In the 1930’s and 1940’s of the United States, white broadcasters owned black radio, and white announcers stifled black music (Cooper, 159). Air time dedicated to black musicality featured gospel music because it contained “nothing offensive or potentially seditious” (Cooper, 159). By failing to hire black announcers, white broadcasters deprived black musicality of its cultural context as well as of “any power to affect America’s social status-quo” (Cooper, 159). Radio refused autonomy over the black community’s own musical history. The struggle for authentic space and expression driven by members of the black community
speak for yourself, be yourself, and create your own context and community, find a space that is your own, embrace your rights to be loud, open, and honest about your identity and your
Yet, when the WDIA station of Memphis, Tennessee became the first “all black-formatted station featuring black on-air announcers,” black DJs began to thrive.
Spinning storied tracks that conversed with their audiences, black DJs demonstrated the talent, complexity, and necessity of black music. They became “community leaders” around the nation (Cooper, 159); along with black entrepreneurs, black DJs helped to engender a new culture of music: disco.
New York’s five boroughs were “particularly full of social and technological experimentation” (Cooper, 160). Black entrepreneurs began to transform college frat fundraisers and town rent parties into professional entertainment platforms.
The Manhattan clubs of Leviticus, Othello’s, Pegasus, and Down Under were birthed from the “art of throwing a party people would pay to attend” (Cooper, 160). And though these “black-oriented clubs” were strongly influenced by popular black radio, none of these clubs attracted the same audience (Cooper, 160). They were diverse.
Carol Cooper believes that “The biggest myth of late 1970s disco portrayed the disco audience as homogeneous in attitude and composition” (Cooper, 160). Disco has always been a “vast, multiethnic subculture” of music, whose various establishments served particular communities.
Disco “cults” fell along certain group categories such as gay discos, “new wave” discos, or “black mainstream discos” (Cooper, 161).
The Saint Dance Club is seen by many as the culmination of gay disco.
setting the stage for the saint
Stories of the Saint – Chapter 4: The Era
Bruce Mailman was an entrepreneur based in New York City, U.S.A. who was integral in providing sensual havens for the gay community during the 1970s and 1980s.
In the eras of the Sexual Revolution and of disco culture, Bruce Mailman endeavored to engineer an oasis of open desire and free expression in which gay men could engage.
To do this, Mailman first created the St. Marks Baths, a bathhouse described by author Jonathan McEwan as an “exciting place in which to enjoy the pleasures of the then unhindered sexual revolution” (36). Later, Bruce Mailman founded the Saint disco club, which, to many, came to represent the apotheosis of the disco era.
The unusually large size of the Saint’s memorial block attempts to communicate its extraordinary impact on New York’s gay history. The quilt’s size symbolizes both the magnificent breadth of the physical Saint as well as its metaphorical significance in history.
Weinstein, Steve. “DJ Sharon White Returns to NYC Nightlife For a Celebration 35 Years in the Making | Village Voice.” Accessed October 18, 2017. https://www.villagevoice.com/2015/11/17/dj-sharon-white-returns-to-nyc-nightlife-for-a-celebration-35-years-in-the-making/.
born in the 50s, Disc jockey in the 70s
Sharon White was born in 1954. As an adolescent, White grew particularly attached to “British blues rock,” and admired artists such as Led Zeppelin, John Mayall, and the Faces (Cooper, 162). White grew up in Babylon, Long Island, New York, U.S.A and became passionate about drumming and percussion early on in her life. Music beat through her like a lyrical pulse.
Studying drumming at a Manhattan conservatory during college, Sharon White befriended Allison Steele, a widely admired radio DJ for the NYC-based WNEW-FM station, through her own participation in college radio. Through her connection to Allison Steele and her work in radio, White was exposed to the culture of disc jockeying. She became intensely interested in the craft of deejays, and eventually received airtime on the radio after diving into the craft. Achieving radio play precipitated White’s first live disc jockeying gig, which was performed at a bar in Long Island alongside Roy Thode. Thode was a friend and mentor to Sharon who was respected as “one of the great innovators of his craft” (Weinstein).
White’s live gigs only extended so far. In the earlier parts of her career, Sharon White was limited to giving performances in women’s bars. However, despite the subset of venues she was able to perform in, White often explored gay clubs downtown such as 12 West and the Flamingo. Though she was the “only black woman in a sea of white muscle,” White would dance with the grooving crowds for the entire night, possessed by the DJ’s extraordinary music (Weinstein). White was amazed by the way a DJ could “shift the mood [of the audience] with a different tempo or key change” (Weinstein). Sharon White studied as she danced, internally hypothesizing the best method for “‘catching'” a beat from record to record (qtd. in Weinstein). How could she transition between songs without disrupting the music’s rhythm?
At the time, sound equipment and technology was rather “rudimentary.” White remembers in some clubs the screeching feedback of records blasted through low-quality speakers. Additionally, needles on the record player sometimes skipped on records played in clubs when vibrations from the dance floor became too forceful. Yet the mid-1970s brought a number of advancements for the disc jockeys of the world.
12 inch extended single records “improved the ability of deejays to compose a smooth set with seamless transitions.” Similarly, “more sophisticated technology and club sound systems […] began to advance the skill sets of accomplished jocks.”
“During this time, Sharon White was perfecting her craft at a lesbian club called the Sahara. There, White caught the interest of several club promoters and sound engineers of the industry alike. As a percussionist and former radio operative, White possessed a talent for detecting the “sonic nuances” of “densely orchestrated instrumentals and vocal tracks” that only a technical ear could perceive and manipulate to energize crowds (Cooper, 162).”
By the time the Paradise Garage opened in 1977, White had already grown her expertise and experience as a DJ, but she still sought the thrill of the club scene and the musical affairs of other disc jockeys. The Garage more diverse than the other gay clubs White had before attended, with more women and people of color dancing beneath the disco’s lights. Paradise Garage was unique in other ways, too. At the Garage, lead DJ Larry Levan transported crowds on a “musical journey” (Weinstein). Spinning an “eclectic mixing of musical genres,” Levan enthralled audiences until they were “rapt,” or practically oozing at the bliss of his musical theater (Weinstein). Sharon White’s background in musical theory made her all the more appreciative of Levan’s skill.
According to White, the “journey began with David Mancuso at the Loft” (qtd. in Weinstein). One “had to be there from the beginning to hear what was coming,” White continued. Deejay equipment had grown in sophistication throughout the opening of the Loft (1970), the Paradise Garage (1977), and the Saint (1980), able to withstand dance floor vibrations and simulatenously proudce “state of the art” sound.
The musical journey
At the Paradise Garage, the concept of the musical journey emerged; at the Saint, the musical journey evolved into a methodological procedure for stimulating various emotions of the crowds. First, lighter fare music escalated into Hi-NRG (high energy, now known as EDM or electronic dance music in 2017) beats and vibrations. Then those “hard-driving beats” would melt into “melodic morning music,” before concluding with songs later classified as “sleaze” (Weinstein). Sleaze was a swoon of romantic ballads that cascaded from the Saint’s planetarium dome like stardust. Sharon White made a name for herself at the Saint, but that was only after a lucky circumstance propelled her to the club’s DJ booth.
Though invited to join a pre-opening tour for the Saint, Sharon White states that it soon became clear that Bruce Mailman, owner and founder of the Saint, did not want her to occupy the DJ booth. Mailman envisioned the Saint as a male haven; nearly all of the club’s members were male, and female guests had to be pre-approved before attending the night’s festivities. That didn’t stop White from attending Jim Burgess’s last official performance as a DJ. The Saint threw his going-away party in January of 1981, which famously ended in his sudden desertion of the deejay booth.
As the last record Burgess was playing ran out, the crowd turned confused. Burgess had simply “stopped the music, left the DJ booth, got into his Bentley, and left” (Weinstein). People wandered the dance floor, utterly perplexed. The Saint’s coat check then broke down and exacerbated the situation. A manager at the Saint noticed White was in attendance, and commanded her to DJ the crowd. Sharon White asserts that she was “in the right place at the right time” when she instructed a few other staffers at the Saint to go to her home and bring back the bags of records that she had color-coordinated (Weinstein). White played until 1:30pm and caused quite an uproar. Until the Saint’s closing in 1988, Sharon White succeeded as one of the club’s most popular DJs, though she is not cited as a “big” DJ by Bruce Mailman in his interview with the New York Native. Yet she was “big” and her talents attracted the attention of Lenoard Bernstein, a renowned composer and conductor. Bernstein approached White in the booth one night and discussed his pleasured with her adaptations of “a few of [his] pieces” (Weinstein). She “had made a medley of things […] into a dance project,” which her audiences loved. Yet, White didn’t stay local and loyal to the NYC crowds.
After the Saint closed, Sharon White toured clubs in Tokyo, Berlin, even Reykjavík, Iceland where she drummed up the crowd’s energy for the opening of a United Service Organization (USO) center. In Saudi Arabia, Sharon White performed for the king in a burka, yet for the prince, White was able to dress more casually, whose palace he had had transformed into a disco. A London techie organized the sound equipment for White’s later disc jockeying. White states that she “knew him from Fire Island” and that he was on the “down-low” (qtd. in Weinstein). The prince noted that he had three wives, but that everyone at the disco party “knows,” presumably about his sexuality (qtd. in Weinstein).
the next generation
After suffering a horrific trauma in 2000, White escaped to Washington D.C.
There, White played house parties, after-hours bars, and small clubs, where she “learned to open doors and expose [herself] to different types of music” (qtd. in Weinstein). She adopted a mentoring role to younger DJs, just as Allison Steele had once done for her. found herself mentoring the next generation of DJs. Later, White reconnected with colleagues from the Saint, who stirred up fond memories of New York, and her old home.
Now, the Saint-at-Large seeks to “keep the spirit of the original [Saint] alive” by reviving famed parties and themes from the 80’s Saint. Led by Stephen Pevner, a distant relative of the Saint’s founder, Bruce Mailman, the Saint-at-Large has recreated the Black Party and hosted a 35th anniversary celebration for the Saint called Night People.
The Black Party was a “fetish-themed […] bacchanal” that took place every March at the original Saint. Night People was a party dedicated every night before Thanksgiving at the Saint.
After inviting White to spin at the Black Party, White was then invited to join two other former Saint DJs Michael Fierman and Ryan Smith at the Night People celebration in 2015.
Here is a clip of Sharon White preparing her set:
According to Steve Weinstein, Sharon White had scheduled gigs for 2016, though there is little Internet coverage for them and little recent news. However, at the time that this article was written, White was posting podcasts and staying active with the newest generation of “DJs and clubgoers” (Weinstein).
Though this article is not a primary source, or an interview conducted during the 80s in which Sharon White was disc jockeying, it still serves to provide descriptive firsthand accounts of White’s disco experience.
White herself attended, danced in, and frequented renowned disco clubs such as the Saint, the Paradise Garage, and the Loft. Still active as a disc jockey, White engages her past disc jockeying experience with her current maturity in a fresh, fond perspective on her past.
However, one disadvantage to this article is the author’s reliance on the linguistic mode to convey information about a lively, interactive, and sensual era of music history. Steven Weinstein hardly incorporates other modes of communication such as music clips or photographs. Unlike the piece on Meryl Meisler, which at least contains multiple photographs taken in the disco era, there are no photographic or aural forms of historical evidence captured during the 70s and 80s decades.
There is also a lack of sufficient detail to Sharon White’s storytelling, which leaves the reader wanting for more information.
What were the records that White played on her first night disc jockeying at the Saint?
What were White’s favorite songs, or sets as a DJ in the 80s?
What other types of interactions did she have with people in the club scene at the time?
Cooper, Carol. “Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of the New York Dance Music Underground.” Social Text, no. 45 (1995): 159–65. https://doi.org/10.2307/466679.
black radio becomes black disco
Disco emerged out of a struggle for communication and representation.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s United States, “so-called” black radio was owned by white broadcasters, and black music was stifled by white announcers (Cooper, 159). Air time dedicated to black musicality featured gospel music because it contained “nothing offensive or potentially seditious” (Cooper, 159). White broadcasters intended to generate profit by attempting to appeal to black audiences, however such attempts were insulting and selfishly motivated by potential monetary gain. Broadcasters exploited black music by depriving it of its cultural context as well as of “any power to affect America’s social status-quo” (Cooper, 159) by failing to hire black announcers.
The first “all black-formatted station featuring black on-air announcers” was the WDIA station located in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A. (Cooper, 159). WDIA was the only station at the time that catered to black listeners, so the station was able to charge advertisers higher prices for air time. Soon, broadcaster chains around the nation began to adopt black-formatted radio stations for the sole purpose of achieving a bigger profit. White corporations realized that they could benefit from recruiting black on-air personalities, and so they did. Yet, black disc jockeys became like “community leaders” across the nation (Cooper, 159). Spinning storied tracks that conversed with their audiences, black DJs demonstrated the talent, complexity, and necessity of black music.
According to Carol Cooper, the author of this article, the “1960s and 1970s were the golden decades for diversity in radio, and the 1970s and 1980s were years of tremendous progress and diversity in clubland” (160). New York’s five boroughs were “particularly full of social and technological experimentation” (Cooper, 160). College frat fundraisers and town rent parties demanded a jock “with personality and great music” (Cooper, 160) Once black entrepreneurs advanced this festive design, charging people to attend those functions developed into a professional entertainment platform (160). Manhattan clubs such as Leviticus, Othello’s, Pegasus, and Down Under were birthed from the “art of throwing a party people would pay to attend” (160). Yet though these “black-oriented clubs” were strongly influenced by popular black radio, none of these clubs attracted the same audience (160). They were diverse.
DIVERSIty, retaliation, CULTS
Disco has always been a “vast, multiethnic subculture” of music, whose various establishments served particular groups. The Copacabana nightclub was “predominantly Latin,” whereas Disco 2000 attracted Italians; Steve Rubell, the co-owner of Studio 54 described his club as the “white, Hollywood version of Leviticus” (qtd. in Cooper, 160). Yet much of the music played at these various disco nightclubs was “uptempo R&B” (Cooper, 160).
However, when record promoters wanted to test “fresh sounds,” they used DJs to expose “different kinds of listeners simultaneously” to their potential hits (Cooper, 160). Personality jocks with a “fanatical following” could often determine “hit records” within a week based off of their crowds’ feedback (Cooper, 160). Jocks were influential, cultural sculptors whose experimentation and increased technological sophistication continuously encouraged jocks to “live up to the expectations of [the] crowd” (Cooper, 161). Loyal, regular patrons loved, respected, and trusted their jocks. The reliability of a regular crowd inspired a confident desire in male DJs to improve their “sound system, […] technique, and record collection” (Cooper, 161). Yet once city policy limited the number of venues that disc jockeys could perform at, competition for sets in popular clubs surged.
Out of the competition for listeners sprung disco “cults,” whose determinations fell along certain group categories such as gay discos, “new wave” discos, or “black mainstream discos” (Cooper, 161). The byproduct of politicized jock competition was a “segregation of the disco market by style and demographics;” rather than being “mere happenstance,” such dissociation of the musical market intentionally and “forcibly [changed] the way new music could be presented to the public” (Cooper, 161). Once DJs acquired a steady gig, they sometimes felt pressured to abstain from making any new sound waves. These DJs played “more proven hits and less risky long shots” in order to maintain their job. The musicality of the disc jockey was quickly becoming stifled by the “narrow formatting” being forced upon crowds. Thus, some DJs began to perform as guests during special event nights at various clubs. Without committing to any one steady gig, these jocks were able to continue mixing different types of music and playing to different types of audiences (Cooper, 161).
This “cultural give-and-take” especially thrived in the 1980s, when jocks moved between uptown and downtown gigs, rendering musical excursions upon their crowds through expressions of rock’n’roll, reggaeton, and R&B music (Cooper, 161). Carol Cooper believes that “The biggest myth of late 1970s disco portrayed the disco audience as homoegenous in attitude and composition,” which, to her, is an undeniable falsehood. (Cooper, 160). Music is multidimensional, multi-ethnic, and attractive in different ways to different audiences. In fact, there seemed to exist a “gulf” in musical interest at white and black gay clubs in the 1970s (Cooper, 162). There were also several musical distinctions between the more popular discotheques of the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Paradise Garage and the Saint.
The Paradise Garage blasted low-end frequency music, whereas the Saint often played high or mid-range frequencies. According to the Paradise Garage Wikipedia page, three songs made popular through the Garage are “Don’t Make Me Wait” by Peech Boys, “Do It To The Music” by Raw Silk, and “Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner.
“Don’t Make Me Wait” by Peech Boys:
“Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner:
“Do It To The Music” by Raw Silk:
Cooper cites Chaka Khan, the Emotions, and The Talking Heads, as famed performers of mid to high frequency music, which was traditionally played at The Saint. The following songs are “Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan, “Stay Up Late” by Talking Heads, and “Don’t Ask My Neighbors” by The Emotions. They give a range of the artistry found at mid to high frequency music.
“Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan
“Stay Up Late” by Talking Heads
“Don’t Ask My Neighbors” by The Emotions
The “densely arranged vocal records” of artists such as Chaka Khan, Talking Heads, and The Emotions were given “a clarity and a […] cerebral jolt unequaled anywhere else” at the Saint when they were articulated through a jock’s musical, technological, and storytelling style. (Cooper, 163). Popular clubs like the Saint, the Paradise Garage, and the Loft did not always play according to their brand though. In order to “pay tribute to their collective dedication to giving their respective patrons a unique musical experience,” these clubs sometimes played music that was usually identified with their so-called rivals (Cooper, 163). Such blatant branding still dictates the complexity of disco styles and genres, showing that the music from this era is not a uniform, indistinguishable mass of sound. Their homage to rival dance clubs additionally shows the aforementioned “cultural give-and-take” of the 80s (Cooper, 161).
On page 162, Carol Cooper divulges to the reader that all the jocks she has been discussing, those who had to grapple with narrow formatting and excelled when exposed to a variety of audiences and music, are male.
However, there are two female disc jockeys that “deserve examination,” despite that fact that mainstream media does not consider them worthy of news coverage since they are “neither tragic nor dead” (Cooper, 161). These two black female jocks are Sharon White and Gail King, whose talents at musical instrumentation imbued their passion for the music scene.
Sharon White grew up drumming and specializes in various forms of percussion. Gail King was the lead guitarist of several jazz and funk bands as a teenager.
In college, both women became exposed to disc jockeying through their participation at college radio stations.
When Sharon White wrote to the famed radio disc jockey Allison Steele, the two women swiftly became friends. Steele had been an “idol” to Sharon White, and acted as her mentor as they got to know each other. Eventually, White “drifted into clubs,” hoping to satisfy the “child” in her that had “always wanted an audience” (qtd. in Cooper, 163). To White, “spinning at a club […] was a hundred times better” than doing radio because she could see “500 people reacting to [her] music,” whereas during her nighttime slots on the radio, only a call or two would inform her that anyone was listening (Cooper, 163). Along with her expertise on the drums, White “knew the music,” having grown up listening to and loving artists like the Faces, John Mayall, and Jimi Hendrix (Cooper, 163). She quickly became extremely influential in the music scene.
12 inch extended single records arrived in the mid-1970s, and they significantly improved the ability of deejays to compose a smooth set with seamless transitions. During this time, Sharon White was perfecting her craft at a lesbian club called the Sahara. There, White caught the interest of several club promoters and sound engineers of the industry alike. As a percussionist and former radio operative, Sharon White possessed a talent for detecting the “sonic nuances” of “densely orchestrated instrumentals and vocal tracks” that only a technical ear could perceive and manipulate to energize crowds (Cooper, 162). Read more about Sharon White here. More sophisticated technology and club sound systems simultaneously began to advance the skill sets of accomplished jocks.
Gail King and Sharon White were among the known accomplished jocks. In the 70s, both women were elected to become members of Billboard’s national deejay panel, which “determined the chart position for dance singles” (Cooper, 163). Whereas Sharon White often drafted playlists of songs fitting the “white gay market,” King’s playlist indicated “potential hits among the young black and Latin vanguard of Generation X” (Cooper, 163).
Gail King possessed further expertise in the field of music.
By 1977, King had immersed herself in roller disco, a subculture of disco that was popular among “dating-age” blacks and Hispanics. King formed a rollerskating performance group that toured local skating rinks for “fun and profit” (Cooper, 163). At the roller disco, Gail King was esteemed for her fantastic ability to play to skating and dancing crowds. It was well-known among observers that “it took a particular ear to choose the perfect records for skating” (Cooper, 164). Read more about roller disco here.
After her escapades with the rollerskating performance group, Gail King became the main disc jockey at an upscale black nightclub called the Red Parrot, where she became a powerful influence on mainstream music. As rap and R&B began to converge into the “newjack” movement, hip hop broke into the mainstream media and radio. In the 1980s, scratching deejays, skate-dancers, graffiti artists, and break dancers all pulled from the musical tastes of the previous decade as well as their own creativity to contribute this hip-hop revolution. The Red Parrot attracted an audience of sports, music, fashion, and film celebrities, to whom King mixed the diverse “idioms” of house, reggae, and rap. King’s mixes were often emulated on the local black radio. Because of her work at the Red Parrot, Gail King became a prominent figure in the club scene and music industry.
If King “broke” your record to an audience at the Red Parrot, then your song was likely to receive air time on local radio stations. King became as essential to pulling crowds as the Red Parrot itself, which the club began to resent. After a dispute with the Red Parrot over its decision to add strippers to the night’s entertainment, King retired from her post as a DJ there. During the day, King had been working at a local radio station as an audio-production engineer. The steady, dependable skill set of King’s day job expanded her resume; King favored it over the fickle nature of the club scene. Not even a year after King left the establishment, the Red Parrot fell into a mockery of professionalism of artistry, and eventually closed.
missing firsthand Documentation
On the last pages of her article, Carol Cooper informs the reader of crucial information regarding the documentation of disco history.
A lack of firsthand documentation from the people “most qualified” to tell the story of disco threatens to diminish the presence of the “rich social history of New York club life” (Cooper, 164). Some of the experts who were present in the disco era are unwilling to write about their experiences. Still, there are influential disc jockeys who “have died without passing on their personal memories of important records and party-moments” (Cooper, 164).
If future generations cannot access firsthand accounts of disco’s growth, transformation, and divergence into various cultural expressions, then “myths and rumors” will begin to dilute and destroy the truth (Cooper, 165). Cooper laments that writers purporting to be “authorities on cult clubs like the Paradise Garage never interviewed its visionary owner Michael Brody, or its principal deejay Larry Levan” (Cooper, 165). Other contributors to the “early club-underground-like the Loft’s David Mancuso-[…] are notoriously shy and dismissive of latecomers to the scene who think they can understand more than a decade of fanatical allegiance to nightlife by pumping a famous jock for a few hours of colorful anecdotes” (Cooper, 165). Firsthand experience of the disco generation cannot be “accurately conveyed through the abstract medium of dry print” (Cooper, 165). Direct experience is the only way one can understand disco clubs or feel the true impacts of disco music. Even recordings of the time period in the mediums of radio and video are insufficient. The “interactive immediacy of a dance club” is the superior way to disseminate music and meaning to the public (Cooper, 165).
a discussion of carol cooper’s article
Cooper’s article is scholarly, well-researched, and well-written. Her article has been published with an accredited university, Duke University, and was published in the journal Social Text.
However, one drawback to her article is that I cannot access Cooper’s list of references through this article alone.
Yet, Cooper’s credibility is strong. She informs the reader of critical details and historical timelines one may otherwise never have known.
Cooper describes the selfish motivations of white broadcasters as well as the media’s disregard for female jocks without citing direct evidence of either entity’s personal inspirations. Though she does not give explicit evidence supporting her assertions, any evidence she could use would be hard to consolidate into one article.
Cooper relies on our ingrained cultural knowledge of the history of race and gender in the United States of America to support her claims, causing readers to conceive of the ways cultural prejudice and cultural diversity also played a role in disco’s origins and disco’s life.