Today, White Rabbit Books announce a new and revised edition of Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s ‘Last Night a DJ Saved my Life’, the first comprehensive history of the disc jockey. Read an exclusive extract from the ‘Women’ chapter of the new edition below.
It’s 6am under the vast dome of The Saint, the most spectacular audiovisual play-palace in the world. Thousands of near-naked men have been dancing through the night, safe in the warmth of each other’s bodies and the sense of refuge from the destruction outside. It’s 1981 and the city’s gay population is pummeled by fear and grief as people begin to grow sick and die. They don’t know it yet, but by the time the emergency fades, these people will have lost half of all their friends. The music is fast, escapist disco and the turbulent male ocean of the dancefloor expects this tempo to last another six hours.
But it drops to silence.
Then slowly, but insistent, as lights ripple over people’s faces to bring the room together, a ballad begins. It’s a song from childhood, from a musical, and they all know it by heart. But through their adult lives it’s earned a deeper meaning – This is the anthem that symbolises their hope, their protest, their yearning for equality, more than any other. The death of its singer sparked their uprising; its lyrics even inspired their flag. It is unashamedly camp, and its campness is at the core of their rebellion.
But… as the song soars through the speakers, it’s not the version they know. This is bolder, defiant, vastly more soulful, with the barely suppressed anger of a spiritual. And it flies higher… and higher…
When Sharon White halted everything at peak time to play an acetate, fresh from the singer herself, of Patti Labelle’s ‘Over The Rainbow’ to six thousand gay men in the frightening months at the start of the Aids crisis, the intensity of the collective emotion in that enormous room was possibly unequalled in human history.
‘It was unheard of to stop the floor for a ballad at six in the morning.’ she told Claes at disco-disco.com. ‘I took a big chance playing it then, but the entire room stopped and people held each other, people were in tears… It absolutely soared on that sound system. When it ended, the applause wouldn’t stop.’
Sharon found herself swept away, lost in tears and hugging her best friend, lighting director Mark Ackerman, as time stopped and the room held on in flames. ‘It was such an overwhelmingly emotional moment that everyone shared,’ she remembers ‘It was the one moment I craved my entire career… To have so many people on the same emotional plane…It was magic.’
Sharon White was the first woman to play The Saint. She was a regular at The Garage – playing whenever Larry was a no-show – and thus the only DJ who ever played at both clubs. She also graced Studio 54, Limelight, Roxy and The Sound Factory Bar. She was the first DJ reporting her charts to Billboard who wasn’t male. As the first female DJ in a major New York nightclub, she opened a small door into the future. ‘Since I was the only woman playing those venues, I was considered a trailblazer. I’m glad I made a difference. I tried to make people aware that gender has nothing to do with your ability to present music.’
White was born in 1954 in West Babylon, Long Island. An accomplished percussionist with a degree in communications, a background as a radio engineer, and music lessons since age seven, not to mention a record habit dating back to the British rock invasion, her creds were impeccable. Her day-job (or rather her 1-9pm) was record promoter for RSO, and later Motown, which placed her among the inner circles of New York DJ culture. She’d first played out at lesbian parties and had been spinning in smaller clubs and in Fire Island since 1975, when Roy Thode took her under his wing. Her signature style emerged from her musicality: sweeping sensory journeys in marathon twelve-hour suites, holding herself to the standards of classical music. Gershwin’s symphonic ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ had been her touchstone since childhood. ‘DJing is very emotional for me,’ she told Elissa Stolman. ‘whether I’m angry or happy or sad or even indifferent, playing is like a cathartic experience.’
The Saint was the perfect stage – devoted, epic – and she gave its dancers an intense ride every time, famed for her ‘down trip’ morning music, easing the floor from its ritual velocity back into waking life. ‘Standing behind the controls was like flying a spacecraft. If you did it right, you’d get to the moon, you’d go to the stars – literally. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you’d crash, because it’s so sophisticated.’
Sharon claims she never felt discriminated against, though Saint owner Bruce Mailman declared, ‘There’ll be no women in the booth at my club’, and it took Ackerman’s threat of leaving to make him reconsider. Sharon’s audition came sooner than imagined when she rescued the night after Jim Burgess retired in a crescendo of drama in January 1981 to go and work with Pavarotti. As he stormed into the night and left the club to a lengthy silence, it was left to her to quickly grab some records. Starting with ‘Dance and Leave It All Behind You’ by Sumeria, and The Emotions’ ‘Don’t Want to Lose Your Love’ in tribute, Sharon took the place to an even greater high and stamped her name on the remainder of the night.
With a foreword by James Murphy, the updated edition of ‘Last Night a DJ Saved my Life’ is published by White Rabbit Books on 7th July. Copies pre-ordered from the Heavenly Bandcamp page exclusively come with a repro copy of ‘Vinylmaniacs’ — the in-store magazine from Vinylmania, the historic record shop most closely connected with the Paradise Garage and Larry Levan.