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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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The Secret Disco Revolution Theorizes on “Party Songs”

There’s a brain-frying moment in writer-director Jamie Kastner’s flawed, mildly entertaining documentary The Secret Disco Revolution in which members of the Village People vehemently deny that double entendres run rampant in songs like “In the Navy” and “YMCA.” “They were just party songs,” insists the exasperated Construction Worker. “There was no innuendo.” Group delusion turns mean-spirited when the Native American sniffs, “Those guys [songwriter-producer Henri Belolo and the group’s late impresario, Jacques Morali] couldn’t write a double entendre.” Cut to Belolo explaining that the late, openly gay Morali definitely and pointedly worked to bring post-Stonewall liberated queer maleness to the mainstream with his most popular creation. That moment crackles in the film, pushing this doc beyond its uneasy blend of academic theorizing (most powerfully from cultural critic Alice Echols, author of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture) and camp connective tissue. But everything wheezes under a framing conceit that features an otherworldly Mod Squad-style trio meant to represent the mystical force that the film imagines brought disco to Earth; they’re shown flipping through a manifesto whose chapter titles kick off exploration of each thematic twist in the film. Kastner’s thesis (old hat for disco fans and scholars) is that disco was a revolutionary cultural movement right up until industry greed gutted its subversive impulse and artistry, a movement whose soldiers (singers, producers, the teeming bodies in clubs) unconsciously waged war on the white, hetero, male center of rock and pop culture. Interestingly, few of his interview subjects—who include singers Martha Wash and KC of the Sunshine Band, and various producers and DJs—agree. The film isn’t as smart on the issue of race as it needs to be, and its feminist read of the music and scene feels forced in places, but as an entry-level conversation starter, it gets the job done. And Gloria Gaynor and Vicki Sue Robinson look amazing.

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A COOL WEDDING?

As much as you think planning a wedding—even a low-key one—isn’t stressful, this is just not true. If you’re in the process of pulling out every hair in your head because you’re in wedding countdown mode, Wedding Crashers 2011 may just save your life. It’s a wedding convention without the cheeseball factor, and it’s 100 percent Brooklyn, featuring local vendors, venues, food, and DJs who won’t force you to play the Village People.

Sun., Feb. 27, 11 a.m., 2011

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No One Else on the Plane

I didn’t know I loved James Brown so much. I never had a personal musical relationship with him the way I did with someone like Kurt Cobain. But when I learned of his death, I was unexpectedly moved. I soon realized that Brown is directly or indirectly responsible for every type of music I love: jungle and drum’n’bass, breakbeat, house, Detroit techno—not to mention his undeniable influence on hip-hop and r&b, of course. I don’t believe in God, but if there were one, I think he might be like James Brown—everywhere, all at once.

So a few friends and I joined several thousand people in saying goodbye to the Godfather of Soul at the Apollo in late December. We didn’t make it in. One friend had been waiting for three hours and only managed to move from 128th to 125th Street. We had to say goodbye with a mere wave to the marquee as they cut off the line. After all, Brown had places to be, people to meet. Even in death, he was booked.

With much help from Roots promoter Robbi, some of New York’s finest DJs, producers, and music lovers shared their favorite James Brown musical moments.

Cosmo Baker, DJ, the Rub: James is the cornerstone of all of this. He is the genesis of everything that all of us do. Seriously, the world of music without James is like humanity without the discovery of fire. He is going to be missed, but I’m not sad. We are all so privileged to have had him on this earth.

Kenny Dope, producer-DJ, Masters at Work: My favorite James Brown cut is “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.”

Louie Vega, DJ-producer, Masters at Work: James Brown has influenced me just as my other heroes have—Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Tito Puente, Creed Taylor, Willie Colón, and Héctor Lavoe, to name a few. His music will always be in my crates of vinyl. He is the master!

DB, DJ, Breakbeat Science: The world of drum’n’bass and jungle would have been really crap without James Brown and his drummer.

Ralph McDaniels, Video Music Box and Hot 97: He gave me soul in all aspects of my delivery and presentation in the music. My favorite James Brown cut is “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Justin Strauss, producer: When I started my first DJ job at the Mudd Club in the midst of punk and new wave, all you had to do was put on a James Brown record and the place would go nuts.

Kevin Graves, DJ, Rocit Records: It was so poignant watching Eddie Murphy‘s performance (loosely based on James Brown) in
Dreamgirls on Christmas Day, the day we lost him. The audience seemed to get it too, as there was not a dry eye in the theater.

DJ Joro Boro, the Bulgarian Bar: By secularizing (tele-)evangelist aesthetics, he created not just a style of music, but a style of star.

Sacha Jenkins, editor, Ego Trip: James Brown. Wow. If it weren’t for his grunts, groans, pelvic swivels, passion-pouring-from-bended-knee crooning, and backing band dope enough to make sisters (as in nuns) shake their bottoms, there would be no hip-hop. His lyrics were saying something at a time when things desperately needed to be said and said loud. In other words, “Shake your ass!” but “watch yourself!”

DJ Disciple: Doing the James Brown split in the late ’60s determined how cool you were, especially if you didn’t split your pants. My brother Larry would take home all of the contest trophies for the best James Brown dances, and I would follow in his footsteps. My fave James Brown tune: “Cold Sweat.” This was like a ‘hood record from back in the day. You played this and the black men flexed like they heard a Jay-Z record of its time.

Kris Chen, A&R, XL Records: About seven years ago at Centro-Fly, Derrick May played this very intense set of techno. At 3:30 in the morning, as the crowd had dwindled to about 75 very tired people, May began pitching a record down slower and slower until he cut in the opening scream of James Brown’s “The Payback” and let the song roll. Suddenly everyone came back to life. It was hot, nasty, sweaty, and electrifying. I’d always liked his music, but suddenly I realized, “I love James Brown.”

Jayne County: Well, back in the ’60s when I first heard “Please, Please, Please,” I thought it made all the other black soul singers sound white! Then I went to see him live at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium in 1965 and was blown away. I think the place held 1,500 people, and I was one of the 10 white people there! I was so glad!

“Big Black” Matt Goias, Fannypack: No event or person has ever made me prouder to be black than Mr. James Brown. You paid the cost to be the boss! Say it loud, Godfather.
(Note: Though Matt is not actually black, he is clearly proud.)

Danny Tenaglia: James Brown made me a dancer. I was barely 10 years old and we would dance to James’s music as children. “Get on the Good Foot” definitely was one of those songs that changed my life and made me one of the funkiest li’l white boys to come out of Brooklyn, New York, that I know of today.

Maurice Bernstein, co-founder, Giant Step: When Giant Step first started in 1990 as the Groove Academy, its m.o. was to give a stage to the artists who were being heavily sampled in hip-hop. James was actually in jail at the time, but I managed to work with alumni such as
Bobby Byrd, Vicki Anderson, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, Fred Wesley, Bootsy Collins, Catfish Collins, Richard “Kush” Griffiths, Martha High, and Marva Whitney. Spending time with these guys gave me a real insight into the man, the myth, and the legend that was James Brown.

Randy Jones, the cowboy from the Village People: During the Village People era, we got to meet once again. It was the “Living in America” project. My pal Dan Hartman was writing a song for one of the Rocky movies, and he was preparing to do the demo. So Dan called me to his studio and asked if I’d help him with the demo for “Living in America.” He wanted it to sound like a Village People song—the big layered male-chorus sound. So I did it, and James loved it and was hysterical in the studio. They kept most of the sound we recorded, and I went back and added more. If you close your eyes and listen to it, you can think of it as a Village People song with James Brown singing lead!

Danny Krivit, DJ, 718 Sessions: By 1971, I was already a vinyl junkie and a 14-year-old amateur DJ when I first met the Godfather of Soul at my neighbor’s office. (That’s Jerry Schoenbaum, vice president of Polydor Records.) Jerry said, “James, I would like you to meet a big supporter and DJ, Danny Krivit.” James replied, “Outta sight! Let’s hook him up with my latest jams.” He handed me advance promo LPs of “Get on the Good Foot” and (Lyn Collins‘s) “Think.” I was in awe. These were white-label promos, personally handed to me by the man himself, months before their street release. I felt my professional career as a DJ had started at that very moment.

Tom Silverman, founder, Tommy Boy Records: Atlanta-based promo man Bob Patton
tells the story of Mr. Brown’s private jet losing power in both engines on the way to a gig and plummeting thousands of feet. Patton sat across from Mr. Brown, each looking into the other’s eyes as the jet plunged possibly to their deaths. After 10,000 feet of free fall, the engines kicked in again. Mr. Brown said to Patton, “I guess it wasn’t my time.” As if there was no one else on the plane.

James Brown, R.I.P.

flylife@villagevoice.com

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NY Mirror

Let me graciously glide you through the decades, starting with the ’60s Broadway musical Good Vibrations, a harmless theme park entertainment that pie-facedly borrows from Mamma Mia! (it throws in the expected “surprise” gay twist and the de rigueur post-curtain reprise medley) while jumping the gun on All Shook Up (there’s a nerd, an interracial couple, and even an Elvis sighting). But though it’s bulimic and contrived and seems to think the BEACH BOYS songs were really just about cars and girls, I was sort of buoyed by the cute, spirited cast and dopey doings. Critics will bitch the show to high heaven—guess what it names a character just so they can sing “Help Me, Rhonda”?—but they have themselves to blame for the jukebox genre; the scribes are the ones who raved about Mamma Mia! simply because it opened shortly after 9-11, when they were desperate for any escapist crapola to hang onto.

The surf turned to smurfs when the ’70s came back with a big, old smiley face that went a little bitter. At a promo event for MIKE CARBONARO‘s Big Apple Comic Book, Art, and Toy Show, I treaded delicately while hobnobbing with TV Land types over warm potato salad and Mountain Dew. Three’s Company‘s pert JOYCE DEWITT entered, saying, “I’m late because I was putting on 400 pounds of makeup!” That’s OK, Joyce, what else have you been working on? “They’re doing an A&E Biography about Three’s Company and I’m writing three books, describing what I’ve learned from the most amazing spiritual teachers on the planet.” Hmm, I was starting to notice a three trend.

But anyway, when John Ritter died, did you really bury the hatchet with SUZANNE SOMERS? Oops. Non-spiritual moment. “I never had a hatchet with Suzanne,” she said, steaming, “and I don’t want to talk about Suzanne. That’s Suzanne’s drama and you’ll have to ask her about that!” Tense silence. The Mountain Dew went flat. No hatchet indeed.

I counted to three, then ran over to ERIN MORAN (Joanie from Happy Days) for comfort and asked what she’s working on. “Nothing,” she said, cutely scrunching her face. “It’s so hard to get a break in this business.” OK, but do you think Chachi (SCOTT BAIO) was overrated? “I do! He’s a sweetheart and he’s cute and everything, but . . . ” She stopped herself. “No, he’s a nice guy. He has a strong Italian father and he wouldn’t have been overrated without that. Italians are very close.” (I know; that’s why I always look so suffocated.)

Moving on to the ’80s—nah, let’s race forward to the ’90s, to get as far away from Three’s Company‘s backstage devilry as possible. The ’90s were the land of Forrest Gump, grunge, FIONA APPLE, and other uplifting phenomena, and they’re all back—things happen so quickly here—via Nerveana, a Tribeca club dedicated to the Prozac decade, the one that had me at hello. So did the club; I adore nothing more than a well-executed theme, and this place—basically the upstairs to the ’80s haven the Culture Club—turns it out like a Spice Girl at an open bar. The Beverly Hills 90210 mural is perfection, the O.J. car chase on the TV screen still compels, and even the cocktail ideas are divoon. (The LORENA BOBBITT “tastes like fresh cut strawberries.”) What I could have done without at the opening were all the reporters running around asking people, “So what characterized the ’90s anyway?” Honey, if you can remember, you weren’t there.

Less than zero

I can’t even remember the present—yes, we’ve blissfully segued into now—though I do recall the recent wrap party for Fox’s ex-con drama Jonny Zero at the Cutting Room, where I overheard someone from the show say, “They ran the fourth episode second! It made no sense!” Yeah, but it made more sense than if they ran the fourth episode fourth. And it made way more sense than the fact that star FRANKY G wasn’t showing up because he couldn’t tear himself away from the Steelers game.

Sense (and some sensibility) was restored at DENISE RICH‘s Fifth Avenue luxury pad last Monday, when notables gathered to watch the DVD release of JAMES TOBACK‘s When Will I Be Loved over couscous and champagne. Was Toback, like every other moviemaker, praying he’d get Oscar nominations the next day? “Unfortunately,” he told me, “with a marketing budget of zero, my chances are zero. I’m not bitter because I know the game. When I made Fingers 25 years ago, HARVEY KEITEL said, ‘Jimmy, what’s wrong with these people? All this shit is getting attention and nobody knows we exist.’ Well, now a French director, JACQUES AUDIARD, is remaking Fingers. Maybe I have to wait 25 years till I’m a cripple in Brazil for this movie to have its day in court. Or we could screen it every night here, charge $3,000 a ticket, and call it the Denise Rich Theater!” Uh-oh, another three word. Don’t come at me with a hatchet, Joyce.

The nominations came out—no PAUL GIAMATTI? Are you people crazed?—and I found myself chatting about them with DELROY LINDO at the Court TV event for the harrowing The Exonerated at 21 Club, where rich people mixed with black guys falsely accused of rape. “I’m thrilled,” Lindo said, “for DON CHEADLE, SOPHIE OKONEDO, JAMIE FOXX, and the young lady from Maria Full of Grace.” (Well, let’s hope she doesn’t nab the gold or it could lead to an embarrassing moment: “The winner is . . . the young lady from Maria Full of Grace.”) Did Lindo get scads of money to do The Exonerated? “Money! This is the payment right here,” he said, laughingly pointing to a plate of hors d’oeuvres. “But it was a worthwhile project with wonderful people. I got into acting because I wanted to change the world.” And when he does it, I rarely want to change the channel.

Finger me Elmo

But let’s point to the future with some food for thought and discuss how the family values crowd is aghast again about the threat of cartoon homosexuality. The strangest aspect of this doofy debate is that the liberal argument seems to always be, “But how could a cartoon character have sexuality?” Honey, tell that to everyone from Prince Charming to Mickey Mouse to Yogi Bear, all of whom had hot girlfriends. The reality is, cartoon characters do often have sexuality; the public just doesn’t make much of it because it’s straight and pretty routine. If it were gay, everyone would not only notice, they’d shit themselves, so creators have to put it in via signifiers and suggestions to get their point across while denying it like crazy. The JERRY FALWELLs find this dangerous. I find it wonderful. And by the way, forget SpongeBob and the starfish. The Squidward character is a total screamer!

Now onto February.


LITTER BOX

Push push in the Bush


Jones with Tony Orlando at the Bush inaugural
photo: Diane Jenkins

Wait, I can’t resist some more ’70s-related mania: I recently wrote that the original cowboy from the VILLAGE PEOPLE, openly gay RANDY JONES, had agreed to perform at the Bush inaugural festivities, and some people were angrier than I was when disco died. Well, here’s Randy’s post-show reply: “I was able to stand in front of more than 1,000 Republicans, speak of my husband of almost 21 years, WILL GREGA, and still have them waving their arms and forming the letters of YMCA just like little kids. It really was quite a surprising show of . . . well, I don’t think tolerance is the right word and neither is acceptance. . . . It was like, ‘Well, OK, that’s the way it is, and we love the song and whatever comes with it.’ It was exactly like any Village People audience—young folks, old folks, blacks, whites, and lots of Dorothy’s friends. I was very impressed that I didn’t run into one iota of rudeness, intolerance, or anything to make me feel bad. Of course I still will not be a Republican.” Oh, good—they have enough of Dorothy’s friends.

One more ’70s-themed exclusive: MISS PIGGY will be sitting front row at this Friday’s Heatherette show. I’m beside moi-self!


musto@villagevoice.com

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The 49th Annual Obie Awards

With I Am My Own Wife, Frozen, and Caroline, or Change all having transferred to Broadway, a lot of this year’s Obie winners were scarily close to Tony land, but that only made the Obie selectors search even harder for honor-worthy rarities like a Hiroshima tale with puppets, a Doll’s House with puppets and little people, and a play rehearsed by a dumpster.

The resulting Obie evening at Webster Hall was a heady collision of art, risk, commerce, gratitude, politics, and self-promotion. At the pre-party there, Randy Jones approached black-leather-clad Swoosie Kurtz and gushed, “You look like the leather man from my group, the Village People!” Nearby, a fan of pop-cultural references like that, former Obie host and winner Paul Rudnick, was lamenting that the Broadway bomb Prymate wasn’t eligible, because “Every play should include a character masturbating another one!”

Here, the Off-Broadway glitterati had come to stroke everyone they’d ever met, but first, opening act Tonya Pinkins told the crowd, “If Caroline sang this song, she would have changed,” and launched into a smoky, seductive version of “Blues in the Night.” Then bluesy Swoosie came out with her co-host, Raúl Esparza—also in black leather—and announced that at the Obies, “creativity is not a competition” (i.e., since there are no nominees, there are no losers—just people who have failed to win).

And on came the non-losers: Wife‘s Jefferson Mays, who described a snippet that was cut from the play, where Charlotte delusionally says in a ratty hospital, “Mein Gott, what a beautiful chandelier!” There was more medical talk when Sarah Jones, as her retired Long Islander character, Lorraine Levine, said Obie sounds like something involving “sanitary supply.” And being ultra-hygienic, I’m sure, Wife‘s director, Moisés Kaufman, was doing a Christina Lahti in the bathroom when he won, though he then dramatically ran down the aisle shrieking, “I’m here!”—a moment that’s an early contender for next year’s Obies.

But the horny, happy highlight had Tony Kushner thanking his lover, Mark Harris, and exulting, “Every time I win an Obie, I get to have sex, so this is four!” (Mein Gott, nine-time winner Richard Foreman must get a lot of dates.)

For the record, there was one gay-marriage remark, two speeches against the war, two against the administration, and one against audiences. (“They’re very old,” said Frozen‘s Brían F. O’Byrne. “They don’t have the vitality. . . . We don’t seem to be getting through to them.”) Oh, and no more Village People outfits.

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NY Mirror

Always in the market for new nightlife frontiers, I journeyed down—yes, down—to Heaven, a restaurant-dance club in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, that looks like a high-tech airport lounge of the future as envisioned by a very kooky tycoon from the recent past. The sleek hangout—smack-dab in a neighborhood mainly known for fishy aromas and joints like For goodness steak and Loehman’s—positively swarms with clean-scrubbed Russian youth who drink fig-flavored vodkas and party on, even if they’ve been seated in Siberia. Everyone raises his glasnost to heaven as the trio of house entertainers—who come off like the Russian Sinéad O’Connor, Nelly Furtado, and Nick Carter—gamely belt out numbers till the yaks come home. These divas take turns delivering original dance tunes and ’80s classics, never dabbling in the stereotypical anthems and/or cossack dances I foolishly expected. Between sets, you enjoy the fascinating “fusion” food, duck the seizure-inducing strobe lights, and marvel at the fact that a touch of Russia—the land of flashy new nightlife and overnight millionaires—has been effectively brought to the boroughs. Honey, Moscow does not believe in tears—it believes in fierce.

On the mainland, things seem to be getting friskier, obviously in tongue-wagging anticipation of Premier Giuliani‘s departure (though state officials are having the last sick laugh by crunching down on Peter Gatien‘s clubs). The Knock-Off bash that happens Fridays at the Slipper Room serves up a racy, multigender revue of kitsch, though I’m still smarting from the performer dressed like a giant vagina who enfolded me with her labia while singing “Lick Me in My Wet Spot” to the tune of Pat Benatar‘s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Help!

They dressed like they had giant vaginas at the Miss All That Contest, a demented drag pageant that I helped judge at Cheez Whiz (Sundays at the Parkside Lounge) in exchange for two Diet Cokes. After four hours of jury deliberation, the crown went to Pastiche Mélange, a flat-chested beauty with a penchant for jaunty berets and Lou Reed songs. The prize? According to organizer Sweetie, it was “a Jeep Cherokee, sexual reassignment via Puket, Thailand, and a year’s worth of Percocet.” Hopefully not in that order.

“Fusion” drugs were advisable for the HX Awards at Limelight last week—the club was even allowed to serve booze back then—especially since the set list contained the very surreal sentence, “Rue McClanahan will present a special award to Junior Vasquez.” This actually wasn’t all that shocking, considering Rue has been hosting something called Faggot Feud at a Chelsea bar named Blu. (What next—Estelle Getty at the Manhole?) Alas, Rue didn’t make it to Limelight—she’d never confirmed—but Junior did, announcing that, with Twilo shuttered, he’ll next spin at Exit rather than enter unemployment. (The girl who plays the lesbian on All My Children showed too, but she got carved up by the drag hosts, who deadpanned, “Wow, she’s thin and can read a prompter.”)

The city’s high-cultural landscape might not be providing tons of work these days—it’s off-season—but it’s hitting with its best shot. Off Broadway, tick . . . tick . . . BOOM! proves that Jonathan Larson was a cranky, self-possessed nightmare, but one whose angsty talent makes this minor bauble brim with poignancy. What a sweet little flat-chested beauty of a show! And the late legends keep on coming. At a gala screening for the gushy Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, I asked the director’s widow, Christiane Kubrick, about the nuclear bomb known as Eyes Wide Shut. “It was hugely successful in southern Europe and Japan,” she insisted. So am I—but why did the film fail in America, pray tell? “It was badly advertised,” said Christiane, “but Stanley couldn’t stop it. He was dead already.” I hate when that happens.

In the land of more upbeat promotional possibilities, I hear that author Tama Janowitz will be on the cover of Modern Ferret magazine with her pets, as photographed by Todd Oldham. Anyone for the back cover of Contemporary Gerbil?

Monkey talk dominated Paper‘s Tribeca Grand party for sultry Planet of the Apes costar Lisa Marie. The model-turned-actress told me that the movie’s simian costumes transformed the cast so dramatically that “when I looked at Tim Roth, I couldn’t see Tim in there.” (Maybe if you handed him a banana?) Interestingly, Randy Harrison, who plays the lovestruck twinkie in search of Brian’s banana on Queer as Folk, was standing nearby, talking about how peeling off his costume in the show’s King of Babylon contest episode utterly unnerved him. “The sex scenes are fine,” he told me, “but to get up there and strip for 40 extras was humiliating. It was so hard for me to fake that kind of confidence.” Honey, try dressing up like a giant vagina.

I stripped down to my real fake personality for the American Fashion Awards, where the apex—not just of this event, but of the history of mankind—was Diana Ross presenting an award to Bob Mackie by flicking back her extensions, spinning around like a sequined dreidel, and cooing, “Fashion and glamour have been my life.” We know, dear, we know.

Those other disco survivors, the Village People, may be a tad unfashionable these days, but they’re still carrying on like macho men. The sextet’s Native American character, Felipe Rose, got his feathers ruffled when cable host Barry Z asked him why the group calls itself the Village People. Prickly Rose seemed half bemused and half horrified, snarling, “I’m not going to tell you. . . . Don’t ask me these questions again!” Fine, as long as you don’t sing “Y.M.C.A.” again!

Fuming, but not to a dance beat, the Ramseys are suing Court TV for implying that their son is a suspect in the murder of little JonBenet. They certainly have an airtight case: “How the fuck dare you! We did it!” (Kidding, of course—oh so kidding.)

And what of the hazardous Phil Bronstein, Sharon Stone‘s hubby, who was recently bitten by a Komodo dragon at the zoo? Why did he have to get shots? He already got them when he married Sharon Stone!

And who is divorcé Tom Cruise zoo-hopping with these days? He was recently reported to have been seen with Patricia Arquette, only to have various publicists insist it was a case of mistaken identity. But the person who first spotted them insists to me that it was indeed Tom and Patricia, not their lookalikes (which would be who—Kyle Bradford and Alexis Arquette?).

Finally, Jackie Collins swept into town to chomp on some photo ops and tell me about things penile (“Hillary should have done a Lorena Bobbitt, then shredded it”) and otherwise (“I turned down the chance to be in The Vagina Monologues. I didn’t think I could climax in 20 different languages”). I can—so please pardon me while I down a Black Russian. Named Sergei.



musto@villagevoice.com

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Keeping Up With the Kids

A*Teens: Bought “Mamma Mia” at a mall store for $3.99 before a Friday night basketball game. It wanted to shoot hoops at halftime like all the grade schoolers running all over the high school court, but I made it sit still and behave. One of the greatest dance beats in a long time. If house purists are offended by the Euro-bubblepop derivations of “their” beats, well, they can just stay in the house. Looking at pictures of A*Teens makes my skin break out—jeez, the two 15-year-olds are the youngest-looking 15-year-olds I ever saw. They do not look a day over 14.

Alecia Elliott: My favorite song AND video of Year 2000—”I’m Diggin’ It”—is like an exploding Day-Glo Clueless movie set! How do these Southern country girls learn to sing so great? (She’s 17 and from Muscle Shoals, Alabama.) It’s the tightest pop radio song since “Basket Case” or “When I Come Around” by Green Day . . . an astounding 2:20. Jet-lags from chorus-number-two to the final chorus in, like, 12 seconds; it’s one of those rare songs you could, like, play five or 10 times in a row and not even realize it. The non-LP dance-club mix KILLS, a great fonk-groove-country-rock tune. The A-side proper stalled around #50 country, for 20 weeks, no less. (That means half of the reporting stations never played it once.) If country format is that fucked up, they’ve already lost the pre-20audience, good riddance. I think someone pondered Chely Wright’s “Single White Female” crossover trail (song and video) and decided, yeah, but what if we get a teenager sashaying around like 30-year-old white trailer trash? You can’t teach it, those farm girls are born like that. . . . Still, after this song/vid, you can NEVER listen to Shania Twain again; she seems like someone’s freakin’ exhibitionist grandmom. The delivery and construct are soooooo pop, Jesus, this is as good as Lesley Gore or the Supremes ever got.

LFO: If the Backstreet Boys fill the Belmonts gap, what are LFO? The Kingston Trio gone funky? Nah. But “Summer Girls” was such an astonishing song, it’s gotta have a Nostradamus resonance in SOMETHING 40 years ago. (The feel is Young Rascals, summer, groovin’, but the YRs’ slow songs sucked.) And if LFO are singing “Betty G, James Dean, and Grable” (pretty sure they aren’t), then “Girl on TV” is 1000% Lou Reedish (actually, Gable-Grable would be an internal IMPLIED rhyme too, extremely rare). But even as is, it kicks the shit out of most of the material on Loaded (that endless dopey song about an “actress,” “New Age”? Always hated that one). The acoustic guitar/drum machine of their two radio hits is a certified Good Sounding Idea; who has done that prior (in a quasi-pop-rap format)?

M2M: “Day You Went Away” is wispy and wistful like a Fleetwoods tune. If you listen too close, the singer just sounds depressed, but give it some distance and it almost has the longing for something that’s gone, like “Mr. Blue” or “Last One to Know.” The chorus has a great melody, straight out of 1961. It’s M2M’s only track that absorbs/neutralizes their Chip ‘N Dale chipmunk vocals.

No Authority: If you stare at their hit “What I Wanna Do” for even one second, it disappears. But the vocal sound sure sounds swell. Does every over-21 producer have the urge to channel the Jackson 5? I’m not complaining.

S Club 7: Can’t sing, can’t act, and whoops, there’s no real lead singer—if the Monkees had been so haphazardly chosen, they would’ve been forgotten by Christmas 1968. #1 U.K. LP, can’t fuckin’ believe it. But not having to LOOK at ’em improves the sound of their much maligned “Bring It All Back” substantially. Brady Bunch channels the Jackson 5, scary. Disney likes ’em; I bought the single. But if I had kids like that, I’d be in jail for 40-to-life for filling the incinerator.

Steps: What the hell is “5,6,7,8”? A song, a hoedown, or what? Steps are a great five-piece walking example of what NOT to wear, how NOT to dance. DAFT. Despite that, I kinda like them. Most of their U.K. singles are truly catchy, and they have two almost identically sounding lead singers with excellent voices (but NO rhythm). The red-haired girl who can’t sing is MEGA-cute, huge teeth and giant Elizabeth Hurley accent. The two guys are strictly from Planet Doofus. One of ’em looks like he’s wearing a life preserver onstage. And what is with wearing all-white? Did they take acid at an Angel concert before they were born? They dance so bad it would make Mandy Moore feel good.

2GE+HER: After their (60 min?) MTV movie, they cut to their Times Square audience for six to eight minutes, and the actual five actors in 2GE+HER (which is supposed to be a goof on boybands) actually sing and dance (no lip sync) three songs from the movie (“You-plus sign-me-equal sign-us!”—one of the greatest Village People semaphores of all time. But the Village People didn’t have a song with “calculus” in the title). . . . Can you see the contradiction coming on? Well, two of them (one a young pint-size à la the Jackson 5) LOOK and SING better than any of the doofs in ‘N Sync. And despite the fact that the lyrics are silly parodies (tho the music is actually pretty darn catchy), our five faux-boyband guys REALLY get into it with all-the-way-live vocals—and I SWEAR a lot of the girls screaming in the studio audience are screaming for real. (They’d seen and heard the songs in the movie, so hey.) It’s like guys in Beatle wigs goofing on the Beatles in a 1964 talent assembly, and their peer-group audience going nuts anyway. An unintentional tribute to all the vocal groups and boybands of the past 40 years, and one of the purest moments of pop culture ever captured on tape.

Vengaboys: I have no idea if the Vengageeks are teenagers, aliens, or figments of some deranged producer’s computer. I haven’t been brave enough to check their Web info yet. Their girl can REALLY sing, tho. That steady four-to-the-floor bass-drum thump, against the syncopated high-hat, is the coolest rock-dance beat since Eddie Cochran brought 4/4 into rock and roll with “Summertime Blues.” Do all Euros use the same drum machine?