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Mel Cheren, the Godfather of Disco and Mentor to DJs, Dies

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday December 13, 2007

"This is the story of my gay generation, the world we built and the world we lost." With those words Mel Cheren began his memoir, "Keep on Dancin': My Life and the Paradise Garage." It was entirely fitting that Cheren considered his own story to encompass the entire world of gay men, because no one did more to create that world.

When Cheren died at the age of 74 on Friday, Dec. 7, his death was marked by an outpouring of grief unique in New York's gay nightclubbing universe. Like Andy Warhol or Jacqueline Onassis, Cheren's life-as large it was-stood for something larger than himself. Dubbed "the godfather of disco" (also the title of a documentary film about his life), Cheren was not only instrumental in creating the dance music that became the soundtrack for our lives. He was also emblematic of that world. And when the AIDS epidemic savaged his world, he became a key player in creating the support network of fund-raising and service organizations that sprang up around the disease.

If he had only written his book, Cheren would have left a lasting legacy. Alongside Gary Shapiro's "Turn the Beat Around," Tim Lawrence's "Love Saves the Day" and Anthony Haden- Guests' "The Last Party," "Keep on Dancin'" is an invaluable account of the transformation of American music, from the white-bread songs of the Pat Boone era of the '50s into the black-influenced early days of rock-and-roll to the Disco Era and beyond. From the late '50s on, Cheren was a major figure on the scene.

Cheren was born in humble circumstances, the son of a Jewish flower vendor in Boston. A self-admitted nice Jewish boy, Cheren had wanted to get out from under his parents' thumb. After college and a stint in the Army, where he had his first tentative relationship with another man, he made his way to New York City.

He rose through the ranks of various record companies to become head of production at ABC Records, where he was instrumental in breaking some of the '60s most important acts. As a regional account executive, he was based in Cleveland, which was a hotspot in the early days of rock. He immediately began pioneering sales techniques and became good friends with radio DJs and record shop owners.

He was offered a high-up position at ABC, but he didn't want to move to Los Angeles. So he moved over to a smaller label, Scepter Records, where he and the legendary Florence Greenberg pioneered the girl groups who paved the way for the Motown Sound, and lush female vocals of artists like Dionne Warwick, which would provide the framework for Disco.

In 1976, he co-founded West End Records, which, with Casablanca and Salsoul, became the bedrock of the Disco Era. Along he way, he helped create the 12-inch EP, and he extended a record into a B-side instrumental, both of which made possible the advent of the dance-club DJ. By this time, he had already become a denizen of the burgeoning disco scene. In the first wave of disco, when clubs like Arthur, the Peppermint Lounge and Sanctuary allowed a new form of musician, the DJ, to perfect his technique, Cheren could be found on the dance floor, listening for new sounds and introducing ones of his own.

The catalog of records that Cheren produced or in some cases mixed himself over the years reads like a Greatest Hits of the day, including Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" and "Work That Body," Garrett Scott's "Nah Nah Kiss Him Goodbye" and B.T. Express' "Do It Till You're Satisfied." "Sessamato," a remixed instrumental from an Italian film score, became the first record scratched by Grandmaster Flash.

The Garage Sound Takes Over

On a trip to Fire Island, Cheren met a man 12 years his younger who was to become the largest part of his life until death parted them, in good times, as they say, and in bad. Michael Brody was good looking, ambitious and moody. The two men bought and fixed up a home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and another building in Manhattan's Chelsea, which was hardly the gay upscale neighborhood it is today. Cheren's house became known as Colonial Inn, a guesthouse, his eventual home and the birthplace of another movement, related to but far away from the gay dance floor.

On the music scene, Cheren was a restless genius. Merely breaking new acts, new sounds, and new records wasn't enough for Cheren's restless genius. Brody, who now became his partner in life and love, built the Paradise Garage. In an era when black and Hispanic gay men were often made to feel out of place at gay discos, the Soho megaclub opened its doors to everyone.

The feel of the Garage was unlike anything that had come before. Its sound system went beyond state of the art; its lights, a psychedelic phantasmagoria. One entered the huge dance space through a long tunnel up King Street, a nondescript Soho sidestreet. People who came to the garage were young black and Hispanic gay men, women and white men. Artist Keith Haring was a habituee. New songs broke there. It became a training ground for DJs, and eventually the Garage Sound would spread to Europe and Asia via spinners like Tiesto and Paul Oakenfeld.

'Save the last dance for me.'

A young DJ named Larry Levan soon made the "Garage Sound" a byword for cutting-edge club music and mixing. Through his mentoring of Levan and the group of DJ acolytes that surrounded him, Cheren fostered a whole generation of DJs and a spectrum of styles that encompasses Little Louis Vega, Danny Krivit, Frankie Knuckles and Junior Vasquez. Through Knuckles, Cheren effectively became the godfather of House as well as disco; while through Vega and the many scratchers and break dancers who frequented the Garage, the godfather of hip-hop as well. And through Krivit, the godfather of Electroclash. There probably isn't a sound today that Cheren didn't influence directly.

Manny Lehman was only 18 when he met Cheren at the Garage. Just a kid from the Bronx, Lehman absorbed the Garage's music and became a retail clerk at Vinylmania. He remembers the thrill of being on the inside when Cheren would tip him off about a new record or artist. "It was such an exciting time in music," he recalls. "There was no Internet. You had to be there. And Mel was always there, at the center of it.

Eventually, the Garage closed, a victim of finances, personalities, changing times. And something else, something insidious that had begun killing Cheren's friends and colleagues.

AIDS Brings the Party Crashing to an End

In his book, Cheren describes those dark years. He recalls the last hours of the Saint, the even-larger East Village gay disco that competed with the Garage and survived it just barely until it, too, succumbed to the death of so many of its members: "A world had just come to an end and now we were going to have to find our way in a new world, to survive if we could or, like most of my friends, even many of those who were there that final night, to die."

Cheren came of age at a time when gay men didn't stay or come out of the closet because there was nothing but the closet. He and Brody had stumbled on the disturbances in June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, and he, like everyone else, reveled in the sexual freedom of the '70s. Unlike many others, however, when AIDS came, he didn't escape but reached out. He tried something called the American Run for the End of AIDS. When that didn't raise enough money, he turned to what he knew best, the music industry. He founded 24 Hours for Life, which became LIFEbeat, popular music's AIDS fundraising arm.

Nor did his energy stop there. He donated space in a building he owned in Chelsea so that a group of dedicated volunteers could do the first work of helping people succumbing to the disease. This was the first home of Gay Men's Health Crisis, today marked by a plaque on the site.

Cheren kept busy with his painting, for which he always had proficiency and became a way of expressing his feelings as friends dropped around him. Many of his artwork adorns album covers. He also had his music. Although he eventually sold West End Records, he remained active in the music world. In the late '90s, he revived West End and was working on a multi-disk compilation at the time of his death.

Ironically, Cheren himself had not been diagnosed with HIV until shortly before his death. "For a man of his age, he was pretty healthy," said Dr. Frank Spinelli, who cared for him in his final illness. Spinelli, who had become his doctor only recently, also pointed up that Cheren may have neglected his health in part because of the vagaries of American health insurance, and how dangerous this could be especially to an older gay man.

His decline was rapid from initial diagnosis. He spent his last days at a hospice associated with Cabrini Hospital, where a parade of family, friends and admirers bade their farewells.

All his life, Cheren kept a coterie of young people around him. He loved to mentor people in all sorts of ways. When he was spotted at one of his friend Michael Fesco's dance cruises around Manhattan, or at the occasional Center Dance, or at a Saint at Large party, Cheren would either have been on the dance floor or talking to a gaggle of people. Always interesting and never forbidding, he was always accessible, encouraging and kind. The number of people who fell under his influence is probably beyond measuring. The mark he left will remain as long as people get their groove on on the dance floor.

The LGBT Center, to which Cheren bequeathed the bulk of his estate, is planning a memorial service in his honor. It is tentatively planned for Jan. 21, 2008, which would have been his birthday.

Cheren's favorite sayings were that everything happened for a reason and "Save me a place on the dance floor." But perhaps the best way to sum up his extraordinary life comes from his book: "There was a time when we had the whole world dancing."

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).