Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: And So Disco Begins

black RADIO BECOMES BLACK DISCO

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

Image credit: iHeartRadio

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.

diverse disco cults

According to Carol Cooper, the author of “Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of the New York Dance Music Underground,” 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). 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.

Saint Dance Club Memorial Block; Image Credit: NAMES Project

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.

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 5: The Clubs

Annotated Bibliography Two – Annotation Four

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.

Image Credit: Beatport Mixes

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.

DISC jockey in the 70s

The following quotes are from my third annotation for Annotated Bibliography One:

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.

Image Credit: Village Voice

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).

She maintains an active Twitter page.

a discussion of weinstein’s article

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?