Remembering Mel Cheren, the 'Godfather of Disco'
Mel Cheren, the founder of the Paradise Garage and West End Records, died on Dec. 7.
Some call him the Godfather of Disco. Others refer to him as Uncle Mel. Whichever name is used, both capture the familial feeling ascribed to Mel Cheren, the pioneer who made fundamental contributions to disco music and culture, and nurtured its extended community.
On Thursday evening, nearly 250 family members, friends and colleagues filled St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue and 59th Street for a memorial service to celebrate Cheren, who died on December 7 from pneumonia as a complication of AIDS. He would have turned 75 this Monday.
Personal recollections in addition to stirring vocal performances by Taana Gardner, Marty Thomas and Dawn Tallman delivered a portrait of Cheren, whom his attorney Sherri Eisenpress succinctly compared to a “cannoli.” Her analogy captured his hard exterior bursting with business acumen, and sweetened on the inside by abundant generosity and passion expressed through music, and even painting. His canvases, produced without a brush, look like the squares of Mark Rothko, his muse, with fingerprint traces.
The ashes of Mel Cheren and Larry Levan lay side by side
“He was somebody who had the remarkable gift of being able to create family in so many different worlds,” said Mark Cheren, across the altar from a life-size photo of his cousin. Beneath it, two urns containing the ashes of Mel and Larry Levan, the legendary Paradise Garage DJ, rested on a table draped with a rainbow flag and flanked by a glittering disco ball. According to writer Brent Nicholson Earle, who hosted the service, Mel kept the cremains of Levan after he passed away in 1992.
A native of Massachusetts, Cheren co-founded West End Records with Ed Kushins in 1976, almost two decades into a career that generated the groundbreaking concepts of the 12-inch vinyl format and the instrumental B-side. West End quickly became a home for influential R&B dance music, beginning with its first single, “Sessomatto.” According to Cheren in “The Godfather of Disco,” a 2007 biographical film by Gene Graham, hip-hop patriarch Grandmaster Flash cited “Sessomatto” as an influence on burgeoning uptown rappers before the dawn of the Sugarhill Gang.
As West End progressed through the late 70s and early 80s, the label delivered smashes such as Karen Young’s “Hot Shot,” the New York Citi Peech Boys’ “Don’t Make Me Wait,” which included Larry Levan, and Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat,” one of the most sampled tracks in music history.
“I closed my eyes when I went in to record it,” Gardner recalled on Thursday about the song that achieved extraordinary sales in 1980. “Everyone looked like they were hanging from the ceiling,” she said, “and I knew it must have been something good.”
During the memorial service, Gardner performed “Cry of the Brokenhearted,” a soulful ode to friendship she wrote for Cheren, whom she applauded for his honesty. West End producer Kenton Nix, who also attended the service, introduced them to each other when she was 17.
Although hailed by music executive Daniel Glass for his authenticity as a “record man,” the savvy Cheren possessed the means to provide his former lover, Michael Brody, with financial backing for the Paradise Garage in 1977. Housed in a parking garage at 84 King Street in SoHo, the legendary club installed Larry Levan and other DJs as the center of attention, where they reigned over a powerful sound system— perhaps, the best in the history of the city. Until its demise in 1987, the venue defied boundaries of race, class and even aesthetic to unite patrons in sonic ecstasy.
Sherri Eisenpress explained the allure of the Paradise Garage for those who missed the heyday: “It was the only place around where no matter who you were, people came together in the shared spirit of love and music that, when you heard it, you had no choice but to get up and dance.”
DJ Jeannie Hopper, host of the WBAI-FM program “Liquid Sound Lounge,” which her friend Cheren generously supported, adds with a sense of mourning: “These events were places where people could come together in a social context. Through people coming together, all the isms disappear.”
Others insist that the experience cannot be adequately relayed in words.
“If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t know,” remarked one Paradise Garage devotee at a reception following the memorial service. “It would reverberate from your head to your dome,” he insisted, as he flashed a tattoo of the venue on his arm.
The reception was held on West 22nd Street in Chelsea at the Colonial House Inn, where Cheren lived and for 20 years operated a gay bed and breakfast now run by his cousin, Illya Dekhtyar. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, from 1980-84, he offered the space to the non-profit organization, Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Along with his founding of the AIDS charity, 24 Hours for Life, the gesture was one of many significant steps to fight a disease that he ironically contracted in the later years of his life.
However, as someone who reportedly relished the phrase, “Nothing happens by accident,” Cheren in his final days transformed the irony into an opportunity to educate people about the need to remain vigilant against AIDS. Like his impact on music and culture, his contributions to activism are immortal, if unquantifiable.
Richard Burns, executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, recounted his final meeting with Cheren at Cabrini Hospice the day before he died. “Standing there with Mel,” he said, “it was so easy to tell him about the difference he made on earth.”
Taana Gardner, of "Heartbeat" fame, performed “Cry of the Brokenhearted,” a soulful ode to friendship she wrote for Cheren.
A Cheren original painting in the style of Rothko.