Mel Cheren, 75, a music producer once named the “Godfather of Disco,” an AIDS activist, and owner of a gay-friendly inn in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, died Friday, Dec. 7, 2007.
Cheren was a double minority: gay and Jewish, an Army veteran, a music industry veteran of 50 years, and an indefatigable promoter and self-promoter. Cheren was actively involved with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and started 24 Hours For Life in 1987, a non-profit organization of music and media professionals who raised money for AIDS awareness.
The late and lamented website Jewsrock described Mel Cheren as the “Godfather of Everything That Moves.” The article said that much of today’s music “hip-hop, punk-funk, techno, house – anything with a beat – shares its DNA with the music played at the Paradise Garage,” a massive downtown New York club Cheren and his partner Michael Brody ran from 1977 to 1987.
Before and since the club has closed, Cheren’s West End Records also has played a key role in dance club and hip hop culture by providing the raw material for the sampling of old tunes that is a hallmark of hip hop, as well as some of the seminal recordings, as well.
The Paradise Garage is the Eden of BPM culture, Cheren its Adam. It would be too easy to say that Cheren, a gay Jewish kid who came of age in the 1950s, is an unlikely icon of post-modern groove. But popular music history proves that agents of profound cultural change are just as likely to be behind the boards as in front of them (think Sam Phillips creating the spectral sound of Sun Studios or Phil Spector laying down the primal, kick drum beats of “Be My Baby.”)
Like Phillips and Spector, Cheren both reacted against something and saw an opening for something new. As an employee of ABC/Paramount Records in the 1950s, he recoiled at the saccharine sounds of Pat Boone. Later, working at Scepter Records in the 1960s, after falling in love with the orchestral soul sound coming out of Philadelphia, Cheren imagined a moment when DJs (and dancers, too) would want those lush grooves extended over the length of an entire song.
With that background, In My Heart is pleased to present you with an interview conducted with Mel Cheren by Claes “Discoguy” Widlund on his website, disco-disco.com:
Discoguy: West End Records was formed in 1976, by Mel Cheren and Ed Kushins and according to Mel, West End was one of these things that just happens. He and Ed were colleagues at Scepter Records, and when Scepter was closing down in 1975 they had to do something and they decided to start their own business.
Mel had been the head of production for Scepter, and he was one of the guys who started the Disco Era. Some other stuff he “invented” was to put an instrumental version of the song on the B-side of Scepter’s singles; for this new idea Scepter won Billboard’s Trend Setter Of The Year Award.
Besides this, and even more important: He created the first 12″ single. This was still at Scepter.
Mel Cheren: “The idea came from Tom Moulton, because he suggested that if we put the record on 12″ we could spread the grooves and make it hotter for the club DJ’s. We were the first company to put it out for DJ’s. SalSoul put their first 12” record out at about the same time on commercial with “Ten percent” by Double Exposure. That’s how it came about to the fact that you could spread the grooves and make it hotter than in the 45 records.”
Discoguy: We all know how important the 12″ single has been to DJ’s all over the world ever since. So, in 1976 Mel and Ed founded West End Records. They got the name from the location of their office, which was located close to Broadway in Manhattan’s theater district – the West End. Their address was 254 W. 54 Street, an address that soon would be known to the rich and famous, the fashion pack and disco lovers all over, as… Studio 54. Actually, it just so happened that both these legendary Disco “institutions” were located in the same building.
(IMH Editor’s note: The Jewsrock article quotes Cheren from his self-published autobiography, “Keep On Dancin: My Life and the Paradise Garage,” as writing that Cheren and Brody refused to kowtow to disco’s increasingly glitzy, classist sensibility: “Standing on a pedestal outside the door, picking and choosing, Mark the doorman resembled some elitist Nazi youth.” His club had a membership policy, complete with photo ID cards, but it sought “democracy on the dance floor. At the Garage, drag queens, outer-borough gays, and even celebs like Mick Jagger, Eddie Murphy, Diana Ross, and Keith Haring mixed. Cheren later dedicated part of his Chelsea inn to a gallery of artwork by Haring, the gay graffiti artist who died of AIDS at 32).
The record label’s first release and hit was an album called, “Sessamatto,” which was actually a soundtrack to an Italian movie. This record, Mel tells me, was, according to Grand Master Flash, the first record to be used in the first rap and scratch records. Mel knew from the first time he heard this rap record that this would become a whole own music style. And time has really proved him right: rap and hip-hop really are its own genres these days.
Discoguy: Since West End was (and still is) one of the hottest Disco labels, what was it that made it so hot? Is there anything special you can think of?
Mel Cheren: “I think you have to be into the music and I have always had this love for music. I have always loved black music, R’n’B tunes with a good melody and lyrics, and I have always loved to dance. I’ve always heard we had a special sound, but ’til today I still don’t know what that was… If I liked a song – We would put it out!”
Discoguy: This may sound simple, but it’s really hard to pick out good songs to release. I guess this shows that Mel is one of these talented people who always can hear a hit at once. Besides being able to spot a hit song, Mel was also one of the first and one of the driving forces behind this new dance music genre, Disco, and the whole Disco era. If it wouldn’t have been for pioneers like him and labels like West End and Prelude (another New York Disco label) the Disco scene probably wouldn’t have become as powerful as it became in the late 1970s.
In an article called, “A Retrospective of Disco,” by Stephanie Shepherd, featured in “Dance Music Report” in 1982, Stephanie dubbed Mel, “The Godfather of Disco.” Did Mel really like Disco music during that period or did he just consider it as a job?
Mel Cheren: Did I like it? That was the only reason I did it. I kept on putting it out because I used to go dancing. And ’til this day I still do.
Discoguy: It seems like many people were in the business just to make money.
MC: Oh, that’s why that separates eh… the serious… it separates the men from the boys. I mean I did it for the love for the music. And I was very fortunate to get into the music business and I loved it. You cannot do a good job if you don’t have passion for what you do.
Discoguy: We already know of the close location to Studio 54, but actually West End Records was closer to another of the world’s most famous and legendary clubs – the Paradise Garage.
MC: (The late) Michael Brody was my life partner, so the connection to the Garage was natural. I’ve got lots of memories of (the late) Larry Levan and the Garage that’s very important to me.
Discoguy: Cheren shares much more of his memories of Larry, the Garage, his life, West End Records and the whole Disco Era in his book – “Keep on Dancin’,” which was released in 2000. If you are interested in Mel, WestEnd and Paradise Garage – Buy this book.
MC: I really hope someone would like to make a movie out of the book and that for the movie would restore the Garage to its original condition. And then open it again with a diner in the bottom floor, which never was used before, like the Hard Rock Cafe or Planet Hollywood. I really wish the profit should go to charity. Also, I’ve got the ashes of the late Larry Levan and I would like to have the urn with the ashes in the entrance of the Garage, so the fans from all over would be able to see it.”
(In My Heart editor: Mel got his part of his wish, at least. A documentary, “The Godfather of Disco,” focusing on Cheren, Paradise Garage and the rise of disco was released last year. See a generally praiseworthy review of the movie here.
Discoguy: Have you got any other special memories or comments on some of the West End acts, Larry Levan or something else?
MC: I’ve got too much memories to tell. That’s basically the whole book. But everything of Michael, Larry, the Garage and the whole start of the Disco era is very precious to me.
Discoguy: As the 12″ single lover I am, we got into talking about how many 12″ singles that came out on West End during the years. Mel can’t remember the exact number, but they started at number 1 and they reached somewhere over 150 releases. I think it’s more like around 175 releases. So, the next question is naturally: Which was West End’s biggest hit?
MC: It’s “Hot Shot” (Karen Young). It sold over 800,000 copies and that’s one of the biggest selling 12″ singles in the Disco history. But, these days “Heartbeat” (Taana Gardner) is even bigger since it has been sampled several times, and Ini Kamoze used it in “Here Comes the Hotstepper,” which became a # 1 hit in many countries all over the world. “Heartbeat” also sold over 800,000 copies.
Discoguy: I asked if Mel had any personal favorites among his West End releases. But Mel thinks it’s like if you have many kids, you love them all and it’s impossible to pick one favorite.
MC: So, it’s very difficult to pick one that stands out of all of them. There are many that have a very special meaning to me.
Discoguy: West End Prelude Both West End and Prelude Records were New York labels, have you got any idea why New York labels released so many songs that’s considered Disco classics today? I mean many of the other bigger labels didn’t release that many classics.
MC: Well, just because that we were small independent labels. The same way it is today. The small labels are the ones that are on the cutting edge, you know. When you’re on the street and you know what’s going on. And the major labels always copy the small labels… And why in New York?! Because that’s where all excitement started. It wasn’t in California it was here in New York… All the excitement with the Garage, the Loft, the Gallery, Studio 54 and the Saint. Those were the clubs… Then things happened out in California, but at that period most record companies’ offices were in New York. It wasn’t until years later that lots of them moved to California.
Reprinted courtesy of Disco-Disco
“Rolling Stone” named Cheren one of “Disco’s Top Thirty” in 1979. Cheren received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
AIDS charitable activities
Cheren was involved with the development of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the world’s first AIDS service organization. Cheren and his friends organized the first AIDS fundraiser, the “Showers” party at the Paradise Garage. He owned a single room occupancy brownstone on West 22nd Street in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, and donated the building to GMHC in 1982 to use as headquarters. West End Records helped provide seed money for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Benefit for GMHC in 1983 in Madison Square Garden, the largest AIDS fundraiser yet produced.
“Personally, I have known over 500 people who have died of AIDS. I put together 24 Hours For Life so that they will not have died in vain,” Cheren said on the record company’s website. “When you want do something without taking a profit for yourself, people are always suspicious of an ulterior motive. Frankly, if knowing 500 who have died of AIDS isn’t a good enough reason, I don’t know what is.”
Business and art
Following GMHC’s departure from the building, Cheren renovated the building to make a home for himself and to create a gay-friendly, the Colonial House Inn.
Cheren is also an artist. His works have been on 10 album covers, five of which were nominated for Grammy Awards. Others line the walls of Colonial House.
According to the West End website, a tribute event for Cheren is being planned around his birthday, January 21.