The Record Players
DJ Revolutionariesby Bill Brewster
From the authors of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and How to DJ Right comes the fascinating story of dance music, straight from the mouths of the legendary DJs themselves.
Acclaimed authors and music historians Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton have spent years traveling across the world to interview the revolutionary and outrageous DJs who shaped the last half-century of pop music. The Record Players is the fun and revealing result—a collection of firsthand accounts from the obsessives, the playboys, and the eccentrics that dominated the music scene and contributed to the evolution of DJ culture.
It started when, instead of a live band, someone turned on the record player, and suddenly partygoers had more than one style of music to dance to. In the sixties, radio tastemakers brought their sound to the masses, sock hop by sock hop, while early trendsetters birthed the role of the club DJ at temples of hip like the Peppermint Lounge. By the seventies, DJs were dictating musical taste and changing the course of popular music; and in the eighties, young innovators wore out their cross-faders developing techniques that carried them over the line between record player and musician. With discographies, favorite songs, and amazing photos of all the DJs as young firebrands, The Record Players offers an unparalleled music education: from records to synthesizers, from disco to techno, and from small groups of influential music lovers to arenas packed with thousands of dancing fans.
A history told by the visionaries who experienced the movement, The Record Players allows a rare glimpse into the sound, culture, and craft that developed into a worldwide industry.
“The Warehouse was very soulful, very spiritual—which is amazing in the Midwest, because you have those cornfed Midwestern folks that are very down to earth. I think those type of parties they were having at the Warehouse, I know they were something completely new to them, but once they latched on to it, it spread like wildfire through the city.” —Frankie Knuckles
“The DJ is a modern-day entertainer. There’s no difference between a band and a DJ. When I perform, they’re watching every move. They expect you to deliver.” —Paul Oakenfold
“The most outrageous thing was I turned down fifty grand to DJ for two hours.” —Sasha
“All I ever wanted to do is hear music that I like and play it to other people.” —John Peel
Jimmy Savile, Dance hall disrupter
Interviewed by Frank in Leeds, May 20, 2004
Now then! Now then! Bevan Boy coalminer, professional wrestler, original Top Of The Pops frontman and the first superstar DJ, Jimmy Savile is a self-made force of nature. Starting as a tough post-war entrepreneur (his autobiography talks of taking control of Manchester “below the legal line”), by shaking up the format of Mecca Ballrooms up and down the land, it was Savile more than anyone who moved British nightlife from the dance band to the DJ.
Our interview is in the tower of Leeds General Infirmary, where there’s a centre for keyhole surgery supported by Savile’s relentless fundraising. It’s here he has an office, aided by the angelic Mavis. Bounding through the hospital, Sir Jim says hello to everyone who passes, as if he’s compelled to announce his presence. He graciously receives people’s smiles in return like a Yorkshire Don Corleone. “This girl’s like a coiled spring,” he jokes to a paramedic snatching a smoke outside.
“I’m glad you bought my chair,” he cracks to a guy rolling past in a wheelchair. “Morning!” he beams at a wizened Indian lady. She has no clue who he is.
He never uses names, just “my friend,” or “our pal here.” Effortless, smooth. Before the interview can start he poses for photos with a young boy who’s receiving money for treatment from his foundation. There’s a short speech and the family are ushered out. He’s resplendent in Asics sneakers, a white Nike tracksuit and a ragga-style string vest. There are no cigars, but the trademark jingle-jangle is to the fore: a chunky bracelet, a gold wishbone with diamonds hanging from his neck, and a big gold ring on his thumb that he twists round constantly.
You were effectively working in a nightclub in your teens?
I was born in 1926, right. In 1939 war broke out. And that has a tremendous effect on everybody’s life because the basic principle of a human being is whether they’re gonna be alive or dead in the morning. Now with the war on you can’t guarantee that, especially living in a city like Leeds where we had air raids and all that. And that has an amazing effect on people. It causes them to do things they wouldn’t normally do. Or not do things that they should do. Now one of the features was that entertainment was in short supply, because entertainers were in short supply. But from a government point of view they wanted entertainment to keep the workers happy.
Keep the morale up.
And in those days dancing was in dance halls and dancing was to bands. And I’d always thought, even at that age, a record, to me, was quite a fascinating thing. I didn’t have any records. I didn’t even have a record player—because when you’re skint you don’t have anything like that—but I used to go round to the lads’ houses that had a record player and some records, oh, and they had this amazing music coming out of those speakers. Except they weren’t speakers in those days ’cos there was no electric, it was wind-up. No electric motors even.
What kind of music was it?
Well there were the big bands of the time, which were the bands of Ambrose, Joe Loss, Jack Hilton.
The radio bands.
Well the radio bands also played in dance halls and hotels, and there were a lot of bands in them days that didn’t have a residency, so they gigged all over the place. And all this music was there on the disc. And it never occurred to me that one could dance to a record, ’cos it never occurred to anybody. Now, it’s a startling admission that people didn’t think you could dance to records, but then nobody even conceived it.
No one danced at home?
You’d play a record at home if you had a record player, but you couldn’t be dancing around the carpet ’cos you’d get a bollocking for dancing round the carpet; knacked the carpet up, and things like that. So you could tap your foot, that was about it. But then I heard that this pal of mine had invented this thing: here was this record player, but he’d contrived to make a pick-up so the sound came out of this radio. I rushed round to his house, but by then I was walking on two sticks ’cos I’d been blown up underground in the pits. So I shuffled round to his house and it was an amazing thing.
How soon after did you put on your event?
If nothing else in life, at least I’ve had the ability to recognise an opportunity. I borrowed it there and then. Oh. This is it. A dance! We’ll have a dance. And I wrote the tickets out: “GRAND RECORD DANCE, 1 SHILLING.”
What year is this?
This would be about 1943, ’44. And I’d be just 18 at the time. And it was a great night.
Where exactly was it?
The Bellevue branch of the Loyal Order of Shepherds. Up here in Leeds. I think it’s offices now. Or flats. ’Cos it was a big house. It was the headquarters of this . . . working men’s club?
No, a friendly society. Not a working men’s club. They had a room upstairs that they didn’t use particularly and my street was literally round the corner from there. And it’s wartime, so everybody co-operated with everybody for everything. And they gave me the room for ten bob, fifty pence. Which I didn’t have of course. And I never actually got round to paying them.
What was it like?
Even then, as I played the records, and I stood there. I felt this amazing er, power’s the wrong word, control’s the wrong word. “Effect” could be nearer. There was this amazing effect: what I was doing was causing 12 people to do something. And I thought, I can make them dance quick. Or slow. Or stop. Or start. And all this was very heady stuff: that one person was doing something to all these people. And that’s really the thing that triggered me off and sustained me for the rest of me days.
So that was the moment you realised entertainment was what your life was going to be about?
No. No. I didn’t think I was entertaining. What I was doing was, I was creating an atmosphere. An entertainer sings, dances, tells jokes, juggles. I don’t do any of that. I was creating. An. Atmosphere. And when I got to the big dance halls and I’ve got 3,000 people in front of me and I’m on the stage with just the twin decks. And the records playing. My thrill is looking at them, and they’re all doing what they’re doing because I’ve just put this thing on. It’s a hell of a thing.
How many people at the very first thing you did?
Just 12 people. But you still got that feeling?
Oh yes. ’Cos there were 12 people, six couples, and they were all dancing around to what I was doing. And they weren’t even my records.
They were your mate’s?
Yes. And they’d all paid a shilling to come in. And somebody said, “It’s a pity there’s not many people here.” And I said, “There’s plenty,” because at the time I was only getting 16 shillings a week sick money, so for 12 bob to come in on one night, oh man, wow. And there’s seven nights in a week. Oh wow. The only problem was, that nobody agreed with me. Because nobody would turn up to the bloody record dances. Because first of all, the sound left a lot to be desired.
Could you describe the room?
It was like this room [a big living room size] but a bit longer.
Not very big at all. How loud was it?
It was like a small transistor radio. That was the sound.
But it was enough for people to get their groove on. And your mum finished the proceedings on the piano.
She tried to. But it didn’t work. Because her music wasn’t our music. And she said the burning smell off the top of the piano made her feel ill. ’Cos the thing short-circuited and the wires had burnt the top of the piano.
And can you remember the records you played that night?
They were all band records. Orchestra bands. What we can do is get a taxi and go down there and you can have a look at it. Now that is el scoopo, because nobody knows that that building housed that thing.
The first disco.
You’re the only one who knows and you’re the only one that’ll see it. Even Leeds people. It happened in Leeds, and newspapers, television, they’ve never got round to actually saying, “Well which one was it?” So we’ll grab a cab.
The follow up party was in Otley?
That’s right. In Otley there was a café, which was a shop downstairs. And, being inventive, my deal was to suggest that if he gave me the room for nothing I would bring lots of people in and they would buy his tea and cakes and all that. And it sort of worked and it sort of didn’t work. Because, again, not many people turned up. And the price of a taxi back to Leeds was 1, 5s—25 bob. We hadn’t taken 25 bob, and the bus fare was ninepence. So there was myself, my dad, who was the cashier, and my brother-in-law, who was the ticket collector and minder. So this poor lady in the café had laid out a load of cups and saucers and cakes and things like that. And only about 20 people turned up, 20, 25 people. And when it came to the interval—’cos we had intervals in those days—all the punters buggered off to the fish shop, eschewing the lady’s tea and cakes. Ah, they’ve all gone. So. The last bus was 9.30. We had the interval at nine and the dance was supposed to go on till 11. So when they’d gone I packed up my gear and ran to the bus station and caught the bus for ninepence. And when they came back from their fish and chips it was all locked up.
Did you do a few of these?
I did a few, because what happened was, another pal made an electric gramophone turntable and this had a two-and-a-half-inch speaker, so the sound would come out of the speaker. To me, the beauty of that was you could carry it all on one handle. As against having a radio, a record player, a wind-up gramophone, and all that. This: terrific. And so, as long as I set this high enough, so the speaker was level with people’s heads. This little two-and-a-half inch speaker. You could put the record like that, turn it up.
What was your mate’s name?
And the first guy?
Don’t know. I’ve forgotten his name now. But anyway, what happened was, a girl come and said it’s my 21st next week. I can’t afford a band. How much? Two pounds ten.
So word had got around?
No. They were all in there, and she thought what a good idea to have music to my birthday party, but they couldn’t afford a band. And there was no such thing as a disc jockey because it was unthinkable. And she quite liked the idea of having this jig around to this guy playing records, which in itself was like an amazing gimmick etc etc. And so it went on from there.
You spent some time in France.
The French thing was to do with cycling. Nothing to do with disc jockeying.
It’s interesting there was that kind of thing happening in Marseilles and Paris.
No. Never saw anything like that. And I doubt if” When I was in France in 1945, I was there within a month of the war finishing. And there were no dances, baby. And there were no discos, and there were no records, and there were no record players. There was bugger all. It was just a bombsite. That’s all there was to it. So it wasn’t going on in France at all. The only places that ever played records were in cinemas. In between the films. Then they put records on. Now they put adverts on.
Was that your inspiration?
No. I didn’t have an outside inspiration. It was recognising an opportunity. And I thought, this is a great band on this record. To dance to this great band would cost a lot of money in London. I’ve got this here. They can dance to this London band right here. And it was as simple as that. But it didn’t take off for ten years. Would you believe it? Ten years, people, but the equipment wasn’t right. See.
Were you collecting records?
You were never a record collector.
I’ve never had a record in my life. People would buy somebody a record for their birthday or Christmas or something like that. People used to play records in their houses. I used to borrow. I only had about 10 records. That’s all I needed. And I’d borrow them from anybody.
Were you listening to the radio a lot?
Yes because at the time, because I couldn’t walk very well, with my back thing, from getting blown up. I managed to acquire a transistor radio, and by getting a long piece of wire and sticking it in the back and putting the wire through the window and trailing through the window, it was the world’s best aerial. I could get all manner of things: American Forces Network. Because in those days during the war AFN was the big thing. There was music there that we never heard of.
Did you try and track any of that down?
No. I heard it. It never occurred to me that I could ever have any. In wartime you were just used to not having anything. So acquisition was just not part of your lexicon. I used to lie for hours listening to this wonderful music, not fastening the two together until I realised that this music, plus room, plus record player, plus some tickets, plus people, could be a way of life. And it was. That was it.
When did you think of getting a second turntable?
This was a great learning curve. I realised I wasn’t as clever as I thought. I was about 20, and because I used to put these dance things on I was regarded as a sort of an impresario, and I sort of staggered on, made eight quid here and lost six quid, and then made nine quid there, and lost five quid. So after about two or three years I thought to myself, hang about. If I’m that clever how come I’ve got no money? Must be something wrong somewhere. And then I alerted to myself that maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and I wasn’t as clever as I thought I was. Now that’s quite a profound thing for somebody that age to own up to. So what did I do? I knew that dance halls was my way of life and so by a fluke, in the local Mecca dance hall, the assistant manager had left. So I marched down to the manager and said, “I’m your new assistant.”
What was the name of the club?
Locarno. The Mecca. The correct title was Mecca Locarno. And I was only an assistant for about seven months, because the governors thought, this guy’s got something. Then, when I was about to be the man, the boss, I could do what I wanted. And once again, the record thing raised its head. And now I’ve got a ballroom and I’ve got electricians, who could do things. And the company was Westrex, and they looked after the microphones, so I said to them, “Have you got any record players?”
And they said, “Yeah, we put them in cinemas.”
So I said, “Oh, I want one here.”
So they said, “Okay.”
Did they have double ones in the cinemas?
No, just singles. So I came in the afternoon, they were fitting it up, and they were actually up in the light box. Fitting it in the light box. I went what’s that then? Well this is where we . . . No, no, no, no, no it goes on the stage. On the stage? Yes. And, wait a minute, have you got two? And they said yeah, why? I said I want them next to each other. They said you don’t need two Jim ’cos these are foolproof, they don’t break down. No, no, I says. When this record’s playing I want to get this one ready to play. Bloody hell, he says, are they in that much of a hurry? I said, yes my people are.
Nobody ever dreamed of putting two turntables. So I got two turntables together like that. Yet again. Grand record dance. One shilling. Bring your own records. ’Cos I didn’t have any records you see. Now the week before we’d had 24 people in. But about 10 to eight we had 600 people turn up. It was like locusts. It was like you couldn’t have even dreamed that it could happen. The bloody place was heaving. I was ankle deep in records, on the stage. Of all the bands. Didn’t know what the bloody hell they were. If anything worked I played it three times, that’s for sure.
But the thing that bugged me was there was 600 people in and they’d all got in for, initially it was free. Initially. And then I got this magic marker, and I put on a 10-inch LP it’s called “The Hucklebuck,” which is a jazz tune. A terrific medium tempo. Marvellous. And I put that on, rushed off the stage, went to the poster at the front that said “ADMISSION FREE” and wrote under “UNTIL 8PM.” And wrote “ONE SHILLING.” And another 700 people came and paid a shilling. There was 1300 people in there. It was the most awesome baptism ever.
And from that day on I was the governor. Never looked back. I finished up running 52 dance halls and employing 400 disc jockeys. They made me a director of the company and I left my DJing thing and looked after the whole shebang, the whole of Mecca Ltd.
What was their formula before you arrived?
Dances. All bands. Two bands. Non-stop, no interval. Two bands and it was six nights a week. Didn’t used to work on Sundays. But by this time Radio Luxembourg had reared its head and it was overlapping and I was now doing all this for Mecca Ltd and I was on Radio Luxembourg as well. And of course that really made it right that my policy was 100 percent right. I knew it was right. Now everybody knew it was right. Now it was nationally right. And globally right, and I finished up winning the New Musical Express award for top DJ for 11 consecutive years.
I’d like to talk a little more about those first parties. How did you feel DJing?
I’ve often thought about it. I’ve thought about the word “power” and I’ve thought about the word “control,” and they are both too harsh. To describe what it was. What it was that I created was an atmosphere. And that is exactly the description. It was the creating of an atmosphere. And the atmosphere would then come back to me and it was total satisfaction. It was also fun.
Like a circuit between you and the people.
Exactly. And they loved the fact that I patently enjoyed being with them. Because I never went onstage as a star or anything like that. It was obvious that I loved what I was doing. it was a tripartite. There was me and the records. There was the venue, and there was the people. And the whole thing was a very terrific worthwhile experience.
So you were running dance halls for Mecca, and they gave you control over more and more of them.
I brought in record dances and the company realised that suddenly from 24 people they had 1500 people. I was like the guru, the Buddha, I was everything.
You instituted record nights across the whole country.
I wasn’t a permanent disc jockey anywhere ’cos I was the boss. If they were going to institute a policy in the dance hall I would go and launch the policy. And I used to take two or three disc jockeys with me. And I’d leave them there for a couple of weeks while they train somebody else up. Mecca in London had the Lyceum, The Royal at Tottenham, The Palais at Ilford, The Orchid in South London, Purley. They had about five or six in London. And they all eventually had record nights. Not seven nights a week like I was doing, and obviously it was me that was masterminding what went on, because I was in charge of all the lot. But it was all good fun. Still is.
And you were telling them how to format their nights.
My policy was adhered to strictly by all the disc jockeys.
And what was your policy?
No records over 38 bars a minute [152bpm]. Because what you didn’t want was exhibitionist dancers, gyrating about and causing a crowd around them. Everything had to be uniform. No big long sideburns and things like that because they wanted to prove their manliness by cracking somebody. So I made lads wear smart clothes. Because they wouldn’t want to roll about on the floor, fighting, with the smart clothes. But they would if I let them in with boots. Or I let them in with jeans. Or as they are today collar, tie, suit. No sideburns. My hair was long but it didn’t matter. No sideburns, but if a kid came and his trousers weren’t neat and pressed, sorry you can’t come in ’cos you look untidy. But if you go home and change you can come back in for nothing. That took the sting away.
What about the DJs?
Now the DJs would stick to my policy. Every hour on the hour was what I called “smooch time.” All the lights went out and then, bang, we started with the romantic records. But the announcement, the record before smooch time was “smooch time after this record and it will be a ladies’ invitation, as well as the lads.” So the girls knew that if they fancied a lad they could ask him to do the smooch, right. On the hour every hour.
Bit by bit they would increase the tempo. First of all you’d get a recognisable beat. So you’d finish up with the hardcore smoochers in the middle and the easy boppers on the outside. And the hardcore bit got smaller and smaller and smaller and as the tempo increased, so my people would put the lights up just a little bit. Lights up a bit more, so eventually, bang, the lights’d be up, and we’d be back in business with the disco. On the hour, smooch time. In fact so much so that in both Leeds and Manchester and London I’ve heard people, customers talking, and they’d say, “Ooh it was foggy, the bus was late. I didn’t get in till second smooch.” I took over Greenwich Mean Time, with my policy.
I had four or sometimes five DJs. The new ones would work from seven till half past, when there wasn’t too many people in. And that’s how they’d learn their trade. And the next one up the rung, half past seven to eight. And as the disc jockeys got better and better, they worked from eight to half past. And I’d usually come on about half past nine. Towards the end, or right at the end. And I always made sure that my lads were more popular than I was. Because I wanted to run my place like a post office, so if I wasn’t there I wouldn’t be missed. You see. And that’s the way it worked, because all my boys were far more popular with the girls ever than I was.
Were they talking between the songs?
Yes, but only what they’d picked up from the governor. One thing I said to them is never fight with your hand. If you’re going to say something, say it. And if you’re going to play something, play it. But don’t try to say it and play it at the same time by turning the volume up, ’cos you’re gonna shout over the record—they’re not going to hear what you’re saying anyway. Even if it’s one you’ve been waiting for: “The latest from the King”. Bang. But don’t fade it up under what you’re saying, ’cos it’s a bad habit.
What was your patter like in those days? What did you actually say?
I didn’t actually say too much, because the early disc jockeys, that was always one of their failings. They thought that the more they talked the better they were. And it was the exact opposite. A record would finish, and instead of saying like a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries announcement: “That was so and so, the next one is so and so.” I’d say “Ere! As it ’appens.” Now that meant nothing, but it made an impact. I was only saying a few words. As few as possible, which was the exact opposite to the majority of people in those days.
There was a reason for talking a lot on the radio in the early days, in that you were only allowed so much needle time in half an hour. And so if a disc jockey talked or ran a competition or something like that. It would save on needle time. You were only allowed so much needle time. The union would only allow so much in an hour. Or they’d only allow you 40 minutes of needle time.
The union being the Musicians’ Union?
Well the Musicians’ Union and all the unions that ran that particular business. Radio unions and things like that. So if you could only play 40 minutes worth of records in an hour it means that somebody’s got to talk for 20 minutes. It was no good me operating like that because I didn’t work like that. On Luxembourg for instance it was the record company bought the time. That was when Luxembourg was at its most successful. EMI’d buy five hours and they would employ a disc jockey to work that five hours.
Yours was Warner Brothers, wasn’t it?
My umbrella was the Decca Record Company. They had Warner Brothers, they had London, they had RCA Victor. They had Decca. They had seven or eight labels.
And you’d just be playing records on those labels.
On those labels for those programmes. It was the Warner Brothers show, and the Decca Records show, and all that sort of thing. And so it was just the hard world of ratings. If you were lucky enough to get figures you were Jack the lad. And it didn’t matter what you thought, if the figures plummeted, that was you out, finished.
You had a few run-ins with the Musicians’ Union, didn’t you?
No. I never had a run-in ever. In my dance halls I paid the bands not to work. No argument. I was taking 50 times more without them than I was taking with them anyway.
They didn’t even have to show up, or were they standing in the wings?
No. Didn’t even have to show up.
Did anyone ever question that?
There was absolutely no problem with it. Because they thought it was marvelous. The band went home and played other gigs. With my blessing. ’Cos it was odd. Even Mecca Ltd said, I’m sure there’s something. “What we paying ’em for?” “Because we’re paying ’em.” They don’t come in. And that’s it. And of course when they saw the business.
Was it written about? Did the trade press pick up on it? Such a huge leap.
Not really, no. They didn’t. They thought it was a mushroom phenomenon that wouldn’t work. And it was like pop music.
Did any of your proteges become well known?
Two of them are now millionaires.
It’s best you don’t know. They don’t want their names bandying around.
Are they not famous as DJs?
No. But it was disc-jockeying that started them off. They started as disc jockey then got two, three, four more mobile disc jockeys. Put disc jockeys out, allowed them to do other things. As soon as they got a few quid they were able to do that which they wanted. One of them for instance is one of the leading art dealers in Britain.
What was your official title when you were at Mecca?
My official title was General Manager, when I was managing the dance hall. And then I was known then as a “Working Director” which meant that you had a director status over more than one dance hall. Most had four or five dance halls, but because of this unique record thing, I had all of them, and there were about 52 dance halls at the time. All over Britain.
And what freedom did that give you?
Complete. Complete. Because they didn’t argue with me, babe. I won every conceivable award for making money. For them. My hobby is making money. I don’t particularly want it for me; I’m alright. I’m OK; but I quite like the idea of making it. When I was with Mecca Ltd they were earning fortunes of money and I was also on Radio Luxembourg, but I still worked for Mecca for a year and a half overlapping the Luxembourg.
So you were earning them fortunes and they were just paying you a salary.
That’s all I wanted. I was always odd. They could never understand why I was odd. At Mecca I was earning 60 a week as Mecca manager. And 600 a day on my day off at Radio Luxembourg.
How did Luxembourg approach you?
Somebody came into the dance hall in Leeds. This guy came up to me and said “I’ve never seen records played like that before.”
And I said, “Really?”
And he said, “I’m from Radio Luxembourg do you fancy being on Radio Luxembourg?” He said, “Can you come for an audition?”
I said, “No!”
He said, “Why not?”
I said, “Well you’ve seen all there is, you either want it or you don’t.”
He says, “You’re quite a character, aren’t you. Everybody does an audition.” I says, “Yeah . . . God bless em.” And he went off and I got a telegram: “Your programme starts next Thursday.”
Why were they paying you so much?
I turned a 600,000 audience to 2,300,000 in five weeks. Nobody had ever done that ever. And that was the top, the top thing on Luxembourg. So I ended up with five shows a week. And because I don’t have an agent or a manager or anything like that I send me own bills out. And they found that I could actually write commercials. I wrote commercials for Coca Cola, Boots The Chemist, everybody that was anybody, and so I charged them for writing the commercials. And I thought there’s got to be another few quid somewhere. So after about three months my bills suddenly included the word “utterance.” Utterance was 50.
And they said, “What’s utterance?”
And I said, “Well I’m uttering the commercial.”
“Are you really?”
“Yes, I’m writing it for whatever it is, hundred pound, and I’m uttering it too.” I was quite proud of the utterance because nobody’s ever done that before or since. So I was getting 600 a day on my day off. It was wonderful. Great fun.
You were doing very much the same as some of the American DJs, carving a really individual role for yourself. When did you become aware of the American tradition of DJing?
I don’t even acknowledge it today that there’s an American tradition. All I know is mine. I do what I do. If it matches somebody else that’s by coincidence. I’m like the QE2. I go straight ahead. And if you come up against something else: terrific, but I was never influenced by anything, because you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to be a disc jockey. It’s not the most taxing thing in the world. All you’ve got to have is instinct.
When did you first hear the word “disco” or “discotheque?”
The word “disco” was invented by the French. The first club in London was in Wardour St and it was called La Discotheque, spelt “T-H-E-Q-U-E.” La Discotheque was unique because instead of having chairs it had half a dozen double beds. And you could go and spag out on the bed, and part of the game was wandering around looking at all the couples on the beds. It were unbelievable. And from a press point of view the fact that a place didn’t have chairs as much as it had beds, was like the wildest of the wild. And so that made it notorious. There was no free sex or anything like that. But you were laid down instead of sitting down. And that in itself was such a gimmick, and because the place was called La Discotheque, the name caught on. Before that, everything had been a dance hall, where you could put 3,000 people. Nobody thought of having small places where you’d have 150 people.
So the name disco started being applied to the smaller places.
Yes. For small places. And then society thought it was a good idea. Top London society. So there was the in-place for society people. It would only take about 150 people, and that was called the Saddle Room. And all the horsey-doggy-foxy people went there and they had theirs, and then La Discotheque was there.
In terms of the stardom. I’m sure you took it in your stride. But you were very different from the people you were mixing with. The people at the same level as you were popstars and musicians.
I never thought, to this day, that I was in show business. I created an atmosphere with what I thought was a good idea. It worked, and I just kept going with it. If somebody said to me, you are a star, that would come as quite a cultural shock to me, because I wasn’t doing anything that a star did. I was just making a lot of money and giving a lot of people a lot of good times. But I wasn’t a star.
You were always flash though, dressed outrageously.
That’s different. That’s not stardom. Now in the local paper they wrote about a restaurant that has a lot of personalities go in. And it said, “If you can call Jimmy Savile in a string vest a personality.” It’s novel. I’ve been wearing tracksuits for a million years. Sometimes they’re fashionable and sometimes people wouldn’t be seen dead in them. I wear trainers all the time. Sometimes they’re fashionable and sometimes people wouldn’t be seen dead. It’s never bothered me. If I’m fashionable it’s purely by coincidence. And if I’m unfashionable, hard luck. It’s still very convenient. And I’ve even got an evening dress tracksuit. With silk facings on and things like that.
It sounds a lot of fun in the late ’60s, early ’70s when it all came together.
Oh, oh. Yeah. You were standing up in front of all these people and it was such a happy fun time that all you wanted to do was have fun. But at nobody else’s expense. That was not my nature. But woe betide anybody who came and tried to mess with my people. They lived to regret it. Because there was this responsibility which I felt very keenly: if I knew that something wrong was going down, then I was quite implacable in putting it right. If there was anything untoward, just turn the record off and say “NO!” The place would go dead quiet. Then turn the record up again and that was it. Nobody asked me to have that concern. It just came naturally.
You must have been a hard man to run all those dance halls.
So they say.