With an extensive new compilation of Larry Levan's production work about to hit shops, it seemed a good time to chat to Bob Blank- the visionary producer and engineer who helped Levan realise some of his greatest moments. Blank and Levan collaborated on such dance foundations as Class Action's Weekend and Instant Funk's I Got My Mind Made Up - the relationship may not have always been easy, but it consistantly delivered, as Blank, chatting over the phone from on a blustery day in Conneticut, remembers...
Hey Bob, today I want to talk to you specifically about your relationship with Larry Levan - I’m interested in when you were first aware of Larry; was it before you first met?
Well my background is that I’m an engineer and producer and one of the things that would happen was that I was always having DJs coming into my studio from loads of different labels. Then one day Larry walked through the door and at this point I’d never actually been the Paradise Garage club so I didn’t fully know who he was.
I find it pretty crazy that you’d never been inside a club at this point as you would have had no idea of the kind of reaction that the music you were making was getting. But can I assume that he knew who you were?
Oh yeah, when we met he knew who I was. I knew of Paradise Garage and I knew what happened there. He was a really young kid. I was like 26 and he must have been about 22, and we had a similar vision.
When you said you had a similar vision, what was that vision?
Well we were both making House music and we had a similar feel for music as a lot of the records that he played out were records that I worked on. It was everything from Lolita Holloway to West End Records and we saw it as a circle. You get good at something and you get more work sent more way and then the more of it you do you get better and better at it, but then you get tight in it, which is okay if you love the music and you love the way that it sounds.
Can you isolate any musical signifiers that you or Larry would hear in a record and it be the thing that you were into? Was there a certain sound or vibe?
Well obviously we both loved breaks and at the time records weren’t really made with breaks, it was mostly pop. The records that he played and the records that I worked on were specialty items to sell to club to and then hopefully sold on to the mainstream thing. he had a simple approach to vocals. A lot of the RnB music at the time tended to have pretty intricate interweaving in the vocals. Class Action - Weekend is a good example of the stuff we did that we both liked.
What was Larry like as a person? There are stories of him being quite hard to work with, or being very self-possessed.
Well, when I had him in the studio with me he was a sweet and kind person. As fame started to hit him, and he had the troubles of working all night and then mixing all day, he started to get a little bit bitchy. But I can tell you on the record that he handled success and fame better than many other DJs.
Was there a point where your working relationship came to an end?
Yes. We started working on projects, but Larry was extremely busy and had many other commitments. We’d start a session at 10am on a Monday morning. He would still be working and he’d put in a fifty-hour week just over the weekend. He’d either come in and then sleep, or just not show, or the record company would send in a product and Larry would come in at the last hour. He wasn’t hands on. The reason I say that is because technology was so different and the sound was so different at the time. If the DJ came in and started fooling around with the equipment– the stuff was pretty delicate- it would soon sound like crap, so he was pretty smart in that he didn’t push me aside and sit at the board. Although not that many people did… But anyway, we did this remix and he wasn’t there for a while as that record went through a lot of iterations. After the song Weekend, where he was paid a lot of money to come in, he never showed up. With him not being in the studio it was obvious that our working relationship was deteriorating. But I think he was one of these people who had people chasing after him and had a lot of carrots dangled in front of his face. He became a celebrity, and because of his celebrity status he didn’t show up that much.
Once you’d met him, did you ever actually go to the Paradise Garage?
Well, we were at Paradise Garage for a number of reasons. We were there first of all for Loose Joints and obviously because my ex-wife was the singer on it and she sang that there. And also we did Wax The Van and they performed live there. I knew the owners of the Garage too, they were very nice, as we had a lot of interaction, and the first time I turned up there it was absolutely amazing and totally different to what I had imagined it was, in a lot of ways.
How had you imagined it was going to be in your head, and how was it different?
Well first of all, the fact that there was no alcohol there meant that it had a much different vibe. I was amazed at that. I’d been to several clubs before, and had been to some of the more obscure club situations once or twice, but it was very much about dancing, whereas a lot of the clubs were more about Hip-hop and a little bit more about glam. When we went to the artist lounge and Lola did Wax The Van and Howard Jones was the other act, they just treated you like royalty. It was sort of the way you’d imagine a club would be, but never actually expected. It was just really well done, the place was spotlessly clean and the sound was great. At the time, it was probably the best sound system that I had ever heard, period.
So I went up to the booth to see Larry in his domain, and I realised how okay it was. Here we are, in something that was state of art those days, using Phoenix consoles at whatnot, it was very high level. So I go in there and he was playing on turntables, which I expected, and they’re being ripped to shreds with his queuing and everything, and they’re going through these weird $500 Bogen mixers. So we were trying to do a really high end thing in the studio, and he would use them to turn off the bass and I remember he had one of those $99 five band EQ’s that was like five faders in a row and he’d use it to pan the bottom end out. I remember thinking to myself that it was this really cool thing, when in fact it was just this cheap thing he’d bought from the HiFi store. From that point I had even more respect for him.
I love that it was some really cheap thing that it was hammering.
Yeah, he was cool and very nice.
Do you have any favourites of the Levan productions that you worked on?
I always thought that the stuff that West End Records produced was the funkiest stuff and of course I loved that music. I think that that was some of his best stuff, but let me say one other thing without going on too much of a tangent. Larry was not a music person and he was not very articulate in the studio. What I mean by that is, he’d get a producer and he’d say, change the EQ on this or the frequency of this. But Larry didn’t do much of that as he didn’t have those tools and I could see when he was working how frustrated he was and he would talk in a way that you could see he didn’t feel it anymore. It was hard to interpret that into the technology we had to work with. I thought he did a good job with it, but that the kind of stuff everybody had to go through. He would take the track to the club and bring it back and he couldn’t really pin point what was needed to improve it. He couldn’t say things like, a certain break needed to be an extra 16 bars, it was never that easy.
He didn’t have the vocabulary to say what it was that needed changing, he’d just give you an idea of what he felt was wrong.
Correct. Not taking anything away from him though! I’ll tell you a story. I once worked on a record that eventually won a Grammy for Best Blues Album. I was working with this producer, and he walked into the studio and the band is all set up and the band is going and so the producer walks in and I swear to God, he had a mug of beer and I made a joke about having never made a record with him drunk before. Then he said, ‘No you have to understand, it’s Blues so I have to be in the right mind set to make this happen.’ So we had a laugh about it and through the recording of that session he literally didn’t say a word, it was brilliant. He was great. There’s a lot to be said for a producer who understands what is going on. I’ll never forget how wonderful it was, and this guy was a great producer, it’s not like he was an idiot. I thought that it was the most thoughtful thing he could do, it was great. So Larry did the right thing a lot of the time by not saying anything.
Genius Of Time – Larry Levan is a double CD comp released on 25th March 2016 - pre order from here