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John Luongo - The Restoration Of A Disco Legend

Written By Greg Wilson, November 24, 2017

Bostonian John Luongo is someone who seemed to have slipped through the cracks of dance history – his legacy largely obscured, whilst that of his contemporaries, Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons, has served to inspire a new generation of Disco enthusiasts.

Moulton and Gibbons’ status as remix pioneers is set in stone. Both were central at seminal stages, majorly shaping the ensuing dance direction.

Tom Moulton was there from the get-go, already extending tracks for the dancefloor before, in a famous moment of serendipity, making the realisation that pressing a single onto 12” vinyl, where greater groove space was available would, apart from allowing more than ample room for his extended versions, gift him a hugely beneficially boost with regards to the amount volume he could cut into the disc (this wasn’t possible on the album format, which is what 12” vinyl housed, given that a number of tracks were crammed onto one side – the more space taken up, the less level possible).

Moulton was the original remixer – his signature label credit ‘A Tom Moulton Mix’, regarded as a mark of quality during the mid-late ’70s when he was at his most productive. He had also come up with the prototype mixtape when he put together a series of continuous reel-to-reel recordings that were played at special events during the early ’70s at The Sandpiper, an influential gay venue on New York’s Fire Island, whilst in 1974 he’d link the tracks on side 1 of Disco queen Gloria Gaynor’s classic ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ album to provide the first mix on vinyl.

Unlike Moulton, who didn’t DJ live, but simply provided tapes for the Sandpiper, Walter Gibbons cultivated his flair for mixing by extending the breaks of tracks in a club setting, notably at his most celebrated residency, New York’s Galaxy 21. This paralleled Kool Herc’s break extension innovations across the city in the South Bronx, heralding the oncoming age of turntablism that furnished a cornerstone of Hip Hops four elements (Luongo was also experimenting with similar techniques around the same time in Boston, all 3 apparently unaware of one another).

It was as a result of hearing Gibbons mix between 2 copies of Double Exposure’s ‘Ten Percent’ that Ken Cayre of Salsoul Records invited him to edit an extended version of the track. This would spawn the first ever commercially released 12” in 1976. Credited as a ‘Disco Blend’ (blend being the term NYC DJs originally used for the technique of running one record into the next) it provided the perfect launchpad for Gibbons’ career as a maverick remix specialist.

There isn’t any similarly definitive first to hang John Luongo’s legacy on in the same way as Moulton and Gibbons, which is no doubt why his contribution has been thus far undervalued, but the essential new CD career retrospective ‘Can You Feel The Force? – The John Luongo Disco Mixes’ (Groove Line Records), goes a long way towards addressing this:

Boston-born Luongo started out as a DJ in the late-’60s with a twin-pronged approach that took in both college radio, he was then a civil engineering student at Boston’s Northeastern University, and clubs – his first residency at the city’s Townehouse. Having graduated in 1973, he’d enjoy a successful spell at Rhinoceros, whilst reputedly becoming the first disco DJ to broadcast live club sets for a major radio station, Boston’s WBOS, helping, along with DJs including Jimmy Stuard and Joey Carvello, to make the city’s Disco scene the most progressive outside Manhattan. Carvello remembered Luongo’s DJing as ‘quick-cut’, referring to how he’d extend the breaks of a record by switching between a pair of 7” copies.

His first foray into the recording studio was in 1974 when he picked up a co-production credit on ‘I Just Wanna Say I Love You’, a single by Leon Collins released on Boston’s Elf Records. Luongo’s main contribution was to add more percussion, this approach informing his subsequent remixes.

In 1975, he founded Nightfall Magazine, which documented the city’s nightlife, its writers including another local DJ Arthur Baker, destined to become one of the most influential dance producers of all via his early ’80s Electro-Funk offerings. In ‘76 Luongo launched one of the early record pools, servicing DJs in the region whilst branching off further, becoming National Disco Coordinator for MK Dance Promotions, which was named ‘Disco Promotion Company of the Year’ by Billboard 1978.

Luongo’s big break came when approached by major company CBS, who released records on a number of labels, Columbia and Epic included. The initial contact had been with regards to the promotion of a Bee Gees written Melba Moore recording, ‘You Stepped Into My Life’, but when Luongo said the track would need a makeover before it was club ready he got the job of remixing it, adding, of course, ample amounts of additional percussion (courtesy of Jimmy Maelen) and, in the process, scoring a top 5 US Disco hit.

The Jacksons, then struggling to reclaim their Jackson 5 success of the early ’70s, were major beneficiaries of the Luongo touch thanks to remixes of ‘Blame It On The Boogie’ and ‘Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)’. The latter is, to my ears, one of the quintessential remixes, despite the fact that the group’s initial reaction was hardly positive, Maelen’s percussion work is stunning.

Generally working alongside engineer Michael Barbiero, during those final years of the ‘70s, the duo would be responsible for some of the most invigorating remixes of the Disco era. 1979 marked a bumper year for them, twice topping the US Disco chart via Dan Hartman and Jackie Moore, with further dancefloor success courtesy of acts including Patti Labelle, Johnny Mathis, Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jnr, Melba Moore, Sly Stone, Gonzalez and The Real Thing, the Liverpool band whose ‘Can You Feel The Force?’ provides the title of the compilation.

Dan Hartman, former member of the Rock band, the Edgar Winter Group, became an unlikely Disco star when his Tom Moulton mixed ‘Instant Reply’ became one the biggest dance tracks of late ’78. A year on Hartman turned to Luongo & Barbiero to work their magic on ‘Vertigo / Relight My Fire’, and the duo came up trumps, the resulting mix something of a Disco symphony, a true a dancefloor epic coming in at just under 10 minutes in length – the cherry on the cake being a wonderful featured vocal from Salsoul diva Loleatta Holloway. It climbed to the peak of the Disco chart, spending 6 weeks at the summit in early 1980. In 1993 British DJ Joey Negro and Andrew Livingstone would produce a chart-topping cover for UK boy band Take That, with the singer Lulu covering the Loleatta Holloway parts. Given the consequential Pop associations with the song via Take That’s version, the original, a bone-fide Disco classic, is nowadays rarely heard. I’ve played it from time to time since my DJ return, but it was a little discouraging when someone on a club forum stated that they were shocked to hear me playing Take That!

‘This Time Baby’, an O’Jays cover by Jackie Moore, had everything you want in a Disco record – a driving rhythm packed with percussive treats, a killer bassline, soaring strings and thrills a-plenty, and all topped with a sensational soulful vocal. Only recently I picked it out as a personal favourite from a selection offered to me during an interview prior to my appearance at Glitterbox in Ibiza. It was a spur of the moment choice, but I managed to work the track in a few hours later when I played – it’s what might have once been referred to as an evergreen.

Back in 1979, when I originally played these records, I was resident DJ at the Golden Guinea on Merseyside playing Disco, Funk and Soul. having developed a healthy local scene. New York style mixing had yet to take root in the UK, DJs still microphone based and the equipment they used unsuitable for turntable manipulation. The name Tom Moulton might have been seen on a number of records, but the actual process of remixing, whatever that entailed, was still vague, just as the role of producer remained a mystery to many DJs. All that generally counted was the name of the artist, the name of the track, perhaps what label it was on and, obviously, what came out of the speakers – credits like songwriter, producer, arranger, and now remixer, were superfluous to those outside the specialist scenes, where they were digging deeper with trainspotter scrutiny.

It wasn’t until the early-‘80s that British DJs began to catch-up with these New York innovations and the penny fully dropped to the realisation that these remixers were fellow DJs who’d taken their knowledge of the dancefloor into the studio. Coupled with the introduction of the Technics SL-1200 turntable, all would change in the UK clubs as the ‘80s unfurled, mixing replacing the microphone and US techniques merging with the UK lineage/mentality to create the conditions for the oncoming rave era. I talk about it in this piece – ‘From Garrard To Technics – How British DJs Began To Mix’:

Whilst on this hot streak of success, Luongo struck a deal with CBS to form his own label, Pavillion (spelt with 2 L’s, the extra one to denote his surname). The label however struggled to make its impact, Luongo finding himself more concerned with the day-to-day runnings than getting creative in the studio. They’d finally make a breakthrough in 1981 scoring a pair of US Disco #1’s with ‘You’re Too Late’ by Fantasy and ‘Zulu’ by British band The Quick, which he mixed (he was credited with Jose Rodriguez for mastering on the Fantasy track).

This would prove to be the pinnacle for Pavillion, the label failing to keep up with the seismic changes on the Electro horizon, with a whole new wave of remixers twisting up the technology and introducing a dub ethos – the music was changing radically. The backlash against Disco, which had happened just after Pavillion had formed, proved to be ominous. Along with Moulton and Gibbons, Luongo was, seemingly all of a sudden, no longer current as the underground emerged and a whole array of brilliant remixers took dance music into uncharted areas of experimentation. Larry Levan, Tee Scott, François Kevorkian, Shep Pettibone, Jellybean Benitez, Tony Humphreys, Nick Martinelli & David Todd, John Morales & Sergio Munzibai –we were spoilt for choice, this new-breed of remixer taking up the baton and running hard towards the future.

This happened during the years I was at Wigan Pier and later Legend in Manchester. ‘You’re Too Late’ was a huge track at The Pier, but, surprisingly, never crossed over on a mainstream level, having all the ingredients of a hit back then. By 1982 I’d graduated to the cutting-edge of the scene, playing almost exclusively the latest imports, hot from the New York pressing plants and mixed by the type of people mentioned above. The only John Luongo remix that was big for me during that period was his take on Brit-Funk band I Level’s ‘Give Me’ (this was the track that Sandy Kerr’s cult-classic ‘Thug Rock’, released around the same time as Luongo’s mix, was based around). He’d also remix Blancmange’s 1982 single ‘Feel Me’, a track I did my own version of in conjunction with Derek Kaye a few years ago.

No longer at the cusp of the dance scene, Luongo was still in demand, Rock and Pop artists looking for a club slant would keep him busy, including Queen, Tina Turner, Al Jarreau, Dolly Parton, Huey Lewis & The News, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Cher, KISS, John Waite and Deborah Harry.

Since those heady Disco days Luongo’s pioneering contribution has been somewhat lost to time, only the most ardent of Disco connoisseurs aware of his work. His rehabilitation as a dance icon is now well underway with the release of the ‘Can You Feel The Force?’ retrospective, a quality product all ways up.

The album is the latest in a series of Disco reissues from Groove Line, who live up to their tagline ‘no corners cut in delivering a high-quality audiophile product’ – their mastering is absolutely bob on, some real sonic excellence going on here. Not surprising really, as the trio behind the Glasgow-based label are Wayne Dickson of Big Break Records, Loud & Clear Hi-Fi’s Allan Boyd and Andrew Pirie, one of the guys behind the city’s long-running underground dance party, Melting Pot, where I’ve enjoyed many a memorable night since I first played there in 2004, getting to know Andrew in the process and coming to understand the depth of his passion for aural excellence and all things Disco – seems he’s found the perfect outlet for these obsessions.

They don’t mess around at Groove Line, endeavouring to source the master tapes. Tracks are remastered where necessary by Nick Robbins at London’s Sound Mastering and cut, again in London, at Alchemy by Matt Colton or Barry Grint – mostly at half-speed for optimum effectiveness. Then it’s off to Optimal, Germany, acclaimed as one of the world’s finest pressing plants, for manufacturing. No stones left unturned in their pursuit to present the best product possible.

So, as you can see, there’s a lot of love that’s gone into this collection of remixes from one of the undisputed innovators of the form. Let’s hope that, as a consequence of this release and the interest it’ll muster in John Luongo, the influence of his work will be more fully appreciated and his legacy belatedly assured.

John Luongo Interview @ Disco Disco:

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