The inception of Garage Music in NYC

Larry Levan (born Lawrence Philpot) was an American DJ / remixer from Brooklyn, NY. Levan was well known for his decade-long residency at the infamous NYC ́s Paradise Garage. Levan was an influential figure in the rise of Garage House, also referred as New York House, and the introduction of dub elements into his own productions.

Musical Career

Levan started his career in music alongside Frankie Knuckles, both as replacement DJs at The Continental Baths for Nicky Siano from The Gallery, who taught them his pioneering three turntable technique. Levan ́s DJing style showed a mélange of both Mancuso ́s and Siano ́s style, blending both Philadelphia soul with jazz-infected eclectic rhythms.

In 1976 Levan was hired at the defunct Reade Street where he was able to develop his signature sound characterized by deep dark basses and a dub reinterpretation of the records. Later in 1977 we was offered a residency at the Paradise Garage, that was incepted to channel the success of Studio 54, but downtown, gathering a largely gay crowd from different social economic backgrounds.

Around 1980 Levan ́s and the club ́s popularity was making headways into the mainstream with appearances in national dance music charts for his work as a producer and remixer. He remixed “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Inner Life, “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin On But The Rent” by Gwen Guthrie and “Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner, and produced “Don’t Make Me Wait” by the Peech Boys. “Don’t Make Me Wait” is considered one of the first records to incorporate dub music influence and a vocal-only edit. Levan ́s sets at the garage would range from different artists (Chaka Khan, Grace Jones, Kraftwerk, etc.) to styles with mutual affinity such as British synthpop,

always remaining at the fore-front of the dance music scene. His later sets showed an inclination for upcoming sounds like Chicago house and hip-hop.

After the 48-hour closing party of the Paradise Garage in 1984 he couldn’t secure a long-term residency in New York, and later in the 1990s he would make occasional appearances at Sound Factory, where Junior Vasquez had a residency. His career was deeply affected by his heavy dependency on heroin and PCP but in 1991 he briefly toured Europe and Japan. His latter Japanese sets were infused with an air of melancholy and heartfelt emotions. In September 2004 was included into the Dance Music Hall of Fame for his outstanding achievement as a DJ.

The Paradise Garage And Garage A.K.A New York House

The Paradise Garage opened in 1977 to 1987 located at 84 King Street in Manhattan. Founded by Michael Brody, it would shape the concept of the modern night club.

It had sound system (developed, designed, and installed by the renown Richard Long & Associates had amazing tremble and a powerful low-end that was tuned twice a week to optimize the sound paired with a clever sound treatment that prevented reverberations and unwanted echo. The club’s format put the DJ at the center of attention, elevating his importance.

The club developed a famous sound called “The Garage Sound” prominent during early-to-mid 1980s, that later on came to be known as “house garage”, “garage” o simply “house music” (even though this last term doesn’t comprise the whole spectrum of what house music is). Garage house (also referred as “New York house”) has a more soulful influenced sound (with gospel piano riffs and the extended use of female vocals). Garage predates the sound of Chicago house but it ́s relatively closer to the disco sound. Its characterized by the use of synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines.
The genre was assumed to have started with Levan ́s The Peech Boys and has been immortalized by artists such as Danny Tenaglia, François K, Joey Negro, Junior Vazquez, Loleatta Holloway,

Masters at Work, etc. Among the labels that issued these records we can find the infamous Strictly Rhythm Records, King Street Records, Nervous Records, and Ministry of Sound. (by Charles Hampton Brown)

Inside the Paradise Garage

The Paradise Garage was exactly that, a parking garage in Manhattan’s Hudson Square neighborhood, in between Soho and Greenwich Village. It was a semi-underground club, not open to the general public. You had to be a member to get inside. People would loiter outside all night, trying to go in with someone who had a membership. After getting passed the bouncers, you walked up the ramp toward the bright neon sign of a man with curly hair shaking a tambourine! When waiting in the queue, the bass from the sound system got louder and louder “bom, bom, bom, bom..” You really felt it shaking. The crowd was predominately gay men, mostly black and Latino. It was a place for them to be free of discrimination. A place to dance and let loose. The club’s main focus was the music.

Paradise Garage Membership CardWhen the garage opened in 1977, the discotheque was still undergoing construction. They held weekly gatherings in the smaller room, a series of “construction parties” for close to a year until the renovations were complete. In January of ’78, The Paradise Garage located at 84 King Street had its grand opening… And DJ Larry Levan was the resident DJ.

Larry Levan and David Mancuso

Francois K and Larry Levan

The wooden dance floor was put down on top of sand, with cushioning and springs. People would dance for hours upon hours until the next afternoon. There was a movie theater that showed new movies just like they did in the cinemas.. along with a rooftop garden with a fountain, a wooden deck which included speakers and lots of plants, a changing room, coat check, and a kitchen. They had a spread of fresh fruits and an assortment of treats and pastries, soft drinks, hot coffee and cold water for everyone, all free of charge, everything was included. There was no alcohol being served, which allowed the Garage to stay open after hours, often until noon the next day. Everyone would pitch in to help clean up when the party came to an end.

Larry Levan’s record selection told a story and took you on a journey. Many artist wanted Larry to play their record because if Larry Levan liked the record then Frankie Crocker might play it on WBLS radio show the next day. If a new song came out, The garage was the first place you would hear that song. Sometimes Paradise Garage 2Larry would play it 10 times in a row. He’d play it over and over again, Fans would head over to Vinyl Mania a nearby record store to buy the record that he played over and over, as soon as they left the club. He played whatever he wanted. It was his house and people were at the Garage religiously, every weekend. He was like a God to some. People had a special respect for him. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, it was the end of the disco era and the evolution of house music began. Larry Levan was one of the first pioneers in developing “Garage” music. New York had its own type of house music. It was much different than the house being played in Chicago by artists such as Frankie Knuckles. It was modern electronic music generally connected to house or disco, but it was soulful and gospel-inspired tracks with upbeat rhythms that had the crowd going and going. Dancing was THE thing to do at the Garage. Other than cocaine or Quaaludes, party goers liked to sip on the special punch that was acid-infused. Everyone was really into the music at the Garage, they would be on the dance floor with their eyes closed, rolling behind their head. 3000 people all screaming for the same record. But as trippy as it was, for many of the members, the Garage was their home away from home. They were one big family.

Grace Jones-Keith HarringArtists like Dianna Ross, Madonna, Chaka Khan, Patti LeBelle, and Grace Jones performed on stage at the Garage and got their start in music there. Street artist Keith Haring painted his “Dancing man” figures on the walls of the club. He also did body paint on Grace Jones for her live performance at the Garage.

DJ’s like Danny Krivit, Paul Oakenfold, Danny Tenaglia, Francois K, and Junior Vasquez were all frequent members of the nightclub and friends of Larry Levan, David Mancuso, David DiPino and Nicky Siano. Back then, everything was word of mouth, there were no cell phones. New York was still industrial and desolate in most areas. When you went out, You went out to have a good time with your friends & to hear music that made you dance until the wee hours. Especially at the Garage, the dance floor at the garage was in fact designed to be danced on.

Paradise Garage

But unfortunately, The party at the Paradise Garage came to an end and it was forced to close down on September 26th, 1987. They had one last dance and that was it, doors were closed for good. The impact of the AIDS epidemic and changes in music, as well as the fact that Brody was diagnosed with AIDS, affected the Paradise Garage. According to Michael Brody the sole proprietor, it was due to the fact that the people living around the Garage didn’t want a black club in their neighborhood but shortly after the club closed, Michael Brody died of HIV. Larry Levan then died in 1992, due to heart failure at the young age of 38 years old. Today, The Paradise Garage is known as one of the most iconic nightclubs of New York City, and Larry Levan is known as one of the greatest DJ’s of all time, who changed dance music forever. In 2014, They named King Street after the late Larry Levan naming the street “Larry Levan Way”. (by Danielle Pignatello)

Contributed by Danielle Pignatello and Charles Hampton Brown writers from The Clive Davis Institute x Billboard MUSIC INDUSTRY ESSENTIALS program.


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