“A PARTY, not a club night at a club,” promised the announcement of the Last Party, legendary New York disco DJ Nicky Siano’s 60th birthday celebration. A party is what the lively intergenerational crowd got. Along with David Mancuso, Siano was one of the first disco DJs in New York, and his early-Seventies club the Gallery became one of the city’s most influential thanks to his early mastery of the on-beat mixing style that is now standard among club DJs.
The event site for Siano’s birthday was inspired: Coney Island’s Eldorado Auto Skooter, a bumper-car space with the cars parked along the walls, allowing for dancing on a uniquely foot-friendly surface. The buffed metal flooring was just slippery enough to encourage movement but not so much so that you’d fall down. No one was falling over — this wasn’t a bacchanal, but social and convivial, with a ticket including two beers or glasses of wine, as well as hot dogs, potato chips, and after 1 a.m., birthday cake (a sweet chocolate raspberry).
Siano, shaved bald, worked turntables and a MacBook in a tiny wooden booth near the entrance, played Seventies dance classics through a sound system designed by Richard Long, the legendary audio engineer who outfitted the Paradise Garage — Larry Levan’s storied NYC club in Soho — and built a pair of extra-warm J-horn bass cabinets into the bumper-car arena’s system, as Siano recently told Red Bull Music Academy.
The system came as advertised — the music sounded good, and analog, in a way that came as a relief from the high-def digital maximalism of lots of electronic dance in clubs and arenas alike. There were times when Siano would mess with the EQ, and the total effect acquired a surprising amount of emotional depth that was completely other than it would have with more individualized channels at his disposal.
That more-with-less approach fit the locale. Yes, flashing carnival lights are just about the greatest things you can have on a party dance floor — then, now, forever. The crowd skewed way older, understandably given Siano’s longevity behind the decks. And they could dance. One couple, fiftyish male-female, wearing what appeared to be their old disco shirts as they executed relaxed, impeccable steps to Chaka Khan’s “I Know You, I Love You” and the Trammps’ “Save a Place.” If anyone appeared to have a bad time, they missed this reporter’s eye. The sixtysomethings, maybe more than anyone, were fully alive to the music.
Everywhere you turned there was living New York dance-music history. In back, near a set of open-for-play Skee-Ball and basketball hoops games, stood Robert Williams, who’d flown in from Chicago for the occasion. Williams was the Gallery regular who moved to the Midwest in the mid-1970s and started the Warehouse, the club where Frankie Knuckles remade the cutting edge of the city’s nightlife and in the process propelled house music into being. Not far from Williams was Dennis the Menace, one of the crucial behind-the-scenes figures from Brooklyn’s early-Nineties Storm Raves.
Siano was famed as one of the first smooth-mixing DJs, but the pre-house style of club mixing allows for pauses and turnarounds, and that’s what he did at Eldorado, as when he pivoted sharply into Geraldine Hunt’s “Can’t Fake the Feeling,” or swerved into Chic’s “I Want Your Love.” Siano didn’t always feel like mixing, but when he did, he made the transitions count, as when he revved deliciously into Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around.” The ambience helped, of course, as when a conga player materialized in the corner in time for the Salsoul Orchestra’s “You’re Just the Right Size.”
At 1:35 a.m., Siano dropped Odyssey’s poignant “Native New Yorker”: “Up in Harlem, down on Broadway” — both places that no longer resemble what they were when the song was released in 1977, a time when disco still felt underground. Sandy Linzer co-wrote and co-produced “Native New Yorker” and also produced another song Siano played shortly afterward: “I’ll Play the Fool,” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, the lead track from that band’s self-titled debut classic from 1976. It’s about tongue-in-cheek glamour being as good as the real thing — something to reflect on, and revel in, in the midst of the midway flash.