Earlier this year, we lost a true pioneer of disco and club culture: the 92-year-old Régine Zylberberg. She grew up outside Paris during the war years, in a then-occupied France, and in many ways her story is a classic rags-to-riches tale.
It starts in Brussels in 1929, where Régine Zylberberg was born to Polish parents. She spent much of her early life hiding from the Nazis in France and in the post-war years her father owned a Jewish cafe in the working-class Paris neighbourhood of Belleville, where she worked as a waitress and learned to cook
But with her infectious personality, powerful singing voice and good looks, the flame-haired Régine was destined for much bigger things than the daily grind. In her early 20s she took a job as a cloakroom attendant at Paris’s legendary Whisky à Gogo and it wasn’t long until she was managing the place. One decision she made would not only change the atmosphere at the Whisky à Gogo but set a new precedent for clubs across the world.
By her own account, Régine grew tired of customers playing the same songs on the jukebox, and the atmosphere-killing sound of “couples snogging in the corner” between tracks.
Her solution was to throw out the jukebox and install two turntables, allowing for continuous music and essentially inventing a primitive form of DJing.
“I installed two turntables so there was no gap in the music. I was barmaid, doorman, bathroom attendant, hostess — and I also put on the records,” she said. “It was the first ever discotheque and I was the first ever club disc-jockey.”
The Whisky attracted plenty of famous visitors and four years later, using her newfound connection with the Rothschild family to secure funding, Régine opened her very own nightclub — the Chez Régine, a simple basement club next to the restaurant La Pergola. According to Elle Magazine, “For three months before it opened, she placed a sign outside nightly that read disco full — a trick the party crowd couldn’t resist.”
During the war years in occupied France, the nightlife scene looked very different to the style of club Régine would eventually pioneer in Paris. The Nazis considered jazz music as too bohemian and prohibited it, forcing people to seek out ‘underground’ dance clubs where the clientele would bring records to play. These clubs, including the eponymous Le Discotheque, were the first to be referred to as ‘discotheques’, a portmanteau of the French words ‘disc’ (record) and ‘bibliotheque’ (library).
The music played in these early clubs was often jazz and swing, and would later converge with other dance styles — including mambo and rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s and soul and funk in the 1960s — to form the genre we know today as disco. But this melding of influences would not have been possible without early clubs like the Whisky à Gogo or the Chez Régine.
As her nightclub business continued to grow through the late 50s and into the 60s, Régine’s clubs became must-go destinations for the leading cultural figures of the time, and even socialites and royalty graced her dancefloors. As reported in the Guardian, regular visitors included Andy Warhol, Richard Nixon, Liza Minnelli, and Salvador Dalí. And her choice in men was equally diverse: actors Steve McQueen and Omar Sharif, alpinist Maurice Herzog, tennis player Björn Borg, and even a Spanish matador called El Cordobés, all fell under her spell.
By the early 60s, a mass pop culture movement like nothing before was bubbling below the surface of the mainstream, eventually erupting with the ‘British Invasion’ of the US — spearheaded by the Beatles in 1964 — which in turn gave way to a cultural, social and sexual revolution across the western world and beyond.
Much of the ground-breaking music released that decade was psychedelia or hard rock, with important albums from Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. While you could dance to some of this music (check out The Beatles’ 1966 song ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’, whose persistent beat and multi-layered horns sound somewhat disco) it wasn’t really associated with the dancefloor.
The dancier strain of music in the 60s and early 70s came from the R&B/soul labels, with Detroit artists like the Supremes and the Temptations releasing proto-disco hits such as ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ (1966) and ‘Dance and Hum Along’ (1970). Meanwhile, James Brown was busy laying the foundations for funk music with his aggressive take on soul. And Brown’s approach was carried forward by Sly & The Family Stone, the first major band with a bi-racial line-up, whose late-60s funky psychedelia was hugely influential on disco.
Régine became a recording artist in her own right during the 60s, singing songs written by Serge Gainsbourg and the ‘French Sinatra’ Charles Aznavour, many of which are regarded as pop standards in France today. (In 1979 she even released a beloved French version of the disco classic ‘I Will Survive’.)
By the end of the decade, Régine’s nightclub empire had grown sizably, with clubs around the world fuelling young people’s love of dance music. In the US, the early 70s saw cutting-edge DJs in New York and Los Angeles playing a heady mix of soul, funk, Latin music and psychedelic rock – the musical palette that disco would draw from. But it took a historic, violent uprising to really kick the disco movement into motion.
As producer Steve Greenberg points out in his excellent podcast, Speed of Sound: “The story of the disco era began with a riot and also ended with a riot, and the two riots occurred almost precisely 10 years apart. The first was the June 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village.”
The Stonewall Inn wasn’t a disco, as such, rather a bar with a jukebox — the type that Régine had detested back in the 1950s. As Greenberg also explains, “in 1969 it was illegal in New York for people of the same sex to dance together” and the bar was subject to police raids. Following the death of gay icon Judy Garland the previous night, the Stonewall Riot saw the bar’s clientele hit back against police for the first time.
The riot’s aftermath finally saw the repealment of laws banning same-sex dancing, resulting in a swathe of legal but still underground clubs opening up across the city. Due to the outsider nature of these early nightclubs, they became a haven for gay people and other marginalised groups looking to explore their sexuality or culture without persecution or fear of arrest.
This is an aspect of the disco movement and wider club culture that remains today; that clubs should be spaces where people are free to express their identity, as well as delving headfirst into a journey of musical discovery.
Nowhere epitomised this commitment to musical exploration, sexual fluidity and late-night debauchery than The Loft.
While Chez Régine and other French discotheques had shaped the aesthetics of clubs in 1960s New York, many consider The Loft — the home of DJ David Mancuso — to be the birthplace of disco as a culture and musical sound. His loft parties were infamous, introducing the crowds to unheard songs from a diverse range of artists, all played by a rota of influential DJs through a huge sound system. The parties, fuelled by an excess of drugs, would go on for days.
“There was definitely a trace of hippy idealism at The Loft, and a lot of the music was hippy influenced,” explains Greenberg. “For instance, Mancuso would play the English psychedelic group Traffic, or the jazz-funk of War […] and if The Loft had a theme song, then appropriately enough it was ‘House Party’ by Fred Wesley.”
By the early 70s, DJs were using techniques like seamless transitions, beat-matching, slip-cueing and mashups. Using these techniques, they took club-goers on a dynamic musical journey that mixed popular dance music styles like funk, soul and rock ’n’ roll with lesser-known foreign records including ‘Wild Safari’ by Spain’s Barrabas and ‘Soul Makossa’ by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango (sampled by Michael Jackson on ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ and by Rihanna on ‘Don’t Stop the Music’).
But at that point, nobody made disco records. There weren’t disco acts. The music emanating from Mancuso’s loft was a live mix of the tracks he selected and DJed. Other DJs in other clubs were doing similar, each with their distinct touch, such as The Gallery’s Nicky Siano and The Sanctuary’s Francis Grasso, who is often credited as the inventor of beatmatching.
Drawing inspiration from these early musical mashups, a couple of producers in Philadelphia — Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff — began to record what can be regarded as the first true disco songs.
Drummer Earl Young was the first to record the classic ‘four to the floor’ disco beat, on the 1972 soul tracks ‘Win, Place or Show (She’s A Winner)’ by the Intruders and ‘Zing Went the Strings of My Heart’ by the Trammps, while The O’Jays’ hit song ‘Love Train’ was also formative in the disco sound.
All these songs feature similar elements: the four-to-the-floor bass drum, heavy hi-hats, Latin-style percussion, jazz chords, sweeping strings, clean funky guitar sounds (sometimes with the use of percussive wah-wah), brass sections, and lyrical themes of celebration, love and dancing.
By 1973–74, disco was officially a ‘thing’. Some of the classic hits we all know and love began to appear, including ‘Love’s Theme’ by Barry White (credited to the Love Unlimited Orchestra), ‘Rock the Boat’ by Hues Corporation (many claim this is the first big disco hit), ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ by Carl Douglas (the first number one disco single in the UK) and Eddie Kendricks’ ‘Boogie Down’. Disco was still a largely black genre — except for ABBA, doing their own thing over in Sweden, but with a sound more rooted in rock and pop.
By 1975 there were over 10,000 discos across the US and disco music was a global phenomenon, with straight white audiences returning to the dancefloor, enamoured with dance crazes like the Bump and the Hustle. Over in Germany producer Giorgio Moroder recorded a talented young singer called Donna Summer, whose overtly sexual 12” release ‘Love to Love You’ was 17 minutes long, intended purely for disco play. Influenced by the Krautrock sound pioneered by Kraftwerk and Can, Moroder and Summer would go on to release the legendary ‘I Feel Love’ just two years later, laying the blueprint for 80s electronic music.
Other releases in the mid-70s included
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