Larry Levan was the first superstar DJ. The first to really convince the world that there was more to DJing than just playing one record after another. For 10 years from 1977 to 1987, Levan was the star attraction at New York’s legendary Paradise Garage, writing himself into clubbing lore with swashbuckling DJ sets that took in minimal underground disco, funky rock, dub and synth-pop, which foreshadowed the house music revolution. At the same time, his uncanny ability to mix and tweak records for maximum emotional impact would regularly send his devoted congregation into raptures”.
Larry Levan (born Lawrence Philpot, July 20, 1954 – November 8, 1992) was an American DJ best known for his decade-long residency at the New York City night club Paradise Garage, which has been described as the prototype of the modern dance club. He developed a cult following who referred to his sets as “Saturday Mass”. Influential post-disco DJ François Kevorkian credits Levan with introducing the dub aesthetic into dance music. Along with Kevorkian, Levan experimented with drum machines and synthesizers in his productions and live sets, ushering in an electronic, post-disco sound that presaged the ascendence of house music. He DJ’d at Club Zanzibar in the 1980s as well, home to the Jersey Sound brand of deep house or garage house.
Levan was born at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, New York, to Minnie (née Levan) and Lawrence Philpot. He has an older brother Isaac and sister Minnie who are both biological twins. He was born with a congenital heart condition and suffered from asthma from a very young age which would make him prone to fainting in class. Although a fragile young boy, he excelled in math and physics, leaving an impression on his teachers that he would become an inventor one day. He inherited his love for music from his mother who loved blues, jazz, and gospel music, and he was able to use a record player from the age of three. As his mother reflects, “I’d make him put records on so that we could dance together.” While attending Erasmus Hall High School in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the neighborhood of Flatbush transitioned to a predominantly African-American population due to white flight, the flamboyantly vanguard Levan (who dyed his hair orange nearly a decade before the ascendance of punk rock), was frequently bullied by his classmates. Eventually, he dropped out of high school and found assuagement in Harlem’s longstanding ball culture as a dressmaker, where he first became acquainted with fellow designer and lifelong best friend Frankie Knuckles.
He became infatuated with an idea of making the “music that would never stop” during a brief affair with hippie DJ David Mancuso, who introduced Levan to Manhattan’s burgeoning underground downtown dance culture. Mancuso was the proprietor of The Loft, a minimally decorated, members-only dance club (uniquely situated in his home) where “punch, fruit and candy” were served in lieu of alcohol and music was processed by a state-of-the-art sound system. According to the pseudonymous “Apollo,” an acquaintance of Levan and Knuckles, “You could only get into the Loft by private invitation. This was not because Mancuso wanted to create an elitist environment; he intentionally wanted to bring together diverse groups of gays who wouldn’t ordinarily party together to create a democratic, integrated venue. David was powerfully attracted to black music and culture as well as men, so this Loft party was instrumental in bringing together wealthy, white gay men, many of them music executives, with this black musical dance culture he adored.”
Levan got his start alongside Knuckles at the Continental Baths, as a replacement for the DJ from The Gallery, Nicky Siano, who briefly employed both men as decorators at The Gallery and taught them his pioneering three turntable technique. Accordingly, Levan’s DJing style was influenced by Siano’s penchant for Philadelphia soul and upbeat rock and Mancuso’s jazz-inflected eclecticism; as with Mancuso, he briefly dated Siano during the epoch. While Knuckles was still trying to make his way in the New York club scene, Levan soon became a popular attraction at venues such as SoHo Place due to his “diva persona,” which he had previously developed in the city’s notoriously competitive black drag “houses”.
At the height of the disco boom in 1977, Levan was offered a residency at the Paradise Garage. Although owner Michael Brody—who employed Levan at the defunct Reade Street in 1976, where he “developed the techniques as well as the sound – the deep, dark bass, the queasy, dubby emotion that he would extract from records – that would make him a legend”—intended to create a downtown facsimile of Studio 54 catering to an upscale white gay clientele, the new venue initially drew an improbable mix of streetwise blacks, Latinos, and punks after a disastrous opening night alienated the target demographic; according to Mel Cheren of West End Records, Brody’s former companion and a silent partner in the venture, “The sound equipment got stuck in a blizzard at an airport in Louisville, Kentucky. And people were kept outside in 17-degree weather. Some of them never came back… the club didn’t really take on the atmosphere that people remember it for until 1980.”
Open only to a select membership and housed in an otherwise unadorned building on King Street in Greenwich Village, the club and Levan’s DJing slowly entered the mainstream. Influential WBLS DJ/programming director Frankie Crocker often mentioned the club on air and based his playlists around Levan’s sets. The Richard Long & Associates Sound system (RLA) of the club included custom-designed “Levan Horn” bass speakers.
Filling the void left by leading DJ/remixer Walter Gibbons following the latter’s conversion to evangelical Christianity, Levan became a prolific producer and mixer in the 1980s, with many of his efforts crossing over onto the national dance music charts. Among the records that received Levan’s touch were his remixes of “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin On But The Rent” by Gwen Guthrie and “Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner, as well as his production work on “Don’t Make Me Wait” by the Peech Boys, a group that Levan formed and was part of (and who became the New York Citi Peech Boys when the Beach Boys threatened a lawsuit due to the similar sound of the name). With a strong gospel tinge in the vocal arrangements and driven by a tinkling piano, the latter song is a quintessential example of the deejay’s soulful aesthetic. One of the first dance releases to incorporate a dub music influence and an appended vocal-only edit, Levan tinkered with the song for nearly a year to the consternation of Mel Cheren, whose label, West End Records, was nearing bankruptcy. When it was finally released, much of the song’s momentum had been lost and it stalled in the lower reaches of the charts.
As the popularity of the Garage soared in the mid-1980s just as many of his longtime friends lost their battles with AIDS, Levan became increasingly dependent upon PCP and heroin. While performing, he began to ensconce himself within a protective entourage of drag queens and younger acolytes. At the Paradise Garage, Levan was described as being “worshipped, almost like a god.” As beat-matching and ideological stylistic adherence became the norm among club DJs, Levan’s idiosyncratic sets (ranging the gamut from Evelyn “Champagne” King, Chaka Khan and Deodato with Camille to Kraftwerk, Manuel Göttsching, and British synthpop) elicited criticism from some quarters. Nevertheless, he remained at the forefront of dance music; recordings of Levan’s later sets at the Garage demonstrate his affinity for the insurgent sounds of Chicago house and hip-hop.
The Garage ended its run with a 48-hour-long party in September 1987, weeks before Brody died from AIDS-related complications. The closure and passing devastated Levan, who knew that few club owners would tolerate his quirks and drug dependencies. Although Brody had verbally bequeathed the club’s sound and lighting systems to Levan, they were instead left to Brody’s mother in his will. This change was reportedly instigated by the late impresario’s lover and manager, who reportedly despised Levan.
Despite protestations and pleas to the Brody family from Mel Cheren, the systems remained in storage as their property. Unable to secure a long-term residency after a stay at the short-lived Choice in the East Village alongside DJ/proprietor Richard Vasquez and Joey Llanos, Levan began to sell his valuable records for drug money. Friends like Danny Krivit would buy them back for him out of sympathy.
As the 1990s dawned, Levan was on the brink of a comeback. Dismissed as a relic in New York despite managing occasional appearances at the au courant Sound Factory, his popularity had nonetheless soared among connoisseurs of disco and early American electronic dance music in Europe and Japan. In 1991, he was brought over for the weekend to London by Justin Berkmann to DJ at London’s Ministry of Sound nightclub. To the mutual surprise of both parties, he ended up staying for three months; during this period, he remixed and produced tracks for the club’s record label and helped to tune the venue’s acclaimed sound system. Although he was still dependent on heroin, Levan’s 1992 tour of Japan garnered gushing accolades in the local press. Encouraged by Cheren, he entered rehab and continued his tentative recording forays. On the contrary, he informed his mother in June 1992 that he had “lived a good life” and was “ready to die,” while Francois Kevorkian described Levan’s final Japanese sets as nostalgic and inspirational, imbued with an air of bittersweetness and closure.
Having been mildly injured on the Japanese tour, Levan was voluntarily hospitalized at Beth Israel Medical Center following his return to New York. Three days after being released into the care of his mother, he was re-hospitalized at Beth Israel with hemorrhoid symptoms. He died of heart failure caused by endocarditis at 6:15 p.m. EST on Sunday, November 8, 1992. In September 2004, Levan was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame for his outstanding achievement as a DJ.