Good Night Mr. Lewis: Legendary Parties, Legendary Men

Today is going to be short and sweet. The half of me that’s Jewish is having a huge argument with the half that isn’t and it’s best that I write half a column today. Tonight I will DJ at Champagning Midtown at the lobby-level bar at the Dream Hotel, 55th Street btw. Broadway and 7th Ave. Nick Andreottola and Nicole Rose, along with Dream honcho Ric Addison, are hosting this shindig which starts at an early 6:30pm and runs until 12:30am. They say the idea is "to celebrate life by drinking champagne.”  I have many reasons to be cheerful this week so I may imbibe. As many of you loyal readers and friends know, I only drink two or three times a year, whenever I have sex, so I’m going to go to my "sexy" set for tonight. That’s Chris Isaak’s "Wicked Game" to Donna Summer’s "Love to Love You Baby.” You get the idea.

The invite says "Music By Legendary Steve Lewis.” That’s nice, but every time somebody calls me "legendary," I quickly check my pulse. I remember the things that I have done and appreciate the respect, but I try to live in the real world I wake up to every day and want the things I do "now" to define me.

Tomorrow night I will miss (because of my Thursday Night Generation Wild party where I DJ with the Legendary Sam Valentine), the Salon 13 Benefit For Breast Cancer at B-Side. There will be a raffle including gift certificates from Salon 13, Thicker Than Water Tattoo, Bar Bone, Unleashed, Continuum Coffee, Back Forty, W.i.P., Bantam, Rex Hughs Dog Training, and more. Gotta go…

Oh, I almost forgot…. Happy birthday to legendary promoter, entrepreneur, all-around-nice-guy John Davis, who will be celebrating his 50th birthday. Sheee-it, I got shoes that are 50! John has moved his legendary Body and Soul party to the cozy confines of XL Nightclub, 512 W. 42nd St. This event, like my girlfriend ,starts at four in the afternoon. It ends around midnight (she can go all night). Legendary DJs Francois K, Joaquin "Joe" Clausell, and Danny Krivit will provide continuity as well as awesome sets. I worked with John and this party back at the legendary club Life back in ‘96 or ’97. The guy who ran that joint was some sort of genius or something…legendary.

Good Night Mr. Lewis: Shouting on Sunday

A few weeks back I spoke of the Haves and the Have-Nots. I tried to explain what the club market would be looking like as the now “official” recession sets in. The rich (or well-run clubs) are maintaining; they have tightened their belts and shed bottle promoters whose clients haven’t survived the crunch. With payrolls cut and a steady flow of people, they scoop from the Have-Not clubs which are dying — things aren’t so bad for them. On the other end, however, its bad news across the board. The C- and D-list clubs are swimming upstream, and they’re in a losing battle with the bad economic current.

It’s easy to figure out how much a club is making: you just ask a waitress at some joint what she made — say, Saturday and then do some math. A waitress gets 20 percent of her client’s bottle sales, and from that loot she pays out according to the joint, ranging anywhere from 43 percent to 47 percent. So after a little math and a little question — “How many waitresses were working?” — you know what sales were generated at the tables. Ask her if the place was crowded and you can guesstimate bar revenues, etc. It’s not entirely accurate, but you can get a good idea. My spies tell me that 1Oak, Tenjune, Greenhouse, Kiss & Fly, Mr. West, and Marquee are still selling bottles and feeding their staff. But after that it gets a bit thin.

Yesterday, I spoke of the return of the dance floor, and today I add the return of the cashier booth. For a long time, nobody had me building them — the bottle-service theory had eliminated the need to charge at the door. That’s going to change. Groups of guys who used to be hit with the obligatory two-bottle minimum will now be humbled with the $20 door admission — look for this everywhere, and real soon. The crowd that our hero-of-the-day, John Davis, attracts will become increasingly more important in the scheme of things because they are used to paying to hear good music. That club renaissance I’ve been chatting about for almost a year will rise out of this decaying scene. Phase two is here.

Without the boring bottle-monkeys, clubs are being forced — in an incredibly hostile and competitive market — to adjust. It becomes uber important for them to provide good music, dance floors, cater less to the yuppie scum, and finally welcome a more diverse crowd because it’s simply too hard to turn away those pays. Now, if we can get a few drag queens on the bar, I may whip out my last Halston suit and go out … and I might even smile.

Back to John Davis. I think the bottle service side is sliding as the stock market slides, and clubs that are music-based and giving a good bang-for-your-buck are where it’s at. Will the DJs now adjust to the worldwide recession? I’m doing bookings with Studio B over in Brooklyn, and a lot of the DJs are still trying to get their same fees. I don’t think they’ve felt the pinch of the economy yet.

But it’s inevitable that some of these prices have to come down. A lot of the clubs are moving away from strictly bottle service — Cain is an example … they’ve already approached me about doing Thursday nights there because they want a music-oriented crowd on Thursday. They know they’re not going to make as much money, but they want the credibility of having a music crowd and having a good sound. I think those clubs are starting to change, realizing that they need to have bottle service because it pays the bills, but also understanding that it’s good to have that music crowd too.

The club music scene used to be a very drug-oriented culture. When I talk to owners today a lot of them say they don’t want to bring that in. You operate and run your own party within the framework of a club. How do you deal with this problem? By the very nature of it, the crowd from the music events I do isn’t a hardcore drug crowd anymore. Because of what’s been going on in the Meatpacking District, a lot of that crowd now is very sensitive to that. And I always used to say this to people coming into the club — look, do what you need to do, just don’t do it at the risk of our business. If you want to do it, go outside, walk around the block, do what you have to do and come back. We were always very cool about it. Usually if you’re polite and very upfront with people, they’re respectful of that. Plus the crowd we had was a very cool crowd.

People don’t understand the subtleties of house music, but the Body&Soul crowd is highly intelligent. The thing about the Body&Soul crowd — which I think is our winning formula — is that it wasn’t ever any particular crowd; it was a mixture of everything, a real melting pot. It was a gay, straight, black, white. It’s so mixed that you have your floor-filling crowd, which is predominantly the non-drinkers, and then you have the people who want to stand at the bar, drink, and listen to the music. It’s that mixture of people that work.

Body&Soul is also not a night crowd. You start in the afternoon, which is an unusual approach. When I first started the concept of the Sunday day party, I had come from London where this big Sunday scene had just started. Clubs were opening up at 10 a.m. and going on till 6 or 7 p.m. on a Sunday. They were getting this crowd coming in that weren’t even going out on Saturdays; they were an older crowd, people who had jobs and kids and mortgages … it was perfect for them. They could get babysitters on a Sunday, come to the club, party, dance, then go home, go to bed, and get up for work on a Monday morning. And it’s a casino concept — you go into a club, with no windows, no clocks, so for all intents and purposes, it feels like nighttime.

But you also got a lot of the people who were up from the night before? That was the problem. When we started the party, we started at ten in the morning, and we were getting everyone coming out of the Palladium and the Tunnel. They were coming straight out of those clubs and coming to Body&Soul. I’d have people come to Body&Soul, they’d be there for an hour, full of energy, then all of a sudden everything started wearing off. And next thing you know, I had a room full of people fast asleep. So I changed the time to noon. At noon, we were getting the crowd coming out of Palladium from Junior Vasquez’s party, drag queens, etc. So we eventually moved the start time to 4 p.m., so when people came out of the clubs at 10 a.m. or noon, they had nowhere to go, so they had to go home.

So it was a public service thing too — you saved lives? Probably. I wanted people to come the same way you go to church every Sunday; I wanted them to come to Body&Soul fresh.

The music is like a religion with your crowd, isn’t it? Well, the music’s very diverse now; we play everything from electro to techno, reggae, and house. It’s so mixed up because we’ve got three guys who’ve collectively got over 100 years worth of musical experience between them. Francois plays predominantly electro and techno, Danny plays the old-school disco, classics, and house, and then Joe plays all the tribal and Latin music.

How do you mix them up? Are there rules? They just do their thing together, all three of them. And if you see it on, December 28, at Webster Hall, you see the crowd just loves it. The crowd is screaming. I’ve been doing this for 15 years now in New York, and everyone says to me that there’s no club that has the kind of energy that you see on a Body&Soul night.

You never made the step of being an owner … how many times did you think about that? I’ve been presented with offers many times, but for various reasons I never did it. My whole concept was — I saw this from being involved with a lot of owners and dealing with owners — that being tied to the real estate in a club that all of a sudden isn’t popular anymore can be like an albatross around your neck. For me, it was much better to come, do my party, make my money, and leave. I know now how fickle this industry is … your club is as hot as it is until the next hot place opens up, and then everyone moves there. Very few clubs have been able to keep it up. But honestly, I’m at the stage in my life where now I would be interested in becoming an owner.

Becoming an owner in New York? I’m involved with Studio B in Brooklyn now. We’re making a lot of changes there and it’s doing really well. We’ve only been open three weeks and already we’re doing over a 1,000 people every Friday night. It’s in that sort of semi-industrial neighborhood, but it’s still in an area where the cops drive by every night, and they never bother us. It has that old warehouse feel that I remember when I went to clubs. I didn’t go to velvet-rope, red carpet type places; I went to old dingy warehouses, where you had to make three phone calls just to find out where it was. I have a new party starting there on December 14 called Sunday Shoutin!

Since you now have experience doing both, how does DJing compare to being a promoter? The biggest difference being a DJ as opposed to being a promoter is the connection you have with your audience; to be able to take them on a musical journey and to see deep into their expressions. Their minds are taken to any place, and to be a part of creating that is nothing short of magic. Soulful house music, in my opinion, touches you in a way no other music does. It reaches deep into your soul and takes you to spiritual place that you have to experience to know what I mean. The DJ is the facilitator of that amazing ride. It is truly a blessing to be able to be in that position.

Good Night Mr. Lewis: John Davis, DJ of Soul & Body

imageFor so many years, in so many clubs, the music has been geared to please the bottle frat-boy crowd whose musical tastes are as innovative as their shoes. I’ve found myself listening to pretty much the same rock anthems I listened to ten years ago, mixed with some very mainstream hip-hop. Sure, the good ones — Jus Ske, Cassidy, the Ronsons, and Nick Cohen added their own flair. But everyone knows that as you club-hop, you’re so often greeted with the same track you were listening to when you left the previous club. The DJs are often as much about the social scene as the music. Through it all, the purist music party survived in clubs you didn’t read about on Page Six, and now the silver lining of the bottle-service demise is the return of the importance of music to club formatting. Recently, an eager young operator asked me to rate his joint amongst Life and some of the legendary clubs. I said on a scale of 1-10, with Studio 54 being #1, he’d rank around 150.

In fairness, looking back you only remember the heyday, not the demise or the last bad months; like Jim Croce records, there is posthumous appeal. I said that the difference between then and now is that your VIP bottle buyer wouldn’t get into most clubs back then. And without those potatoes, you didn’t need as many tables, so clubs had banging dance floors. You wouldn’t be able to name let alone predict the next song the DJ would serve up. Dance floors? At most places these days, the floors accommodate barely a conga line. With the return of the dance floor, the return of the DJ is inevitable.

I met John Davis in 1996, when we worked at the club Life. He was doing “Body&Soul,” which was a real purist house music night, and I combined John’s music with my rock ‘n’ roll nights. The crowds that came to our parties were completely different, but the concept was one club with different offerings. You were skeptical, but I said no, let it flow. And you know what? You were absolutely right. That whole three-room dynamic is really lacking in clubs these days. For some reason, even though there was a hip hop, rock ‘n’ roll, and deep house room, people used to flow between all three rooms, and it created an incredible atmosphere.

If a club offers multiple things, people will flow around. Body&Soul is still going on … Webster Hall is doing it about once a month now? When Howard Rower [owner of Vinyl] died, his sons took over the club, and they didn’t really want to keep it as a club because they’re art dealers by trade, so they eventually sold the building and that party ended there in 2002.

But the party only ended in that location, right? Well, we didn’t really do any parties for about two years, until 2004. In all the years we were at Vinyl, we were always getting offers to take Body&Soul on the road, to play in Spain, Italy, France, etc., and we would always turn them down except for Tokyo, because we always had a big connection with Japan. So in 2004, we decided to try and start doing the Body&Soul parties overseas.

Who is “we”? Francois K, Danny Krivit, Joaquin “Joe” Claussell, and I.

So, it’s you and the DJs? Well, Francois K is my partner in Body&Soul. We each own 50 percent of it.

And now you’re a DJ also? In 2004 I started messing around at home, mixing, and started putting out a few CDs, and all of a sudden people started booking me. But people would book me more because I was a Body&Soul promoter, so they were like … let’s see what he plays like. The thing is, I’ve been around DJs for 30 years, and I’ve been listening to music for 30 to 40 years, so I’ve always had music in my system, and it was just a matter of transferring what I already knew in my mind into playing the records at the club. Then in 2004, we decided to start touring a little bit with Body&Soul and decided to do these one-off events in New York and music festivals overseas. In Rock in Rio, we played on the electronic stage with Carlos Santana and Pink Floyd on the main stage. We did it again this year with the Police on the main stage and us on the electronic stage in front of about 100,000 people.

What does that feel like? It’s incredible, but 100,000 people weren’t there for Body&Soul, they were there for the Police! But what is amazing, and what I hadn’t realized until we started traveling with Body &Soul overseas is how well known the party is. And it’s funny because everyone criticizes the music scene in New York, yet everyone in the world looks at New York as the marker for the rest of the world in the music scene.

Why isn’t electronic music as big in the U.S. as it is in Europe? Everyone asks about the difference between Europe and America, and because I’m British, I say that it’s because Europe has electronic music culture while America has hip hop culture. All the big name DJs — the Tiestos, Van Dykes — they’re all European. Since the 80s and the 90s, America has grown up on hip hop culture; kids listen to the radio, and that’s what they hear. When I grew up listening to the radio, it was dance, disco, and house music. And that’s why I think hip hop has far more commercial viability as a genre than electronic music. We went to London a few months ago to do Body &Soul, and on the way to the venue I put the radio on, and I must have gone through seven FM radio stations that were all playing house music.

Are electronic and house the same? Is electronic a genre in itself? Well, I think in Europe, electronic is definitely its own genre because by definition it encompasses everything; it’s house, techno, electro, everything. Most people now associate house with the deeper house, but to me it’s all house music. But in Europe they call it electronica.

When I was promoting in the 80s, I was constantly in London, interacting with promoters and owners. Now it seems that London has gotten very far away from New York. The music might be a common thread, but there isn’t as much travel between these two places anymore. No, plus for lot of these electronic DJs, in Europe they get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. They don’t get that kind of money in New York anymore because the scene is a lot smaller, and people don’t make that kind of money to be able to pay that.

And when DJs go over to London, they have lines around the block; here it’s hard to fill a room. Exactly.

You live in both cultures, so what’s the difference between the British club culture and ours? Is it the hip hop? Well, there is hip hop in London, but it’s not as big as dance music, like I said. But also I think as far as Europe is concerned, they look at New York with a certain mystique. They see it on the news all the time, on television, in movies, and all the rest of it, so when those DJs come over to London, they’re like gods. New York is the center of the universe as far as everyone is concerned. A lot of it has to do with Hollywood and the movies — it’s that picture that people have mentally of New York and what it represents; it’s gritty, it’s underground, it’s urban, it’s all these things.

So what about “Legends,” the party you did with me over at Life. It was DJ Legends. I think there’s still a place for that. I have a list of all the DJs that played there … now these guys make hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of them are millionaires. They were playing for me at Legends for less than $500. People like Roger Sanchez, Davis Morales, Little Louie Vega, Todd Terry … they were all playing there, and that’s why we called it Legends. You don’t have that anymore; it was a networking party, where DJs were walking in with 12-inch promo records to give free copies to people, to schmooze, have a drink, and listen to some music. Those parties were a way for DJs to give out their new records. You don’t need that anymore — now people can sit at their computers in pajamas and get that kind of music.

Are people still using vinyl, or has everyone gone to Serato? There are always going to be DJs who have certain records that sound much better on vinyl than they ever will if they burn them onto CDs. When we travel with Body&Soul, Francois K. comes with a laptop, Danny Krivit comes mostly with CDs, and Joe comes with a few CDs and boxes and boxes of records.

Check back tomorrow for more with John Davis.