In honor of what would have been Larry Levan’s 67th birthday, I’m posting an article that originally ran at Pitchfork about Levan’s lasting influence, which emanated far beyond the parking garage walls of the Paradise Garage to the wastelands of suburbia.
The Larry Levan Bump: How the Legendary Paradise Garage DJ Ignited Some of the ‘80s Biggest Hits
Before songs like Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” and Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” became era-defining hits, they were favorites at Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage. By Andy Beta.
In March 2013, followers of the Paradise Garage Bot were baffled. The Twitter account, which sends out links to singles that sainted DJ Larry Levan once spun at the hallowed New York City club, had just posted Rick Astley’s infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up”, which hit #1 in the U.S. in March 1988—six months after the Paradise Garage closed its doors in September 1987. Was this automatic bot Rickrolling its followers all of a sudden?
No. It was simply doing its job. Before “Never Gonna Give You Up” turned Astley into an international sensation—and way before Internet pranksters helped him rack up nearly 140 million hits on YouTube—the flame-haired Brit was just another new artist whose promo single was given to Levan in hopes that he might play it on the club’s custom-made soundsystem. And in the ‘80s, no DJ had the ability to make a singer a star quite like Larry Levan.
The Paradise Garage opened in spring of 1977 and made its reputation with the rise of disco. But the music industry’s speculative take on the dance genre, resulting in artists like brassy early 20th century theatrical star Ethyl Merman and Cookie Monster cutting disco tracks, led to a backlash just two years later. Even after that glittery bubble burst, though, the Paradise Garage remained vital and even grew in power. While no one wanted to do disco any more, that didn’t mean bands didn’t want to get club play; at the start of the ‘80s, it seemed like every act wanted to be heard at the Garage.
Bands that once defined ‘70s punk rock at CBGB’s began making music that would appeal to the dancefloor located but one mile west of that notoriously filthy venue. Blondie cut “Heart of Glass” and “Rapture”, while Talking Heads locked into a groove to smooth out the spastic tendencies of frontman David Byrne, and the aquatic funk of “Once in a Lifetime” became a Garage favorite. Meanwhile, Levan used to tune the room’s sound to the Clash’s “The Magnificent Dance”, and even rock royalty like the Rolling Stones and the Who vied for club play.
It speaks to Levan’s DJ sensibilities that it didn’t matter the genre of music—punk, pop, funk, disco, R&B—as long as it moved the crowd, it worked for him. And if Levan loved something, such as Pat Benatar’s brooding metallic synth-pop power ballad “Love is a Battlefield”, he would play it multiple times in a night, until any and all resistance was overcome.
Through most of the ‘80s, there was a conduit between Levan’s sets at the converted parking garage in Manhattan’s still-desolate TriBeCa neighborhood and the national Billboard charts. What the DJ spun on a Friday night could wind up on the radio by Monday morning, and such demand in NYC often foretold what the rest of the country would want to hear. Looking back, it grows increasingly evident just how much influence Levan exerted on popular music: Yazoo’s “Situation”, Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat”, Grace Jones’s “Pull Up to the Bumper”, Class Action’s “Weekend”, Peech Boys’ “Don’t Make Me Wait”, and Imagination’s “Just an Illusion”, to name just a few, all got their start within his sets. Well before YouTube and Shazam provided metrics to forecast a song’s popularity, one only needed to peer out on the Paradise Garage’s dancefloor to see what was going to be a hit.
Which is exactly what legendary radio personality Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker often did. Also known as “Chief Rocker” and “Loveman”, Crocker became program director of New York City’s WBLS in the ‘70s, taking it to #1. Culture critic Nelson George credits Crocker with creating “urban contemporary” as a radio format: “The pop-jazz of Grover Washington, Miles Davis’s fusion, the expansive R&B of Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes—all found a home in the WBLS format.” Meanwhile, his buttery baritone and flamboyant on-air patter—“They call me wax paper because I rap on anything”—predicted the rise of hip-hop.
Crocker tapped into disco early on, checking out David Mancuso’s now-legendary Loft parties and even showing up at Studio 54 astride a white stallion. But it was when he went downtown to the Paradise Garage in 1977 that a crucial alliance was forged. “I probably went to the Garage the first week it opened,” Crocker told Tim Lawrence in his book Love Saves the Day. “That was the only time I stayed downstairs. After that, I was always invited into Larry’s booth.”
Every weekend, Crocker would stop by to see what songs were working in the club. “I wasn’t in awe of Larry, I treated him like my friend,” he said. “It was an exchange. We turned each other onto records. If people danced, I’d find out what the record was, and more often than not I’d play it the next day.”
To cite one example, the music of Arthur Russell, the polymorphic musician who worked with everyone from Talking Heads to dance music legend François K, got a huge boost from this symbiotic relationship. When Levan began to play his remix of “Is It All Over My Face”, by Russell’s disco outfit Loose Joints, Crocker immediately picked up on it, eventually turning it into a NYC hit that “he heard the kids on Avenue B singing as they left school,” according to Lawrence’s Arthur Russell biography Hold On to Your Dreams.
It was a straight line from club to chart, as West End Records founder Mel Cheren realized: “Frankie said that BLS became number one because of the Garage.” That relationship no doubt helped West End singles like Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” and Peech Boys’ “Don’t Make Me Wait” become decade-defining tracks.
When New Order and Afrika Bambaataa producer Arthur Baker wanted to get Rocker’s Revenge’s “Walking on Sunshine” airplay, he took it to Levan. Soon enough, it was in Crocker’s rotation, ultimately topping the U.S. club charts. “I had to take it record by record,” Crocker told Lawrence, explaining how he picked which Garage tracks to push. “Larry had a club to entertain, I had a city.” At the time, a Crocker bump might help a single sell upwards of a quarter million copies in NYC alone.
The Paradise Garage didn’t want Crocker to ever mention the club on-air, though, despite WBLS’s popularity. “When Frankie used to say ‘At the Garage last night…’ Garage owner Michael Brody would call and say ‘Please, Frankie, stop talking about us!’” club employee David Depino told Lawrence. “Michael didn’t want any promotion. That was why there was no sign outside the club until the last year or two. People used to walk around in circles looking for it.”
As an underground venue whose devoted patrons were predominantly comprised of ethnic and sexual minorities, it was important that the Garage remain a secret, lest its culture be overrun by outsiders. So if Crocker picked up on a song and it wound up in the mainstream, that song no longer belonged at the Paradise Garage.
Perhaps the prime example of the Paradise Garage-WBLS symbiosis lies with a one-hit wonder from Portland, Oregon named Nu Shooz and their featherweight funk track “I Can’t Wait”. “If I had heard it at the store, I would’ve thought it was bubblegum, with that dah-dunh-dunh,” François K. once told me, mimicking the song’s signature synth line. “But Larry played it 10 times in a week, until everyone in the club was going ‘dah-dunh-dunh’—that’s how hits are made.” Though the song was originally released in 1985, it didn’t start its chart ascent until Levan started playing it in early 1986. Soon after, it reached #2 on the Hot Black Singles chart (beating out the likes of Janet Jackson and New Edition, yet not quite overtaking Prince’s “Kiss”) before climbing as high as #3 on the U.S. pop chart and remaining in the Top 40 for 15 weeks.https://www.youtube.com/embed/v_Yx0X-eHn8?rel=0&enablejsapi=1
Levan died in 1992, Crocker in 2000; even with the consolidation of media, the rise of superstar DJs and Internet radio, and the emerging playlist culture spurred on by streaming services, it’s unlikely that a DJ and on-air radio personality will ever hold as much sway over the music industry as these two pioneering African-Americans did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Not everyone had a chance to step foot in that TriBeCa club back then, but the thrill of Levan’s favorite songs eventually echoed out to the suburbs and beyond. He wasn’t just playing for the Paradise Garage, but for the entirety of America.