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5th December 2016

Feature: David Mancuso – the New Yorker who taught the world how to party

Remembering David Mancuso, founder of the legendary ‘by invitation only’ loft parties that transformed New York’s club scene in the early 70s

When David Mancuso died in November, he was hailed by disco pioneer Nicky Siano as “the father of all dances.”

It all began with a ‘by invitation only’ party Mancuso held on Valentine’s Day 1970, in the loft space of his apartment at 647 Broadway. The Loft, as his parties became known, reinvented clubbing in New York City in the early 1970s. While at the outset they were fortnightly, as the parties grew in popularity, Mancuso started to host them weekly, drawing people back with his eclectic music selection and the uninhabited atmosphere.“I wanted it to be private, because the loft was also where I slept, where I dreamt, everything,” said Mancuso of the ‘by invitation only’ format.

Mancuso shunned making selections by genre and played everything from country to progressive rock, as well as popular disco hits. This versatility is encapsulated in a story about Mancuso once playing ‘America’ from West Side Story at sunrise, towards the end of one of his mammoth sets. He also eschewed mixing, usually playing songs in their entirety.

After he played the virtually unheard of ‘Soul Makossa’ by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango at one of his loft parties, it became the first song ever to break into Billboard 100 without prior radio play. Mancuso showed labels and musicians they could bypass radio and go straight to DJs and the party goers they played to for recognition. Subsequently, he helped found the New York Record Pool, as a direct way for artists and labels to issue music to DJs.

Dancing was central to Mancuso’s parties at The Loft. For him, the dancers should become part of the performance and the DJ’s role was to facilitate this.  In Tim Lawrence’s Life And Death On the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983, Louis Lee Jr. describes the variety of animated dancing that took place:  “You could find people doing tap dancing, you saw people doing ballet, you would see gymnastics, you would see early aerobics.”

The freedom of the dancing was enabled by the safe atmosphere that Mancuso created at The Loft. Many of the guests, who Mancuso handpicked, were gay, or black or both and the ‘by invitation only’ loft parties were one of the few places they could gather and dance in safety. As Mancuso explains, “People just want to have a good time. They want to feel safe and have a good time. That’s always rule number one for a place: to be safe.”

Amongst the black, gay attendees were the young future, house and disco pioneers Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan. The success of The Loft parties, particularly Mancuso’s ability to keep them within the law by not selling food or drinks, inspired these DJs and the clubs they would play at in the 1980s such as Paradise Garage.

Mancuso’s ‘by invitation only’ parties continued till his death, with events in London and Tokyo, in addition to New York. The philosophy never changed. “It’s more of a personal thing” he said in a rare 2004 interview. “To support a lifestyle and to share moments with my friends through music. What connects the clubs and everything else together is the music.”

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