Starting everything at the beginning… where is the start for John Davis?
John Davis: I was born in South West, London England in 1962.
What was your childhood like? Were you always into music?
JD: From the age of five until I was sixteen I played classical piano. Music has always been a part of me from an early age. Even though I hated playing piano because on top of doing it at school, I had to come home and practice four more hours there; two hours of which was just scales to loosen your fingers. I didn't really understand modern music until the late seventies. The first record that I bought was Dan Hartman, “Instant Replay” which was quickly followed up by Sylvester, “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real”.
What changed and how did you get exposed to such classic records?
JD: At that time, this whole jazz / funk explosion happened [in England] by people like Roy Ayers, Ray Parker Jr, Mystic Merlin and Johnny Guitar Watson. We used to listen to them on a radio show by a DJ called Robbie Vincent. It used to come on Saturday nights and it was on Radio 1. A group of friends and I used to go to [parties] in London that were called “all-dayers.” There was a place called the Lyceum Ballroom where we heard these jazz / funk records which were really just early house and disco tracks. We used to wear these Chinese karate shoes that had smooth, round soles on them so you could dance.
They were the Capezio's of New York 's dance culture. That's funny.
JD: Yeah, and you could only buy those shoes in Chinatown in London. We also wore these dangly belts – they were belts that you looped and they hung down on your leg. We carried, what would be like a face cloth but it was a beer mat, in our back pockets and we also used to carry little bottles of baby powder.
Baby powder, how did you get the culture of that?
JD: In London , that's where we first saw men really dancing. There were a bunch of guys in Wigan – which is in the North of London. [They were part of a] movement there called “Northern soul.” It was basically what we were calling jazz / funk, but these guys were doing these crazy kind of dances – headstands and acrobatics. It was similar to break dancing but not quite.
We went to these all-dayers, which were parties that literally started at 10 o'clock [in the morning], went right through the day and into the night. We weren't doing drugs or anything like that, we were just getting high on dancing. We would go to several of these all-dayers just to watch other dancers and to pick up their moves. That's where we picked up on the baby powder and the dancing in smooth shoes.
Did you keep partying once you got started?
JD: I spent most of the eighties out of the nightlife scene. I was working for the English version of Club Med, a company called Thomson Holidays. I used to spend the summers in places like Ibiza, Majorca or on Tenerife where I worked at holiday resorts for tourists. It was more drink related, the same thing like kids going in the Spring to Cancun. It was just Brits going to Ibiza. That was way before the UK clubs started going there. It was just a beautiful, cool island where everyone smoked pot and walked around naked. Ibiza came out of the whole hippie movement of the fifties and the English hippies would go there to spend summers. That's what blew [the island] up. It wasn't until the late eighties and nineties that it transitioned from this to a club-related one where all the big venues set up for the summer.
In the winter, I would go up into the mountains – the Alps and the Pyrenees, to work at ski resorts. I always had cool jobs in the eighties. I was a beach bum in the summer and a ski instructor in the winter. In the nineties, I returned to England and got back into the club scene. Ministry [of Sound] had been open for about a year [when] all of sudden, there was this club that started opening Sunday daytime called The Arches. They were [located] underneath the railway arches in Southeast London. We would come out of Ministry at 10 o'clock in the morning and head straight [there]. It had four big arches and each arch was basically a big room. There were wooden floors and exposed brick [which] created a really good sound quality and though they weren't really great systems, each room played a different style.
One thing I noticed about that place was there was a whole crop of older people coming out that didn't go out on Saturday; they came strictly for the Sunday party. Unlike the underground scene in New York , they were getting dressed up to go clubbing. [Girls] would put on really cute, sexy outfits with high heels and they still would sweat it up and dance like you do here. They just did it in great stuff. There was a big gangster element as well in the London Sunday scene and the main gangster was this guy called Dave Courtney. Funny enough he did a spoken word thing at SummerStage a couple of years ago that blew me away when I saw it.
Sounds like he cleaned up his act.
JD: [Dave Courtney] was an infamous London gangster, the British equivalent of a mafia guy or someone who makes his living off ill-gotten gains like racketeering, loan-sharking, a robbery here and there. But Dave Courtney is a really well loved character in London. He's a Robin Hood kind of gangster. He started to be a central figure around the Sunday scene and every time we went to those parties he kind of held court with all these heavies. We all felt safe around him though because anytime some newcomer caused any trouble, Dave's boys would sort them out. That's also the time when ecstasy had really taken off and I had gotten into that. I was buying it and selling it to make some money.
How did the drugs change things?
JD: It changed people's outlook on clubbing in the sense that now people were motivated and driven by the drugs, with the music and drugs going hand in hand. I would go out on Saturday night, leave the club on Sunday morning and go straight to the Arches by 10:30. We would stay there till about 7pm and because we were still buzzing from the ecstasy we would go to another place – the Gat Club, straight after. That went right through to Monday morning, when we would go to Dave Courtney's club called Southeast 8. It was a Monday morning after-hours and the people that went there didn't have regular jobs. They were either gangsters or drug-dealers so no one had someplace to be. We would stay at SE 8 until like Monday afternoon.
Then you would crash.
JD: The sleep-deprivation after three days of dancing, smoking and drinking would finally catch up with me so I went home and basically spent Tuesday and Wednesday trying to recover again. By Thursday I would kind of straighten up and by Friday – boom, we were back out again. For a while I just got too much into the ecstasy and was spending whole weekends so high that it was just kind of a blur what went on. I just went from one club, to another club, to another one. I wouldn't eat and was drinking and smoking way too much.
That brings up an interesting point…
JD: … the drug experience. Yes, I think it's all part of discovering yourself and enjoying the club experience. When you see everyone around you doing and enjoying drugs, and getting an enhancement of the experience from it, I think everyone then wants to try it. You take it from that point and [what happens after that, depends on] how much self-control you have [or] if you have an addictive personality.
And you do have an addictive personality.
JD: Yeah. The problem with me was I tried [something], and liked it. Then I tried something else and I liked that. Tried something else and I liked that. Ultimately, I tried everything and it all became a mish mash. That led to a downward spiral for me because I just spent all week in a drugged up stupor.
What is life like in that zone? What finally gets you to change it?
JD: Music is an audio sensory thing. It has an effect on your mind and your body. When you throw a chemical into that experience, it either enhances it or it doesn't. It either makes you feel really good or really bad. If you feel really good, it's hard to think there is anything negative about something that makes you feel so good. That's why I think a lot of people that do drugs, don't feel that they are doing anything wrong. They are actually doing something that enhances their feelings. It only becomes bad at the point when you cannot enjoy the experience without the drugs. I had gotten to the stage where I did lots of different drugs and in the end I had to kick it all. So in 1995, I decided to clean up my act a bit. Through a friend of a friend, I applied for a job working for an IT recruiting / consulting firm. They were opening up an office in New York and they wanted to staff it with English-accented people. I got hired and came to the States. When I [arrived] I was still dabbling with coke, but I decided to get off it completely. I took a vacation to the Bahamas for a week and I kicked it by myself.
Once you were in NY and working, what were you doing by day and dreaming about at night?
JD: I guess all the time that I was in England in the nineties and also during the eighties, I'd always heard about the NY nightlife and NY club scene. It is world renowned, it's legendary. All the best DJs that I ever enjoyed were NY-based ones, so to be in the city where all this talent and creativity came from was very exciting. By day, I was working in the office, nine to five. By night, going clubbing. I went to lots of different clubs but it's funny, when I first went out I was actually quite disappointed because I came here expecting something.
Where did you go?
JD: Places like Webster Hall, The Roxy and all the ones I thought were the big, happening clubs. Then I went back to England because my short-term visa had run out. The company offered to renew it, [and] sent me back in 1996. Just after New Year's in early January, I came back and through a girlfriend of mine – a girl called Carley, I met Lonnie Gordon. She knew Lonnie and we went to this event where she introduced me to her. We started dating.
The Lonnie Gordon of “Bad Mood” fame?
JD: Laughs… I had a definite experience with her. I was actually living in her apartment on Central Park South and we had this big argument [before] I went to work one day. When I came back, the doorman of the building said he had picked up all my clothes and that they had basically ended up on the street. What added insult to injury was she didn't just throw my clothes out the window because we had an argument, but she cut all my suits – in half. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Lonnie had just released the cover of “Let No Man” and it was kind of funny that she would be putting out a song that very much mirrored her own life with me. We spilt up, and I moved into a studio on 89th St and 1st Ave. Then one Wednesday night, I went to a club called Sound Factory Bar for a party called Underground Network. It was where one of my idols at the time was playing, Little Louie Vega .
And why was he an idol?
JD: Because I was very into the music and all the music that we were listening to at places like the Arches in London, was by the Masters at Work, Lil Louis, Tony Humphries or David Morales. So to me, Louie was an idol. To then go to a club and be a few feet away from an idol of mine was amazing. I also knew Barbara Tucker as an artist and she performed that night. [Even] Joi Cardwell performed. She did “Club Lonely” which was my favorite record.
After going to all those other places, I ended up there where the music and the artists I loved were all in the same room. I think Michael Watford was even there. It was just one of those nights. I wanted to meet Louie Vega but I wanted to make out that I had some kind of credibility – I didn't want to seem like some cheesy tourist. So I went over and introduced myself to him by saying I was a promoter from Ministry of Sound.
You lying sack of crap! And from the beginning, too! Go ahead…
JD: But the problem was that once I started with that lie, I had to carry it over. I went to Barbara Tucker and again it came out, ‘I'm a promoter for Ministry of Sound…' Just so it would give me some kind of credibility and they would talk to me. At that time I had no idea or plan for throwing a party or becoming a promoter or anything like that. I just wanted to be around my idols. Louie was playing that night so obviously he didn't talk to me. He just shook my hand, said 'Hi' and carried on playing.
What ended up happening was I went to talk to Barbara. She was in the cash booth with Don Welch. She asked what clubs I went to and I remember telling her about the Sunday parties that were really big then. I told her maybe one day, I would like to start a Sunday thing here and have her and Louie involved in it, and that was that. Nothing more was said about it from then on.
I remember getting a flyer that night from a guy called Chuckie. He was [promoting] a Saturday night party with Louie Vega at club Vinyl with the Chill Factor guys in the back room, Stretch Armstrong and Bobitto. That's how I ended up going to Vinyl. I went that Saturday and the sound system and the whole feel of the place blew me away. As soon as I walked in, I loved that place. It was grungy, dirty and raw, it was what I imagined the NY underground to be. I never went to places like the Loft or Paradise Garage – those were mythical places to me. I'd heard about them and to an extent I had heard a little about Larry Levan, but not a lot.
I had heard more about Louie, Tony, David and Todd Terry – those kind of cats. So I go to Vinyl, love the spot and I remember that I was carrying on this whole charade about me being a promoter from Ministry. Funny enough, I used that excuse to get in and the guy at the door called Eman – not the E-man from Bang The Party, the other one, let me in for free because he thought I was this big promoter. From there, he introduced me to this woman called Evelyn Santos who was working the door. They were giving me the whole royal VIP treatment because of that lie. I was only using it because the Ministry of Sound was the big, recognizable London club that had some kind of credibility in NY. I got to meet Nick Di Tomasso – who was the owner of the club at that time. We ended up talking about the Sunday scene in London and how it was really big. Then a few days later I kept thinking about this idea and wondered if I could pull off doing a Sunday party in NY.
For me it was worth trying to do it because I wasn't competing with anybody. I wasn't going to tread on anyone's toes. I would more than likely be given the chance to try something on Sunday afternoon, which up until that time hadn't been done. They had done tea dances that started early Sunday evening, but they didn't start at 10 o'clock on Sunday morning. I called Nick up and he invited me down to the club in the middle of the week – and with my suit on and briefcase, I rolled in there and started talking to him about renting the club and doing a daytime party on Sunday's.
That took a lot of balls to do with no real plan.
JD: Well at that point it wasn't a money driven thing. I just wanted to throw a Sunday party and I thought the club scene was so cool, that I wanted to be part of it. After spending the eighties working in cool beach resorts and ski resorts, I always wanted to be in fun-type jobs; working with people when they are at their best. People are usually at their best when they are clubbing or on vacation. This was around May of 1996. I wanted the club from 10am until 6pm and he said, “Okay I'll rent it to you and I'm going to charge you a thousand dollars.” I agreed to the rental and set up a promotions company called Midas Touch Promotions.
Why did you choose that name?
JD: I wanted to associate it with something successful like King Midas – everything he touched turned to gold. The idea was that I would start something that would be very successful, and it would turn golden for me. The party was going to be called the Midas Club and I started thinking about DJs to work with. I went back to see Nick another day and got to talking about which DJs I wanted to do. I was talking about Louie Vega or David Morales but David was not really playing much in New York and Louie was already doing Wednesday nights at Sound Factory Bar plus Saturday's at Vinyl. I talked to Louie about it but he turned it down saying he would be too tired to do it. Plus I didn't think he wanted to work with a promoter that was totally unknown or had never thrown a party in NY.
There was another guy working at Vinyl called Jay Byron and Jay basically worked the VIP room at Vinyl. He and I kind of struck up a friendship and he kept asking what kind of thing I was trying to go for on a Sunday. I kept saying that I was trying to base it on a club I went to in England called the Arches; an older crowd with real soulful deep house music. [A place] that was very community-oriented where everybody knew everybody and had more of a members club feel to it. When I told him about the kind of DJ I was interested in – someone who can play good classic house but also a lot of newer stuff, he suggested that I talk to François Kevorkian. François wasn't doing anything locally and was traveling at the time. I knew of him as a DJ and producer, but I had never met him. They arranged for me to meet François at Vinyl on a Saturday night. I got there at about midnight and we met in the hallway of the club and spent four hours just talking to each other right there.
About anything and everything?
JD: About music, the London club scene and what I was trying to do. The funny thing that came out in the conversation was that in the last year before Larry Levan died, François and he had gone to Japan on a tour together. On the flight back, they had talked about doing some kind of Sunday night party. Then after they got back, Larry got sick and ultimately died and the whole idea was shelved. Then four years later I come along with the similar idea. Mine was more of a daytime thing while they had been talking about an afternoon, evening thing. So basically that's how we met up and decided to put the party together. It was going to be called the Midas Club, François was going to be the resident DJ and we started in July 1996.
Wait a minute, didn't you meet Andi Hanley [opening DJ and doorperson at B&S] before Vinyl and have a Midas Touch event that was not this party with François?
JD: What happened was I met Andi a few weeks prior, at the clothing store Moschino on West 8th Street. We struck up a friendship because we were both Brits then it turned out he was also a DJ who liked a lot of the same music that I was into. As soon as I set up the promotion company, I did a one-off on 61st St and 1st Ave at a place called Casbah. I had Andi play for that party. That was when I didn't understand that all the good clubs were downtown and not on the Upper East Side.
Okay, and then you did the Vinyl event with FK.
JD: So Andi came on board and I asked him if he would work the party for me and do the door. Then like I said, FK and I started the party. The first two parties, we opened at 10 o'clock in the morning and played until 6 o'clock in the evening. I have a funny picture of François – it was so empty and we were all so bored that FK would bring a book, sit in the DJ booth, put a record on and read between the mixes. I actually have a picture of that.
So while he was reading his book, you were panicking about paying the rent.
JD: Well yes, and what happened was Nick did the dirty on me – at the first party – and at the end of the day he told me I owed him twelve hundred dollars. I said no, we agreed on a thousand. He said no, it's more because I have to pay for this, pay for that… and he basically told me I wouldn't have a party the next week if I didn't give him the twelve hundred dollars. At that time I was giving him what I was earning on my day job. I was paying him and was only getting ten people. The bad thing was we were getting the cracked out people from the night before who were so high, that they just wanted to stay in the club. We would open and they would still be in there asleep on the sofas in the back room. They'd be in the same clothes, un-washed and asleep on the couch just to avoid paying ten dollars. I'd been spending money and not getting any back – paying for flyers, promoters and door people, etc. and each week, Nick kept putting the rental up. By the third week, it was $1500 and that was the first week Danny Krivit came and played with François . On the fourth week, FK said it would be the anniversary of Larry's birthday so he wanted to do a special tribute party for him. He invited two other DJs to play, Joey Llanos and Joe Claussell along with Danny and himself. That day four hundred people showed up.
The day the party was born.
JD: And it was born on the spirit of Larry. It was weird that it took his name and a tribute to him to get our party started. But by the fourth week, we had an amazing day and we made enough to pay all the bills. On the Monday after, François and I were on the phone and we decided two things: the first was we needed to change the hours of the party because we didn't want all the crack heads from the night before. So we had to give them a reason either to go home or at least go have something to eat – or a wash. So we changed the opening times to midday, which was twelve until eight. We also thought that the name wasn't really fitting so we started thinking of different ones. Then François said what do you think about Body & soul? I was like that's it, that's the name. So by the fifth week it was called Body & soul and FK brought D-Train to perform. Because the previous week was so good, FK asked Danny and Joe to come back and play again. This is where the whole three DJs playing together started. I don't think a lot of people knew Joe as a DJ, but they knew him from DanceTracks the record store. By the end of the fifth party, FK said he wanted to ask Joe and Danny to play as residents with him – not with individual sets, but all together.
Which was quite innovative at the time.
JD: I actually argued with him because I didn't think it would work. I thought there would probably be too much ego involved for it to work. All three had a very different style but collectively, it kind of worked.
It had its problems though.
JD: There were issues; there were times when Joe would get pissed off, cross his arms and just stand back.
JD: I think because FK was basically leading the charge as it were and since he had started it, he was setting the parameters of how it was going to work. Until Joe and Danny got used to it, there were teething problems. Like you said, it was innovative. No one had ever done an event with three DJs like that. To this day, I don't know of anything else like it. There were partnerships, but there was never something where three DJs played entirely unrehearsed. It wasn't like they met before and discussed what they were going to play. They just brought all their records and in that split second, decided oh, I am going to put this on. Also what started to come out of that DJ style was the ability to hear completely different and unexpected records than one would normally expect to hear at a club. This probably harked back to what Larry did at the Garage. Things like a Talking Heads record, a Sting record or a Rolling Stones record – a Kraftwerk record in the middle of a house set. It was weird but sometimes it worked out and at other times it didn't work. Joe was the only one who wouldn't accept a residency at the time, he didn't even want his name on the flyer. If you look on our flyers historically, you didn't even see his name on it until September of that year.
When Jephte Guillaume came?
JD: That's right, because Joe didn't want to be confined to being a resident and have to show up every week. His attitude was very much, I‘ll show up and I'll play but if I don't show up, I don't show up. By September they did this performance with Jephte Guillaume and that's the first time Joe's name appears on the flyer. Up until that point, Nick had kept raising the rent nearly every week. I was running out of money and we weren't making enough to support the party. I was about a week or two away from pulling out when FK approached me and asked if we could do a partnership deal whereby we would share the responsibilities of the event. I would take care of everything to do with marketing and promotion, while he would take care of everything to do with the creative and we would split the bills. Obviously I agreed.
Pretty good deal, but how did you know what to do with no prior club promotion experience?
JD: Nick and I weren't getting along at all and he was trying to get FK to kick me out of the whole deal. He was like, “we don't need this guy.” I guess at the time he thought they didn't need me, but I was on the streets every day. I was at every party meeting people. When I started B&S I didn't know anybody. I just knew that in order for this party to work, people needed to know about it. I'd never promoted a party but I knew that you had to make flyers, the flyers had to be all around the city and people had to know about the party. It wasn't so much that we had to convince people, it was that it was a party on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of the summer when most people head off to the beach and the Hamptons or wherever. I was trying to get people to come to a dingy, dirty stinking hot nightclub with no air conditioning when it was a hundred degrees outside.
Without a liquor license to boot.
JD: They never had one but at that time, they still had beer and wine. The only people that were known were the DJs. I was going out so much that my day job started to suffer. I wasn't doing drugs but I was out drinking every night and getting in at four o'clock in the morning then having to be at work at nine. I couldn't do it. I kept taking days off so I decided to quit the job. I gave it up before B&S started to make any profits forcing me to live off my savings and handouts from my parents. I was using my money to pay for the club and eventually got six months in arrears on my rent. My landlord took me to court and I got evicted. I had just gotten a puppy that wasn't potty-trained – Sophie, and there was a girl that went to the club called Gina who let me stay at her apartment in Jamaica, Queens. I was driving this beat up rental that cost me $125 a week when I moved into her apartment. The dog just pooped all over her place everyday and when she came home from work, it just stank so in the end she asked me to leave. I had nowhere to go and no money so for a couple of days, I slept in this rental car.
At the same time, I was having all this friction with Nick and FK would have to get in the middle of it all. The rent kept going up because every time the party did well, he asked for more money.
Well you've always had an ‘X' on your back in that way.
JD: My problem is I have always spoken my mind and I'm not the most diplomatic person in the world. If it's in my mind and I'm thinking it, I'm saying it. I learned in NY I couldn't really do it and my mouth led to my downfall. I just couldn't stop telling it like it is. I have that whole brutally honest British thing like Simon Cowell on American idol. Think about it, the first season, everyone hates that guy but by the next season, everyone loved him. It's funny how things can turn around.
Well you need to have a big mouth in promotion. You need to give people a reason to remember you and sometimes it's because they like you and other times it's because you've pissed them off.
JD: I definitely pissed off more people than liked me. And at the time, I wasn't out there trying to win friends. I was trying to get a party started and to get noticed in a very cliquey scene. About a year and a half after we were open and the party became very successful, the [Club] Shelter restarted their Saturday night party. Shelter and Body & soul were distant cousins in clubland. The only thing that linked us together was the music. The way we operated and the kind of crowd we attracted was very different. I had posted a couple of things on a web site about a party they had done with Mary J. Blige where I mentioned that Shelter was doing a hip hop party. The crew from there got really offended and that's when the war with Shelter really started.
How do you feel about it now?
JD: Well the funny thing is that the war was really between Kevin Hedge and myself and now we've gone on to work together.
But that's not what I asked, thinking back on it now, would you do anything differently?
JD: Yeah, I made a mistake and may have spoken out of line or what I said may have been taken out of context and been twisted. The feeling I got, was that the resentment the party was getting from people in the industry – and I am talking about some famous DJs and famous promoters, was that Body & soul came out of nowhere with a promoter that nobody knew and suddenly stole everyone else's thunder. I felt that there was a jealously toward us. And then to have an outspoken promoter who said things maybe he shouldn't have said publicly, just threw more oil onto the fire. In hindsight, it probably wasn't the smarter thing but that's part of my growing experience as a promoter and I learned a lot. I also learned how shady the scene really was and how everyone was chasing what is actually a very small piece of pie and at that time, B&S had the whole pie. If I were to turn the clock back, I would have kept my mouth shut and been a bit more diplomatic.
Okay, so there's an understanding of how big the party became as you say, ‘the whole pie', there's a moment when it was global in a way that Paradise Garage never was; it influenced how music was categorized on shelves around the world and all three of the DJs got to be legends. You stepped out with your own projects. What was the experience like for you both at the club and away from the party?
JD: B&S became a victim of its own success because one of the best forms of promotion, especially in the underground, is word of mouth and once we started getting it, the party just grew on a weekly basis. It was growing at such a speed that it was amazing everyone and no matter how depressed or bad the scene has ever been in New York, everyone in the rest of the world looks to the city as the epicenter of the house music scene. All of a sudden there's this exploding Sunday party that's run by a British promoter, has a French, a Russian and a Puerto Rican DJ, a British door guy and it just grew from there. We started getting write-ups nearly every week in some newspaper or magazine to the point that we ended up stopping doing interviews.
Then we started reading more things in these crazy mainstream magazines about this “hot party on Sundays” and what we ended up getting was a mainstream crowd. People started showing up that didn't know anything about the music. They were just simply there because they had read about it in some magazine. By the time summer ended, we had lines around the block. It was interesting because at least for me, the party turned into a full-on business and that's when the fun part of the party was lost. I've got to be honest, there were a lot of financial plusses – you're doing an event that you love and you and everybody else are getting paid and getting paid well. People are treating you like a celebrity and everywhere you go, you're getting treated like a VIP. Every club owner starts offering you space to do other events and that's when I started doing things outside of the club.
I ended up meeting Steve Lewis who is himself a legendary promoter and club owner. He had asked me about doing a weeknight party at his club on Bleecker Street called Life. This is where I started LEGENDS. I chose the name because we had a resident [Adam Scott] and a guest DJ playing every Wednesday night. A lot of the guests were legends to me. People like Todd Terry and David Morales who were known as big room DJs, and we asked them to play in this little back room. Most of them accepted on the basis that I was to them a famous promoter, and I had a very hot party called B&S. So it was very easy for me to get these guys who earned thousands of dollars to come and play for a couple of hundred bucks at this party. It actually turned into a nice little event.
But it really started on a Tuesday. Tell the folks about the drama, drama, drama that led to the change.
JD: Yeah, the drama started because we did the party in a club with three rooms and each room had a different promoter. Once the party became so popular, the other promoters started getting upset because the people were coming in through our door and staying in our room. So we moved it from Tuesday to Wednesday and that's when it really took off. It did very well for two years and we had some hard times getting there but it had a good run until two things made it die. One was club Life getting sold.
Usually the kiss of death!
JD: And the second was Louie Vega starting a Wednesday night party called Sunset Ritual at Vinyl. I went to see Louie to try and get him to do another night, which I would help him promote on a Thursday. But because of his Wednesday night thing with Underground Network, he was very set on doing it then and the crowd that we were getting, was the same crowd he appealed to. When he started his party, it killed us both. Then Life got shut down so that was it.
Club Life was also important in the history of B&S because as result of Vinyl getting shut down on a Friday, you had to move the party and a performance by Ultra Naté on a moments notice. That was one of the most exciting things I have ever witnessed and kudos to you for taking your party from disaster on Friday to nirvana by Sunday.
JD: And to be honest, for all the six years of doing that party, that was one of my proudest moments, too. I don't wish to blow my own trumpet but I really led the charge on that and I was very proud of what we did. There was a drug bust at Vinyl on Friday night [during Danny Tenaglia's party Be Yourself]. Saturday morning, I got a call from Nick saying that the club had been shutdown until court on Tuesday and that we wouldn't be having a party on Sunday. I remember saying to him, ‘Oh yes I will have a party on Sunday. It just won't be at Vinyl.'
Since I had a relationship with Steve Lewis, he said okay no problem. We agreed on a rental and then because we didn't have another way to tell everybody – there was no explosion of the internet yet – we just made big signs and hung them up outside the club. I rented a fleet of minivans and we decorated them with posters and played B&S cassettes and we basically just redirected everyone to Life. By minivan, we moved 750 people alone. The whole move was very smooth and everything just fell into place. I remember walking out on stage and it was like a football stadium or as if the Yankees had just scored a homerun in the World Series. The place erupted and I had a little tear in my eye. I didn't even introduce Ultra, I just said ‘and now for something completely different' and as soon as I said that, she started with an acappella of “Free” then the curtains opened and she was just standing there. The timing was just so perfect. One of the greatest parties we ever had was that day.
Absolutely, and one of the things that truly made B&S the sexy hot, beautiful place that it was, was the dancers. So give some props and words to them as well.
JD: Well the dancers were our core crowd. We started with them. It was the perfect situation for them; room to dance, a perfect club sound system, wooden floors and of course the music.
Never thought you'd see powder and soft shoes again did you?
JD: Well for me it was a very nostalgic thing to see but it also introduced me to the infamous dance circle, which was fine until we got very crowded and it became a problem. As soon as we started breaking up those circles, we started to lose that original dancing crowd. They were so used to that thanks to Underground Network and all the other old-school type parties. I think we lost some more of them when the Shelter started up again and some of them came to Legends too. Then as we became more crowded, through having discussions with François, Danny and Joe, it was always the dancers that we were trying to cater to. They were the people that the three of them were actually playing to, not the other four hundred in the room – it was about the dancers. But then it just physically became a problem. The dancers wanted room to do their floor work but the other people who didn't understand it were complaining so we had to keep breaking the circles up. We had to create the circle breaking police.
Someone in B&S enterprises got a new job title!
JD: That was the job and the argument became that dancing is not a spectator sport.
It's very much a modern problem too, because there is a definite line between those who come to a party to dance and those who come to stand around a party and drink. Moreover, it's about the amount of money that's involved based on which notion the crowd is supporting.
JD: Yeah and the bottom line is the ones who come to drink will win a hundred times over because clubs are businesses that have bills, mortgages, rent and overhead to pay. And a bunch of guys dancing on your floor is not going to pay those bills. That's where the scene has definitely changed since the seventies and in the millennium. Where clubs started off as places to meet, congregate and express oneself by way of dance, it has now become a dollars and cents business. Now you don't want the room to be packed with dancers, you now want the room packed with dancers who drink. Especially with the way deals are done, New York nightlife is totally and completely, one hundred percent promoter driven. You can have the most beautiful club in the world but no matter how much money they spend on decoration and effects, you need a promoter to put people in it.
Is there a difference between a publicist and promoter? What do you think the promoter job description entails?
JD: Well a publicist is almost like a promoter but a publicist can only go so far. They introduce the space, they get the celebrities into it and they get all the fanfare going about the venue, but it's the promoter that brings those people in every week. He really acts as the go between the DJs and the owners of the club. The other thing with the promoter is that when the deal is done, it's the promoter who gets the door. If a club owner only gets the bar, in order for him to survive he has to have drinkers. This is why it happens that promoters often become club owners. They start to think that if they are bringing the people in the club, then why don't they get the money on the door and at the bar. Then they cross the barrier from promoter to club owner and once you are an owner, you're not just throwing parties, you're dealing with community boards, getting licenses, permits, construction companies, all the different things that takes the emphasis away from what you do as a promoter. Then you need to hire promoters to do that part for you and it's just a vicious circle. Promoters are only as good as your next packed party, that's it.
We've covered B&S from the slow beginning to the packed and amazing parties, now let's go to the dwindling numbers and incessant drama – with much of it centered around you, to the point where you seemed to stop attending your own party.
JD: That actually came about as a security thing to avoid hanging around the club, which was what I used to do. That is another symptom of the change of the party to a business because I was always worried about being mugged or rolled. My whole night was centered around running the business and making sure everything went smoothly. That people got paid and the bills got covered at the end of the night. The party was really successful and I was gloating in that success and being very vocal about it instead of being humble and low. That's what made a bad situation worse. I was taking everything very personally because at that time, it felt very personal. B&S was something that I started from the ground up so it was very much my baby. From about 2000, the crowd started changing, the numbers started dwindling and the economy was causing everyone to suffer. I also think that musically the party was changing and people would complain about that.
Before 9/11 it had already gotten to the point where we had lost most of the regulars and the party was mostly getting tourists but after that happened, we immediately lost all the tourists. It got back to the beginning where we weren't making enough to pay everybody, we were losing money every week and François and I were taking a hit. 9/11 affected me very much because I lived very near the Towers. I was going through a lot of my own personal traumas so I really wasn't even feeling B&S anymore. I was over it. Then the club owner died [Howard Rower] and his sons took over, but they didn't want to be part of the business. They offered the lease for sale and the ex-manager from Twilo [Mike Bindra] took it over. It went from bad to worse with the renovations. They painted everything battleship grey, took out the stage and made a lot of drastic changes.
By that time, Joe had stopped coming to the party and he wasn't playing there months before the final night. It all came to a head one day when the manager's girlfriend and I had an argument. It was over an art display that they wanted to do in the backroom and they wanted to shut down our merchandising stall. By then we were making so little money that we relied on the sale of the merchandise just to pay the overhead on the day. And when someone tells you they want to shut you down because of an art show that has nothing do with B&S, it got out of control. The next thing you know, I was asked to leave the club and that was the end of the party and the end of the era.
No doubt, it was a long and beautiful era that changed so many people's lives: couples have connected, had children and a global community was formed. For a time after that last party, though everyone went quiet in New York …
JD: I took some time off. I was very disillusioned with everything. I felt that everybody was around and my best friend as long as everyone was getting something out of it. I became the scapegoat – and the reason the party ended, because everyone wanted to blame somebody, so they blamed me. Things got into magazines and newspapers that were lies and at that point I had enough. All the people that I thought were close friends of mine, just walked away from me. It's the old story, everyone loves you when you are a success and they hate you when you are a failure.
What brought you out of retirement?
JD: Well the party finished in July and in December, a good friend of mine named Serge mentioned he was going to build and open a new club on 16th St called Powder. He wanted me involved as the promotional director of the club and basically gave me a reason to get back into the scene again. It was a good position and a good paying job so I accepted it. It opened to great fanfare for the first couple of weeks in December 2002 and just when I was restarting my Sunday party with all guest DJs – I had done it for two weeks, the main investor in the club abruptly decided he wanted to pull his three million dollar investment out straight away, forcing it to shut about three days after New Year's. It had been working up until that point but still it was back to the drawing board.
The next drawing board then was your party at Show.
JD: Show was just a party. One of the guys that worked at Powder went on to become an owner in Show and he offered me the club for a Sunday party. I decided to accept and started one called the Sunday Sessions. But again, the bad economy, people not wanting to go out on Sunday's (or any other night for that matter) least of all a chi-chi club in midtown, had an effect. The party started there but wasn't working at all so I decided to stop doing parties there and move on.
How did you feel when these things were happening?
JD: When you have had great success, you naturally think that moving on and doing another project is going to happen again. It's a hard pill to swallow when you start something else and it's nowhere near as successful. But B&S wasn't successful immediately, it took a lot of time to grow that party.
JD: I have learned that about this scene. Any successful party does not start off big, it starts off small and it grows organically. All the parties that start off big, die off real quick – they're flash in the pans. The problem now is there are very few club owners who can be patient enough to give you the time to grow a party. They want immediate results.
Well now you are affiliated with another mega-club that is probably looking for immediate results and that's Crobar. How did you end up here?
JD: Well I initially met the Crobar owners – Kal and Kenny, in 1999 at the WMC. A few months after that, they flew me down to talk about doing an event in Miami. But for one reason or another it never worked out to do something B&S related at Crobar but we kept in touch. They had always wanted a club in New York and eventually they found a property. Then Dirk – a guy I worked with at Life and Powder, called and asked how I felt about coming to work at Crobar? I had always admired and wanted to work for Kal and Kenny because of the way they ran their businesses. They already had success in Chicago and in Miami, so for them to open a club in New York, I thought it would succeed.
It's the corporate company of clubbing.
JD: Yeah, the IBM of clubbing and just like IBM, you know it will be good and be around for a long time and a long time to come. They didn't hire me to do a Sunday party, they hired me to do merchandising for their clubs. I have come to Crobar, which is where we are now, sitting in the little store they gave me to do with what I like. Also, in the time away from promoting parties, I have dabbled in DJing and learned how to mix records.
What do you think people will say about your switch from promoter to DJ?
JD: I don't know. All I know is that I am getting gigs as a DJ and I am getting paid to play records. That has got to be the ultimate compliment. I didn't start mixing or learning to get paid, I just did it because I had time on my hands, two turntables, a mixer and I wanted to see what all the hoo-hah was about for all these years.
And did you find out?
JD: Yeah! I've done a few parties that were fun and I got a great reaction from people. I think they were quite amazed by my choices and my style.
What is your style?
JD: I would say I play uplifting, peak time, soulful funky house music. I don't play fast but just good, hi-energy peak time music. I don't like building up or anything like that, I want people to scream with the first record they hear. I haven't played enough to get those experiences but playing at a place like Crobar for a thousand people and getting that reaction is good buzz.
So the next big buzz – how's that for a segue? – is the Body & soul reunion which you aren't calling a reunion but after hearing this whole story, what will it be like to be back in that space again?
JD: Regardless of all the drama that brought everything to an end, I think there was a definite feeling of sadness without Joe or me being there for the last party.
It was incomplete.
JD: Right it was incomplete. This is a way to close that chapter in the right way, with all of us together. It was presented to us as an opportunity to go back there and do an event. It's a one-off and we have no intention of going back and restarting the weekly party but we thought why not? It's been a year and half since the last party together, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. We've all grown older, grayer, wiser – fatter! Plus we've all individually moved on to our own things. It's not that we are doing this because we need to, we think its right to do this and also it's our way of saying thank you to everybody in New York who actually supported us and made the party what it was.
The one thing I think that's going to make this party incredible, is it's going to bring back a lot of people who started coming in the beginning but later stopped. It's going to be all about bringing the family together. All we want is for the party to be a peaceful and fun experience for everybody. I'm so happy to be working together again with Danny, François and Joe and the original team. We'll just see where it all takes us.
What are the last words from John Davis to wrap things up?
JD: I have seen success and I have seen failure so now I have a much broader outlook on what it takes to make this work. What has constantly driven me all these years is the love of this music. I just keep on doing it. For me it's always been about seeing a room full of people just having an incredible time and getting off on the love of the music, the vibe and the camaraderie. It's a real buzz. I've passed a milestone in my life, I passed forty and I don't see any reason to stop doing what I enjoy very much. I've learned a lot and grown, I've gotten wiser than I was a few years ago and it's onward and upward. When people think I'm down and out, I'll come back and do something that will make people think “Oh, he is still around.”
Editor's note: In the months since this interview was originally conducted, the Body & soul Back together event went down as one of the best parties in 2004 and inspired scalped tickets, lines around the block and a marathon soiree that stretched to nearly twelve hours of music, love and dancing. Existing only in annual events in Japan , the Body & soul magic is now lost to New York 's social landscape. John's Sunday Sessions finally ended in late summer 2004 along with his tenure at Crobar. He's gone mostly quiet again with a square job to support himself and his son, with occasional DJ appearances around the city. But just like he said, don't think he's gone entirely just yet, we'll all just wait to see what he has up his sleeves.
Easily one of modern-day club land's most controversial figures, Body & Soul co-founder and promoter John Davis finally lets us hear him out. From his not so humble beginnings in merry olde England – where he had his first clubbing experiences in soft-sole karate slippers, to far-flung jobs in resorts around the world and on to the LEGENDS making rise and fall of the New York party the world still talks about, John has always been a man who's carved out his own destiny. Being Brit means the story is filled with all the good vices including a couple that nearly took him out. Yet he's somehow managed to rather stylishly keep his head above water, while being a dedicated single-parent and sheparding his own personal reinventions from one passion to another. Digging into this exclusive wide-ranging interview affords you the chance to hear the good, the bad and the ugly in the unfettered way he lives it. Completely straight, no chaser.