Jimmy Yu was the Disco DJ at several discotheques in New York City and Miami during the 1970s Disco era. He is interviewed by Bernard Lopez of DiscoMusic.com.
Written by Bernard F. Lopez of DiscoMusic.com
DJ Jimmy Yu talks to DiscoMusic.com about the early days of the Disco era DJ'ing at various discotheques and dance clubs in New York City and Miami, Florida. As the creator of DiscoMusic.com it's obvious that I enjoy extolling the virtues of Disco and all that it has to offer. However, in order to better appreciate what it is, and where the music is going one needs to take a good look at the beginning or the "golden days" of Disco and dance music. These were the days when turntables with pitch control didn't even exist. Imagine that! It was a time when the DJ would experiment not truly knowing what the outcome would be. All he had, was his instinct, and determination to have the people dance and have a great time.
Jimmy Yu: The Early Disco Years
We are going to take a peek into the fabled Disco era through the eyes of a man who not only was there, but helped to shape, and refine it. This early pioneer DJ was Jimmy Yu and he has been involved in the industry since the 1970s. His experience as a DJ began in 1974 in Miami, Florida. It was during this time that Disco music was in its infancy. The first turntables he used were radio station broadcast types with no pitch controls and the mixer was a six-channel Sony microphone board. In a day and age where we take so many things for granted, it's hard to even imagine doing anything remotely similar to mixing without being able to adjust the tempo. Also keep in mind that unlike today's music with its made for DJ's intro, breaks and rock solid BPM timings, the music during the Disco era was more varied and BPM was sometimes not consistent even within the same song. Compare that to today where some DJ's can't mix if they aren't able to "loop" an intro on their CD player! Last, but not least, the only vinyl available was 7" 45s and LPs. No 12 inch extended singles yet! Jimmy Yu's background as a Disco DJ is intriguing to say the least. This is an era of music that mystifies and awes me. This was the beginning of Disco and modern dance music. I could feel the sense of the pioneering spirit in our conversations.
Jimmy began spinning for the first three years in some of Miami's hottest nightclubs. In 1977 he returned home to New York City, and became a member of perhaps the first record pool in the industry, The New York Record Pool. Many of today's famous production people such as John "Jellybean" Benitez were members of that pool. Jimmy continued to spin at several well known New York clubs up until 1989, He returned to Florida. and has kept himself up to date musically by playing at various Florida nightclubs. That's the background, now let's delve into the details.
Even though I'm pretty sure he's anything but, Jimmy strikes me as a very quiet person. I guess the years, and being a father of one with another on the way, have mellowed him out. He actually told me that he doesn't spend much time on the web and isn't into "chat" and the like. Hardly uses email for that matter. I can certainly relate. Even though I publish DiscoMusic.com, I don't really surf the web all that much either. He does keep up to date on the music. Even having made the transition to mixing with CDs. He also says; "To the new people just tuning in for the first time, be prepared for an education. To those who were around during these times, be careful when you listen to this music and close your eyes. It just might make you smile and remember about perhaps one of the most hedonistically fun times in our lives."
Motown Sets the Stage For Disco
I asked Jimmy Yu how he began DJing and if it was something that he just fell into. The story begins in his teens when Jimmy was into Motown when everyone else was into rock and roll. He said that being half Puerto Rican he knew he had the Latin rhythms and movements within him and is thankful to his mother for her genes. Being Puerto Rican myself we discussed this aspect, but then I confessed that I couldn't dance. His response: "What do you mean you can't dance? What kind of PR are you? I may have to send some of my old girlfriends to teach you a few steps."
Some of the many discos that Jimmy Yu has spun at:
1974 - 1977 in Miami, Florida:
- The Widow McCoy
- The Mutiny
- Honey For the Bears
1977 - 1989 in the New York City area:
- Elephas - Queens
- La Plage - Hampton Bays
- The Lemon Tree - Queens
- Ripples On The Water - Queens
- Elephas North - Hunter Mountain
- La Shea - Queens
- Summers Beach Club - Hampton Bays
- 1990 - present, Palm Beach County, FL
So while everyone else was buying Led Zep, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane, Jimmy was buying The Temps, The 4 Tops, Supremes and Marvin Gaye. During those high school basement parties he was always on the guest list because he was the only one with the dance music. He knew then what a great "in" this was with the girls. Plus, being a white boy with great rhythm and danceability put all the "rock head" guys to shame.
Never taking lessons, he taught himself the drums and played in bands for a few years. The problems was that nobody he knew wanted to play anything else, but semi-danceable rock. When he moved from New York City to Miami to attend the University of Miami, he quickly found out why the place was labeled "Sun-Tan-U". He said, "It was non-stop partying. Needless to say, I fell right into the whole scene and was becoming a regular in several discos in Coconut Grove. One specific club was called "The Widow McCoy's." It was primarily a restaurant that became a club 3 or 4 nights a week. It was also a magnet for some of the most beautiful Latin American women I had ever seen in my early 19 years of age. I quickly learned the Latin hustle and had one of the greatest experiences a young man could ever have, beautiful women were asking me to dance! This was around 1974. When I was in the club I always had one eye on the DJ and the other on the lady I was dancing with. I observed the DJ's techniques and quickly realized that I could do the same thing and maybe even better. Nobody ever taught me the mechanics of being a DJ. It was just one of those things that I knew I could do instantly."
Becoming a Disco DJ
Jimmy befriended the DJ and bull-sh*tted him by telling him that he was also a DJ from New York City. To his surprise the DJ asked Jimmy if he would be interested in filling in for him. It seemed he was working more than one club and couldn't handle the workload. After filling in, the owners were so impressed that they gave Jimmy his job and moved the DJ to another club. Jimmy says "It was never my intent to take his job away but it was my intent to back up my big mouth."
The golden age of Disco music has always fascinated me and I was curious if Jimmy realized his impact on Disco and club goings in general. "To be honest, I didn't realize the impact I was making in the Miami nightclub scene until about a year later. I was now working 5 nights a week, I had the club upgrade the sound system to what was then state of the art and was making a phenomenal amount of money for a 20 year old. Leaving school was then not a hard decision to make, although that's the one thing I regret now. By this time I had established a name for myself and had a faithful group of followers. By the time I returned to New York, Disco was exploding. I knew I was lucky just to be working in a few good clubs. You know New York is a tough town and yes everyone wanted to be a DJ. It got real ugly at times. No need to go into detail, I'm sure you can imagine just how cut-throat it became. But those "wanna-be's" who underhandedly got in, usually sucked and didn't last long. Being able to get new product from the record pools and knowing which songs were going to be big hits was where I knew I was making some kind of impact. Breaking in a new record at the right time of night and getting the reactions I knew I would get was what it was all about. Knowing that they would be begging me for that song in the near future was I guess a sign that I was making an impact."
So did Jimmy want to stay a Disco DJ? "Back then I was having too much fun as a DJ to consider doing anything else in a related field. I thought about trying to get into one of the record companies, but I didn't want to deal with that and I didn't want to work in the mailroom either. I thought about radio, but at that time I felt it was more about being able to bullshit endlessly on a microphone. I was getting laid too often to give up what I was doing."
"One club I worked in closed at 2am. Afterwards my entourage and I would head over to some clubs that were open until 4 or 5am. The management, doormen and DJ's all knew who I was (they would come to my clubs on their off nights) and treated me as if I were a celebrity. It was a great feeling to walk onto another DJ's dance floor, have him acknowledge you on the microphone and hear cheers from his patrons. To me, that was an indication that I was a good DJ and respected by my peers. Another realization of my impact was when local record companies started to bring me test pressings. TK Records was out of Miami and the promoter would bring me demos from KC and The Sunshine Band, T-Connection, Betty Wright and several others."
The Miami Disco Scene
"Personally, I feel that during the early days of Disco music and dancing, that Miami was second only to New York City when it came to influence in types of music and dance. "The Bump" was around then, but due to the large Latin population, it was not unusual to see an entire floor of Hustle dancers. Being a good Hustle dancer forced me to be a better DJ. I would always mentally put myself on the dance floor before every mix. It was just as important to not become predictable in my mixes. In some clubs I would frequent, I could tell you either what mix was coming up next or what time it was without looking at my watch. These are two important aspects that some DJ's fail to recognize."
"As far as mixing techniques, during the prehistoric days with no pitch control, almost all of the mixes had to be "chop mixes." Only if two songs had almost identical BPMs could you blend them together, and even then by the end of the night I had one raw finger on each hand from long term dragging on a turntable that wouldn't give in. Once pitch controls became available I was able to become more creative in my mixing. Searching and finding distinct similarities in orchestration, breaks or vocals between two songs, thinking two or three mixes ahead of what was on and being able to read and control a crowd creatively all became fun yet challenging. Recently, it has become even more challenging by trying to mix 25 years of dance music together by using both turntables and CD mixers." Jimmy does admit to leaning heavily towards songs that are still Hustle oriented. He says, "The beauty of a man and women holding each other while dancing is something that has gone on for centuries. Our part in this history during the 70' and 80's helped to keep that beauty alive. Like the resurgence of "Swing." I hope that people who love to dance will keep some form of contact dancing alive in the clubs. We will try our best to give them the music they can dance to."
Mixing with Technics 1200 turntables is something I take for granted so I wanted to know what kind of DJ equipment Jimmy used. I asked him if he had used one of the infamous Bozak mixers and what were the first real DJ turntables he had used. He replied that "Yes, Bozak was the mixer that made it all possible. I still have one in my closet. It's almost 20 years old and sitll clean. After Bozak came the Uri. Technics 1100s were the first real turntables and I made the club spring for a Teac 10 inch reel to reel. Now comes the part where I show my age. I still have the Akai 8-track tape recorder that I bought back in the mid-1970s. I also have some of the tapes that I recorded live at the clubs. Car cassettes were in their infancy then and everyone had an 8-track stereo in their rides. I just got a chill down my back thinking of the memories."
During our talks I had mentioned to Jimmy that I had just been listening to the 12" of "Do You Wanna Dance" and the 7" of "Rain 2000" by the '70s group, Calhoon. Here's what he had to say about that: "Calhoon! I can't believe it! They were originally out of Long Island (New York) and were the house band for Rumbottoms. Rumbottoms moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and so did the band. They would come to my club on their off nights and I would do the same. We were all good friends then. I guarantee that they would remember me. They have to, simply because of all the bad things we did together."
While we were discussing the music he told me some of his favourite 45s were:
- La La Peace Song - O C Smith
- Got To Get You Back - Son's of Robin Stone
- Girls - The Moments
- Rain 2000 - Titanic
- Happiness Is Just Around The Bend - The Main Ingredient
- I'm Doin' Fine Now - New York City
Jimmy could go on forever with the songs, but reminded me that he had to buy everything back then. This was about a year before any record pools surfaced and way before 12 inches were produced.
Disco and the American Bicentenial: 1976
We now fast forward to around 1976. Jimmy returned home to New York where his family had a restaurant and they needed his help. The amazing thing is that Jimmy already had a DJ job lined up in Queens even before he moved back. On holidays he would return to New York City and of course had to be in a different club every night. One of the hotttest clubs then was "The Monastery " on Queens Blvd. Jimmy says, "I can still visually remember the big dance floor. I quickly found myself a dance partner by the name of Jenny Costa. From the first time we danced it was like Fred and Ginger. There were times that the whole dance floor stopped to watch us. We became instant best friends. As it turned out, she was a protege of the club's DJ, Paulie Casella. I told her that I was also in the business and she introduced me to all the right players. Paulie was kind enough to let me show my talents during a packed night and I didn't let him down. That either took a lot of balls to give up the tables to someone who you hardly knew or it was a sign that I gave him the confidence that I wouldn't lose the floor. I'm almost positive that the fact that I was a good dancer gave him comfort. Nedless to say he got me into my first New York City club "Elephas" in Queens." Jimmy continues, "I will always be thankful to the both of them for showing such kindness in what was then becoming a very cut-throat business. Jenny and I continued to work clubs and dance together up until 1989 when I returned to South Florida. She is pretty well known through out New York City and I'm pretty sure she's done some disco mixes on WKTU. She still spins in some Long Island clubs and I make it a point to try and visit her when I'm back in the city."
During our many chats we wound bring up certain news events from the times. One such event was the infamous "Son Of Sam" murders which had paralyzed the city of New York. Jimmy was working the night the "Son of Sam" shot his friend Sal Lupo and another girl in his bouncers car just outside the club he was working. They both survived, but something that he said was an "unbelievable incident and a time that will never be erased from my mind." Jimmy also recalls that girls stopped coming to clubs for a while and that those who did cut and/or dyed their hair. It seemed Son of Sam was targeting long blonde haired girls in cars. I also remembered the night they caught him. TV crews from several stations came into "Elephas" that night to report the reaction.
Jimmy worked many different well-known clubs and did only high quality private parties. The summers were spent in the Hamptons, at "La Plage" and "Marakesh." The winters, over at Hunter Mountain. He had a really great run. Meeting his wife in Florida was the reason he moved back south. Of course many of us like to know about Studio 54. Well, Jimmy didn't work there, but he did know Steve Rubell from his first club "The Enchanted Gardens." Richie Kazar was one of the first jocks at 54 and we were also friends. Spent quite a few nights in the booth and many hours on the floor blasted out of my mind. It was better than anyone could imagine. For a concise and extremely honest look into Studio 54 and the New York Disco scene, Jimmy highly recommends that one read the book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night by Anthony Hayden. This book will blow your mind and it's all the shocking truth. There is also another book that Jimmy didn't mention that makes a great photographic companion to the above book. It's called Fabulous!: A Photographic Diary of Studio 54.
Well, that concludes our little peek into the life and times of a Disco DJ. DiscoMusic.com would like to thank Jimmy Yu for his time and willingness to share his experiences. Jimmy, one last request, keep the music spinning!
As per Jimmy, what can be said about one of the original Disco DJs of that time. He is definitely right up there with names like Jenny Costa, Louie Mangione, Danny Pucchiarelli and Gary Baxter to name a few. These club originals like Jimmy knew exactly what people wanted to hear. On Friday nights, La Plage was "the" place to be. It was a predominately Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Long Island crowd. But these people came to party, whether they were on the not too large dance floor or out on the patio, they came to party and they came to dance and I am proud to say I was a part of the dance history of the Hamptons.
If my memory serves me correctly, the dance booth was perched above the dance floor with a ladder going straight up. It was up there that Jimmy controlled the pulse of the club and the pulse of every single Capezio wearing and Malibu Bay Breeze drinking person who entered La Plage.
You know, there are certain songs that when you hear them they remind you of places, people or whatever. I guess I'm sort of sentimental that way, but everytime i hear "Searching" by Change and "Ain't Nothing Gonna Keep Me From You" by Teri Desario there is one place and person I remember: The place was La Plage... And the person was Jimmy Yu!"
–Brooklyn's Own: Joe Causi (WKTU Radio, New York City)
Written by Bernard F. Lopez (May 10, 1999)
Copyright © 1999 by Bernard F. Lopez
All rights reserved