Founding Father of NYC Disco Nightclub Culture: Nicky Siano

Nicky Siano is getting ready to throw his very last true New Years Eve Extravaganza
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Nicky Siano is getting ready to throw his very last true New Years Eve Extravaganza

Dance music has blown up in a way that couldn't have been expected 40 years ago. The shift may be due to the "electronic" style, but it had to come from something else. You would be ignorant to think that all of this is brand new and original, it's not. The music we have today is simply layers, upon layers derived from the classics. In order for the younger generation to truly appreciate this, they need to do some serious digging. Kerri Chandler, Derrick May, Todd Terry, Delano Smith, and Frankie Knuckles are all recognizable names who are often mentioned as legends of House and Techno. However, there is someone who came before them, a man who paved the way for the legends we know today and cultivated the music scene we love. I'm talking about Nicky Siano.

People have been dancing to music ever since there was a rhythm to do so, but Disco gave way to the beginning of dance music culture, which has evolved into what we know it to be today. It was this distinct sensation that brought about amazing venues and parties that are commemorated in the history books. Disco is original. Disco is history. Disco is the root that holds everything together and the man who helped spawn the revolution was none other than, Nicky Siano.

“If anyone is to be called a legend it is SIANO.” New York Magazine, 2011

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His first job spinning was in 1972 at New York’s famed venue, The Round Table. By the age of 17, in 1973, he designed and opened, The Gallery, where he was also the resident DJ. This was documented as “the first disco” in publications such as Love Saves the Day and Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. The man’s vast knowledge and experience of the various aspects of the '70s had him featured in documentaries such as, Maestro, four BBC specials and within 15 news documentaries and film introductions. He's credited with pioneering many DJ techniques including beat matching records, designing the first crossover and building the first club, Bass Horns. In 1977 he released the underground classic 'Kiss Me Again', which is known as the first record produced by a DJ. 

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Nicky Siano was a motivator and inspiration for others to build clubs like The Paradise Garage and Studio 54. He helped launch the careers of various artists including Grace Jones, D.C. La Rue, Loleatta Holloway, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles. Although he may not be a "household name" (which is a shame) his mark on dance music culture is well documented.

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This New Years Eve, Nicky Siano will be throwing a very special party in Coney Island with some of Disco's living legends. As a treat, Magnetic Magazine has the honor and privilege of featuring an interview with Melba Moore, Rochelle Fleming and D.C. LaRue, conducted by none other than the founding father himself, Nicky Siano. 

Purchase tickets to Nicky Siano's VERY LAST TRUE NEW YEARS EVE EXTRAVAGANZA click here.

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Nicky: Melba, I've been a fan for such a long time, I remember watching you on the Tony Awards when you did “Purlie” and those notes you were singing… Did the audience go crazy that night?

Melba: They went crazy every night! When I first got into Purlie [the Ossie Davis-written 1970 musical], they never heard me sing when I auditioned. They were looking for an actress and the only musical I had done before was Hair. They were looking for someone that had a southern accent and was a country bumpkin. So I got the part and I had one song that was the title song, “Purlie.” It kept stopping the show every night and the audiences were coming backstage and saying "you have to give this girl another song," so they wrote “I Got Love” for me.

Nicky: You have quite a bit of vinyl out there. I counted over 26 different releases on albums and 12-inches.

Melba: I have to give credit to the people who did that because I was not a record mogul. We had a company called Hush Productions–I was married to the owner, Charles Huggins–he did a fantastic job finding the best songwriters and producers like McFadden and Whitehead, Jay McDaniels, Van McCoy and many more.

Nicky: I was so excited about the This Is It album [1976]. I loved so many songs from that, hopefully, we will be doing them for New Years Eve. Were you excited when that came out? Because This Is It became a very big pop album.

Melba: I knew it was and it was very exciting. I was so focused on remembering the lyrics and what was I going to wear–everyone is on top of you. I remember having the first European promotional tour, so much of that still on youtube. I look back at it and I look so scared! It was exciting, but I don’t remember it all.

Nicky: So you are performing with me on New Year's Eve in Coney Island at the Eldorado Bumper Car Arcade. We move the bumper cars out of the way and it’s a Richard Long sound system, the same guy who did the sound at The Garage and Studio 54. It's a Class-A audio system, no one has audio like this.

Melba: Can I use the bumper cars? I want to be really nostalgic and get wheeled in on a bumper car!

Nicky: I am really electric about this night! For years, I gave parties every Saturday night and every New Years Eve during the '70s and '80s, and since then all I've seen is things going downhill. They forgot that people are coming to hear the sound. Sound systems have become a second thought. That's why I come out to Coney Island to this Richard Long sound system, I wanted to give an old-time '70s New Years Eve party, where people can tell their grandkids about that night. It's on my bucket list to show people what it could be.

Melba: I remember so much about the disco era because people came out to feel so good, to feel alive and when the music is a certain way, it makes you feel so great.

Nicky: It's a spiritual thing, you connect with that higher part of yourself. People used to tell me “I'm on the dancefloor and all of a sudden you put on the very song that I'm thinking of." We are all hearing the same inspiration and it's coming down from up there. If you are open to it, you will hear it, I will hear it, and I'll put on that record.

Melba: That is called a gift. People think because it's entertainment or recreation that it is not a talent, but that is a real talent.

Nicky: Thank you. I don’t play records, I create atmosphere–that is what I do. The words to the songs back then were about Brotherhood, Get Together, Love Epidemic, Love Is the Message, Love Your Brothers, Love Your Sisters. People would relate to those words and started singing to those words and spread some love.

Nicky Talks To Rochelle Fleming of First Choice

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Nicky: I wanted to ask you about starting so young because I started The Gallery so young. What age did you really start singing?

Rochelle: Actually I was 5 years old. Never had training, it's a very blessed God-given talent. Professionally, we [First Choice] were all 16 when we recorded Armed And Extremely Dangerous.

Nicky: You mean the three of you from First Choice met in high school?

Rochelle: Actually we were four and we were called The Debonettes. It was myself, Annette Guest, Wardell Piper and Mulaney Star who left the group immediately after we recorded the first single, “This Is The House Where Love Died.” So after Armed and Dangerous Wardell wanted to go out on her own and she did, right before we were asked to go on Soul Train. All of us were fresh out of high school, nobody wanted to go to college because we figured we would all be music majors and we were already in music since we were in the 6th Grade. I even wanted to give up singing in 11th grade, thank God I didn’t!

Nicky: Have you always lived in Philly?

Rochelle: Yes, born and raised. The baby of seven children. All my brothers and sisters are singers and even some of the nephews and nieces. My mom, bless her heart always saw something special about me. She used to say “this one here is a little different from other four girls and two brothers” and I have to admit she was right. I was very different from them.

Nicky: So for the Armed And Extremely Dangerous album, did you record [the song] “Armed And Extremely Dangerous" first and then the album? Or did you do it all at once?

Rochelle: We did the single first. Then went back into the studio with Norman Harris and Alan Felder and we recorded song by song.

Nicky: Who picked the songs?

Rochelle: It was between Norman Harris, Alan Felder and Stan Watson, who at the time was First Choice's manager. He was the executive producer.

Nicky: When they brought you “Love And Happiness” were you aware of the Al Green version?

Rochelle: Actually they didn’t bring that to me, First Choice did a show with Al Green, we opened for him. I forget what city it was, but we had gone to see him at The Spectrum in Philly. The Spectrum was huge and we went to see a show, the whole band, and the girls, and I fell in love with the song “Love and Happiness” and wanted to do it. We went to Stan Watson with my own version of the song and he said, "sounds great!" We went into the studio with the whole band, which was called “Prime Cut,” and we recorded the song.

Nicky: What about the arrangements? You played it with those funky breaks?

Rochelle: We started doing it on stage actually before we told Stan we wanted to record it. He came to one of the shows and he really liked it. Al Green does a great job, but I put my own spin on it. That really was my feel for it and the group's feel for it, the way we wanted to do it. Our spin on it is soulfully so different.

Nicky: You're making these records and I'm in New York and I get this album and I play "Newsy Neighbors" and the dance floor erupts and they're screaming “turn this motha fucka out!” And when that break goes "buttabump buttabump buttabump," they would go crazy. One guy named John Matarazzo [who produced many Disconet mixes] did a loop of those "buttabump buttabump" for like 15 minutes cause he loved it so much. Were you aware of the reaction you were getting on the dancefloor at the time?

Rochelle: No. I tell everyone in every interview I have ever done, all the girls and myself were very humble and little church girls. We never ever imagined the impact a lot of Norman and Alan's songs had. Vocally, me performing them, I was singing them because I just love singing so much. So we never knew the impact until we heard it from Frankie Crocker. He was a huge fan of First Choice and used to call me that little singing girl with the teeny mouth and big voice. We became close with him and loved him. But I did not know the impact of our music honestly until now.

Nicky: The words to those songs were so well written and constructed so well. Did you feel that as you were working with them?

Rochelle: Yes, Alan and Norman knew exactly what to write for me. They knew me vocally, they said I had such a grown voice for a young girl. He was always right about what songs to write. I would record a rough copy and take the tapes home. I would rehearse it and sing it with my mom. She was such a great singer and she would be doing the background and I would be singing the lead part and I would learn like that, in a couple of days. Then I would be back in the studio and we would cut it. That's what we did for the entire time of my career. Even the engineer knew where to put the reverb on my voice, and when not to put it on. I always felt they were writing for my voice.

Nicky: That album [Armed And Extremely Dangerous] must have done well, just from dancefloor sales. We, the DJs at the time, put [Barry White's] "Love’s Theme" on the Billboard Charts before it got any airplay just by playing it in the clubs, for example.

Rochelle: Yes, that album did very well. All of them did well except for our last album, and that was when the group was ready to leave Salsoul. We had 14 singles from the six albums.

Nicky: Did Earl Young [famed MFSB drummer] work with you live?

Rochelle: No, he did not work with us live, only did for the records. The band Prime Cut played for First Choice for all our live shows. [In the studio] Earl Young and Ronnie Baker the bass player and Larry Washington on the congas, they were the main three guys, aloing with Norman [Harris] on guitar and Alan [Felder], a fantastic writer. We remained very close friends even after Norman died at a very young age.

Nicky: So that album comes out and then there was “The Player.” That song was massive. You could not go into a club and not hear “The Player.” Did you get any of that buzz?

Rochelle: No, we didn’t see it. Because our lives were so structured and we just enjoyed singing, I never even dreamed our stuff being as big or the explosion of it all–I never thought about it. I think that is probably a good thing because if I really knew it was explosive stuff at the time, I think I might have not accepted it the right way.

Nicky: I remember how big “The Player” was, oh my god. What happened when they picked “Guilty" for the second single? I thought “Hustler Bill” would have been the better choice to go with.

Rochelle: Back then we did not have a lot of say-so. I remember Norman telling Stan that “Hustler Bill” should have been the release, but Stan said "No, we should go with 'Guilty,'" and it didn’t catch on.

Nicky: You know why, I think that from a DJ's perspective it was way too fast, faster than everything else. We were dealing with records that were 116 BPM like "Love Is The Message," and "Guilty" was 130 BPM.

Rochelle: That's true.

Nicky: So then you go to Warner Brothers and they put out the album So Let Us Entertain You which has a lot of good songs but “Gotta Get Away”–that song I just rediscovered and have been playing the past two months at my last seven gigs. What happened at Warner Brothers?

Rochelle: We were really over the moon when we found out and we met Mo [Ostin] who was the owner at the time. He was so gracious and such a nice man. We saw [labelmates] Chaka Khan and George Benson, Dionne Warwick. The main group was Grand Central Station. We were so excited, it was wonderful. And then the next thing we knew: Salsoul. I was like who is “Salsoul”? At the time, Stan Watson said that was the better company to go with and later as time moved on we got the real scoop. Stan Watson wanted the group he used to have, the Delfonics. He told Moe, you either sign the Delfonics or you will not have First Choice and Mo said "no deal" and then the next thing you know, we are with Salsoul. We did this big photo shoot in Penn Station with limousines, we are wearing white tuxedos with red bow ties, it was so elegant and next thing we knew, it all stopped.

Nicky: But then came “Doctor Love,” your biggest hit?

Rochelle: Yeah, actually I don’t attribute that to Salsoul. I attribute that to Norman Harris, Alan Felder, First Choice and Tom Moulton.

Nicky: Do you know that story about Tom Moulton having a heart attack?

Rochelle: Of course, he never lets me forget it! Every chance he gets: “you know you almost gave me a heart attack!”

Nicky: I have to tell the story. Tom Moulton had a heart attack mixing the song "Doctor Love." He didn’t want to leave the studio and continued to mix the song. Later the doctor said, “why didn’t you leave the studio?” Tom said, “because I was mixing “Doctor Love,” and six months later he goes back to the doctor and the doctor says “well, I do love that song.”

I have to tell another story about that song. Everytime I played it at The Gallery, there was a drag queen/pre-op transexual that would stand on the stage and sing, “I need a major operation!” It was too much, her name was Cynthia. That song for us was the moon.

Rochelle: That song is still the biggest even when I perform it now. That one and "Let No Man Put Asunder." That song was not even a single and the DJs ran with it. And "The Player," "Love Thang," "Double Cross." It's mind blowing to me and keeps me humble. There are a lot of fans that I did not realize I have. My family keeps me grounded. That is a huge part in this industry. If you have that, you will be OK.

Nicky: So we will be working together New Years Eve and you'll be doing a full show for us.

Rochelle: I am very ramped up and so excited from when my manager first told me about this and told me it would be a fantastic thing for you to do. I am looking forward to it–I love singing on New Years Eve! I believe the way you start the ending of the year, whatever you are doing at that time when that ball drops, they say that is what you will be doing the following year. My mom was a big firm believer in that and she was right. I have worked almost every New Years Eve. You will be singing till you drop!

Nicky Talks To DC LaRue

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Nicky: David Charles La Rue. Can you recap your first record and how it came to me?

DC LaRue: It was Steve D’Aquisto. I took one acetate to Bobby "DJ" Guttadaro at Infinity and I took one to Tom Savarese at 12 West. Steve D'Aquisto was in charge of giving one to you for The Gallery and David Mancuso. We tried to do it the same night because these were the most important clubs on the East Coast at that time at that time for breaking records. Steve was handling the promotion. A week after, I went to The Gallery to hear you play it and I asked you to play "Cathedrals." Tom Savarese, he listened to it a little bit and let me introduce it to the crowd and said "I will play it in a few weeks." He didn’t play it. David Mancuso, I don’t know if he played it. You played it right away.

Nicky: He brought it to me before we opened and I had a chance to listen to it and I knew right away it was fantastic. So you were here living in NYC in the early '70s, what inspires you to go into the studio and record "Cathedrals"? How did this go down?

DC LaRue: I have been writing songs since I was a kid and aggressively pitching music. I am not advocating the use of drugs and alcohol, but I know from my own experience getting high, it changed the way I was thinking. I remember dancing on the floor of 12 West and hearing “Love To Love You Baby” for the first time. I stopped in the middle and said WTF is this. What Giorgio did with that record dropping everything down–it freaked me out and I was crazy about it, so that was in my head. I felt with years of writing and composing that I was always trying to conform to something else that was popular at the time. All of a sudden I didn’t care what people thought, I needed to write about the realities about the life I am living now with the sexual promiscuity, drugs and the alcohol and the disco thing. This should be put into a song, the NYC lifestyle.

Then I was at David Mancuso’s loft with Steve D’Aquisto. We were both very high and it was very late in the morning. You know how David would stop the record and there was silence. When there is three seconds of silence it feels like an eternity! And then he mixed into another record and the entire dancefloor is jammed. So Steve D’Aquisto starts saying: "Cathedrals! Discos are the Cathedrals of Now! Discos are the Cathedrals of Now!" So I said, "wow, that is a good concept for an album."

I started thinking about it and writing about it and put the whole thing together. Ca-The-Drals reflects the society we are living in with the promiscuity and the clubs and how it's almost impossible to have a monogamous relationship. It was a whole concept. I put it together and found Aram Schefrin and Michael Zager and they co-produced it. I did a demo and started taking it around to record companies and they all turned me down. Then I went to a friend, Dennis [Ganim] who was doing promotion work for Groove Records. He loved it, but they went out of business. But Dennis loved it so much he started Pyramid Recordings to put it out. In the middle we ran out of money and the only person who would put up money was Morris Levy who owned Roulette Records. Ca-The-Drals was a hit overnight. They would line up at Vinylmania to stand in line to buy copies. It was not radio huge, it NYC nightclub huge and it spread to all cities.

Nicky: At that time you did not need radio to break into the clubs, that was the first time in history.

DC LaRue: I was in Neil Bogart's office, the president of Casablanca. I'm sitting there with Neil and the distributors are distributing the 45 of “I Feel Love” to the radio stations. He is getting calls from radio programmers and he says, “I don’t give a goddamn what you think, 'I Feel Love' is a huge hit in the clubs and you will have to play it in three weeks." The radio stations did not like that and the record industry that had set up all the payola channels with the radio people didn’t like it when the clubs could break a record and it was out of their hands. I remember “Doctor Love” and “The Player,” they got so big in the clubs that they crossed over to radio. There were so many disco records and it was getting so crazy that a radio station started a campaign that “Disco Is Dead.”

Nicky: Over the years I feel we've lost the kind of sparkle that people had on New Year's Eve. I remember going to the Limelight on NYE and everyone was dressed in white and it was magic. Magic was in the air.

DC LaRue: Yes, you're right, there was an energy of the times. Most of the time now, I stay home with the piano and have dinner with friends. But this party, this is perfect timing! 40 Years of Ca-The-Drals and you have Rochelle Fleming and Melba Moore performing. Everyone better be there, it's going to be a fabulous party. I have friends flying in from Abu Dhabi!

Nicky Siano Chats with Disco Legends Melba Moore, Rochelle Fleming & D.C. LaRue. Transcribed by Rebecca Lynn; Edited by Andrew Mason 

This New Years Eve 2015 Nicky Siano will host a party he's calling the VERY LAST TRUE NEW YEARS EVE EXTRAVAGANZA in Coney Island at the Eldorado Auto Scooter Arcade. Performing will be dance music legends Melba Moore, Rochelle Fleming and DC LaRue. For tickets please go to nickysiano.com