HOW DISCO GOT FIERCE:
NICKY SIANO AND THE GALLERY
Words: Bruce Tantum
He’s holding forth in his Brooklyn apartment, chatting away while donned in one of those DAVID & NICKY & LARRY & FRANKIE t-shirts. ‘David,’ of course, refers to the Loft’s Mancuso; ‘Larry’ refers to the Paradise Garage’s Levan; ‘Frankie’ is house godfather Knuckles. Those three are sadly gone. But the fourth member of that revolutionary quartet happens to be the man wearing the shirt, Nicky Siano — and he’s played as large a role as any of them in the evolution of DJ-driven clubbing.
Opening his own club, the Gallery, in 1972 — first at 132 West 22nd Street in Manhattan’s still-rough Chelsea, and then at 172 Mercer Street on the northern edge of Soho — Siano merged the newfangled concept of beatmatching with the aural storytelling of Mancuso, tossed in a bit of his own high-stakes drama, and designed a nightlife template that still holds firm, nearly a half century later later. During the same decade, he lent his skills to some of New York’s other iconic clubs, including a little spot called Studio 54.
During those prime years, Siano was in his late teens and early ’20s, and as you might predict for someone who spent their youth at NYC nightlife’s pinnacle, drugs got the better of him, and by the early ‘80s, he had left deejaying behind. He cleaned up, got involved in HIV counselling, and even wrote a book on how to live with the infection. But in the late ’90s, a call from François K to play at Body & Soul dragged Siano back into the booth, and he’s been there ever since. Until the pandemic hit, he’d been as busy as ever, with a residency at Brooklyn’s Good Room, a busy touring schedule and a well-received revue called Hallelujah Disco. He’s keen to get back at it. But until then, he’s more than happy to sit down for a bit of banter about days gone by.
You’re originally from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. Did you ever go out clubbing in Brooklyn?
No, I never went to a club in Brooklyn. Isn’t that wild? I was already hanging out in the Village. I had a friend, Dean, who would take me there, and when I saw this whole world of gay men…I was a crazy kid with testosterone! I just wanted to get laid. There was this little coffee shop, and if you sat there long enough and had a coffee or two, you would meet someone and they’d take you off to go to bed with them. That was my first hangout to go to for getting laid.
You were still young when you actually moved from Sheepshead Bay to downtown Manhattan, right?
I think I was 16 when I left my mom’s house. She had tried to stab me.
Well, if she were living today, I think she’d be diagnosed as bipolar. My brother, Joe, took me in for a while, and then me and my girlfriend, Robin Lord, moved right into the Village Plaza Hotel, which was $50 a week.
What were the first Manhattan clubs you were going to?
That would have been when I was still at my brother’s. I think I went to the Firehouse first. If I remember correctly, [longtime LGBTQ civil-rights organization] Lambda Legal Defense was running those parties to raise money. It was a big open room with brick walls and a cement floor, and it got really crowded. And then there was the Loft, around the same time. Oh, and the Ninth Circle.
That was owned by Danny Krivit’s father at that point, right?
Yeah. They used to have dancing down the basement. They didn’t have a DJ, though — they had tapes. Danny used to make put them together.
Do you remember what songs were on those tapes?
This was really early, so stuff like ‘Sex Machine.’ People went crazy for that one.
Were you buying records yourself yet?
Yes, I was already collecting records. My brother gave a party one night, and it was a stinker. So I grabbed the turntable and started throwing on some of my dance records. We were dancing around, and my brother’s girlfriend came over to me and said, ‘You like music like this?’ I said, ‘We love it!’ She said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna take you to a place.’ And that place was the Loft. This would have been 1971. I was 16! The first time I was there, I was overwhelmed. I knew I loved it, but I didn’t know why I loved it.
By my second or third time at the Loft, I totally got it. I’m there, and I’m dancing to some great record, and the room was dark, but there’s this lamp still on at the end of the room. Then the record hits the breakdown, the lamp goes out — and boom! It just hit me. I thought, oh my god, he controls everything in this room! I have to do this! That was the moment.
Was there any LSD involved in that moment?
No! Maybe just some ups [laughs]. I didn’t really trip at the Loft a lot, but we used to do these little white-cross ups that Robin and I used to sell. We’d take four or five of them, go to the Loft, and we’d be going all night long.
Any other clubs?
There was the Roundtable, It was this spot on the east side, like Third Avenue, somewhere around 51st Street. It was basically a huge hotel ballroom, like 2000 people — it’s where I ended up getting my first deejaying job. And we also used to hang out outside Limelight, on Seventh Avenue South near Christopher Street, every night of the week, but we couldn’t get in. Especially Robin — when Limelight first opened, they didn’t like to let women in, unless they really knew somebody. And even then it was iffy.
What was the Roundtable like?
The place was empty during the week, but on the weekends it was packed. It was mostly Hispanic. The place’s big thing was that it had the La Fleur Sisters, a drag show, on the weekends. It was actually run by John La Fleur, along with a partner.
So the DJ sets would basically be between the shows?
Right. This guy, Tony Mansfield, was the DJ. I think he was a porn star, too. Whatever he was, he obviously was not into deejaying — he never got any new records. I would go up and go ‘Play “Rain” by Dorothy Morrison!’ ‘I don’t have it.’ ‘Play “I Got It” by Gloria Spencer!’ ‘I don’t have it, but I’ll play “You’re the One”.’ I’d be thinking, not that one again! It was like that.
So how did you take over?
Basically, Robin convinced the owner to give me the job. I think I was 17. No, wait — I think I was 16, because we opened the Gallery when I was 17.
Did you already have your style down at the Roundtable?
Well, the set-up there was horrible. No cue, no variable speed, nothing to help you do your job. You basically had to know your records really well. But even with that set-up, it came across right away that I really loved the music, and the crowd got that. But I didn’t get anywhere near developing skills until I got to Gallery. I just didn’t have the tools. Like, I didn’t really learn to beatmatch until the Gallery.
Didn’t you get fired from the Roundtable?
Yep. John La Fleur and I got into it one night. I said, ‘Well, fuck you!’ The other owner came up and said, ‘Nick, I don’t think you are getting along here.’ So I packed my stuff and I left.
Did you already have plans for your next move?
Robin and I had been talking about it for a while. From going to Loft, and then from my experience playing records at the Roundtable, I understood almost immediately that in order to do what I wanted to do and was capable of doing, I would need to have more ownership of what happens in the club. So Robin and I put together a business plan, and brought it to my brother, who had just gotten an accident settlement for $10,000. And then we had to borrow $3000 more.
That doesn’t sound like much to start a dance club, even in early ’70s dollars.
I think that, today, I could put together a club that would put most other clubs to shame for 50 grand. People just waste money on bullshit that doesn’t make the experience better. Most of that money we had went to the sound system, which was $6,500. But otherwise we did a lot ourselves — like, I’d be there nailing down the wooden floor. I had to have a wooden floor! It was some kind machine shop, probably a seamstress place where people would make clothes, but it had been empty for a long time and it was in bad shape.
You were originally conceiving the Gallery to be a straight alternative to the Loft, right?
We tried that when we opened in February…but it didn’t work! We’d get 100 people, maybe 120, enough to pay the rent and maybe give ourselves a salary of $50 a week, but it was bullshit money. The problem was that straight men do not like to dance! But then, David was closing the Loft for the summer, so we handed out invitations outside during his closing party. That week, we got 400 people.
And the Gallery was busy pretty much every night you were open after that?
We were only open two nights a week, but it was always packed. I think the minimum we’d get every Friday and Saturday was 650, but we were usually around 800 or 900. Which was really crowded for that space.
Didn’t both Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan work for you at the Gallery?
Yeah. I met Frankie the night that we opened, and then two weeks later I met Larry when Frankie brought him. You know, when I first met Frankie and Larry, they didn’t want to be DJs — they wanted to be designers. Fashion people!
You were in that 22nd Street space for about a year and a half. That got shut down by the city, right?
That’s right. They came for David first, and shut down the Loft’s Broadway space. Then about three months later, they closed everybody, including us, mostly for bullshit reasons. We needed a bigger space by that time anyway. And the new Gallery was much prettier. It’s an American Eagle store now.
That was at Mercer Street just south of Houston Street, on the edge of Soho?
Yeah, but this was well before Soho was anything like the Soho of today. I don’t think the word ‘Soho’ even existed yet. It was so empty at night — at six o’clock, the sidewalks were rolled up. The Firehouse had been a bit farther into the neighborhood [on 99 Wooster Street], and I remember it being really fucking scary. There were no streetlamps or anything, and people would get mugged a lot when they were going there. People in generally got mugged a lot back then! But it was better where we were, and we were crowded right away.
It was a bit slicker than the old space, right?
The difference was like going from someone’s basement to Studio 54. The first Gallery was really a mess. The building was so corroded. But I can remember the first night in the new space — the first thing you’d see when you came in was this long line of track lighting in the concession area, and one guy said, ‘Ooh, futuristic!” [laughs]
The vibe on the dance floor was the same, though?
Oh, the vibe was undeniable. There were so many great nights there. We had Loleatta there one night; we had Grace there another night.
Yes! It was actually Grace’s first-ever performance. The single with ‘Sorry’ and ‘That’s the Trouble’ had just come out. Si and Eileen Berlin, her managers, had pressed it up themselves — they called the label Beam Junction. I absolutely loved ‘Sorry,’ though ‘That’s the Trouble’ eventually became the hit. I missed it - can’t pick ‘em all! But at that point, the song wasn’t a hit at the Gallery, or anywhere else. I think [12 West DJ] Tom Saverese was actually the first to get on it.
Anyway, the night Grace performed was the Halloween party, and I was doing Diana Ross. I had hired makeup people from Broadway, I had a dress designed — I had everything ready to go in 3D-Siano-fucking-blasting-away fashion. Grace opened for me! When she got up there, she looked around the room, grabbed a chair, sat on the back of the chair, put her leg up on the chair, flipped the chair over, she did all these poses — very typical Grace stuff. People liked her…but they didn’t know her music, so they basically just clapped politely for her. Then when I went on as Diana, they went crazy! I finished and came off stage, and Grace was standing there in the dressing room.
Was she angry at being upstaged?
No — she said, ‘Wow, you were fabulous!’ She was very nice, on time, very polite. We still have a really good relationship — she even says in her memoir that I started her career. And it’s true! Bob Caviano was there that night, and he became her manager, and he was her manager until he died.
How about the Loleatta Holloway night? What was that like?
Loleatta was in this full-length fur coat that Salsoul had just bought her. But she was still kind of mad at them, because even though her album was taking off, she wasn’t seeing any money yet. But when she walked in and saw the energy…it was ridiculous. There were 1,600 people.
What was the actual capacity?
Well, it comfortably fit maybe 900. When she got on stage, ‘Love in C Minor’ was playing, and I saw her mouth moving, so I turned up her mike — and she was going ‘Whoa whoa whoa whoa, hey hey hey hey!’ Everyone turned around and starting going crazy as she continued scatting over ‘Love in C Minor.’ I slowly faded out, introduced her, the place went crazy again, and she went into ‘Hit and Run.’ I actually used to play that reel-to-reel recording of ‘Love in C Minor’ every night for the next four years. I wish I still had it.
It would be a real time capsule.
Yeah! But really, you had to be there. There were a lot of ‘you had to be there’ nights…thankfully, I was!
Wasn’t it during this period what Arthur Russell supposedly went to the Gallery and discovered disco?
Absolutely. That’s where I met Arthur. My friend Louis [Aquilone] was going out with him, and brought him one Saturday night. He was there every Saturday thereafter. One night he came to me and said, ‘You know, Nicky, we could make a record like one of these records.’ It wouldn’t be that expensive, like $5,000. So I went to my brother, he thought it was a great idea, and we financed ‘Kiss Me Again’ [credited to Dinosaur] with Gallery money.
What was Arthur Russell like in the studio? He seems like he might have been a bit on the ethereal side.…
Whoa ho, not at all! Arthur used to override anything you wanted to do. When we were working on ‘Kiss Me Again,’ I had to get high just to go to the studio. He was like, ‘This is my record’ — even though I was the one paying for it! But Arthur was like, ‘No, you owe me. You don’t know anything about making a record.’ I mean, I didn’t know much, but I was the one who told Miriam [Valle] how to sing the lead, and I laid down the final mix on it. Which was the one that everyone played — not the Jimmy Simpson mix. But anyway, deejaying was still the main thing.
Were you going out to hear any other DJs, like Richie Kaczor at Hollywood?
Oh, I was at Hollywood every Sunday night! Richie and I became friends. Hollywood had a very down-home feeling; it was about the music, and being on that dance floor. And one of the best things about it was they had an air conditioner, so you would never sweat while you were dancing [laughs]. Richie could do these incredible, seamless mixes that would work my head — his beatmatching is what made him fit in so well later on at Studio. I was actually able to perfect the things I was experimenting with by listening to Richie.
Did it work the other way as well? Did Richie learn from you at the Gallery?
Richie would be at the Gallery every Friday and Saturday, after he got off of work, and there were lots of occasions where I would introduce a new song on a Saturday night — and the next week or even the next night, I’d hear it at Hollywood. I think that’s another thing that attracted me to Richie — it was almost like hearing myself play! I would dance my ass off at Hollywood.
Was there generally a lot of variation between DJs’ playlists back then?
Well, there weren’t that many new records back then. If there was a variation of three songs between different DJs, that was a lot! It was more about how you played them. But people would go to club after club after club, and they’d be hearing the same music at all of them, and then they’d want to buy it. That’s what made the DJs and clubs so powerful.
This was when DJs could really break records, right?
Oh, yeah — and we did! Some of the ones I was responsible for were ‘Love’s Theme,’ ‘Soul Makossa’…David Mancuso gave ‘Soul Makossa’ to me when he brought it back from Spain, and we all broke it. ‘Women’ and ‘Wild Safari’ from Barrabas. I was the first person to play ‘TSOP’ and ‘Love is the Message.’ ‘Rock the Boat,’ ‘Rock Your Baby,’ ‘My Mistake (Was to Love You)’— those all date back to the old Gallery. At the new Gallery, I was the first person to play the Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band album with ‘Cherchez la Femme’; I was the first person to play ‘Turn the Beat Around’; I was the first person to play ‘Love Hangover.’
A lot of those songs became huge hits beyond the clubs.
Enormous hits. I’d be listening to Frankie Crocker on WBLS, and he say, ‘And now we are premiering “Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra!’ I’d scream at the radio: ‘Frankie! I’ve been playing it for eight months!’
He should at least have given you some credit.
You know who gave me more credit than anyone else? Salsoul Records. I had been instrumental in breaking [Double Exposure’s] ‘Ten Percent and ‘My Love is Free,’ for instance, or that Loleatta album — I loved it, and was definitely on it for them. That’s why they brought Loleatta to perform at the Gallery.
You had a short stint at Studio 54 when it first opened. That was when the Gallery was still open, right?
Yeah, but even before that, I had been playing at Le Jardin, for maybe about a year. I was playing there Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. I remember the club crowned Gloria Gaynor ‘The Queen of Disco,’ with a ceremony and everything. There was a fashion show from Pierre Cardin that I created the runway music for. And of course, I used ‘Love’s Theme’! He wanted it to be seamless, so every time that swirl would come in, I would go back to the beginning. Pierre loved it and wrote me a letter, which I still have somewhere: ‘Thank you so much — it was fantastic. No one does music like you do.’
What was Le Jardin like? Wasn’t it kind of upscale?
It was Studio 54 before there was a Studio 54. Mick Jagger has his birthday party there, which should give you some idea. They had a rooftop garden that was all white — it was really elegant. John Addison, who owned it, had been a model, and he had that kind of je ne sais quoi about him. He really knew finery.
Was Le Jardin still going by the time that Studio 54 opened in ’77?
No, John had opened New York New York by the time Studio opened. I was playing there as well! I played at a lot of other clubs during the week. The big one was Enchanted Gardens in Queens, which where I met Steve [Rubell]. I worked there for two years, one night a week from the day it opened in ’75. It was a lot of fun. Steve and Ian [Schrager] fell in love with me.
Why was that?
Because I’m good at what I do! I started working at Studio as soon as it opened. Richie Kaczor played the opening night, and I played the second night; I basically played the weekdays, and he did the weekends. I actually played the Bianca Jagger birthday party, which is the night that turned up the heat at Studio. Before that, it had been kind of slow — and then, it was BOOM!
It was a slightly different scene than the Gallery.
Oh, very much different! And I think that’s why Stevie didn’t want me there after a while.
Why is that?
I was playing the way I played at the Gallery. Like, there was this one night where I played ‘Trans-Europe Express.’ The beginning of that song is so quirky that I just let the previous record end, and put on ‘Trans-Europe Express’ from the very first note, which is what I would have done at the Gallery. But that puts the attention on the DJ — and Steve didn’t want the DJ to be the star, he wanted the club to be the star.
You’re not the type to really fade into the background, though.
No, I’m not! Later that same night, he goes, ‘I think we’re going in a different direction.’ Richie could do it, though — he’d play so seamlessly that no one would really notice him.
In past interviews you’ve said that Studio 54 helped to kill disco.
Well, as Studio 54 got popular, everybody from the five boroughs wanted to come. And they all did come, lined up night after night. And most of them never got in! A lot of them were nastily turned away. That put a lot of bad taste in a lot of peoples’ mouths. And in addition to that, girls would go the club with their gay friends all the time, and leave their boyfriends at home, on the couch and horny and really pissed off. Or sometimes the girl might bring the boyfriend to Studio, and if they managed to get in, the girl would want the boyfriend to sleep with the gay friend, or for all of them to have a threesome. I had more straight boys at Studio than anywhere else!
Anyway, so there was a lot of built-in resentment against Studio — also because of how extravagant it was, its whole ‘we have money, fuck you’ thing. That all added to the pot of when Kaminsky Park came along.
The Disco Demolition incident.
Yeah. People were ready join in on that, and Studio — out of all the clubs that were in operation — was the biggest contributor to that.
After your time at Studio 54, you still had the Gallery, right?
Yeah, but we actually closed on Mercer Street shortly after that, I think in early ’78. and then I went to Buttermilk Bottom — which was kind of like the Loft, in a way. It was small and cozy with brick walls, with a really sweet sound and dance floor. When I first got there, it was dead — no one was going there. They were going to hang it up. But I brought all these people there, money started coming in, and it was reinvested into the club — a new DJ booth, new sound system, new dance floor. I was there for a while.
You were really getting a bit too heavy into drugs by this time, right?
Well, yeah — it was actually the drugs that closed Gallery. But if my brother had been smart and if he wasn’t on drugs himself, he would have just hired another DJ, so when I would fall out, he would take over. That’s what Larry had at the Garage, with David DePino and Joey Llanos. If he had done that, we would have been open forever.
After Buttermilk Bottom, I went to our old space on 22nd Street, and it was still a club. I did three months of parties there, but I was doing so many drugs that…basically, I fucked up. I couldn’t survive without the drugs. The only thing I could think to do was to get out of New York, and my parents gave me money to go to California.
I was staying with my friend Mary Anne, who was helping me out — but while I was there, I got a job playing in Greece. So I went there to play, and my best friend Louis dies while I was there, and I wanted to come home to New York. So that’s what I did. I got hired to play at a place called Cuckoo's Nest, but I couldn’t get traction. I had lost my following. And honestly, I wasn’t that into it. The music wasn’t lighting my soul on fire.
And then AIDS came along. I started going to this meditation group for people with HIV. A friend of mine worked at [charitable organisation] Samaritan Village, and I told her that they should do something like that there. She said, ‘Well, that’s too progressive for us, but we have a counselor position open, and you’d be perfect for that.’
I assume you had cleaned up by this time?
I had gotten sober in Narcotics Anonymous. I got the job, and ended up becoming the HIV coordinator in three different drug-treatment programs — finally in Project Samaritan, which was the first nursing home specifically for people with end-stage HIV infection.
And you wrote a book, 1993’s No Time to Wait.
Yes, about things that I found were working for people. It helped a lot of people get through it, in that time before the triple-antiretroviral came out. And eventually, Body & Soul called and asked me to play Larry Levan’s birthday party.
And that brought you back onto the scene.
I was playing again, and little by little it started building again, and for the past five years, at least until the pandemic, my schedule was packed all the time. And there are lots of heavy-duty things in the works, which I can’t really talk about yet. But I can say this — it’s been a real journey, and the journey isn’t over.