RIP, Mel Cheren: Keep On Dancin'

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“There’s no such thing as Disco,” Mel Cheren proclaimed. Paradox and controversy were no strangers to the founder of essential label West End Records, co-backer of legendary nightclub Paradise Garage and subject of the recent documentary “Godfather of Disco.” “What I always admired about Mel was that he had conviction, a passion for what he believed in. He spoke his mind and you always knew where you stood with him,” recalled Andy Reynolds, friend and former General Manager of West End. The outspoken AIDS activist and fundraiser behind 24 Hours for Life, Colonial House and LIFEBeat passed away from AIDS-related complications on December 7, 2007 in New York City. In haunting irony, Cheren was unaware of his own HIV status. The mogul, painter, and author of My Life And The Paradise Garage: Keep On Dancin' is sorely missed.

If people can dance together, they can live together.

His demise was sudden and quick but his life was long, rich and colored with music. “What we were making and [DJ] Larry Levan was playing, long before John Travolta and every goomba caught on, was not disco. It was danceable R&B songs, with lyrics, vocalists and feeling” Cheren told me one night at a Miami Winter Music Conference. West End staples like “Sessomatto” by Sessa Matto, “Heartbeat,” by Taana Gardner, “Is it All Over My Face,” by Loose Joints, “Do It to The Music” by Raw Silk and “Don’t Make Me Wait” by the Peech Boys, have been played, sampled and name-checked by DJs, artists and club kids all over the world. David Mancuso’s LSD-laced Loft may have introduced the DJ-as-shaman and Nicky Siano’s Gallery may have pioneered hot mixing so records overlapped and “the music played forever”, but Levan’s Paradise sets were such that he had a speaker system named after him (the Levan Horns). Tastemaking radio DJ Frankie Crocker often took his airwave cues from Levan’s Horns and dance floor. The crowd was largely Black, Latino and Gay, and their after-hours catharses vented frustrations they felt in their everyday lives.

Cheren, a Massachusetts native who became a fixture on both dancefloors and in studios, got his start in 1959 at ABC/Paramount records, working with icons like Ray Charles, BB King, and The Mamas and the Papas. He later moved to Scepter Records where he helped develop the 12” single along with Scepter peer and famed producer Tom Moulton (credited with inventing the extended remix and the “disco break”). Cheren was also active in newly-formed record pools that gave DJs the inside track in shaping club culture with exclusive mixes that played longer, louder and sometimes as unrecognizable dubs. The effect trickled up through the industry until all of New York, then America and eventually the world were in the throes of Disco Fever.

When disco heat inevitably peaked and dissipated, the culture went back underground where it percolated into house music in Chicago’s warehouses at the hands of transplanted Levan disciple Frankie Knuckles. Cheren and West End records may have struggled to retain a footing in the topsy-turvy business after disco’s heyday, but his imprint on DJ culture is undeniable. Cantankerous, intuitive and dedicated, Cheren will be remembered as the life of a party that never stopped. It is a fitting legacy for a man who, along with his former longtime partner Michael Brody, founded Paradise in a converted parking garage on the gut feeling that “If people can dance together, they can live together.”

Thought we'd share some classic Paradise Garage cuts with you. Hope you enjoy the sounds... (right click, save as to download)

Chicago "Street Player"

Coachouse Rhythm Section "Time Warp"

Modern Romance "Salsa Rappsody"