DJ Sharon White Returns to NYC Nightlife For a Celebration 35 Years in the Making
In a career spanning nearly four decades, Sharon White has been responsible for breaking through more barriers than probably any other DJ. She was the first woman to headline two major New York nightclubs, the Saint and Paradise Garage, and the only DJ to spin at both. Billboard named her its first female DJ reporter; Motown, when it brought her aboard, became the first major label to hire a woman as a promotion director. She was the first DJ in any gay club on Fire Island. White, however, refuses any notion that she should be lionized for being a trailblazer. "Everybody thinks I went through this big struggle," she tells the Voice. "I don't subscribe to that bullshit. I knew they weren't ready for a woman to be in that position in a club."
Born in 1954, White grew up in Babylon, Long Island. From an early age, she loved music, especially rock 'n' roll, which has always informed her sets. Her first passion was drumming, which she was studying at a Manhattan conservatory when she was befriended by Alison Steele, the WNEW-FM DJ who pioneered the album-oriented radio format. White became interested in becoming a DJ and even got radio airtime. Her first live gig was at a Long Island bar with Roy Thode, her friend and mentor, who is recognized as one of the great innovators of his craft.
"I can tell you so many wonderful stories about Roy," White says. "One time, he went into a fabric shop to get a couple of yards of silk to ground the turntable. There were no slip mats."
That was the least of the problems DJs had to deal with back then. For one thing, vibrations from the dance floor tended to make needles skip across records. White even recalls some clubs where the speakers were so rudimentary that certain records produced ear-piercing feedback.
Plus, when she moved to the city, White was limited to playing in women's bars. Whenever she could get away, she went downtown, where abandoned industrial lofts had been converted into gay clubs such as 12 West and Flamingo.
As White danced through the night, the only black woman in a sea of white muscle, she was also analyzing how well the DJ could shift the mood with a different tempo or key change. As a drummer, she was especially keen to figure out the best way to pick up the beat from record to record. "I'm a drummer, a percussionist," she says. "It depends on which beat you're catching."
Paradise Garage opened in Soho in 1977, and it was a different kind of gay club. Women and many more people of color populated the dance floor. The resident DJ, Larry Levan, quickly established a reputation for his eclectic mixing of musical genres. Along with many other up-and-coming DJs like Junior Vasquez and "godfather of house" Frankie Knuckles, White was fascinated by the way Levan could hold the crowd rapt for hours on end. Like other DJs in the late Seventies, Levan was attempting to string records together to take clubgoers on a musical journey — a concept especially appealing to White, with her knowledge of music theory.
"The journey began with David Mancuso at the Loft," White recalls. "He taught Larry. You had to be there from the beginning to hear what was coming. At 12 West and Flamingo, the equipment was sophisticated enough to stand up to that kind of abuse. It had become state of the art. It was at the Garage that the journey was finally coming into its own."
And it was at the Saint — which opened in 1980 — that "the journey" would become a recognized sequence of stages that began with lighter fare, moving into Hi-NRG and then hard-driving beats before coming down with melodic morning music and ending in the slow, romantic ballads that became known as "sleaze." Bruce Mailman already owned the St. Marks Baths, the most popular bathhouse among the city's most attractive gay men, when he conceived of a club that would surpass any yet built. He spent a fortune realizing his vision — which included a sound system of 28,000 watts, 8,000 more than Giants Stadium's at the time — and the result was a club still widely regarded, nearly three decades after it closed its doors, as the most advanced in the world. A retractable giant planetarium dome supported lights that blazed, twinkled, and soared over the dance floor, which was a technological marvel in and of itself: A vast hydraulic system allowed the floor to gently react to the dancers' movements.
When the Saint opened, White had no reason not to expect to be named one of its resident DJs. She had been invited to join a pre-opening tour. A tentative date had been given to her when she realized that "Bruce didn't want me to play there. He made it clear in no uncertain terms he did not want me in that DJ booth."
Mailman wanted the Saint, to the greatest extent possible, to be an all-male preserve. The club was limited to members, nearly all men; female guests had to be approved ahead of time. Although she was one of a very few female members, White had only been to the club for a handful of occasions when she decided that she wanted to hear Jim Burgess play one last time. Burgess was the club's biggest name, and it gave him a going-away party on January 31, 1981, for which he was paid $6,000 — an impressive amount even in 2015 dollars. "At 8 a.m.," White remembers, "he stopped the music, left the DJ booth, got into his Bentley, and left. By the grace of God, I was in the right place at the right time."
People's drugs had kicked in, and, not knowing what else to do, they milled around the dance floor wondering what was happening. Adding to the disaster, the coat check, like everything else state of the art and then some, had broken down, which meant people would have to leave without their jackets. "Can you imagine 6,000 queens trying to get home in January in their T-shirts?" White asks.
A frantic manager spotted White and demanded she get into the DJ booth. After sorting things out in her own mind, she directed three staffers to her home, instructing them to return with bags of records identifiable by their color. She ended up playing until 1:30 p.m. and was an overnight sensation. She remained one of the Saint's most popular DJs until it closed in 1988, but she never realized the extent of her reputation until composer Leonard Bernstein — of West Side Story fame — popped into the booth one night.
"I had made a medley of things that I made into a dance project," White recalls. "He said, 'I heard you did something to a few of my pieces.' He asked, 'May I hear it?' I said, 'Yes, maestro.' I said, 'We are going to take a full-tilt pause for this song.' The crowd loved it. He was very pleased with it."
After the Saint's run ended, White went international, playing clubs in cities from Tokyo to Berlin. At the request of the Department of Defense, she spent six weeks in Reykjavík, Iceland, for the opening of a USO facility. Still, the weirdest gig during those years had to be a command performance in Saudi Arabia.
"Ladies-in-waiting dressed me in a burka and taught me how to approach the king. When that was all done, we left and went to the prince's palace. He said, 'It's jeans and T-shirt time.' He had converted the entire palace into a disco, with a sound person imported from London. I knew him from Fire Island. He was on the down-low. He said, 'Everyone here knows. I have three wives.' "
Then, in 2000, White's life took a horrific turn. She was viciously sexually assaulted, severely wounded on both physical and mental levels. She fled New York for Washington, D.C., where she slowly began to pick up the shattered pieces of her life and career. She played house parties, in a small club, and at an after-hours bar. "I really learned to open doors and expose myself to different types of music," she says. She found herself mentoring the next generation of DJs. A few years ago, she was invited to spin at a party that reunited her with some of her Saint colleagues. It brought back pleasant memories and a desire to return. "I said, 'I have to go home.' "
She wasn't alone in feeling that way. Two years ago, Stephen Pevner, a distant relative of Mailman's who took over the Saint-at-Large, which strives to keep the spirit of the original club alive, invited her to help spin at the Black Party, the huge fetish-themed annual March bacchanal. That led to a second invite, this one for Night People, a 35th-anniversary celebration of the Saint to be held at the Wick in Bushwick on November 21. White will team up with DJ-producer Nita Aviance, along with Saint alumnus Michael Fierman and Ryan Smith. Night People — which bears the same name of the Saint's annual night-before-Thanksgiving party — will also celebrate the life of longtime Saint-at-Large manager Michael Peyton, who died earlier this year.
Currently living in Newburgh, sixty miles upriver from the city, White already has a few gigs lined up for 2016. Meanwhile, she keeps busy posting podcasts and reintroducing herself to a new generation of DJs and clubgoers.
Aviance considers himself honored to be sharing a DJ booth with White. "I've known about Sharon for so long and have heard about her from so many people," he says. "They'd tell me, 'You have to meet her. She's brilliant.' You hear the stories. I know my history, and I'm excited."
Sharon White will spin the Saint-at-Large celebration at the Wick on November 21. For ticket information, click here.
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