There are not many DJs who can look back on such a long and successful career as the 54 year old New Yorker Danny Tenaglia. Towards the end of last year he confirmed his extraordinary status once again during a rare visit to Germany where he played at Berlin’s Panorama Bar and Berghain on the same weekend. His enduring popularity can certainly be attributed to his often several hours long sets which still are packed with the most relevant new records of the current day. After all these years, Tenaglia still has his eyes on the future instead of the past. For this interview, though, he made an exception and looks back to the beginnings of his career.
Apparently you got hooked on dance music at a very young age. What led you into it? Were you coming from a musical household, or did you learn by yourself, by listening to the radio for example?
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, we (mom, dad and four brothers) had always been around all kinds of music especially during big family gatherings, which were quite often. It was mostly my mom’s side as she was one of nine children. My dad only had one sister and his side was very reserved. All of my mom’s siblings were married and they all had children except for one aunt. This brought me 20 cousins, ten boys and ten girls, and when we all gathered together it was like an army! (laughs) We also had many second relatives and we were all born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is extremely popular these days since it is very close to Manhattan. Back then, Williamsburg was like a big version of Little Italy. When I visit Naples, Italy, it always reminds me so much of my childhood since Naples still looks exactly the same as it did 50 years ago. I can relate so well to the people there and on the island of Ischia as well.
I truly consider that this all started for me when I was only just a tiny fetus inside of what I call: “The Boom Womb Room!“ I guess I was always paying attention to beats, rhythms and melodies long before I knew what they even were. There was always music in my childhood. My mom’s younger sister Nancy was unable to have children of her own. However, she wound up becoming the most influential person in our entire family and had a wonderfully gifted voice. She always had music on. She bought records very often as there was coincidentally a record store right on our block. She even taught herself how to play piano and guitar by ear and this was initially how I learned to play as well.
Our family often had good reason to celebrate events like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, family picnics, local catholic church festivals from the schools we all attended. I grew up listening to a lot of typical music that elderly Italian people would listen and dance to. Besides the obvious traditional music for dancing like the Tarantellas and the big band Benny Goodman swing music, there was plenty of the 50’s Doo Wop music as that’s what was big for them during this era. So I had no choice but too hear it all. Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, The Beatles, Bossanovas and lots of soul music as well, Motown records particularly. Sometimes I think maybe my family were the ones to have invented karaoke? (laughs) There were many relatives who would love to take turns and sing their hearts out. And to end this deep question, it was most definitely my very dear aunt and godmother Nancy who taught me (and many of us) how to fully appreciate God’s gift of music, how to “feel it deep down in your soul“ and how by the changing of one simple chord that could be played with „great emotion“, it could bring upon unexplainable goose-bumps and quite often – even tears!
Were you aware that the music of those years was extraordinarily important, or was it just what was around then?
I definitely knew in my soul that it was meaningful. But I don’t think I realized how important it all was for me until I passed the age of ten and was realizing what type of music I was loving the most and only wanted to hear music I liked, as I was becoming sick and tired of the Frank Sinatra music and I was not a big fan of ballads and slow music until I eventually got heavily into soul music. I knew that I had possessed an incredibly deep passion for music since birth as relatives and friends would always make it obvious to my parents by saying things like: „One way or another this kid is going to be in the music business when he grows up“, because it basically was the only thing I displayed interest in. I had all kinds of little instruments and child record players, even reel to reel tape machines for kids. However, it did not truly hit me until I was about eleven or twelve when I was quickly finished with some music lessons because I was very young and did not like the discipline and how strict they were with me. They first took me for piano and then guitar lessons. I even attempted saxophone in seventh grade.
I had a great ear for music and which melodies worked together and which ones did not. Unfortunately, I did not posses „the gift“ of mastering an instrument, but I guess that ultimately it was a DJ mixer that became my main instrument of choice that I am stilling playing with today nearly 40 years later.
When you were still a kid, you got to know the prolific DJ Paul Casella, who played a part in turning you onto the profession. Can you tell how that shaped your decision to pursue a career in DJing?
Well, this is where I had then realized instantly at the mere age of twelve years old upon hearing an eight-track tape mixed continuously by Paul that I was somewhat mesmerized by because when I expected a song would end, then another would blend in. Sometimes harmonically on key and sometimes so perfectly that I kept asking my cousin who made this tape and how did he do this and how did he do that? Long story short, I called the telephone number on the 8-Track tape and Paul Casella happened to be nearby and came to our families grocery store and he brought us more 8-Track tapes. He wanted to meet me as he was amazed some little “little kid” was so impressed with him and the art of DJ-ing. I guess it was right around then in 1973 that I never showed much interest in anything else, including sports. I was not interested in any subjects in school, I was only interested in music, becoming a DJ, getting professional DJ equipment and getting gigs in big nightclubs and eventually this obviously led to my second career by nature which was producing music of my own, collecting synths, drum machines and various studio gear.
As you loved the music and heard about what was going down in the seminal clubs of that era, I guess you could not wait until you were old enough to go there yourself. Was it like you had imagined it to be? What kind of clubs could you already go to?
I was barely a teenager, so nightclubs were still a long way for me. But I can recall the anxiety and being extremely envious of my two older brothers, because they would go out often. But their interest was mainly to drink with their friends, meet girls and do what most guys from Brooklyn were doing in 1975. It wasn’t much different than what you can see in the movie Saturday Night Fever, including the fighting! However, when I was about 16 or 17 my older brothers would sometimes sneak me in to a few places which I will remember forever, and then they and other mature relatives and friends would basically chaperone me when I got my first job in a corner bar called The Miami Lounge in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was just a few blocks away from our house and the nights were starting at 9 pm, but my parents wanted me home by 1 am. The lounge is still there and it’s walking distance from the new and already famous club Output. The lounge looks exactly the same as it did in the 1970s but it’s now also a restaurant as well. I’m not sure of it’s current name, though.
You then had the privilege to witness some of the most celebrated clubs and DJs in New York like the Loft and the Paradise Garage and numerous others. Are the first impressions of those nights still vivid? Was it every bit as outstanding as it is described up to this day?
Yes, yes and yes! The Paradise Garage, The Loft, Inferno, Better Days, Starship Discovery 1, The Saint, Crisco Disco and many, many more that had come but now are sadly all gone! It’s a shame we don’t have much footage or even great photos of so many of these nostalgic parties and venues. There were so many options back then from all the way in Downtown Manhattan up to 57th Street and from East to West, seven nights a week. We had big venues, small venues, raw underground parties with no decor at all and obvious mega places like Studio 54 and Xenon. Then as the 80s came around we saw lots of changes with all kinds of theme parties at places like The Limelight, Area, Roxy and others. Read the rest of this entry »