Music by VICE

From Studio 54 to a Bumper Car Birthday: the Legacy of Disco King Nicky Siano

Nicky Siano wasn't just present at the creation of dance music. He was the creation.

by Steve Weinstein
Mar 11 2015, 2:21pm

If a normal conversation is like a smooth stream, a conversation with Nicky Siano is more like a raging river, with tributaries flowing off in every direction. One minute, he's telling you about how he oversaw every detail in The Gallery, the trailblazing New York disco he and his brother opened in the early 70s. Next, he's off on a diatribe about how today's DJs are more computer technicians than music makers. Then- whoa!-he's off again, reminiscing about what it was like to have Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, the legendary DJ of Paradise Garage and the "godfather of house," as best friends back in the day.

Siano is one of those people about whom the hackneyed phrase "larger than life" really does apply. It's that ebullient, hell-bent-for-leather personality, as much as his seminal influence on dance music, that has made Siano one of the most beloved--and most-respected--DJs in the world.

Nicky Siano on The Gallery's dance floor

Because Nicky Siano wasn't just present at the creation of dance music. He was the creation. "Nicky still stands as one of the most influential DJs of the 1970s," Tim Lawrence, the author of Love Saves the Day, A History of Dance Music Culture 1970-1979 told THUMP. There's no question that the modern DJ could not exist without Siano and his New York brethren. The concept of a "musical journey" started with David Mancuso, who famously played disco records back-to-back at his iconic Loft parties. Francis Grasso started to segue records together using headphones, and Michael Cappello smoothed out the segue. But Nicky moved the baton further by pulling these elements together, "adding a level of drama that was rooted in his extrovert personality." As a resident at Studio 54 and one of New York's most in-demand DJs, Siano pioneered the art of beat matching and quick-mixing between songs, skills that would become essential to future generations.

The Gallery wasn't just the first disco that incorporated lights, music and décor into an organic whole; it was the first club where clubbers of all sexualities and races could mingle over balloons and acid-spiked punch. Grace Jones made her debut on its stage (upstaged no less by Siano dressed as the Statue of Liberty, complete with flashing torch), and staffers included Levan and Knuckles, before they went on to establish their own legends. Even more, The Gallery was a testament to Siano's dedication to his craft--its DJ booth was the first to feature three turntables.

A group of revelers at The Gallery

"The Gallery formed a bridge between the Loft and the Paradise Garage," Lawrence noted. "It became the place where Nicky Siano would play records that he and his DJ friends retrieved from record company basements and turn them into national hits." It was at The Gallery that Siano experimented and innovated with the sound system, building, for example, giant acoustic cabinets to amplify the bass. He was also the first DJ to really fuck with the soundboard, by alternating the tweeter arrays to heighten the bass and treble, respectively.

If Siano still disparages the move away from vinyl to digital, it's only because he still believes that great DJing requires the visceral feel that only vinyl can provide. "We used to work really hard," he said. "There isn't any soul in a drum machine. It takes all the drive, the excitement out of the music. It's all programmed crap."

You can be sure that Siano will be playing records when he celebrates his 60th birthday party at one of the most inimitable venues in New York: the Eldorado Auto Skooter, a classic bumper-car palace in Brooklyn's Coney Island amusement park.

The Eldorado isn't just some run-of-the-mill arcade. It packs a sound system designed by Richard Long, the sound engineer who was also behind Studio 54 and Paradise Garage's set-ups. In the 70s, Siano used to ride the bumper cars just to experience the extraordinary sound system, which remains better than the vast majority of those in today's clubs. Often, he was accompanied by his protégé Larry Philpot, who later became the legendary Larry Levan.

For Siano, the Eldorado--only a few miles from Sheepshead Bay, the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up and currently lives with his partner in life and business John Vret--represents a real return to his roots. It's also a venue where he can control every aspect of the room, from lights to seating.

"I'm going to be able to really give a party, not just a club event," he said. "I love lighting and making it enhance the music. It's supposed to be like a Broadway show. Anything that goes on in that room is my responsibility. How it smells. If the fan is on, if the fan is off. Everything is under my control. It's rare I get those opportunities."

Nicky Siano in the DJ booth

Therefore, the Eldorado is the only venue suitable to celebrate what Siano has billed as "The Last Party." Don't believe it; this guy has had more comebacks than Cher. If Siano isn't better known to the wider world, it's because of the long hiatus he took in the 1980s. Burnt out by too many long nights fueled by drugs and alarmed watching one after another of his friends die from a mysterious disease, he made a conscious choice to drop out of the club scene, devoting himself to getting clean and doing what he could to fight the epidemic. The result was an important resource text on then-available AIDS treatments, 1993's No Time to Wait, which Siano still considers his finest achievement.

"The work I did for people with AIDS means so much more to me than playing records," he told THUMP. "I loved DJing but spiritually that was so much more bountiful."

Frankie Knuckles

In the years since his return to the turntables, Siano has been recognized by a new generation for his seminal contributions to the art of DJing.

Danny Tenaglia became a fan before he was old enough to enter a nightclub. "Just knowing the inspiration he was to Larry Levan at Continental Baths when Larry was his light-man meant the world to me." Tenaglia told THUMP. "Once I did go to the Loft and Garage, I knew this was what I was meant to do, and Nicky became another hero to me." Siano directly inspired Tenaglia's own legendary "Be Yourself" parties. "That musical feeling, atmosphere and unity is so hard to come by these days," he added.

DJ Hex Hector became an acolyte back in 1982 when he first heard "Move," one of Siano's productions that established the "wall of sound."

Years later, when Hector was finally able to hear Siano spin live at the old Sound Factory Bar, "I couldn't believe the energy coming out of this man," he recalled. "Since then, I've been following him in documentaries and listening to him on Sirius Radio," where Siano spins "Studio 54 Radio."

Although Siano joked that half the crowd will be in wheelchairs, there's no doubt that The Last Party will be an unforgettable throwback to the heyday of disco for all ages. "This party is closer to what happened [at The Gallery and the Loft] than anything I have done in New York in a long time," he said. "The atmosphere is so innocent and joyful. People have lost that. I don't see people having a great time anymore."