Something of a soul survivor, Mel Cheren bears witness to the glory days of disco before it had a name, to its mythical heights in the 70's and 80's, then on into its late nineties and new millennium resurgence. A life of stories representing the people, places and music that united generations of listeners into one nation under a groove. At once inspirational, tawdry and informative, Cheren's self-published biography KEEP ON DANCIN' calls specific attention to a time in musical history that most have been influenced by, but few know how to explain. Including the culture of lives that were lived and lost in its wake, and the creation of an enduring icon representing the pinnacle of the lifestyle, the Paradise Garage. It also provides us with the definitive discography of his label - WEST END RECORDS, whose soundtrack of a time and generation that no longer lives as freely as it once did, yet thrives to this day. Sit back for this tease, then explore the book for more. Let's get started…
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Mel Cheren: Thank you for having me here.
It's our pleasure. Well, the first thing I'm going to do is ask about your background and how you came to be considered the "Godfather of Disco" in the dance music community?
MC: My whole life changed through a casual acquaintance that I met in Boston, and that person worked for a record company. I had just gotten out of the service, and I was working at a nothing job, you know? He called and said there was an opening at his company for a Senior Clerk [at] $65 a week. That was in 1960. I moved to New York, took the job, and worked hard. I didn't think about being in the music business. I had a business degree in marketing and advertising, but that doesn't prepare you for anything. After a while the president of the company, Sam Clark, decided to put field reps on, so he put me on and my location was the Mid-West. I worked there for a while. They liked my work but business got bad, and the first people they let go of were the field reps.
So I took a job in Cleveland, which was my home base, as a record salesman for M.S. Distributors. I sold records to record stores. One day I got a call from my ex-boss at ABC and he said, "Would you like to come back to New York and run the production company; do the production work at ABC?" Well I had never done that, but I had to make the decision, like, over a weekend. And I made the decision to move back to New York. [I] took over production for like seven, eight years until ABC decided to move to California and I didn't want to move. They even offered to let me stay in New York and the rest of the company move, but I didn't think it would work. I had [already] taken a job with a small label. At double the salary!
[It was] COMMONWEALTH UNITED RECORDS and they had two artists: Lenny Welch (he had a song called "Since I Fell For You" which was a big record) and Cissy Houston, Whitney's mother. That company only lasted three months but I had a contract for a year and in order to sue them to get the rest, I had to get another job. I got hired at SCEPTER RECORDS where I worked for Florence Greenberg who was the woman that discovered the Shirelles, Dionne Warwick and Jay Thomas.
While I was there, in the early 70's, I started going to clubs [like] the Firehouse - it was the beginning of the disco scene and I kept pushing it by creating a Disco Department at SCEPTER. We put out the first disco record to DJs. I met Tom Moulton when he came to SCEPTER RECORDS, we struck up a friendship and I introduced him to Freddy Frank and Tony Bongiovi [Jon Bon Jovi's uncle], who was producing Gloria Gaynor. He did mixes for them - BT Express "Do It Til You're Satisfied," and all the different hits he created at SCEPTER. Tommy didn't realize it, [but] we were really creating history. All these stories are in my book; I know we have limited time; but there are so many things that happened at SCEPTER.
Then when SCEPTER went under in '76, we said, 'Why don't we start our own record company?' and we did. In the same building, one floor down, we started WEST END RECORDS.
So then let's jump ahead and find out how WEST END RECORDS helped create the Paradise Garage, Larry Levan, and Michael Brody.
MC: Okay, I'll back track. I did two mixes, the only two mixes I ever did in my life, and they were done on a 16-track. I did them on my lunch hour. One of them was the biggest disco record in the year of '76, "Nice and Slow" by Jesse Green and the other one, "I Get Lifted" by Sweet Life. On my lunch hour!
I say that because today it takes 40 - 50 hours to do a mix. Anyway, I met Michael Brody in 1965 on Fire Island. We were together ten years. One day we were standing on the steps of The Loft - a friend of ours had brought us there.
Which was David Mancuso's legendary party, The Loft...
MC: …David's loft. That was the one [that] was on Broadway, before Prince Street. We thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could do a club like this?' Where black, white, straight, gay would come together. Then Michael opened up Reade Street and he and said, verbatim, "I found the guy who's going to make it happen for me," and it was Larry Levan. Then Michael asked me to become his partner and because of our personal relationship, I said no, but I backed him in the Garage.
Who came up with the idea to make the Paradise Garage membership only? Was that risky at the time?
MC: No because at that time, The Loft was a membership party. It was a way of bringing in the people you wanted to bring in and keeping out, you know, the riff-raff or whatever. And because there was no alcohol, uh no, it wasn't risky. The Garage didn't happen over night. It was a big struggle. Even with the money that I loaned Michael; I gave him a lot of money; and what he got from other people, it was a struggle.
We all know that people came to the Garage out of real sense of need for belonging and escapism. Can you talk a little about the vibe that was there?
MC: So many of the kids told me that Garage saved their life; that they did not go bad because they had the Garage. The Garage was a space for people that had never been there before. It was a place for people [to go after] they had a rough time on their job during the week. If you remember one of my song says, "Let's go dancin', let's go have some fun. We come alive after our nine-to-five." It takes more than a space to make a place. It was Noël at the front door, Kenny Eubanks, Ricky, Larry, Michael and all the others.
It was also some of the people that I remember who are still out here like, Basil, George Francis, Bernard and all those other cats at the door and inside the Garage - it really changed my life as well. So a kind of weird question, where did the logo come from, the guy with the arm…
MC: That was Michael and I'm glad he did that because (Mel shows his Paradise Garage tattoo to the camera)…
It's no good unless you're branded!
MC: I feel very strongly that God made the Garage and Larry's name become so legendary and get stronger each year, to tell me if I don't do something, "You're a schmuck!" So what I want to do is make music with a purpose and to raise money, cause as I told you, I have three goals. [One] is to bring the Garage back. I want to make a movie from my book and the set would be the Garage, the original space. After the movie is over, turn it over to an organization and every night it would be a different party. Downstairs would be turned into a Disco Diner with disco memorabilia. All the workers would get paid, but all the profits would go to charity. And if it happened in New York, it could happen in London, Tokyo, wherever.
[The other two goals: publishing the book and getting WEST END records back, both of which he has accomplished.]
Talk a little about the organizations that you have helped found.
MC: I feel that God said, "Look, I can't take care of everyone, but I'm going to make it good for you." I feel it's a blessing that he chose me as one who can be a giver instead of having to receive. So, you know for me, I call it the "Pyramid of Life"… I'll make it good for you, you make it good for someone else. Like I helped Michael, he helped Larry, they helped a lot of people. I thoroughly believe that one of the reasons I'm still here and HIV negative, is because I've been chosen to make something happen. And if I don't do it, when I get up there, they're going to kick my ass!
Let's talk briefly about what you think of the scene as it is today, and the way it was before.
MC: Well, it's two things. Michael started the Garage, David Mancuso started The Loft, and Nicky Siano started The Gallery, these people didn't do it because 'Oh, we can make money.' They did it to make a great party. It became successful because when you do something from the heart, you can feel it. It can become successful. Today, it's done for a different reason, unfortunately. In most cases, there are entrepreneurs who open a club, they don't care about the party, they care about how much liquor you're going to put into that little plastic cup for $7. People at the front door and their attitude, it's a different kind of thing today. The other thing, the big thing that the Garage did, and I don't think there's any place that completely represents what the Garage was [in this way], was to have a place where black, white, straight, gay could come together and learn.
I tell this story all the time, Joey [Llanos] did an interview for the book, and he had the most poignant interview, he said when he was growing up in High School, one of the "fun" things for he and his buddies to do was to go out and beat up gay people. When he got married, most of the people in his wedding party were gay, including the priest.
It's true the Garage was responsible for changing perceptions of what it means to be "gay." You were also a part of the Stone Wall Riot and you're a part of addressing the AIDS movement…
MC: I believe with all my heart in the book that I wrote, and it is something that I can't change. What things happened happened - but the last four pages, the epilogue, says things I think, as a gay person, I wish I could talk about. One of the things, I believe that God said is, "Leave the changing of the diapers to your heterosexual mothers and fathers." God, in His infinite wisdom, [knows that] a person who's born heterosexual and raises a family, doesn't have as much time to create because they're working. So a gay person has more time to create because he doesn't have that responsibility. Plus it helps take care of the population problem. [But] I don't want to get into that. (Laughing)
I know for my own self, that if it's good enough for God, it's good enough for me because He didn't run out of black paint and start painting white or the other way around. And since we weren't here, we don't know. So I think it's hypocritical for anyone to put someone down. People are born gay like they're born heterosexual. They're born left-handed, right-handed; liking broccoli, not liking broccoli. It's the genes that make you feel that way…that is one thing that I try to get across as much as possible.
Okay. So you also have a companion to the book, a CD that is a live representation of Larry at the club in '79…
Talk a little about that.
MC: My book ends with Larry's passing - he meant that much to me - and I had these tapes and a wanted people to hear him. So many people have never had the opportunity. It took four years to get clearances because the music industry is so behind in their thinking about getting clearances that they make you go through all kinds of changes. So [there was] somebody in London who offered to help me, and that's one of the reasons we are releasing the album in London. Plus the fact that in Europe, people have much more respect for history than people in our country. Unfortunately, but it's true. They have a bigger reverence for the music. They call music "Garage" really because Billboard calls certain music "Garage" music. But they don't even know what Garage is, they just use that term. So that's why we're bringing David DePino and Danny Krivit over to show them a [real Garage] party. I want all the music to be of that period so it can be an experience for them to hear what the Garage was.
But the New York people are going to get a chance to enjoy it, right? You're doing something at Billboard in July?
MC: We're going to be doing release parties. We'll be doing a release party for the book June 20th here, at Twelve West. There will also be a release party for Larry's CD as well. Downstairs, we're going to be playing the CD so people can hear it. Fifty percent of the profits from Larry's CD are going to be split between LifeBeat (where I am on the board), Music Cares, and some to Larry's mother. She has become like my mother and on Mother's Day, I brought her the CD and a new boom box so she could play it, and she loved it. And she gave me the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval"- she loved the book too!
Alright, you heard it here… if Minnie Levan said it's alright, you better run right out and get it. Now the book is available at Dance Tracks and it's also available at…
MC: A Different Light bookstore at 151 W. 19th Street. People can buy it at www.amazon.com, and it's on sale. They have it for $17 something instead of $24.95.
Okay, we're going to be on the look out for you at any number of the events that you'll be doing around New York. We want to thank you so much for coming down and giving us some time.
MC: Thank you.
He's going to go upstairs and be with the New York Times, right now. This is how large the scene is going to get as a result of the impact of this book.
MC: I hope so because when I started thinking about the book, I felt it was important to document that period of time. To remember the people that are no longer here because so many kids today don't have the mentoring. I lost over three hundred friends and they were mentors for young kids. Today, I'm hoping the book can at least [help] them learn from some of my mistakes, learn some good things, then maybe that can make it all worthwhile.
Interview :: donna ward II Videographer :: Jon Martin II BCAT Producer :: David Alan Poe