Neglected by many because of his early death and lack of recordings, Larry Levan is one of the seminal names in dance music, a legendary inspiration during the 1970s and '80s. Influenced by David Mancuso's Loft parties, which presaged disco by more than five years, Levan took his cue and transferred those communal vibes to clubland with one of the most famed night spots ever, the Paradise Garage. For more than ten years, Levan's garage style was a wildly eclectic mix including any tracks (or parts of tracks) that would make people dance, including Motown and Philly soul, Afro-Cuban and Italian disco, new wave, punk, and classic hard rock. He influenced hordes of hardcore club-goers and a wave of DJs ranging from Tony Humphries to Paul Oakenfold. More than anyone, Levan set the tone for New York disco in the '70s and the garage axis of house music during the '80s. By the '90s, mainstream New York dance swung to a diverse cast of dance artists and mixers, all of whom had in common the one thing that united the records on Levan's decks: soul.
Levan began his first DJ residency while still a teenager, at a New York club called the Gallery in 1971. Both there and at his next club, the Continental Baths, Levan worked with (and profoundly influenced) the future godfather of house, Frankie Knuckles. After setting up the Soho Place midway through the decade, Levan joined the Paradise Garage in 1977 and began changing the face of dance music. Unlike other disco clubs around the city (including the notoriously hip, but musically flat Studio 54), the Paradise Garage featured a nightclub built on music, with attendees who were preferential about the music they danced to — not who they were seen by. Levan and engineer Richard Long supervised construction of what has been called the best sound system ever produced, and spent hours before opening each night to make sure that acoustics, speaker placement, and atmosphere were perfect. To give club-goers the ultimate dance experience, Levan used an assortment of subtle tricks. During the night, he would even upgrade the quality of his musical selections and turntable needles until music, mixer, and dancers hit their peak simultaneously. (The Paradise Garage's sound system was so good, in fact, that it was later bought by the London super-club Ministry of Sound, carefully disassembled, shipped overseas, and installed in a new space.)
By the beginning of the '80s, disco's flame had been extinguished by a glut of sub-par commercial recordings and rabid anti-disco movements. Levan continued playing to an increasingly underground (though still ecstatic) audience. He also began working on studio production as well, recording remixes and special dance versions of pop songs for labels like Salsoul, Prelude, and West End, as well as the occasional major label. Though many of his 12" productions were obscurities of the highest order (except in the crates of privileged DJs), tracks by the Peech Boys, Jimmy Castor Bunch, First Choice, Loleatta Holloway, and Skyy became certifiable dance classics. By the mid-'80s, the sound of New York/Chicago house music had begun to infiltrate England.
In an ironic twist, however, the man who did much to pave the way for dance music wasn't around during its rebirth. By September 1987, the Paradise Garage had closed its doors. Though Levan's name appeared on several remixes and productions during the late '80s and early '90s, he spent only a fraction of his time in the studio compared to his heyday. Levan returned to the DJing booth on a 1992 trip to Japan with François Kevorkian, though later in the year he died from a congenital heart condition exacerbated by drug use. Only his post-productions were collected on various albums until 2000, when Strut released an eye-opening set titled Live at the Paradise Garage. The Definitive Salsoul Mixes '78-'83 (Salsoul/Suss'd, 2003) and Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story (Rhino, 2006) were excellent tracks-in-whole anthologies, the latter of which incorporated a fair amount of Warner-controlled tracks Levan played but had no role in creating. Ministry of Sound's five-disc Live & Remastered box set (2011) included an early-'90s DJ set heavy on contemporary house. Genius of Time (Universal Music Catalogue, 2016) contained some overlap with the previous compilations but stuck to tracks that did contain Levan's studio touches. ~ John Bush