Three Disco Greats on Larry Levan's Life and Legacy

Francois K, Joey Llanos and David Depino share memories from their days at the Paradise Garage

Mark Riley, Gary Thornton, DJ Joey Llanos and Larry Levan
Courtesy of Joey Llanos
Mark Riley, Gary Thornton, DJ Joey Llanos and Larry Levan.
By |

When the Paradise Garage opened in 1977, it became — to quote DJ David Depino — the city's first "underground club," and its house DJ, Larry Levan, became a local superstar, mixing, blending and selecting records as no one had before. In advance of Sunday's block party outside the Garage's old Manhattan home and concurrent with a petition to rename that block as Larry Levan Way, Rolling Stone talked at length with three of Levan's alternate DJs — the aforementioned Depino, Joey Llanos and François K — about the impact of the club, the music that was played and memories of friendships with Levan.

The 30 Greatest Dance Albums of All Time

You were at the Garage since day one, right David?
David Depino: Yes, since day one. I actually found the space.

Can you tell me about that?
Depino: I was friends with this DJ, Mario, and we worked together in this club in Brooklyn called Broadway. And Mario was Larry's boyfriend. And the first time I met Larry, Mario and I looked a lot alike. So from behind, he thought I was Mario when he came to this club and put his hands over my eyes and went, "Surprise!" And when I turned around he went, "Oh my god, I'm sorry. I thought you were Mario." So we hung out that night, talking. We went out to breakfast after the club closed, and he was talking about looking for a space. I told him I had gone to a club that was only open for a very short time. It was in between Christopher Street and Canal Street when I used to drive home to go to Brooklyn. I don't know exactly where.

So the next time I was in the Village, I weaved up and down the side streets until I found it. And I gave Mario the address to give Larry, and he gave it to Larry, and Larry told Michael Brody, who I didn't know, about the space. They called up the real estate. And then before I know it, Mario told me they took it, Larry and Michael. And Mario was supposed to be the DJ on Friday and Larry was supposed to be the DJ on Saturday. But by the time they started the construction parties and everything, Mario and Larry went their separate ways. And I visited and Larry remembered me, and we started to be friends.

Did the club arrive fully formed?
Depino: The opening night was a disaster 'cause there was the big blizzard and the sound system arrived late. So by the time the sound system was hooked up and they were getting it ready to go, the club was supposed to open midnight. It didn't open till 2 o'clock in the morning. Everyone was on line freezing brutally with mountains of snow, and they we are all so upset that they never came back.

François K: Remember maybe to mention that opening was really much after the unofficial…

Depino: Oh right, they had construct parties for about a year in '76. There were four or five construction parties within a year. Maybe six. And that gave them the money to finish the rest of the club. But when it officially opened in January of '78, it was a disastrous opening, and Saturday took several years to build back up. Fridays were pretty good from the very beginning.

What was being played at this time?
Joey Llanos: I can tell you about the first time I learned about François. I knew about François, but I started paying attention to François because I was working security there. I was an electrician by trade, but I got the job as one of the bouncers and a night that sticks out in my mind was when François was doing the guest appearance at the Garage and he played — it was in the middle of his set, the room was packed, and he put on "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," that ballad from the Dream Girls, Jennifer Holliday track. And the whole room went insane. So that's when I discovered François. I said, 'Let me pay attention to this guy.' Then I found out he did [French disco band] Martin Circus, and that made me fall in love with him even more. Go ahead François, you wanted to say something?

François K: I clearly, distinctly remember going to one of the construction parties in the fall of 1977. A friend of mine who I was working for at a club called New York, New York brought me there. He was also the guy who quit DJing at the Continental Baths, and just decided he was going home because he had enough of that. And they turned around to the light man, who was a dude named Larry Levan, and they told him to take over with the records. So that guy, Joseph Bonfiglio took me around to a new club that was opening. I remember it being in the back room and that it was pretty much the hottest party I had ever seen, even if it might not have been as fancy as some other clubs or as well put-together because they were still in construction.

It was so strong — the energy was so powerful. It was so immediately obvious that this guy Larry had a whole different kind of energy going on. He had this real charismatic, driving sound that would just captivate people. It's like if you had a bunch of iron forks and spoons and stuff and suddenly you start putting magnets and everything's oriented a different way, that's what Larry could do to a group of people. It was insane. And that music, it was kind of hard to characterize. He could just as well be playing some Fela Kuti and Ginger Baker or he could playing some rock music. Pat Benatar. Even in those early years, he was favoring a great variety of things, some of which he was pretty faithfully carrying on the legacy of an entire generation of musicians, like old people from Philadelphia, like Teddy Pendergrass and the Jones Girls and so on and so forth. Lou Rawls, the O'Jays, and then there was also that funk sound like BT Express.

Joey: If he was upset, you'd hear it in the music. If he was happy, you'd hear it in the music. If he came back from vacation in Brazil, you would hear an hour of Samba music. So you really didn't know, or it would be the Clash or the Police.

When did it feel like a Garage sound really emerged?
Joey: For me, Larry would make the records. Not that he actually made the record himself or produced it, but if it was a record that he liked, he'd play it four or five times throughout the night and make it a Garage record to where they would line up to a local record store, Vinyl Mania, and wait for it. I guess over the 10 years that that sound just became what people expected, you know?

François K: I think the one thing worth noticing is he, Larry, had this ability. Like, let's say a lot of us DJs would be at the record store and picking through all the week's releases and everything. Those releases were whatever they happened to be that week. What was unique was that he really had this way of making that music his. It didn't have to have a specific sound to it; it could be very different things. It could be Italo-disco with a very electronic atmosphere, or it could be something with a real R&B/funk kind of vibe to it. Or it could be something that was very lush and orchestrated, something Ashford & Simpson — like. Or something that was very raw and completely unusual. But whatever it was, he had this way to incorporate that song and he would present it and work it and highlight certain parts of it and sometimes completely change the structure of it with a couple of copies. He would do all that in such a way that he would make the record his.

Often times, after a couple of weeks of a new record — something everyone had heard but no one has bothered with — he was the only one who would pick a certain record and immediately, instantly made it his so from that point on, even that when the record came on, it was just another record.

On the subject of Larry taking it further, I'm interested in the Peech Boys? I found their tracks on compilations, but I can't find any info on how they came together, how Larry brought them together.
David: They were a group named "Snatch"; they were like a rock cover band. My friend, David Lizotta, met Michael de Benedictus one night and brought him to the garage and introduced him to me when he brought him up to the DJ booth, and in turn introduced him to Larry. They started talking and Larry found out he was a keyboard artist and Larry said, "Oh, wow. Do you play this kind of music?" Michael said, "Not really, but I'm loving what you're playing." And Larry was getting ready to do a mix for West End and said, "I need a keyboard player to do some overdubs, " and brought Michael into the studio. Michael did some overdubs and they clicked. And from that, they wanted to make some dance music other than what they did make, which was rock.

That kind of started the relationship and the group later became the Peech Boys and the rest was history. Even François played with them, one time, on drums. In the meat freezer, in Michael's loft, his little studio. That was the first time I realized François could play the drums. I had no rhythm, so they gave me the triangle.

The production on "Don't Make Me Wait," the way the handclaps echo, sounds almost dubby. Like something you'd be into, François.
David: The handclaps were an accident. When they loaded them in, somehow, it went backwards. They were looking for something, and the moment that handclaps came on backwards, Larry jumped up and said, "That's it!" and everybody looked at him like, "What are you talking about? That's a mistake." Larry said, "That's it, that's the hook. People will scream from the first backwards hand-clap."

François K: The thing that was truly uncanny about Larry Levan — all geniuses, all really special artists, have this astounding ability to suck whatever it is around them and bring together all these ideas or influences or trains of thought. And maybe people such as myself were favoring sort of an electronic sort of sound, a lot of stuff like that, which was incorporated into the mixes we did because we had a lot of room to do that, but I think he picked up on that right away.

You said it took a little while for Saturday at the Garage to pick up? When did what Larry was doing there start to influence the rest of New York? When did people start to catch on?
François K: Ten minutes? [laughs]

David: I think Larry's relationship with the Garage was sort of symbiotic — the Garage helped make Larry and Larry helped make the Garage. When both of them started happening, record companies heard what he was doing and he started doing more and more mixes and it became the perfect storm. All three: the mixing, the playing, the club. All of them started to blossom at the same time. Larry started to have an effect on people, but he never wanted to or never tried to. Larry was just Larry. As soon as Larry felt he had responsibility, he hated it because he just wanted to play records and have fun and have his friends around him. I remember one night Stevie Wonder came and Larry made him wait an hour and a half before he played his record. And never went over to say hello to him until he was putting his coat on to leave. I said, "Go over and say hello to him!" and he'd go, "I'm playing — I can't be bothered." I said, "It's Stevie Wonder!" He said, "I know!"

François K: To me, the thing that was really significant is, as Joey was saying before, the first phenomenon you had was a few record stores in the Village that were specifically open early morning — including Sunday morning — after the Garage closed. And that translated into people like Frankie Crocker, the programmer for WBLS, he would come there and suddenly he would pick up on one of these songs. Now you had this radio station in a major market putting on a song that would not be released for three or four months, and putting it into hot rotation, which means it would be played six, seven, eight times a day. Hundreds and hundreds of people mad at this song you couldn't buy.

I remember once, Larry gave Frankie a test-pressing of something and said, "Frankie, this record ain't coming out for another couple of weeks. Please don't play it because the record company already told me." And Frankie said, "Oh, no, I'll wait a couple weeks." The very next day, he played it. We were in my car and Larry put his hand on his head and said, "I'm in so much trouble."

David: And Frankie would say, "I heard this last night at the Garage."

François K: It had this effect on culture. This was something that was truly a phenomenon. There was nothing you could compare it to. It was this wildfire, powder-keg effect, and we saw it happen in front of our eyes. That's what Larry Levan did. It just spread out not just in the city, but on to England and the rest of the country.

x