Larry Levan (1954-1992) was an iconic disc jockey in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s whose time as resident DJ-diva at the Paradise Garage in Manhattan, New York City, influenced the development of house music and DJ culture.
Larry Levan (born Lawrence Philpot – he dropped his father’s surname) was born in July 1954 in Brooklyn, New York City. He was raised by his mother, Minnie Levan, to whom he credited his love of music and dancing. Although a bright child and adept at dismantling and reassembling mechanical things, he had trouble keeping up with classes, due in part to fainting spells resulting from a congestive heart condition and asthma.
As teenagers, Levan and his good friend Frankie Knuckles would go to Gay dance clubs in 1970s Manhattan, and were involved in the early Ballroom scene. Both were interested in the new DJ techniques being developed at that time: the slip-cue (placing a thin soft pad between the record and the turntable so that the record could be started instantly), dual or triple turntables, and remixing songs for the dance floor by splicing taped recordings and playing the assembled sonic parts on reel-to-reel tape decks.
Levan and Knuckles went to David Mancuso’s formative Loft parties, which set the pace for an ethnically diverse, musically informed, and drug-fueled Gay dance scene. Levan received much of his hands-on training as a DJ from Nicky Siano at the Gallery. Later, both Levan and his childhood friend Frankie Knuckles worked as DJs in the Continental Baths, a bathhouse that included a restaurant and dance floor on its premises. But Levan’s most famous residency was the Paradise Garage (also known as “the Garage”).
It was at the Garage that Levan became an icon. He used his talent for figuring out how machines functioned, and reworked the sound system (designed by Richard Long and Al Fierstein) to his own specifications for maximum effect on the dance floor, including specialized “Levan speakers” and a subwoofer that was nicknamed “Larry’s Horn.” He would begin a night with low-grade needle cartridges for his turntables, then upgrade the cartridges as the evening progressed, thus improving the quality of sound to keep his audience’s attention.
His popularity and the success of the Paradise Garage influenced the dance music industry, especially in the Manhattan club scene. The tracks he played over a Saturday night-Sunday morning would become top sellers at local record stores. Like Knuckles and the Warehouse nightclub in Chicago, Levan’s music was picked up by dance-music radio DJs in the city, thus creating a feedback loop between DJ, dancers, club, radio, and retail. The music was rarely deemed mainstream, but Levan’s and Knuckles’ reputations grew as fans from outside of their respective cities sought the NYC garage sound and the Chicago house music (taken from “Paradise Garage” and “Warehouse,” respectively).
Levan the Diva
The DJ booth in the Paradise Garage was extensive, lush, and privileged, with a reception area for guests, and door personnel whose job it was to restrict entry to a chosen few. In the tradition of DJ Terry Noel at Arthur in the 1960s, Levan became a celebrity within the microcosm of the club and its admirers. In turn, he would act like a diva (a female singer with tremendous star power). Levan would turn off the lights in the club until he started a song, just to make sure he had everyone’s attention, and was known to stop the music when he felt the audience did not show enough appreciation.
Levan was eclectic in his musical tastes, and would play songs by the British ska-punk group the Clash alongside the funk-jazz of Roy Ayers, the deep soul of Aretha Franklin, mainstream rock’s Fleetwood Mac, and disco-oriented songs by Jamaican-American Grace Jones, Salsoul Orchestra, openly-Gay Carl Bean, drag queen Sylvester, and the French musician Jean-Marc Cerrone. If he thought a song was worthy but the crowd did not respond the way he wanted, he might play it again and again until people danced to it with appropriate enthusiasm, which is what he did with a hit dance song he had produced, “Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner.
The reason why the crowd allowed him to behave that way had to do with the novelty he brought to the music, looping a song, throwing in sound effects, playing an eclectic variety of tunes so that one never knew quite what to expect, and relating intimately with the dancers by means of his craft as DJ.
Dance Floor Evangelism
His admirers loved him most for the ways in which he could connect with them on a sensual, emotional, and spiritual level simultaneously. In the folklore of the underground dance scene, the DJ is often compared to a shaman who leads the dancers in a journey through sonic realms, and DJs such as Levan are accorded such status in the legends told about times when they took the crowd to indescribable levels of ecstasy. The accolades Levan and the Paradise Garage continue to receive are often expressed in spiritual terms.
Music was the medium by which he could deliver a message. Levan was famous for disco evangelism (alternative: dance floor evangelism), preaching to the dancers through the music as if they were his congregation. He would also send out songs with lyrics specifically targeting certain individuals, either showing his love or his ire for them.
Death and Remembrance
When the Paradise Garage closed in 1987, Levan was ill-equipped to regain the stature he had formerly possessed. Problems with heroin addiction and inability to hold a DJ gig for long contributed to his decline. Nevertheless, he was hired by the London club, Ministry of Sound, to put together its sound system. He and Knuckles played the opening night. Levan continued to be wildly popular in Japan, and embarked on a tour that took him through Japan in 1992. In November that same year, he died from endocartis, inflammation of the endocartium or inner layer of heart tissue.
Larry Levan, Paradise Garage, and Mel Cheren (who was a financier of the Garage, the Chief Executive Officer of West End Records, and a close friend of Levan) have been memorialized in a series of dance parties called “Keep on Dancin’.” These events raise money for AIDS service organizations, including Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), LIFEbeat, and the American Run for the End of AIDS. GMHC inherited the Paradise Garage trademark when Mel Cheren died in 2007.
Songs Remixed/Produced by Levan (abridged)
“C is for Cookie” Cookie Monster and the Girls (Children’s Television Workshop, 1978))
“I Got My Mind Made Up” Instant Funk (Salsoul, 1978)
“Is It All Over My Face?” (Loose Joints, West End Records, 1980)
“Heartbeat” Taana Gardner (West End Records, 1981)
“Don’t Make Me Wait” Peech Boys (West End Records, 1982)
Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. New York: Grove, 2000.
Cheren, Mel. Keep on Dancin’: My Life and the Paradise Garage. New York: 24 Hours For Life, 2000.
Fikentscher, Kai. “You Better Work!” Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University, 2000.
Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. New York: Faber and Faber, 2005,