Bliss Classics is a new series by Blisspop that will highlight artists, producers, DJs and labels that are an important part of the history of dance and electronic music. We are excited to kick off the series with a look at one of dance music’s most influential record labels, West End Records.
In the world of dance music, record labels are as much lauded as the tracks and albums themselves. Why so? In many cases, especially in the independent realm, labels are the starting point for the beginning of a particular sound, culture or movement. As disco began to rise in popularity in the mid-1970s, several labels such as Salsoul, Casablanca, SAM and Prelude were strongly linked to the sound. However, the label that is connected to many disco and music firsts, and one whose legacy is so important that it is being resurrected in the present day, is West End Records.
In 1976, as their employment with Scepter Records was coming to an end due to the label’s closure, Mel Cheren and Ed Kushins decided that they needed to start a label of their own. As Scepter’s Head of Production, Cheren was responsible for many dance music firsts, such as the instrumental B-side and, most importantly, the 12-inch record. In a phone interview with the website Disco-Disco, conducted before his passing in 2007, Cheren said:
“The idea came from [DJ] Tom Moulton, because he suggested that if we put the record on 12″ we could spread the grooves and make it hotter for the club DJs. We were the first company to put it out for DJs. Salsoul put their first 12” record out at about the same time on commercial with “Ten Percent” by Double Exposure. That’s how it came about to the fact that you could spread the grooves and make it hotter than in the 45 records.”
Wanting their new label to continue expanding on these forward thinking ideas, Cheren and Kushins set up shop in an office in Manhattan’s theater district, the West End. At 254 West 54th Street, an address which also housed the iconic Studio 54, the name West End Records was chosen for the label in honor of their location. They quickly got to work and released the first record in the label’s catalog that same year, a track called “Sessomatto” by an act of the same name. The track had actually been released three years earlier in 1973 on the soundtrack to the Italian film How Funny Can Sex Be? However, for West End’s release, the label recruited New York DJ Jimmy Stuard to remix the song, making it more palatable for the club audience despite its slower tempo. It was also an important record in the development of rap music. In his book Love Saves The Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, author Tim Lawrence recounts how rap icon Grandmaster Flash was desperate to get a hold of a copy of “Sessomatto.” He approached Cheren one day saying:
“’I’ve got to get this record! I heard this record! I’ve got to get it’ He informed me that the record that rappers used before ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was ‘Sessomatto,’ and they only used the bits where Jimmy Stuard reversed the tape. That was the first scratching sound.”
Over the next couple of years West End Records slowly started making its mark on the disco scene, remaining true to the classic disco sound with releases from artists such as the Chuck Davis Orchestra, Michele and Bettye Lavette. Nevertheless, it would be the year 1978 that the label would truly begin its rise to the top of the dance music pyramid.
In 1978 West End released its first big hit single, “Hot Shot,” by Philadelphia native Karen Young. Written and produced by Andrew Kahn and Kurt Borusiewicz, the song became the label’s first and only Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart topper, selling over 800,000 copies and becoming one of the biggest selling 12-inch singles in disco history.
The Peak Years
As the label entered the 1980s, disco was winding down its commercial popularity, but, in the underground, it was still a big hit on dance floors and about to undergo a change in sound. The 1980s would also prove to be the peak for West End Records, with many of the singles released during this era becoming some of the most influential in dance music history.
In 1980, West End released what would probably be one of its first significantly meaningful tracks, “Is It All Over My Face?” by Loose Joints. A collective headed by multi-instrumentalist and future cult icon Arthur Russell, producer and DJ Steve D’Aquisto and Russell’s friend Steven Hall, Loose Joints sought out several singers and instrumentalists, including the Ingram Brothers (who would later become Patti Labelle’s backing band,) to help them make what Russell called “the disco version of [The Beatles’] TheWhite Album.” While hours of music were recorded, only three tracks were ever officially released, with one of them being “Is It All Over My Face?” The aforementioned Tim Lawrence notes in his book Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92 that the track, originally titled “Love Dancing”:
“…explored the themes of promiscuous longing and—Arthur’s primary meaning, according to (Steven) Hall—oral sex (in which the it of Is It left little to the imagination)”
Lawrence also quoted Steven Hall regarding Russell’s thought process and exploration of his sexuality during the recording of the track:
“Arthur was in this whirlwind, and then trying to produce music that was equivalent to what he was going through. His songs became very sexual, very aggressive, and very suggestive. Arthur was very much under Allen (Ginsberg)’s influence to be open about his sexuality in his music, and dance was a venue for this expression.”
While not a big seller (much to Russell’s displeasure,) the risqué themes and percussive groove of “Is It All Over My Face?” eventually caught on with the ballroom and “voguing” scene, which originated in Harlem’s black, gay community. The reach of the record in this scene showed just how important dance music was to marginalized communities and how these communities continue to champion dance music and culture in the present day.
The West End release that ended up making the most impact on mainstream music was Taana Gardner’s 1981 classic “Heartbeat.” Gardner had previously released tracks on the label, such as “Work That Body” and “When You Touch Me,” but “Heartbeat” would be the one that truly got her name out there in the dance world. While it did not top the Billboard dance charts like the previously mentioned “Hot Shot,” it did end up becoming a wildly influential track in dance, hip-hop and pop music, though not without its bumps along the road.
Written by Kenton Nix, a future business partner of Mel Cheren, and arranged by Nix and Dennis Weeden, “Heartbeat” was a track that Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan absolutely loved to play in his sets, and he was determined to see it succeed. It proved to be an intense, but ultimately worthwhile pursuit. In an excerpt from Last Night a DJ Saved My Life; The History of the Disc Jockey by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, legendary DJ Danny Krivit recounts:
“When ‘Heartbeat’ came out, there wasn’t hip-hop on the radio like there is today. There wasn’t any downtempo music like ‘Heartbeat.’ And when he put that record on, a full club of people left the room to get food. There was not one person left on the floor”.
But Levan was not about to give up; he kept on playing ‘Heartbeat’ during his sets, often several times during the same set until it finally hit listeners that this was a track to pay attention to. Krivit continued:
“By the end of the month, there was no one left off the floor when they played that record. And now, of course, they had to go to (New York City record store) Vinylmania and bug (owner) Charlie (Grappone) for it.”
“Heartbeat” ended up being Vinylmania’s biggest selling record, selling over 5,000 copies and over 800,000 copies in total, becoming a Top 10 Dance as well as an R&B hit. It was so influential that it has gone on to be sampled in multiple songs, ranging from the most notable instance, Ini Kamoze’s 1994 hit “Here Comes The Hotstepper” to Musiq Soulchild’s 2007 track “B.U.D.D.Y.” “Heartbeat” also showed that dance music had the ability to reach out and influence mainstream culture, exposing the music to listeners who might not have considered going to a club or buying a dance record.
Between 1982 and 1985, numerous other tracks continued to help cement West End’s legacy as a top-notch dance music label. Three notable tracks released during this time period were “Don’t Make Me Wait” by the New York Citi Peech Boys (1982,) “Do It To The Music” by Raw Silk (1982) and “Another Man” by Barbara Mason (1983.)
Larry Levan formed the New York Citi Peech Boys to begin utilizing his production skills in the context of original music as opposed to his remixes. “Don’t Make Me Wait” proved to be a prime influence on the burgeoning house music scene, utilizing the gospel-infused piano and vocal lines that would become synonymous with the genre. It even inspired a Chicago house remake, “Don’t Make Me Jack,” released by future Inner City vocalist Paris Grey in 1987 on Housetime Records.
Ron Dean Miller and Bert Reid, two members of funk group Crown Heights Affair, teamed up with vocalists Jessica Cleaves, Sybil Thomas and Tenita Jordan to form Raw Silk in 1979. “Do It To The Music” remains their most successful single, reaching the Top Five in the Billboard Dance Chart and the Top 20 in the UK Singles Chart. The track showcases the best elements of boogie music, with classy vocals, standout synth lines and a rolling groove that never lets up.
Barbara Mason was best known as a soul singer, scoring her biggest hit in 1965 with her self-penned hit “Yes I’m Ready” and releasing frank songs about sex, love and infidelity throughout the 1960s and 1970s. West End provided her with the opportunity to record some dance singles in the 1980s, with “Another Man” being the most well known. A song with controversial lyrics about the singer’s boyfriend running off with the “other man” of the song title, it was enhanced by a funky bass line, proto-freestyle drum beats and lush synth pads that ensured that the track would become a club classic.
Hiatus and Resurrection
After the mid-1980s releases from West End became infrequent, mainly consisting of compilations featuring the label’s most popular tracks and, in the present day, edits of tracks by current DJs such as Medlar. While the label never officially ceased operations, the working relationship between Mel Cheren and Ed Kushins became rocky, and Cheren decided to pursue other avenues, only to gain back control of the label from Kushins in 2000. Speaking with Disco-Disco, Cheren said:
“West End never closed. I left like in 80… 84-85. I left because of a disagreement… My ex-partner and I had a disagreement and I just saw too many friends who were dying from AIDS and I, you know, I just didn’t find the business enjoyable any more. So he… I turned over my stock to him and, and… for about ten years. It was another… dispute and finally I had to sue him to get control again. And I went through several years of litigation with lawyers and I finally just was able to win and I bought his share out. So he’s no longer part of it.”
As well as starting West End Records and creating the 12-inch record, Cheren was also the main patron for the Paradise Garage, the legendary New York City club where Larry Levan held court as resident DJ. He released his autobiography My Life and the Paradise Garage: Keep on Dancin’ in 2000, which chronicled his upbringing and life in the music business. In 2005, he was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame and a documentary based on his autobiography, The Godfather of Disco, was released the following year. Sadly, in December of 2007, Cheren passed away at the age of 74 from pneumonia as a complication of AIDS.
The West End Records story does not stop there, however. Cheren’s legacy is still being preserved in the present day for longtime listeners and new listeners alike. In October of this year the label announced their first original release in three decades, a four-track, 12-inch single by Brooklyn synthpop/disco duo (and Blisspop Disco Fest artist) Holy Ghost! titled Anxious. The EP also features a remix of the title track by Tom Moulton (famous for mixing Gloria Gaynor’s version of “Never Can Say Goodbye” and for suggesting the idea of the 12-inch record to Cheren) and a Holy Ghost! remix of The Chuck Davis Orchestra’s 1977 label release “Spirit of Sunshine.”
There are so many musical movements and mediums that we would not have today had it not been for West End Records. There would be no 12-inch records and extended remixes for DJs to seamlessly blend one track into another. There would be no hip-hop, post-disco or house music. There would be no avenues for marginalized communities to be free to express themselves. And, most importantly, dance music would not have had such a strong legacy and history to build on. For “Where the Sun Sets and the Stars Rise” is where dance music magic truly begun.
Ten Essential West End Records Tracks:
1. Sessomatto “Sessomatto [Jim Stuard Disco Mix]” (1976): The first release on West End Records, this track was originally released three years prior on the soundtrack to the Italian film “How Funny Can Sex Be?” It was also an instrumental record in the creation of hip-hop and rap music as DJs used it to create the first scratching effect.
2. Michele “Can’t You Feel It” (1977): A track that reverberates with the classic disco sound, it has a beautifully addictive melody, lush instrumental arrangement and lyrics that celebrate the uplifting side of love. Why this record wasn’t a significant disco hit remains a mystery.
3. Karen Young “Hot Shot” (1978): West End Records’ first and only Number One record on the Billboard Dance charts, Young sings powerfully about needing a “hot shot” love to help her enjoy the dance floor action. The handclaps really enhance the musical arrangement and provide a unique beat to this disco tune.
4. Loose Joints “Is It All Over My Face?” (1980): This racy track was intended to become a part of the “disco version of The White Album,” but ultimately became a stand-alone record that would soundtrack the ballroom and “voguing” scene that developed in the late 1980s. The organ, bass and percussion-driven arrangement really drives this track and truly complements the vocals.
5. Taana Gardner “Heartbeat” (1981):A true gem in West End’s catalog, it took multiple tries on Larry Levan’s part to make “Heartbeat” a hit. Starting out with a genius heartbeat sample, the bass line then enters into a beautifully sensuous groove complimented by sassy vocals and an inimitable melody. This track went on to be sampled countless times after its release.
6. The New York Citi Peech Boys “Don’t Make Me Wait” (1982): This track was an influence on the burgeoning house music scene with its urgent vocals, percussive claps and gospel-influenced piano lines. So influential was the record that it inspired a Chicago house remake, “Don’t Make Me Jack,” by Paris Grey.
7. Raw Silk “Do It To The Music” (1982): An essential slice of boogie goodness, “Do It To The Music” combines a slinky groove, slightly hard-hitting synth stabs and sexy, light-as-air vocals to make it a bona fide floor filler that has remained a classic since its release.
8. Love Club“Hot Summer Nights” (1983): This track has one of the strongest arpeggiated bass lines cut to tape along with some incredible synth work. Medlar’s 2017 edit of the Dub version is also worth a listen.
9. Barbara Mason “Another Man” (1983): Combining incredibly frank lyrics with a propulsive proto-freestyle beat and wonderfully lush synths, this track along with “Is It All Over My Face?” became a ballroom classic and both records were featured in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, which highlighted the Harlem gay ballroom scene.
10. Holy Ghost! “Anxious” (2018):West End’s first release in 30 years, Holy Ghost! have created a club-ready record complete with twinkling synths, a tight rhythm and genius key changes. A fitting track to start off the label’s new era.