Robbie Leslie who is best known for spinning at New York's finest clubs such as the Sandpiper, 12 West, the Saint, Studio 54, Underground, Palladium... speaks with DiscoMusic.com about his DJ career.
Robbie Leslie interview written By Bernard F. Lopez of DiscoMusic.com
Legendary Disco DJ Robbie Leslie is one of those that have managed to stay relevant for almost 30 years. Whether he was at The Sandpiper on Fire Island, 12 West, The Saint or The Underground in New York City, Copacabana in Florida or the numerous international engagements he now does, Robbie Leslie always aims to please the dancers with his musical selections and flawless mixing. In the following pages we will delve into his past and present and explore the events that helped shape his musical career.
In the world of Disco DJs many have come and gone. Some have faded from our memories completely while others may no longer be with us, but their legacy and style live on and are the stuff of legends. An even smaller number like Robbie Leslie have managed to survive and continue to be relevant despite all the changes in the dance music industry and the insatiable demands of the dancing public. These few Disco era survivors have been able to adopt and expand their musical repertoire while not forgetting their roots and staying true to themselves.
As different as Disco, House, Techno and rave culture may seem they all share similar characteristics and there are DJs like Robbie Leslie who can tie them all together and draw from each to create a mood that appeals to everyone. The dancer's ability to have a good time is paramount regardless of the musical style. That's what a DJ is there to do-provide a good time. It is this understanding that makes a DJ truly unique and able to give the people what they want. It's also what keeps Robbie Leslie in demand and sought after year after year.
Robbie Leslie and His New England Beginnings
Robbie Leslie, the youngest of three sons, was born on November 19, 1955 in Portland, Maine to an American father and a Russian mother. His parents had met at an American air base near Calcutta, India during World War II. His father originally from the Boston area was an U. S. Serviceman stationed at the base while his mother, who worked at the PX, was the daughter of Russian aristocrats who had been slain by the Bolsheviks years earlier. She had fled to China and then to India to escape the revolution and ensuing World War. After the war she became a naturalized U. S. Citizen and both parents settled in Freeport, Maine where they raised their family and started a small retail business.
From an early age the family would spend 6 months in Maine and the winters in Florida where Robbie Leslie's dad had a satellite store. When asked if this was difficult to adjust to he said no because that is all he knew so the semi-annual change seemed normal. Robbie had two sets of friends; schoolsright up through high school. During his junior and senior years he opted to stay in Maine while the rest of the family stayed in Florida. He was for the most part on his own and learned to be responsible and independent and this allowed him to explore life to its fullest.
Robbie Leslie graduated high school in 1974 and took a part-time job at a local bar in Maine stocking the jukebox with 7 inch 45 RPM records which entailed driving several hours down to Colony Records in New York City to pick up the records. He says, "this was my first hand exposure to music and how it affects people." What is interesting to note is that until this point Robbie wasn't much into music. It wasn't until he got his first car in Florida, a 1972 Opel GT that he started listening to Motown and Soul courtesy of the car radio. When asked what kind of music he liked to listen to he replies,
The radio was on non-stop and I had installed an 8-track player and I really favoured kind of Black artists. Either R & B or quasi dance, Philadelphia I also had a penchant for Carole King and the Carpenters so there was a little dichotomy there I really liked music that got you going that was motivating and that was the Philly and Motown stuff.
In 1975 Robbie Leslie went down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida for the winter and got himself a job as a waiter. As he tells it, "I waited on the parents of the owner of the Sandpiper on Fire Island (in New York). They happened to be retired and living down here. The owner, Gene Smith, dropped them off for dinner and apparently I was such a good waiter and made such an impression that they told their son 'You really should hire this kid.'"
Robbie Leslie, Fire Island and the Sandpiper
The Sandpiper was a very popular restaurant, which would turn into a Disco at midnight on through till 4am. Gene Smith the following summer hired Robbie Leslie to work as a waiter. Robbie had no idea what Fire Island was like and if he would even like it. He envisioned isolated sand dunes like Cape Cod and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it had a vibrant town center and was very close to New York City. Robbie enjoyed the area so much that he stayed through the off-seasons for the first two years and ultimately stayed at the Sandpiper right up till its closing in 1979. Robbie began waiting tables that summer in 1975 and soon afterwards was asked to begin bartending.
The Sandpiper was a quaint wooden structure that consisted of a restaurant and a bar with glass frontage facing the harbor on two sides. These glass doors would be opened in the summer to let the breeze in. It also had two outdoor decks, one on the waterfront side and the other on the roof. The interior was a large rectangle with a dance floor on one side and banquettes on the other. Robbie pegs its capacity at no more than 500-600 people.
Many of the same patrons and music industry people who frequented the top New York clubs such as Flamingo, 12 West, 10th Floor, The Loft would come each weekend during the summer months. This gave the Sandpiper essentially the same quality crowd as the large clubs in the city thus attracting the best Disco DJs. During its early years up till the summer of 1976 there was no live DJ. The Sandpiper merely played reel to reel tapes that major New York DJs would make for the club. Legendary Disco mixer Tom Moulton was a contributor of such reel to reels and Robbie Leslie still possesses several of those tapes. Other DJs who made tapes for club play were Rob Yeates and Tom Savarese. Robbie explains that management would rotate the tapes since it was a seven night a week operation, but in 1976 he says, "We started having occasional DJs on big nights and weekends We would tape them and we would rotate and play them again during the week. Some of those early in-house DJs included Tom Savarese and Larry Saudners.
Although Robbie was only bartending at this point he was most definitely paying attention to what was going on around him. He explains,
Here I am immersed in a club where my dormitory room is right above the club-I was literally over the dance floor! It was an old wooden building and you could be in the club or up above it and the volume would have been virtually the same. I got a crash course in the best of the best music. There were so many records I remember distinctly from that period and I would hear them night after night.
Robbie Leslie goes on to say, "Despite the fact that the Sandpiper was a small wooden building it was truly one of the most influential clubs in the New York City area because it was the place where all the new records and test pressings were tried out on the crowds. All of the record promoters had shares (homes) out here (Fire Island). Back in the day they were either gay or gay-friendly because the gay market was the ultimate test market and Disco truly hadn't exploded in the straight markets yet. This was the 'A' list of the community dancing out there The Sandpiper was merely an extension of the New York City nightlife during the summer months My working at the Sandpiper opened up a lot of doors for me because of the prestige of the club."
The Graebar Sound System
We now touch upon the sound system and here's what Robbie Leslie had to say, "They had a true setup. We had one of the first setups built by Graebar Sound. They were the company, co-founded by Barry Lederer, that later installed the sound systems for the Saint, 12 West, Trocadero Transfer, Dreamland and Salvation. We had two Technics turntables with a Bozak mixer and an actual light show-a true DJ booth. The booth was on the dance floor against the back wall. The system was tonally balanced which gave it a very smooth sound and it never was harsh or fatiguing even at high volumes." As we will see later, this was also a hallmark of 12 West.
DJ: Vinyl on the Rocks Please!
Now we go on to find out how Robbie Leslie made the jump from bartender to Disco DJ. He claims the decision to start playing music was not a conscience one, but merely a set of circumstances that allowed him to work his way into it. He explains, "As a bartender I came back my third year which was 1977. At that point I had a bit of an interest in the music and I had become friends with some of the DJs. Just by close association I got a better idea of the mechanics of the whole thing and the excitement of the whole scene. At the end of that season (post Labor Day) I decided that I would like to try DJing."
Management said it was fine as long as he didn't chase people away. They would normally go back to playing tapes during the off-season since things would slow down quite a bit. Robbie Leslie had already been playing his own records in the DJ booth when the place was closed so he felt pretty much at ease and knew the music well enough. He would go to Downstairs Records in New York and pick up whatever he thought the crowd would like. During the day when the club was closed he would come downstairs and practice mixing in the DJ booth. For inspiration Robbie says, "I thought the most sensible thing to do was listen to the great DJs of the time. In 1977 that was Howard Merritt, Richie Rivera, Wayne Scott and Kevin Burke. When I was bartending I just had a pad and paper and I would write down song for song what they were playing and then buy the music and what I didn't know I would ask them and kept pestering them. They were very lovely and encouraging. They had already done all the research and knew what records were compatible and I would try and put them together myself." He goes on to tell me that his first time playing was mid September of 1977 for about three hours and that it was very difficult, but thrilling and very satisfying.
Although Robbie Leslie never recorded his first DJ sessions he does possess reel to reels of many of his nights in the booth from 1978 to the present so he has managed to document his work and even convert many to CD. Robbie says, "Listening back to some of these old ones, they're pretty frightening, but it didn't take long before I started learning the mechanics of putting records together and one of the most fundamental things was not to be afraid of the music. If you are afraid and nervous that the record is going to skip or afraid to touch the pitch control it's actually counterproductive and you're doomed before you even get going. You have to have faith and self-assurance. You have to say, 'these things are plastic-I can make them work!' It's all about practice and acquiring an ear." As we continue speaking Robbie Leslie says that he wasn't paying attention to BPMs at that time, but rather what the master DJs were actually playing and he consulted his self-made lists and notes often.
I asked Robbie Leslie if DJ'ing went well with his personality or if he would describe himself as being shy or very open with people. He replied by saying, "I'm a little bit introverted and in fact confess one reason I was comfortable in the DJ booth was because I really liked to work alone. When I got behind the bar and then made the changeover to the booth I thought it was so great because I didn't have to schmooze with all these drunks. I know it sounds snobby, but after a while it gets tedious. I used to like bartending during Disco hours because it was very fast and I used to enjoy making drinks quickly and not having to do the small talk thing, but during the dinner hours you had to chitchat and pretend to be interested I confess, that isn't one of the driving factors that put me in the booth, but it was a pleasant thing that I could work alone as a craftsman, as an artist and I enjoy focusing on what I'm doing and not having to feign interest in people" It's obvious Robbie must have loved DJ'ing because he was only making about a $100.00 a night whereas he could make much more bartending.
Robbie Leslie's Signature Sound
We get into the nuts ands bolts of his mixing style and Robbie Leslie explains, "It's all about making people happy. It wasn't until I got my feet firmly planted that I started to express myself musically." I then asked Robbie if it was fair to say that he was playing it safe in the beginning and he tells me, "I was playing it very safe." During our talks it's becoming obvious that Robbie's style is not an in your face or the "you have to dance to whatever I play" mentality. He says, "I consider myself a bit of a public servant. I see myself in the DJ booth to serve the crowd and the greater good and to make the biggest number of people happy. That's always served me very well because I was a bankable artist. Some DJs have incredible high nights where they are inspired and just as many where people say 'I'll leave and never come back.' I've always prided myself on being consistently good. I think that comes from watching the crowd, doing your homework, following other DJs and checking the lists... I'm admittedly a mainstream DJ although I adapted to the after hours nightlife certainly when I sort of reached the peak of my career in New York because I could. The whole attitude of f*ck them (the crowd) this is a great record and I know it is–I'm going to make them like it–that's not me and it never was. Within those parameters artistry plays a major role, It's all in how you put the whole package together. It's not just a matter of playing a hit parade without any imagination-no, no, no. Therein lies the artistry, putting it together in such a way that the entire package is a great experience."
Turning our attention to the technical and equipment side I asked Robbie Leslie about his mixing techniques and the type of mixers he prefers. At the Sandpiper he used a Bozak mixer with rotary pots as opposed to sliders. He echoes DJ Bobby Viteritti's preferences for using rotary knobs because of its unique midrange tonal qualities that gives the mix a wonderful sound. Presently he comes across a lot of Rane mixers in his travels and they also have a rotary knob model available in addition to the standard sliders. He has no preference for one style of mixing over another and likes to mix things up by doing long overlays, then a quick chop here or whatever between records. Different records demand different mixing techniques.
I asked Robbie Leslie to talk about DJs that had an impact on him and here's what he had to say,
Probably the one DJ who impacted me most was Alan Dodd, who was the house DJ at 12 West. His mixing was as smooth as glass and his music was fun, motivating-just wonderful. Another that I used to go dancing to in New York was Jim Burgess who I consider to be probably the greatest DJs of ALL time bar none. He was not only a DJ, but also theatrical His whole way of presenting music was like theatre. That had a lot to do with how I later developed my style as well. We were all members of Judy Weinstein's "For the Record" record pool in New York so consequently I was rubbing shoulders with everybody (DJs).
Working With DJ Bobby Viteritti
Robbie Leslie continued his winter migration ritual by traveling to Florida during the off season. Instead of going back to being a waiter he now filled in as a DJ or lightman at clubs in and around Fort Lauderdale. One such club was Tangerine where he had the unique opportunity to work with DJ Bobby Viteritti. Viteritti would later DJ at Trocadero Transfer in San Francisco. Robbie Leslie was Bobby Viteritti's lightman at Tangerine and later at the Marlin Beach Hotel / Poop Deck on the big nights and a DJ on Bobby's off nights. Robbie Leslie picked up quite a number of pointers from Viteritti, as he did with other DJs, and considers him a master. Robbie had this to say about Viteritti, "I can still hear characteristics in my performance that go straight back to what I learned from 'the master'. A master not only of the mix, but of the entire environment of a dancer's experience." Even though they only worked together for brief periods during the winter months in Florida, they both became good friends and still keep in touch to this day.
From The Sandpiper To 12 West
Robbie Leslie continued with the Sandpiper until late 1979 when it lost its lease. The closing party on Halloween, called "Last Dance," attracted a massive crowd of dancers bused in from New York. It was a huge success, but bittersweet and meant that it was now necessary to search for another club. He successfully made the transition from a waiter to a bartender and then to a full-fledged Disco DJ during his tenure at the Sandpiper. He had perfected his mixing and musical selection skills to the point that he was very well known in and around the New York City area. So when the time came to look for work Robbie moved to New York where he had no problems getting hired.
In 1979 the two most prestigious gay clubs were 12 West and Flamingo, both in the west Village section of New York City. 12 West had Alan Dodd and Jim Evangelista as their regular DJs and was located by the West Side Highway just north of Christopher Street. The three-story structure was formerly a flower warehouse and had a square dance floor flanked by banquettes on three sides with a crossbeam wooden ceiling. Besides being a member's club that served no alcohol it also contained a Graebar sound system like the Sandpiper, but with two large corner loaded horns, four coffin speakers which housed midrange arrays pointed at the dance floor and a tweeter array up above. It also sported an array of upwards of 10 mirror balls of differing sizes suspended above the floor. Robbie Leslie says,
The beauty of 12 West was the sound system. It was so soft that you could dance all night long without getting a headache-it was a sweet well balanced system, not overly bright or bottom heavy.
Robbie's first night playing at 12 West was a guest appearance late in 1979 that went so well that he was asked to come back and within a month was hired full-time in part to replace Alan Dodd. There were some mechanical difficulties during the first hour of his guest appearance, which led to the needle skipping on a few records, but that was quickly fixed when a Grabaer engineer appeared with foam pads in hand to place under the Technics 1200s. The record skipping did put Robbie on pins and needles at first because he had no control over it and was afraid he would lose the energy on the floor. He had this to say,
I have a very strong ethic about how a DJ is supposed to look in the DJ booth and that is to say he should look as if he is in total control I think people should look up and feel they are in good hands.
Robbie Leslie considers working at 12 West a memorable experience since it was his first big club and everyone was like one big family there.
What is interesting to note is that while many employers didn't like their DJs working for a competing club on off nights, Robbie was one of the first to do just that. He also was spinning at the Underground every Friday, Studio 54 on Thursdays and Sundays and later Ice Palace, The Red Parrot, Palladium... In fact he had at least two or three other clubs he was working for during his time with 12 West.
The Saint Comes Marching In
12 West had two DJs and was only open three days a week. One DJ would work Wednesday and Friday and the other on Saturday and then the following week reverse that. Robbie loved his stint at 12 West, but across town in September of 1980 a new club called the Saint had just opened and it was sucking the life out of the other clubs. Many of the dancers had jumped ship and moved over to the Saint, which featured DJs Jim Burgess, Roy Thode and Alan Dodd on the turntables. Eventually 12 West was forced to let go of Robbie and ultimately close down. Robbie Leslie explains that,
The Saint broke all records, it was an international phenomena with people flying in from Europe on a monthly basis.
While still at 12 West, Robbie had been courted by the Saint to augment their lineup of DJs. So it comes as no surprise that when 12 West let Robbie go he ended up at the Saint, which was now the "in" place to go dancing. His first night DJ'ing at the Saint was on Christmas Day, 1980 and from then on he rotated with the other DJs while still spinning at other New York clubs such as Underground, Palladium and Studio 54.
The Saint was located in the old Fillmore East building and had the most technologically advanced light and Graebar sound system available at the time. It's opening in 1980 shook up the club world in New York and put 12 West and Flamingo out of business. During the Saint's reign its DJs featured a broad mix of classic 70s Disco right up through 80 s electronic Hi-NRG. Robbie Leslie was well versed and able to play in such an environment with ease and stayed with the Saint until late 1986.
Robbie Leslie: Thirty Something
In November of 1986 Robbie celebrated his 30th birthday and with that came the stark realization that things had to change. As he puts it,
There was no where to go, but down and that was really troubling me. I saw other DJs who were slowly, but surely taking less prestigious and less than pleasant engagements Bobby "DJ" Guttadaro comes to mind. Sweet guy, and I loved him to death, but I just hated to think of me going that path, and playing at lesser clubs just to get work after these heights that I had reached. I'd rather just have left with those wonderful memories. That was my 30th birthday and it was that week that I left the Saint and Palladium with a big farewell party and I immediately moved to Florida to start a new life, and new career and that did not go as I had planned.
Robbie explains that he was looking to start a small business, but realized he still loved music and courted the owners of the Copa where he had worked previously as a waiter during the off season years back. He was hired as a DJ, and remained with them for nine years playing everything that was popular at the time. I asked Robbie how he was able to make the transition to newer sounds and if he even liked it, and his response is;
I've never been terribly age-ist in my musical selections. I like to look at music as my palette. I draw from anywhere as long as it makes sense. Certain things I did not care about like Punk music in the late 1970s and early 1980s–it never really appealed to me, but things that have an edge to them might be acceptable. I really consider the dance floor first and try to cater to them. I've been pretty happy with most of the turns popular and dance music has taken over the years.
Robbie Leslie and the Present Day
Traveling has been in Robbie's blood since childhood and he continued doing this from the late 80s on through today even doing several appearances at Probe and Trocadero before they closed. He now keeps himself busy by doing guest DJ engagements internationally as well as here in the US. He says that the wages offered to DJs in Florida is criminal and he can make more in one engagement than a whole month back home in a club. The various locations and the opportunity to travel and entertain people greatly appeals to him and he considers it a paid vacation. One interesting note is that he still does engagements on Fire Island and has done them for 27 consecutive years. In addition he offers most of his recorded sets from the 1970s through the present on special CDs to music enthusiasts.
We veer on to the topic of today's dance music and culture and Robbie Leslie concedes that many of the baby boomers no longer chose to go out as much and dance clubs have shrunk. He also takes note that much of today's music is more aggressive, but he says,
This is their day, who am I to dictate... I'm happy to give them my interpretation of what they are listening to. I know my limitations and wouldn't venture into certain musical domains since it wouldn't be right for me or the audience.
It's this openness and ability to accept change that has kept Robbie Leslie relevant all these years. In closing he says,
I still enjoy music and can not think of anything that gives me greater joy. I don't know where music is going, but as long as there are dance halls I think there's a place for me.
DJ Robbie Leslie's Top Disco / Dance Songs
- Blue Magic - Welcome To The Club/Look Me Up
- Brainstorm Loving Is Really My Game
- Beautiful Bend All Tracks
- The Reflections - Three Steps From True Love
- Snap I Got The Power (Instrumental)
- Gloria Gaynor How High The Moon, Never Can Say Goodbye, This Love Affair, Most Of All
- USA/European Connection I All Tracks
- USA/European Connectio II There's A Way Into My Heart/I'd Like To Get Closer/Do Me Good
- Dan Hartman This Is It, Love Strong
- Eddie Kendricks Chains, Get The Cream Off The Top, Going Up In Smoke, Date With The Rain, Boogie Down, Keep On Truckin'
- First Choice Armed & Extremely Dangerous, Smarty Pants, Running Out Of Fools, Love And Happiness, Hold Your Horses
- The Jacksons Forever Came Today, Show You The Way To Go, Can You Feel It
- The Trammps Where The Happy People Go, Stop And Think, Can We Come Together, Soul Searchin' Time, Hooked For Life
- The Supremes Let Yourself Go, Stoned Love
- Jimmy Ruffin Hold On To My Love
- Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes The Love I Lost, Bad Luck, Don't Leave Me This Way
- The OJays Living For The Weekend, Love Train, I Love Music
- Diana Ross Ain't No Mountain High Enough, I Ain't Been Licked, Someday We'll Be Together (Remix)
- Jackie Moore Helpless, This Time Baby, Can You Tell Me Why
- M.F.S.B Love Is The Message, Sexy, The Zip, T.S.O.P., K-Gee
- Soft House Company A Little Piano
- Jean Carn Free Love, Was That All It Was
- Barrabas Mellow Blow, Highjack
- Watson Beasley Breakaway, Don't Let Your Chance Go By
- Ashford And Simpson Bourgie Bourgie, Found A Cure, Dance Forever, Solid, Nobody Knows, Tried Tested And Found True, Get Out Your Handkerchief, Count Your Blessings
Written by Bernard F. Lopez of DiscoMusic.com (January 10, 2003)
Copyright 2003 by Bernard F. Lopez
All rights reserved