Veteran New Yorker Preserves the Disco Experience as Sirius Radio’s Master DJ
by Brad Balfour
To fully appreciate DJ and music master Tony Smith, it’s good to know that when Scott Greenstein, President and Chief Content Officer of Sirius XM Radio, had his own special birthday party, it was Tony to whom he turned as the turntablist of record. As anyone knows, Sirius has become the ultimate online radio network. Greenstein was confident that Tony could produce a most substantive set of disco tracks to charm his guests for the party.
When this New York native wanted the crowd to get up out of their chairs, he chose Cerrone’s “Give Me Love” to kick things off. But that night’s crowd was not the only one Tony’s been delighting. In fact, he has his own group of happily fanatic Facebook followers who call themselves The Smithettes. Listening in from around the country and internationally, they look forward to his weekly posts on Thursday evenings of club playlists based on his time spinning in such notable dance dens such as Xenon, Barefoot Boy, Funhouse, among the many others. They then tune in to Channel 54 – after Studio 54, of course – to hear his shows (9pm Eastern, repeated each Monday at 2 am.) Smith has made it his mission and life’s work to celebrate the sound and experience of those “Classic Beats and Rhythms” – which is the name of his show.
His sets have included tracks out of a history of R&B, music from New York’s hip hop community, Caribbean ethnic beats, blasts from the best of 1980s New Wave and so on. Each show represents the latest public culmination of the joie de vivre that runs through Tony’s entire personal timeline, as well as through his life’s ups and downs.
“Effervescent” is one word which sums up Smith’s approach to life. Whether he’s waxing enthusiastic about the vast array of sounds and beats he’s played during the considerable hours he’s put into club world DJ career, or in listening to music from his extensive collection, this seasoned professional is always bubbling over with excitement.
This disco veteran has seen it all as far as the club scene goes. Known around the world for helping disco music become a global force, Smith has spun records virtually unheard before they were played in such aforementioned Manhattan hotspots, helping them become true hits.
He even played the opening night of the Palladium with Madonna’s producer/DJ John “Jellybean” Benitez (sadly, the late lamented mega-club is now a massive NYU dorm). During the heyday of disco, and well before the Internet, social media and digital socializing, Smith was on the scene, creating memorable and moving mixes that kept happy dancers out on the floor.
The seasoned Smith has also been a successful music producer, creating and remixing songs as “Tony’s Soulbeats” with many famous artists from their own musical worlds. He’s also held DJ guest slots throughout the globe having played for diverse crowds in London, Paris and across the USA.
This wouldn’t have been so, however, if he hadn’t listened to his heart instead of doing what was “expected” of him by his parents and community. Instead of graduating from college and getting a master’s degree like his siblings, he discovered his music passion early on in life. By age 15, Smith had formed his own band. By 19, he was a professional Club DJ. In 1976, Smith was cited by Billboard as one of the Top 10 DJs in the country.
In fact, during dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Smith smiled and said with a chuckle, “I guess you could say I’ve always been following my own beat.”
Then he added, “I remember from high school, that famous Robert Frost poem, ‘The Road Not Taken.’ I think of it now as I look back on decades of following the road my heart always seems to have desired instead of the path I was expected to take. Just as Frost wrote about two roads diverging in a wood, my taking the one less traveled by — following my own beat along the way – has made all the difference in my life and for my happiness.”
Growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Smith hung out a block away from Chinatown. “My father had left home the year I was born, and I was the baby in the family of Elaine Smith, a fiercely hard-working single mom, and three much older siblings – two sisters and a brother. Everyone helped to parent me while each of them – Carolyn, James and Antoinette – earned their master’s degrees. It was understood that, of course, so would I.”
Early on, there were signs that Smith’s life would be different, based around music, notwithstanding a couple of detours. Smith recalls a story his family had often told him. He was just an infant at the time. “On this particular day everyone was dancing to music while I was lying on my sister’s bed. It must have been clear that their movements were joyful and fun, since I felt compelled to find a way to join.
“Even though I couldn’t yet stand on my own – let alone walk – my family still talks about my unfortunate interaction with a rickety wooden desk next to the bed. I was too young to remember it now, but evidently the desk was low enough that – despite my tiny stature – I could shakily ‘stand’ on the floor by reaching up my arms and hanging onto its top for support. I was just a happy kid wanting to dance along with his family.”
A happy kid of about 10 months old, that is, until a table toppled over. “The heavy manual typewriter resting on it clunked me right in the head. My mother fainted and my sister rushed me to the hospital immediately! Fortunately, all ended well – and here I am today.
“That was my first attempt at dancing, and I’ve been dancing ever since. My brother James was the amateur videographer of the family. It seems that whenever he caught me on camera as a boy, there I was – dancing – even sometimes, at embarrassing moments: still dancing!
“When I was six, I moved along with my brother’s favorites – Olatunji’s ‘Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion).’ With music always in the air, it now seems inevitable that I began using my allowance to amass a giant collection of 45 RPM records.”
Music perpetually wafted through the household. Tony’s mother listened to gospel, James played congas, Carolyn was a soprano and Antoinette was a tenor. “My sisters formed a group modeled after the Chiffons or The Ronettes, calling themselves The Debonaires. While Ma was out working at a factory hand-crafting jewelry, she insisted on knowing that her kids were safe at home. Instead of visiting friends, my sisters invited people to come over and sing. I was eight when I sang along with them to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love.’
“By my first year of high school, I’d learned to play guitar. I was 15 when I started my own band with some friends. At first, we were five; then we became The Soul Sound Explosion. Eventually, we won some talent contests and began accepting paying gigs. We never made much money, nor did we become the next Kool and the Gang, but I loved it.”
That experience proved to Smith he could, in fact, both earn money and have fun by making music. That defining notion liberated him from some societal conventions. “Something life-shaping came from that experience. When our band would take breaks – and since I was the guy with all the records – I’d play music to keep the crowd happy. I didn’t fully realize it yet, but I was learning how to DJ.”
By the time he was 16, Smith was playing records for free in the park. “I’d plug into a lamppost to get free electricity and loved watching people dance to my selections. Every day was different, with still more new music coming out. My passion – along with loving movies – had become playing music in the park for people to dance to.”
After graduating high school at age 17 in 1972 – and despite being as addicted to music as Smith had become – his attendance at college was automatically assumed. “I succumbed to my family’s expectations. But although I’d imagined going to Brown in Rhode Island, I chose Fordham in the Bronx for one reason only: so, I could remain close to the evolving music scene of New York City.
“There I was with lots of music,” Smith enthused as he remembered those early years of disco. “As deeply drawn as I was to the new music scene, it wasn’t easy to explain it to my mother when I gave her the bad news – that I’d be dropping out of college to become a full-time DJ. Ma was worried about my security and future without a college degree, but I couldn’t care less. I simply had faith: music would take me wherever I needed to be. Music was my rush!”
At about that time, he discovered Greenwich Village – filled with discos of multiple persuasions; gay, straight, black, white. As the 60-something added, “You name it, I was checking them out! I’d listen from the sidewalk without even having to enter – the music inside was that loud!”
With the technology evolving, DJs went from simply playing one song after another to mixing the two or more together into a single, continuous stream – sometimes seamlessly and, at other times, altering course in order to surprise. As the industry standard – Technics 1200 turntables and solid analog mixers – went the way of the discman, complex digital mixers enhanced by sound effects and real-time remixing tools took hold with “deejays” playing digital turntables, CDs and MP-3s replaced vinyl. Today, many DJs just show up for a gig with pre-recorded music on an iPod or thumb drive, so they simply push a button and the music unrolls by itself.
“That’s definitely not my way,” Smith emphasized. “I like to read the crowd – adjusting my choices on the fly as I observe reactions to the different selections I put out there. My goal is to keep people happily dancing and getting thirsty, which bartenders and owners love. When you learn to DJ well, you are truly in charge of the night, directly affecting the mood of the crowd. You can make the entire evening of music feel like your own, single performance.”
As he was starting out, disco was just taking root in the culture. This new musical genre emerged out of jazz, R&B and classical, pulling the heat from rock which had enjoyed such an influence during the ’60s and on. “Disco” – the Americanization of the French word “discothèque,” (which meant record library) – was also the term for the European dance clubs that served as havens for danceable rock.
By 1972, the newest sounds of disco music were not being heard on the radio but in clubs, where DJs chose what the crowd would experience. No one could hear the complete version of Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” on radio stations. Those DJs were only allowed to broadcast the three-minute “radio version.” But the DJ in a disco could play the full 7:33-length original and better yet, watch the crowd dancing to it. Discos were becoming launch pads for this new form of music, soon leading people to buy them at record stores. DJs were tastemakers. New York was their hub, but cities like Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Montreal, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. followed The Big Apple’s lead.
Rolling Stone magazine’s Vince Aletti wrote the first report on disco in 1973. He also wrote a weekly column about this new form of music for Record World in which he often reported on Tony Smith’s latest playlists. Many of those were later captured in Vince’s book, The Disco Files 1973-78. By 1974, the new form of music had become such a thing that WPIX-FM launched the first disco radio show where, for example, you could hear the full-length version of Barry White’s ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.’
Recently Tony and Vince were at a theatrical event for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, one of the nation’s leading industry-based HIV/AIDS fundraising and grant-making organizations. During the intermission, they talked about music, of course – a core connection between these longtime friends.
However, before achieving acclaim from movers and shakers like Vince, and his status in music history, Smith had held boring low-level jobs. He was a clerk typist at a plumbing company and a library page at the Municipal Building library to support what is now his vast accumulation of music.
“Back then, Warren Brown, my only gay friend at the time, told me about The Village Voice – a weekly newspaper with pages and pages of print ads. There was a want ad for a DJ at Barefoot Boy – a gay club that hadn’t even opened yet. Warren felt I should audition – an idea I thought was ludicrous. I was just a black kid from the projects. But he pressured and motivated me into giving it a shot.
“So I packed up a crate of music – heavy crates of vinyl 33 and 45 rpm records – and jumped into a taxi to 39th St and Second Ave. Along the way I realized that the name I’d been born with – Harvey – simply didn’t seem cool. In 1950, there’d been that Jimmy Stewart movie, Harvey, with a tall, invisible rabbit. The title character’s name wasn’t exactly sexy in 1975. So, during the cab ride to my first audition, I renamed myself, Tony – inspired by my sister’s nickname, ‘Toy’.
“I can still picture the club manager who pointed to the DJ booth and the ladder I needed to climb to get there. Up I went, scared out of my mind – with a new turntable I’d never worked with: no pre-set playing speeds. It was up to me to adjust the speed with each song and vibe I wanted. Even as I studied the mysterious equipment, I was faking a sense of confidence. ‘It’ll take me a few minutes,’ I said. ‘I’m just getting my records ready!’
“I don’t remember what I played. Surely, some Gloria Gaynor. One thing I’d begun to realize was the way that different types of crowds have different musical tastes. Gays, as I already knew, had a weakness for female artists and songs with lots of melody – like ‘Never Can Say Goodbye.’ James Brown’s ‘Give It Up, Turn It Loose’ would not have cut it with that crowd.”
Whatever Tony did, it worked. “The manager said, ‘You’ve got the job, – 25 dollars a night, seven nights a week.’ The first thing I thought was, ‘YES! I can buy more records!'” (Disco DJ’s didn’t start getting free music from the Labels until 1975.) “The club succeeded, to put it mildly. Next thing I knew, DJs who were my idols were coming to hear me – David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Richie Kaczor and Steve D’Acquisto. Barefoot Boy was packed every night. By 1976, Billboard magazine had named me one of the Top 10 DJ’s in the country.
“I will always consider 1976 one of the best years for music in my lifetime and, certainly, for disco. By now there were at least 400 discos in the city! I was being courted by promoters like Ray Caviano, Issy Sanchez, Billy Smith and Curtis Urbina. They gave me all the free music I could handle. The gold and silver record awards, hanging now on my walls, hale from that special era. I had become very well-known and was hired for guest spots at other clubs and private parties. Disco was a major force and DJ’s like me were no longer paid cash off the books.”
Studio 54 had opened and a new, well-funded competitor, Xenon, was looking for a DJ. Barefoot Boy had only 200 people on the dance floor, but Xenon was major, aiming for 700 or more. There was a lot at stake for its management to make the right choice. “Each of us – there were seven DJ candidates – had one week to show our stuff. As was true for Studio 54, white DJs would get the chance to try out first, something I understood and accepted at the time. But I could tell from my visits that the DJs auditioning before me were playing gay music for a straight crowd. While those colleagues were good at their craft, I saw that they were clearing the dance floor – playing sounds that they personally enjoyed, instead of taking their cues from the crowd. We’re talking about two different musical planets.
“When it was my turn to play, I avoided new songs or personal preferences. I had one goal in mind: keep people on the floor and make the management give me the job. I concentrated on playing popular songs and was hired.”
Xenon and Studio 54 had become the 900-pound “gorillas” of the business – spacious former theaters with lots of room for dancers. Popularity came from word of mouth; there were no big advertising campaigns back then. After one year at Xenon, it seemed that everyone knew: Tony Smith was its resident DJ.
“After I got the crowd ‘trained’ – and they knew I was paying attention, keeping their pleasure in mind – I was able to introduce them to new songs that other clubs weren’t playing. I could intersperse my personal finds with tried and true hits I knew they would love.
“I’m an extrovert and a natural-born entertainer. My booth was often open, and I’d step out onto the floor with the crowd. Famous people stopped by – actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Farrah Fawcett; singers like Neil Diamond and Stevie Wonder; athletes like Reggie Jackson and even NYC’s Mayor Koch.
“I got local press coverage as a ‘celebrity DJ.’ For example, the New York Post did a story about me in 1978 (‘The Men and Their Music.’) It paired me with Bill Lombardo, nephew of Guy Lombardo of New Year’s Eve ‘Auld Lang Syne’ fame. We were paired as two separate musical planets, each with a deep commitment to the music projects we led.”
In 1979, although disco was still very big, the rock faction of music – bitter that a different style of music had replaced them — started the “Disco Sucks” campaign. It did have some impact, but New York City mostly remained strong.
After Xenon came Magique – an East Side club that mostly appealed to what Manhattanites call the “bridge and tunnel” crowd from other boroughs. This crowd had a narrow taste range wanting to hear the same song, like Laura Brannigan’s “Gloria,” two or three times a night. “Frankly, that got boring and after a long get-away vacation to Mexico, it was clear that Magique wanted more of a ‘formula’ DJ, so we parted ways.”
By 1982, music was moving toward the “new wave” sound of such tunes as “I Ran” by Flock of Seagulls. Said the now-veteran disc-spinner, “Music was evolving. I enjoyed playing songs like The Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ so I moved to The Palace – a new club with a new wave flavor. Rock was interspersed with disco for its diverse crowd. I was there for a year, having a ball. I love learning and now I was gaining the experience of playing different sounds for yet another kind of crowd. Every once in a while, I would go to the Fun House where Jellybean Benitez was playing. Sometimes he’d sneak out for his dates with Madonna and I’d play in his stead. Neither management nor the audience knew the difference.
“The crowd was mostly teenaged kids and when Jellybean left to focus on music production, he talked them into hiring me. I continued to observe the differences between one clientele or another including those in a lesbian bar, Network, and another one, Garbo’s. For me, it’s always fun to play for new audiences by studying people’s responses. When house music became big, however – check ‘Move Your Body’ by Marshall Jefferson – audiences wanted (just as the lyrics say) ‘house music all night long.’ The same steady beats and not much melody. Sorry: I like variety but ‘house heads’ just wanted house.”
As a result, Smith turned to his other passion – movies. He went to technical school to learn how to repair VCRs, since video cassettes had become huge. “Eventually I became, I was told, the first black owner of a Manhattan video store. Friends in the music business (then and now) – Danny Krivit, Claudia Cuseta, Bobby Shaw – kept me in touch with the latest music.
The store was successful for a decade, from 1989-1999. “But, by the time my lease was up, my beloved mother had suffered a stroke along with other serious health issues. I moved back into her apartment and became a full-time caretaker – the least I could do for the woman who had worked so hard and sacrificed so much. During some of those years, I kept myself in the game by DJ’ing on weekends at the Union Square Lounge in Manhattan.”
Elaine Smith passed away in 2007. Even though Tony had taken a decade-long hiatus in order to care for his mother, his passion for music still gnawed at him even though he had taken this decade-long hiatus. “I’m back to music full-time and loving it.” He proclaimed, “I’ve trademarked my brand – “Tony’s Soulbeats” – producing and remixing songs for artists like Kimberly Davis, Jason Walker and Shara Strand. I’m working with music icons in their fields like dance producer, Tony Moran; choral composer, Jim Papoulis and musician-composer, Paul Guzzone.
“And thanks to my old buddy, Jellybean, I have that classic disco show on Sirius XM radio. Music remains at the center of my life. I’m still doing guest spots and private parties like those that have taken me to London and Paris, and back to New Jersey, Brooklyn and Manhattan. But nothing compares to when I was spinning disco music during the hot summers of NYC in the ’70s. New disco music was released literally every day. You never knew what surprises were coming next. From 1974 to 1980, I was spinning five to seven days a week, so I had plenty of hours to fill with music. I even enjoyed the nights when attendance was light. That gave me the chance to experiment with new music, to see what worked so I’d be ready when the club was packed. There were also certain songs that just sounded ‘summer-y’. I loved to DJ on those summer nights, getting screams from the crowd when I played just the right thing!”
Record label owner/partner Curtis Urbina, who’s known Tony for decades, considers him a rare talent. And Urbina describes Tony’s work today on Sirius XM Radio as that of a master music curator since he does so much to help people re-discover disco hits from the past and bring new value to them. If anyone can sum up Tony Smith, it’s Urbina. “If SONY, RCA or whomever were to hire him as a music curator, Tony could take their catalogue and create new playlists and song compilations for music that’s currently not generating revenue. The guy has that much of an uncanny instinct for music. He could revive the whole genre.”
Tony Smith’s top 10 DJ-able tunes of all time (in no particular order):
“Girl You Need A Change of Mind” — Eddie Kendricks
“Love Is the Message” — MFSB
“Relight My Fire” —Dan Hartman
“Love Hangover” —Diana Ross
“Dreaming A Dream” — Crown Heights Affair
“Disco Party” — The Trammps
“Native New Yorker” — Odyssey
“Love in C Minor” — Cerrone
“I Feel Love” — Donna Summer
“Cherchez La Femme” — Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band
Artists of all time:
Music producers of all time:
Quincy Jones — Simply the best
Gamble & Huff — Philly sound
Holland & Dozier — Motown Sound
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 3, 2019.
Photos courtesy of Tony Smith © 2019.