosion. Rather than reminding you of the body, Sylves­ter’s music captured that instant when your soul jumps out of its skin. When Sylvester describes a lover’s caress, it’s as if he’s feeling the mighty surreal touch of God. There are two poles of Sylvester’s world — the disco and the church — but unlike Little Richard, Al Green, and Prince, Sylvester doesn’t see the pleasures of the body and the spirit as opposing forces, like sin and redemp­tion. For Sylvester, God is on the dance­-floor as He is in Heaven.

B.W.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

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Wide Awake: Song of Summer

I was born the summer Nixon resigned. I know this because in my family it was always spoken of as if the two events were somehow related. My ex-hippie mother used to say, “Thatbastard Nixon” (he was always Thatbastard in our house, never Richard)… “Thatbastard Nixon got what was coming to him. And we got you.”

I always took a kind of pride in this. Not so much because I thought he resigned because of me, but because we were both the results of one long, hot summer when everything changed.

For Nixon, the summer of 1974 was an ending. For me, a beginning.

It was a heady time for music, a summer when new genres were just taking form and competing for national attention. In the cities, disco was rearing its head for the first time, at the same moment the Ramones were making their CBGB debut. Outside the cities, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver dominated jukeboxes and car radios.

Classic rock, folk, disco, and punk were all facing endings and beginnings that summer.

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Ironically, the song that dominated the pop charts that year was the treacly Barbra Streisand ballad “The Way We Were.” No matter your opinions on Streisand, the song was huge and the movie of the same name — a love story about a Marxist Jew (Streisand) and her WASP-y writer boyfriend-then-husband (Robert Redford) attempting to find love in the face of idealism, betrayal, and McCarthyism — inspired one perfect line that applies as much to the summer of 2018 as to the summer of 1974, as we once again find ourselves caught in the brouhaha of presidential scandal:

Streisand: Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.

Redford: Katie, it was never uncomplicated.

I like to imagine those words reverberating quietly behind the public longing for simpler times, an echo of past sins mocking the idea that a once-slave-owning country longs to be “Great Again.” It’s just the kind of willful ignorance at which America excels.

The song that was everywhere in the summer of 1989 had no such rheumy-eyed notions of the past. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was as angry, sweaty, and claustrophobic as the Spike Lee movie (Do the Right Thing) that made it famous.

I had just finished ninth grade at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where I would hide out in my Morrissey T-shirts and twelve-hole Docs in hallways dominated by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”), De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), and the few white kids belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.

“Fight the Power” was a revelation, a glimpse into something forceful. With one righteously pissed-off line after another, the song inspired phrases that survive to this day in the modern lexicon of resistance. To wit: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

The heroes in question — Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — found themselves brought by the song into the American mainstream 25 years after their heyday. Tragically, that same summer, Huey Newton was gunned down in cold blood, a victim of a drug crime as much as the white racism he spent a lifetime fighting. 

This was also the summer of the Bensonhurst riots in which Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was killed by a white mob because the mob (mistakenly) believed he was dating a local white girl. (The Public Enemy song “Welcome to the Terrordome” includes a dedication to Hawkins.) The race riot came just two months after the release of Do the Right Thing, which itself featured a race riot in Brooklyn in response to the killing of an innocent black man. 

So here’s Chuck D and Flava Flav broadcast into the bedrooms of the American suburb (in a video directed by Spike Lee), angrily pointing out the history of “nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” as the white kids raised their skinny white fists, timidly placing a toe into the raging waters of American racial anger while quoting Spike Lee’s powerful lines: “Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?”

It was a long, hot summer when everything changed. It was never uncomplicated.

In fact, had social media existed in the summer of 1989, there no doubt would have been a series of righteous hashtags (#myheroesdontappearonnostamps) followed by an inevitable backlash (#Elviswasntracist) followed by the backlash to the backlash (#FuckJohnWayne), in which we would organize ourselves into the neat camps of allies and adversaries that are the trademark of modern political discourse. 

When I posed this question to my Twitter feed, with just these ideas in mind: “What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?” I was surprised to find an inclination toward, well, sunnier songs.

People tended to view the question in one of three ways: Any song that has the word “summer” in the title; a song that dominated the charts and airplay for a summer; or a song that simply evokes the feeling of summer.

“Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was the most popular answer, and it was probably because it checked all three boxes. As one commenter put it, the song puts the listener mentally and emotionally into “a perfect summer day.”

Other songs that fulfilled all three requirements: “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. These songs share the idea of summertime as holiday — both literal and figurative — from the existential grind of the fall and winter.

“Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hit from the all-woman pop band Bananarama, was a popular choice, an angsty take on heartache amid the heat of summer. (For my money, the summer of 1984 belongs to “When Doves Cry” by Prince, when His Purpleness blessed us with the best bathtub vocal performance until “Stay” by Rihanna).

“Smooth” by Santana/Rob Thomas and “Summertime” by Janis Joplin seem to share a spiritual connection to “Fight the Power,” a kind of slinky, sweaty feeling about summer that eschews the explosiveness of explicit politics but embraces the anxiety of heat in close quarters.

It’s hard to talk about these songs outside the events, both personal and political, which surrounded them. There’s a necessary nostalgia to such things. Where were you when you first heard “Brown-Eyed Girl”? And who was the brown-eyed girl that loved you for loving it? Were you dancing at your cousin’s wedding to “Crazy in Love?” in the summer of 2003? Do you remember your date? The smell of the spilled champagne on your tux, the mud you noticed on the heel of your shoe from dancing in the grass because your brown-eyed girl was too shy to go to the dance floor?

Were you belting out “Free Fallin’” in the front seat of your best friend’s tattered old Plymouth as you made your way to another lazy summer day at the beach, the park, the river, the lake, the shore, the parking lot of the Dairy Queen one shoeless summer before Everything Changed?

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I like to think of the talk I would have with my past self if I could. I like to imagine just what I’d tell me about the future. “It’s totally different than you think it’s going to be. You turn out all right, man. But you don’t get jetpacks, and there are no flying cars.”

Instead we get this. We get social media and computer screens. We get a worldwide metaphor in which we pose these questions to each other, the ones we, as humans, really care about: Who am I and Who are you and What do I like and What do you like and Do you like me and Do I like you and Are we on the same team? Like the beak of a hummingbird, our adaptation to the world is this networked computer metaphor in which we’ve all agreed to participate, an extension of our freakish brains that we use to pose and solve the social questions we really care about.

So instead of flying cars, we got social media. Instead of jetpacks, streaming pornography. How disappointing.

But maybe there is hope in this because at least, perhaps finally, we see ourselves clearly for the cloying, needy, angry, imperfect things we are. Nixon resigned. He resigned because he broke the law and got caught and still people forgot, choosing instead to wrap themselves in American flags, to long for an American innocence that never existed. And despite the utter morass of immorality, the racist, thieving, lying shitshow that is the long, hot summer of 2018 — the disappointment with American promise, with American discourse, with American tribalism, with America — the effect of all this daily conflict is that we no longer have to carry the burden of a past innocence betrayed.

Perhaps this is why the song that best defines this particular fucked-up summer — the one we’ll remember forty years from now — is likely the viral phenomenon “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, which is as violent, tragic, contradictory, and angry as the country at which it takes aim.

Maybe it’s the summer we finally realize it was never uncomplicated. We were just young.

 

“Wide Awake” is a new column from Mikel Jollett, who you should be following on Twitter.

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Sensitive-Whiteboy Robo-Soul Will Own 2008

Kelley Polar, looking ridiculous

I keep a piece of paper thumbtacked up next to my desk where I write down every album that I liked in the past few months. The idea is that when I get around to doing my quarterly report things, I’ll have a handy little shortlist to work from. (I don’t do the same thing for singles, though God knows I probably should.) So far this year, that list has been a bit different from my usual jumble. For one thing, it’s still the beginning of the year, a traditionally slow time, and I just haven’t heard that much good stuff lately. But what’s up there breaks down pretty weirdly along genre lines: a couple of good metal albums, a few noisier picks, no rap worth mentioning until the Re-Up Gang mixtape leaked last weekend, Vampire Weekend. But one vague non-genre has dominated. For whatever reason, early 2008 is turning out to be a great time for robotic whiteboy disco-soul. Hot Chip, Sebastien Tellier, Hercules & Love Affair, and Kelly Polar don’t all come from the same scene; as far as I can tell, none of them really come from any one particular scene at all. And they don’t really sound like each other; this isn’t one of those explosions of like-minded bands where everyone comes up listening to and influencing each other. But all these records share a lot. All four of those acts have associations to established dance-music entities (DFA, Daft Punk, Metro Area), and they all share a serious dancefloor affinity, but none of them really makes dance music, at least not in its most utilitarian sense. Instead, they play around with the mechanics of rhythm and melody, using them as vehicles for sweetly romantic lost-soul lamentations (sometimes ironic, sometimes not) rather than as ends unto themselves. I’m not really a dance-music guy, and I can’t speak to the efficacy of most of this stuff on actual dancefloors, but I can say without reservation that all these groups make pretty great iPod music, music that bleeds into the background beautifully into the background and lends a sort of grand pull to everything it ends up soundtracking. I wish I knew what’s causing this little mini-boom: Cold weather? Gradual bleedthrough of diluted T-Pain influence on indie-pop? An aging-urban-sophisticate version of rave nostalgia? Really, I have no fucking idea. But it’s a good thing, and I hope it lasts.

Out of all those acts, Hot Chip is by far the most established, and their Made in the Dark has been the most anticipated. In ways I’m still figuring out, it’s also the most disappointing. Part of it is the absolute remix-circuit tear Hot Chip have been on lately; their revisions of songs like Tracey Thorn’s “King’s Cross” and the Junior Boys’ “In the Morning” have been serious wounded-romantic bangers, tracks that fuse the groups twitchy heartbroken grace with their hosts’ sensibilities effortlessly. A couple of weeks back, a track they produced for the British rapper Dels made the rounds; the idea of Hot Chip making rap should be just painful, but even that came off beautifully. But Hot Chip are a group with a whole lot of ideas, and not all those ideas are good ones. Since their inception, they’ve been probably the only synthpop group in existence to operate on the Fugazi model, where the records, great as they might be, basically exist to serve as previews for the live show. Hot Chip’s live shows are things of beauty: five wormy pixeltanned Brits working up gigantic clanking laser-show bangers and then suddenly breaking for surging choruses of shocking loveliness. Advance word on Made in the Dark said that they’d finally figured out how to translate the energy of those shows to record, but it turns out not so much. Isolated moments on the album do capture that grandeur. “Touch Too Much” welds devastated vocal harmonies to jittery beats in exactly the way I’d hoped they’d do throughout this thing. “Ready for the Floor,” the single, is total twerked-out Pet Shop Boys/New Order awesomeness. “Hold On” has probably the itchiest, most restless groove they’ve yet worked up. But they haven’t yet grown out of their penchant for godawful math-club jokes, and “Wrestlers” is about the most egregious example of that nudge-nudge humor they’ve produced to dates. It’s seriously not funny when reedy-voiced dorks sing about beating you up. It’s just not. And when those jokes take the form of a laundry-list of wrestling moves, some of which I’m pretty sure don’t exist, it’s somehow even more galling. But even “Wrestling” has a gorgeous little piano bit that comes in on the chorus. Even when these guys are disappointing, there’s always something there.

There’s not always something there with Sebastien Tellier, the impressively bearded cheeseball Parisian sex-crooner whose new album, Sexuality, I still like a lot. Tellier does most of his breathy whisper-singing in French, but it’s not hard to figure out what he’s talking about, and the female moaning that shows up from time to time fills in any remaining blanks. This is total Moroder/Gainsbourg pastiche, and the amount of puerile club-kid winking sometimes drives Sexuality perilously close to Chromeo territory; I have to assume that keytaurs will figure prominently into the guy’s live show. But the level of craftsmanship on the album is just insane. It’s not in the songwriting, which really isn’t much; it’s in the actual individual sounds. A Wendy & Lisa keyboard-note will sustain just right. A buttrock guitar solo will come out pillowy and languid. The Cerrone-sounding synth arpeggios on “Sexual Sportswear” twinkle like nothing I’ve heard lately. I wasn’t there for the creation of this thing, but I have to assume that a lot of the credit for these sounds should go to the album’s producer, Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. Tellier and Homem-Christo appear to have taken midtempo Daft Punk pricklers like “Digital Love” as their starting point. And, as starting points go, “Digital Love” is pretty great. There’s not a lot of emotional weight to Sexuality, but sometimes emotional weight is entirely beside the point.

Earlier this week, Nick Sylvester wrote a post about the New York disco project Hercules & Love Affair where he basically dared the entire rest of the music press to jump on board with it. Well, I’m on board, mostly. And I’m on board partly because Andy Butler, the DJ behind Hercules & Love Affair, has finally found something worthwhile to do with Antony. Antony, of Johnsons fame, has a truly dazzling voice, as immediately distinctive as it is technically on-point. But Antony hasn’t shown that he has much idea what to do with that voice, at least not from where I’m sitting; his own cabaret-folk excursions are way too formless and self-indulgent for me. But Butler turns him into a disco diva, which makes pretty much the perfect context for this guy. More than any of the acts I’m talking about in this entry, Hercules & Love Affair is straight-up disco (if “straight-up disco” isn’t some horrible contradiction-in-terms misnomer). Butler clearly wants to find the same balance of muscular thump and melodic uplift that exists in some of the best prime-era disco records, and sometimes he finds it. “Blind,” the pseudo-hit single, is a serious starstruck banger, Antony testifying meaningless idealism over a sweeping hurricane of horns and slap-bass and ravey synth-burble. And “You Belong” just whoops ass, Kim Ann Foxman snarling icy Crystal Waters drama while Antony coos in the background and cowbells and housey pianos fly in from all directions. But those are the most straight-ahead tracks on the self-titled Hercules album; sometimes this stuff wafts off into fidgety avant-disco diffusion and sort of loses me. Even then, though, the rhythmic push and melodic pull are both there, figuring ways to work together. I’m still absorbing this one, but it’s scratching itches.

My favorite of these albums by a pretty serious margin, though, is Kelley Polar’s I Need You to Hold On While the Sky is Falling. My standard line on Polar is that he sounds the way I’d imagined Arthur Russell would sound before I actually heard Arthur Russell. Back when those Russell reissues were first getting ink, the writers who bigged him up focused on a few aspects of his work (cellos, rippling beats, withdrawn sad-gay-guy emoting) without mentioning the stuff that would ultimately make it impossible for me to fully get into the guy (Chick Corea electric pianos, endless tracks). Polar basically makes the music I’d been hoping Russell would: proggy, ambitious string-laden space-disco with a gooey tender-hearted center. His 2005 debut, Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens, walked the same middle-ground between glassy minimal techno and dinky laptop-emo that the Junior Boys live on. With the new album, though, he’s fully internalized both tendencies and fused them into something bigger than its parts, making room for Tangerine Dream lunar-landscape heaviness and early-house lushness. And the hooks here are out of control, both in terms of sweep and immediacy; when Polar and his female counterpoint come together on the chorus of “Entropy Reigns (in the Celestial City),” it just kills me. I hadn’t even realized this until Matthew Fluxblog pointed it out, but that song’s lyrics actually make for a pretty compelling portrait of a character who feels completely lost in nightlife sensation and who can’t find a way to pull any meaning from it. That contrast is all over this thing: slick surface and helpless sentiment coexisting peacefully, giving each other context.