Remembering Larry Levan, 'The Jimi Hendrix Of Dance Music' : The Record Danny Tenaglia and Justin Berkmann tell stories about Levan, widely fêted as the greatest DJ of all.
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Remembering Larry Levan, 'The Jimi Hendrix Of Dance Music'

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Remembering Larry Levan, 'The Jimi Hendrix Of Dance Music'

Remembering Larry Levan, 'The Jimi Hendrix Of Dance Music'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Lynn Neary. Dance music is the domain of DJs and one of the most influential DJs was Larry Levan. He helped create the dance club scene in New York in the 1970s and '80s. Now, a new box set and a new book celebrate his role and his sound. Michaelangelo Matos has Levan's story.


MICHAELANGELO MATOS, BYLINE: Levan was a producer and one of the early pioneers of the dance remix, taking a song back into the studio and extending it to keep a club floor moving.


TAANA GARDNER: (Singing) Now, you know this just don't make no kind of sense. I'm walking around here so intense. You make my heart beat. You make me feel so weak.

MATOS: His classics included Taana Gardner's 1981 R&B hit, "Heartbeat," and "Don't Make Me Wait" by his own group, the New York Citi Peech Boys.


NEW YORK CITI PEECH BOYS: (Singing) Oh, I (unintelligible) over you. You're truly a fantasy. And, oh, I got to have you. Yeah, I think so.

MATOS: But it was behind the turntable that he made his deepest mark. Every weekend for a decade, beginning in 1977, Levan presided over his Soho club, the Paradise Garage, playing disco in the broadest sense. He was as likely to drop The Clash as he was Gloria Gaynor.

Justin Berkmann, who went on to open London's Ministry of Sound, was at some of those shows.

JUSTIN BERKMANN: My feeling is he's probably historically the most important DJ of all time. I think it's just the mark he left. It's how big the splash was on the river and the ripples that went out from it and the fact that all of us leaves a mark, but eventually, those ripples eventually fade away and they're gone. His - he just rocked the sea and it's been choppy ever since and it's probably never, ever going to be flat ever again.

MATOS: Former Paradise Garage regular, Danny Tenaglia, went on to become a headlining DJ in his own right.

DANNY TENAGLIA: Larry was really, like us, the Jimi Hendrix of dance music.

MATOS: Tenaglia is standing outside of 84 King Street, the former home of the Paradise Garage. Today, it's a parking garage, but in its heyday, it became a second home for serious dance music lovers, in many ways, the real prototype for the massive clubs where disco's children, such as house and techno, now live.

Tenaglia walks to the entrance.

TENAGLIA: This is where the doorman, security staff would be. It was a very friendly welcome. It was not tense, you know, with bully security type people and I can't even say that I've ever seen one incident of violence here. For us, this was like - almost like going to church. You could actually even check your clothes here. Not all your clothes, but you know, you could change your clothes. They even sold some garments like that for more comfortable dancing.

MATOS: That welcoming scene is part of the new book about 1970s New York music called "Love Goes to Buildings on Fire." Its author is music critic and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED reviewer Will Hermes.

WILL HERMES: Larry Levan posited a totally inclusive space where people could come. It was not about celebrity. It was not about people hitting on each other. It was not about having sex in a back room. It was about achieving a sense of communion with your fellow man and woman through the ecstasy of dancing. And dance music, at its best, still is that and I think its great popularity is a testament to those ideas still being pretty valid and pretty potent.

MATOS: It was certainly potent for Justin Berkmann.

BERKMANN: If I'd never gone to the Paradise Garage, there never would have been a Ministry of Sound. I came back to London to build my own version of it.

MATOS: To help, Berkmann invited Larry Levan to come to London to DJ.

BERKMANN: When he arrived in the airport with no records, it was a rather interesting day to try and work out how and what he was going to play. He didn't own any records. He would sell them on a regular basis. Apparently, friends of his would be going to car boot sales or pop markets and find records that were his and go around and give them back to him and then he would go and sell them again.

And after panicking and him trying to calm me down, we decided to go on a tour around London to find some music for him.


MATOS: After scouring the crates of a number of London DJs, Levan hit the decks at Ministry with around 120 records.

BERKMANN: I DJ'd before him - it was right at the beginning of my education. And when he came on, the first record he put on, it was like someone turned the screen from black and white to color. It was just, all of a sudden, there was a new dynamic, there was a new dimension. It was just like night and day, okay. The master has arrived. The lesson has started.


MATOS: In addition to being a great teacher, Larry Levan was also a hard partier. He died of heart failure in 1992, only a year after playing Ministry of Sound. For NPR News, I'm Michaelangelo Matos in New York.


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