Before the Paradise Garage, before the Warehouse, before the Powerplant, before Frankie Knuckles, and Larry Levan was this guy Nicky Siano, a dynamic and colourful character who was there when it all kicked off, and was instrumental in co-creating the dance music scene we love today.
Hailing from New York, Nicky was the first DJ to start using 3 decks and one of only 2 who started beat matching way back in the 70’s. He played in his underground club ‘The Gallery’ from 1972-78 and was also heavily involved with the infamous ‘Studio 54 ‘, this guys seen and done it all.
We were delighted to hook up with one of the progenitor’s of the scene and get his first hand accounts of what really happened.
Katie Eve Senior/Mike Mannix: Hey Nicky, thank you so much for talking to us at iconic underground magazine it’s an incredible pleasure for us, as what we know today as the Dance Music scene all originated in part in your era in New York and in the clubs that you had influence in and played in!!
Nicky Siano: The biggest problem for me is that I talk in my sleep. It was the seventies! So male, female, straight, gay they all wound up in my bed. Then I would fall asleep, and blab in my sleep, and hey presto, STUDIO 54. I actually woke up while Steve Rubell, the owner and main design influence for the club, was next to me, nude, with a pen and notebook (yes back then we used notebooks, date books, a lot of paper) in his lap and he was writing furiously, with his ear leaning toward my lips…I asked him, “Steve, what are you doing?” After stumbling for words, he said, ‘oh I just had a thought’, and he distracted me by putting his beautiful full lips on my….oh well, you get the idea.
The point is, within a year of him sleeping next to me regularly, and attending EVERY Saturday night party at ‘The Gallery’ (the environment I owned and played at) he unveiled ‘Studio 54’. After working for him at his first club, ‘Enchanted Gardens’ in Queens, he called me two weeks prior to ‘Studio’ opening and said meet me at 254 west 54th street, I want to show you something. That day he persuaded me to work for him there, again THOSE LIPS!
K&M: Haha wild, before we touch on the hedonism and era-defining ‘The Gallery’, ‘Studio 54’ and Disco, bring us back to your roots how did it all begin for you growing up as a boy from the musical influences to the social dynamic at that time in New York, to what eventually inspired you onto the decks and into DJing, tell us about your backstory?
N: Not much on my back, I’m strictly a top. But as a youth, I knew very early I was gay and didn’t hide it…as a matter of fact, I flaunted it. Bad idea in Brooklyn 1968, when a 13-year-old Nicky Siano would get the shit kicked out of him at least once a week for something I would wear, say or do…
I got thrown out of Catholic High School because I told the Brother he should let me blow him.
SUSPENDED INDEFINITELY WITHOUT CAUSE, they couldn’t even say it, GAY! I wish I would have had some of the freedoms available now, but it’s still not ok, discrimination is rampant, and racism is quickly on the rise in the USA, thank you president FRUMP.
I bought my first “STEREO” a system with a turntable and amp combined, but separate speakers that could be put anywhere in the room. The ZENITH Circle of sound speakers!
I delivered a lot of newspapers to pay for that sound system. My purchase was based on the sound, it was full and had a wonderful LOW END. For a 13-year-old, my hearing was already tuning in to things that other’s heard when I pointed it out, but before, it wasn’t their experience. My two brothers are ten and eleven years older than me, so much of my very early influences were rock and roll stars.
Every Sunday night there was this show on TV, the Ed Sullivan show, and he had all the latest bands. That’s where I saw the Beatles in 1963, fell in love with Paul, and realized, wow I’m attracted to men. My brother Joe (who would be my partner at the Gallery) gave me my first Laura Nyro album, and that record, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, was the first recording that touched my SOUL.
I gravitated toward people in High School who were like me, GAY or women who loved being with gay men, we used to call them fag hags, but that is a horrible descriptive. The friends I made in high school took me to the West Village. We would sit in a small restaurant where we would sit and drink tea all night, cruising guys and trying to get laid, I was too young to get into a bar, but the drinking age was 18 in New York at the time, so it wasn’t far away. I would keep overhearing conversations where one person would say, ‘I WANT TO GO OUT, I WANT TO GO DANCING’.
At fifteen, I found two places that would let me in for dancing, and my friend Robin and I went. The Firehouse and the Ninth Circle (which was owned by Danny Krivit’s father!) were my first two dancing rooms. One, an abandoned Firehouse opened for Saturday night fundraises (Lamda legal defence fund), the other a bar with fair sound in the basement which was packed with sweaty bodies gyrating to the beat. At those places, I started hearing music you could dance to, and OH MY GOD, a switch went on and I said,
‘there’s more to life than having sex’!!!
K&M: Give us a quick insight into what life was like before the Stonewall riots happened, what did it mean to be gay?
N: As I expressed above, it was difficult. If you weren’t in the West Village, Manhattan, you usually were harassed, and often, beaten up, especially in Brooklyn. I now live in the same neighborhood that I grew up in. Twice this year I’ve seen two men walking down the street holding hands, that is A LONG WAY from my experiences, and in the same lifetime! But it took us all this time just to get here!
Gay people have been around forever, and the only people I know of that respected them from the get-go are the Native American Indians.
If you dressed provocatively, or walked differently, or talked “funny” you were labeled and people yelling FAGGOT at you was common and done in a violent, aggressive manner. It was scary, in an already scary world, it was isolating, and often people didn’t get to work because they were gay. Perfect example my friend DC LA RUE, who I played a major part in launching with the hit ‘Cathedrals’, was ostracized and mocked, but that was the seventies.
K&M: After the Stonewall riots, it opened a lot of doors for the gay community opening such LGBTQ clubs as The Saint, The Anvil, and the popular destination of Fire Island. How did it coincide with disco music?
N: Yes, but
you’re talking about underground clubs that most people didn’t have a clue they existed.
The only reason I got so much press is that my club was mixed, gay and straight. If it was all gay, I don’t think I would have been in the first article in New York magazine. There were two DJ’s, both owners of clubs, who appeared in the first major article about the scene in 1973, Mancuso and I. Then four years later the GALLERY was featured again when they named the five most visually breath-taking clubs in New York, and I was in there with STUDIO 54.
BUT socially, gay people were still struggling. One of the most important things about STONEWALL beside the city putting aside the “two people of the same sex could not dance together in an establishment that served alcohol” law, was the establishment of LAMDA which still is the gay legal defence fund. During the riots, all these people got arrested, and LAMDA defended them all, free of charge, and for many years, provided free legal services to gay people. I don’t know if they are still operating, but I talked to them up to the year 2000. They did for us what we could not do for ourselves, it was that ‘giving thing’ we don’t hear about much anymore.
K&M: You opened your club ‘The Gallery’ in 1972 which ran until 1977 and was one of the 1st big regular parties in NYC, describe in detail the liberalism the energy and mindset of that time to set the record straight on exactly what happened in the club, how beautifully crazy, was it?
N: Yes we were one of the 1st, as a matter of fact, we were exactly THE SECOND…ha, the Loft was first, and then came us. The Loft was David Mancuso’s home, The Gallery was a private member club that was the difference. There was never a night that we had less than 600 people through the doors, we were open Friday and Saturday. I’d say our average was 750, many nights were more than 1000, the night Loretta Holloway debuted many of the songs off her first album for us, and 1600 people walked through the doors.
The first ‘Gallery’ was on West 22nd Street, in what is now called Chelsea, back then it was called a bad neighbourhood. The robbery rate was the highest in the City, and we were robbed twice their (a famous story about Levan and I catching the thieves). We moved to 172 Mercer St. in Soho, which is the ‘Gallery’ that most people remember, and where the movie ‘Love Is The Message’ was shot. Both were my canvas, the second was bigger with so many possibilities.
We had the main floor, with a balcony that overlooked the Dancefloor. The coat check was downstairs, but it was a huge basement space that I wanted to open as a lounge. I remember wanting it to feel and look like a cave. My macho brother comes in and says “we’ll throw a coat a paint on the walls and put in a couch.” How…unimaginative. I wanted the walls to be brick, I said: “aren’t these walls brick?” “Yes, my brother answered. “Why don’t we bare the brick, to give it a cave feel?” I insisted, “Do you know how hard it is to take the plaster off a wall?” I shrugged. He took a sledgehammer, the one with the big fat metal HEAD, went to a corner, slammed at the plaster making a circle after he finished the tenth pounce. He hit the centre of the circle and a chunk of plaster fell from the wall. “And that’s only a 12 inch by 12-inch square, we’ve got four walls 20 feet by 12 feet!”
I bought an ounce of angel dust (speed), invited 10 of my friends, and in two nights those walls were bare!
K&M: How much of what eventually became ‘Disco’ was modeled on your club ‘The Gallery’ how did it influence the disco scene?
The ‘Gallery’ and The ‘Loft’ were IT from 1972 till ’75, we were more than influential, we were all there was.
I remember record after record hitting the radio 3 to 4 months after we would start playing it. I would sit at Colony records listening to all the new 45RPM releases for hours until I found maybe one or two that I liked. If it was really good, I would mount it like a bull, pull those reigns, and shove my ass right into its back! (That means I played it sometimes as much as 10 times a night for the first weekend!
K&M: The Gallery is credited with launching the careers of these legends, Larry Levan, and Frankie Knuckles. Did you ever realise at the time how pivotal you your clubs and the DJs you hired would go onto to change the dance music world?
N: I have to separate them out because
Frankie was quiet and in the background, while Levan took on a room, and took it over,
even from me. So, once Larry realized he wanted to be a DJ, YES I knew he would do great things, especially after I saw him play a few times. THEN when Reade Street opened (the Paradise Garage) Larry and Mike Brody’s first club, I saw the future, and it was PARADISE. Then Frankie moved away from New York and I hardly saw him.
K&M: What have 3 turntables (decks) and beat matching got to do with you?
N: Dual turntable set up’s for DJ’s were around starting as early as maybe 1963. At radio stations, they had existed since the forties,
I was the first DJ to install a THIRD turntable,
which I used for sound effects. I would have a long sound effect of a plane taking off, while I would mix two records together, people flipped out at first….every club began installing THREE turntables, instead of two. And EVERY club I went to with this setup, the DJ would be playing furiously on two turntables, and the third one was used as a coaster for his drinks!
It’s all about creativity, vision, TALENT, inspiration, and getting out of your own way! Most DJ’s haven’t got a clue. Also, while I had the two turntables, I began doing something that only one other DJ in NY was doing, MATCHING BEATS.
Before beat matching we would call the mix, A BLEND, because that is exactly what it was, it didn’t match, but it would SOUND GOOD, which to this day I often use when I want to change the BPM’s drastically, I will go from 128BPM to 98BPM’S, and you have to be creative to keep a dance floor while changing the BPM’s THAT DRASTICALLY, it has to sound good. Often I will use an instrument, horns are great, to match, or a bass line, match it, so it sounds great, but it isn’t a beat match. Back then people were used to dancing right through these blends, as long as it sounds good people didn’t stop dancing, they couldn’t,
it was too new and fresh, you wanted to dance every single minute you were anywhere the music was great!
K&M: Was it a positive or negative effect ‘Saturday Night Fever’ the film had on the disco and nightlife scene at the time? Did disco change when it came into the mainstream?
N: YES, IT CHANGED, and ultimately, had a very negative effect. It overexposed the genre, made it too mainstream, and in demand,
every jerk became a DJ and every asshole tried to open a club,
as it was not expensive in the early seventies. I would hear about two openings a week sometimes, and they would close within the month. And every time I’d go on at gigs and I play some really commercial Disco song, undoubtedly a young guy or girl does the John Travolta move, trying to seem cool, or mockingly, I HATE IT.
The further the scene became commercial the sooner it dug its grave because the commerciality of the industry is what made it so boring like it is now.
Accept when an exceptional DJ plays, like me. I’m not perfect, I have my off nights, but thankfully they are few and far between.
K&M: People came to party at ‘The Gallery’ and to be ‘seen’ at Studio 54?
N: Not totally true, but very close. The studio did have a party group that went there, I don’t think they would have survived if that element wasn’t there. The group, with ROLLERENER spearheading the dress ups, would be there ALMOST EVERY NIGHT, and Steve would welcome them, let them in free because Steve was magnificent as a doorman, Marc Bedecke learned from him, and he became really good, but he didn’t have Steve’s instincts or knowledge. Remember, by the time Studio opened Steve had had almost three years’ experience running the ENCHANTED GARDENS, it was a wonderful teaching ground for him.
K&M: Was it ‘love’ or ‘Coke’ that fueled the clubs or both?
LOVE fueled the Gallery and the Loft, while love with a lot of coke-fueled Studio 54.
I’m sure you read the stories that Ian showed up a few days before Christmas as they were being raided, with Christmas cards for VIP guests
MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM STUDIO 54, AND here is two grams of coke street value, 250 dollars,
that was Steve and Ian’s Christmas incentive given to celebrities and hanger-ons. I knew Steve was on the phones all day promoting celebrities, drugs and VIP treatment if they came, plus a picture spread in the New York Daily news pictorial centrefold
K&M: What happened to dance music post-disco?
N: Every dawn brings a new day, and so it was with dance music in the volatile seventies after disco, different types became splintered off with some great and others hideous. I am lucky I can hear a good record, and more importantly a great record almost immediately, but so many others relied on others to cue them in on the hot tunes.
In the early days the core DJs all had EARS each one of us could pick a hit, and turn the group on to it….then it was OURS!
K&M: You mention on your social media in ’84 after 14 years of DJing you stopped to help friends in need and became an HIV coordinator’. How did this break from DJing affect your outlook on life?
IT WAS BY FAR THE MOST IMPORTANT HUMANITARIAN WORK I HAVE DONE! I saw what was really real, what we needed as human beings, how people suffering was not good for anyone on the planet, it was a tragic time for gay people, we lost some our most talented, and strongest, and smartest, and funniest.
K&M: Do you use a mixture of modes when DJing today?
N: I prefer using a mixture, for the sound I prefer vinyl. For versatility, special effects and ease, I prefer the digital tech. But the sound is the most important thing, and no matter which great analogue system you have built, digitally converted vinyl sounds good on it.
K&M: Do you think there is a major difference between the audiences of the 70s/80s to the audience of the 21st century?
N: THERE IS AN AUDIENCE NOW THAT EITHER PRETENDS To have seen and done it all, or they have.
In the 70s it was the first time people were experiencing this kind of dance experience so it was much more shocking and exciting.
K&M: You have been called a disco ‘legend’ countless times. Define what it is to be a legend, don’t hold back!
N: You wake up every morning feeling like Diana Ross!
K&M: Hahah, the spirit of what you birthed in the Gallery in the 1970s filtered through to the early beginnings of what we know as ‘Dance Music’ today and became the foundational benchmark model underpinning it. How do you see the state of the current scene today and has it lost its way?
N: Yes, I believe it’s totally lost its way. When we discovered something when we opened the club, we did it for the love of the music.
Today everything is done for money. Do what you love and the money will come. When you plan only for money you get garbage.
K&M: You are currently working some huge and successful projects would you like to fill us in?
Hallelujah disco which is coming to Albert Hall Manchester on February 10th is the most exciting show I’ve been involved within the last 20 years. I have put a show together telling the story of my life, NYC with a Gospel Choir singing some of the greatest early Soul Music inspired by Gospel.
Here is the promo reel, this was our 1st show. It has evolved since then.
K&M: Nicky, thank you it’s been informative J
Interview – Katie Eve Senior & Mike Moggi Mannix