New York nightclubbing legend Nicky Siano: '˜I play with a kind of energy that people are not used to'
In New York's underground dance music scene in early 1970s Nicky Siano had few peers.
The co-owner, designer and DJ at one of the city’s most successful and atmospheric private nightclubs The Gallery, he went on to have a spell behind the decks at the famously hedonistic Studio 54 and produced the dancefloor classic Kiss Me Again for Arthur Russell.
Now 61, he remains a force to be reckoned with – and next week he’s bringing some of the Big Apple’s party vibe to Leeds for the first time.
“I play with a kind of energy that people are not used to,” he says. “That’s because I consider myself more of a participant than like the DJ. I’m really partying along with the crowd and that’s because I’m excited by the music I’m hearing.
“What I’m doing now is I’m rediscovering records that I didn’t play back in the day, like Funky Nassau. I just did an edit of it, it should be out by the time I get to Leeds, and it’s just exciting me to rediscover these old songs, do an edit of them and it’s like a new record for me so I’m just having a great time.”
It turns out Siano has a connection with this part of West Yorkshire and is quite an Anglophile. “One of my best friends in the UK, Shaun Hutchinson, lives in Leeds, so that’s enough for me,” he says.
“The UK is fantastic, it’s the greatest country in the world. Some people call America it – that’s bull****.”
Siano was 16 when he got his first DJ-ing gig, and a year older when he opened The Gallery nightclub in Manhattan’s SoHo district with his brother Joe. At its heart was a strong underground community – something that remains close to his heart.
“I’m thinking about it now and I just started a new party in New York called Native New Yorker – I am the consummate native New Yorker, I moved always twice and always came back. I know every street, I know where every neighbourhood is, I know where all the hot spots are, I know where not to go – so what I’m thinking about in this party is it’s not just about having a good time and partying, it’s about community, it’s about creating a little family unit and that unit becomes friends and they call each other during the week, and if they have problems they support each other. That’s what it was back then, that’s what going to a certain place was – it was community much more so than going out dancing.”
He cites his second trip to David Mancuso’s club The Loft as among his favourite memories of the early 70s. “That’s when it clicked for me and I decided ‘I’ve got to be a DJ, there’s nothing else I can do’,” he remembers.
“I already knew the music was moving me down to my little toe but I didn’t know yet that I wanted to be that connected with it. Then the passion for the music transferred into passion for the creation of the atmosphere and that’s what I feel David and I did, we didn’t just play records.”
The whole first year at The Gallery was also “a slew of amazing nights”, he recalls. “Larry Levan and Frankie [Knuckles] working my booth every single night until we closed. They were like my best friends and also whatever I needed. It was like a fashion industry watering hole. Calvin Klein was there at least ten times. This guy Stephen Burrows, who had just won the Coty [American Fashion Critics award], he was there every weekend. It was really special.”
The death last year of David Mancusco made Siano reflect on the rich legacy of that era. “It really made me feel like I wanted to tell my story, because my story is in a lot of these little things,” he says. “But God, I know so much s***, and I remember those early years because I was just growing up. I remember those years so vividly, so much better than the 80s, I don’t remember the 80s at all.”
Siano met the musician Arthur Russell via his best friend Louis Aquilone. “He started dating Arthur. Louis would come to The Gallery every Saturday night, he didn’t care who he was dating, it was The Gallery or see you later. We had a group of 30 friends and they all came to The Gallery. One night Arthur finally decides to come with Louis and I see Louis out there dancing with this guy who danced like a white boy, but an extreme white boy which was like hands flailing, he did have rhythm but he was just all over the place – sort of like his records.
“After about five weeks he started showing up alone. At The Gallery if someone was dancing in front of the booth you’d see them and he always happened to place himself very strategically. The one night Louis brought him in the booth. The first thing Arthur said to me was ‘You know, we could make a record’. I think Turn The Beat Around was on, it had just come out and it wasn’t on the radio and he pointed to the record and said to me, ‘We could make a record like this’ and it just enthralled me. I went to my Pops, my brother, and he agreed it would be a great investment and we used Gallery funds to make Kiss Me Again.”
Released under the name Dinosaur and featuring a guitar break by David Byrne, the record went on to sell 300,000 copies in 1977. Unfortunately chances of a successful follow-up were scuppered by Russell’s fondness for overloading his songs with numerous instruments that proved difficult and costly to mix. “We went back in for our second record but I wasn’t in control of the purse strings,” says Siano. “He kept going and going. I said, ‘Arthur, this is a great record, stop it, let’s go’. He said, ‘No, I want da-da, da-da, da’ and Sire said, ‘No, sorry’. It’s a shame.”
Siano hopes that 40 years on, the track may yet get released. “Gerri Hall was the singer. There was this group The Voices of East Harlem, she the lead singer from that group, and she was incredible,” he recalls.
Today the DJ is also planning a TV series and a book on the New York dance scene. “We’ve written some scripts,” he says. “We’ve written another proposal. I am developing a show with the House of Yes [Brooklyn nightclub]. We’re trying. The best thing to do would be to have a contract with someone and stop the touring for a while and do the show. It’s much more important to me to get the feeling and the atmosphere of the clubs back then and show people. The Gallery film Love is the Message does show that stuff but it’s a documentary and a lot of people don’t want a documentary, believe it or not, so it would be very exciting to participate in a production like that.”
Nicky Siano is at Duke Studios, Sheaf Street, Leeds on February 10. For details visit duke_studios.com/whats-on.