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The Early Days of the DJ
Today’s superstar DJs are household names who command a hundred thousand dollars or more per gig, crisscross the globe to play, and exert as much influence in fashion, film, and television as they do on the dancefloor. But the DJing profession has not always been as glamorous—just seventy-five years ago the term "disc jockey" didn’t even exist.
A thorough understanding of the history of the DJ will not only provide you with a better appreciation of music in general, it will also give you perspective on the role of the DJ as it moves into the future. From the inaugural radio broadcast to the first discothèque to the birth of hip hop and house, this chapter will give you a comprehensive understanding of where DJs came from and, just as importantly, where they’re going.
In the beginning...
If we’re going to define DJing at its most fundamental level as the art of controlling music, then the most important DJ-related technological advance occurred in 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph—the first device capable of recording sound and then playing it back by making indentations in a cylindrical sheet of tinfoil. Ten years later, German-American Emile Berliner patented the Gramophone, the great-grandfather of the modern turntable, along with the discs to play on it.
We’re tempted to delve into geeky technical details here, but rather than bore you and embarrass ourselves by revealing the extent of our nerdy knowledge, let’s fast forward to 1906, when the wonderfully bearded Canadian Reginald Fessenden broadcast the first ever spoken AM radio program from Brant Rock, Massachusetts, earning him the title "The Father of Radio Broadcasting." This was the advent of radio, and soon enough people would be able to hear music—mostly swing, jazz, and classical—from the comfort of their homes instead of attending live performances.
While Fessenden’s brief debut was only picked up by a few U.S. Navy vessels puttering around the New England coast, it marked the dawn of a new age in entertainment, one in which radio DJs would eventually become kings.
In 1921, electronics company Westinghouse established the first commercially supported radio stations in Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago, and New York, and many other media companies soon entered the market. In just a few short years, the radio business was to become as cutthroat as piracy in the waters around the West Indies, but with fewer rules of engagement. A year after Westinghouse’s first stations went on air, the British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC, made its first broadcast from its London studios, marking the start of commercial radio in the U.K. Five years after that, in 1927, Christopher Stone, dressed in a dinner jacket and tie, became Britains’s first disc jockey when he started his BBC radio show, playing jazz records to a fairly small audience that quickly grew to encompass much of the radio-owning British public.
But while radio technology was advancing apace, the audio equipment itself quickly was becoming outmoded. Gramophones and early turntables were unwieldy, using huge, noisy motors that delivered power inconsistently and, thanks to their thick steel needles, quickly wore out records. Most of the early discs played on the pioneering radio stations were equally hard for the radio DJ to handle—made of hard rubber, shellac, or other dense materials that were not easily manipulated and produced a lot of distortion.
These early records could hold only a few minutes of music at 78 rpm (revolutions per minute), and were worn out after a hundred or so plays, meaning that many radio shows were forced to rely on live performers. But things began to change in 1930 when RCA Victor introduced the first long-playing (LP) records.
The prototypes weren’t commercially viable at first, but record label executives quickly realized that the new discs were cheaper to produce, lighter, and more durable. And, as vinyl records rotated at 33rpm, there was less friction against the needle and therefore less hissing. Vinyl LPs were to the earlier records what CDs were to cassettes (and what MP3s are to CDs).
Record companies were quick to adopt the new format. Columbia Company took several years to build up a catalog of its most popular artists’ recordings and, in the process, further refined the vinyl that RCA Victor had introduced and the duplication process required to effectively distribute records nationwide. Columbia also partnered with stereo system manufacturer Philco to produce a turntable for playing 33 rpm records which was priced at just thirty dollars. For the first time, the turntable became a viable home entertainment option for American families.
When Columbia released the first selection of LPs—primarily recordings of classical music—in 1948, both the records and the Philco stereos sold fairly well. Not to be outdone, RCA came back with the introduction of 45 rpm records and a thirteen-dollar turntable. These also sold fairly well, but because consumers were confused by the different speeds (think Blu-ray versus HD-DVD), neither format became dominant until 1954, when record companies settled on the 45 rpm option for sending music to radio DJs and selling it to consumers.
Television was still several decades away at this point, so people in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere still relied on the radio for entertainment. At first, radio show hosts were referred to as announcers. Then, in 1935, American newspaper and radio commentator Walt Winchell coined the term "disc jockey" in reference to Martin Block, whose ABC radio show Make Believe Ballroom was receiving twelve thousand letters a month. The moniker seemed to suggest that the announcers passively "rode" the discs, implying that they were cursory figures. But the term stuck.
Frank Singiser was another popular radio DJ of the ’30s and ’40s, hosting Your Hit Parade on NBC’s Red Network. Singiser played the week’s most popular songs and promoted brands for commercial sponsors such as Lucky Strike, which paid big bucks to have its name associated with nationally syndicated broadcasts. To take advantage of the growing popularity of the radio DJ in the so-called Golden Age of American broadcasting, record producers began to send and even hand-deliver their latest hits to radio studios.
These early promotional copies ensured maximum exposure with minimal cost, and taking the DJs out for a few drinks certainly didn’t hurt the record promoters’ cause either (before the days when the big labels would allegedly bribe DJs to play their latest releases). With the release of an affordable transistor radio in 1948, radio audiences reached an all-time high, and DJs became more influential than ever before, evolving from mere announcers to cultural tastemakers. Without the support of the radio DJ, musicians such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Tony Bennett would arguably never have achieved commercial success.
OUT OF THE STUDIO, INTO THE CLUB
Most DJs in the ’40s were content to stay in the radio studios, but a few of the more enterprising ones opted for the less profitable, but often more emotionally rewarding, route of playing records for live audiences. This was a daunting task, as crowds in the U.S. and
U.K. were accustomed to live bands and orchestras, not some guy standing behind equipment, head bent over in concentration— which, come to think of it, is often the case today. Indeed, the crowd’s only familiarity with recorded music was what they played on their primitive home turntables, or heard on the radio or on the jukeboxes that had become popular at bars and restaurants. British DJ Jimmy Savile decided he was bored with radio and held his first dance party in 1943 using a makeshift stereo system built by a friend from spare parts. The few people who came to the function room of the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds (perhaps the best name for a club, ever) in Otley, England, probably didn’t know what to think. After a few more performances, however, Savile developed a loyal following, and soon worked out a deal with nationwide dance hall proprietor Mecca Ballrooms to hold similar gatherings elsewhere in England.
Four years later, Savile decided that the single turntable he was using was too restrictive, and hired a local metalworker to weld two decks together—making him, for all intents and purposes, the godfather of the modern DJ. The wonderfully eccentric Savile (who owns a mountain, was friends with Elvis Presley and John Lennon, and had over a hundred fights as a pro wrestler) went on to DJ for powerhouse Radio Luxembourg and to host Top of the Pops, the British TV institution that, until 2006, counted down the Top 40 singles chart and featured several live acts each week. Savile’s example was followed by Jamaican DJs such as Count Suckle in London, who used powerful sound systems to blast out the sounds of early ska to crowds at outdoor and indoor venues. Wild jazz parties held by DJs and attended by foppish teenagers known as "ravers" were also held throughout the city.
While Savile, Suckle, and the jazz ravers were laying the foundations for the modern club DJ in England, an equally significant development was unfolding across the English Channel in Paris. It was here that entrepreneur Paul Pracine opened Whisky a Go Go, the world’s first discothèque (the word is a portmanteau of disc and bibliothèque), in 1947. The Chez Castel and Chez Régine clubs soon opened nearby, giving Parisian music aficionados a triumvirate of quality venues from which to choose.
DJs in the U.S. quickly followed the Europeans’ lead, and started to host dance parties known as sock hops in school gymnasiums, so called because you weren’t allowed to wear dancing shoes in the gyms in case they damaged the floor. While distinctly unglamorous, and despite having a silly name, sock hops helped young music fans connect with the radio DJs they’d grown up listening to, in addition to spurring several technical advances.
The most notable innovation was the introduction of the double turntable by Bob Casey in 1955. Although Savile had used two individual decks, Casey’s was the first custom-built–double-player system that featured an independent volume control that gave him more control over sound output.
To provide clubbers with an alternative to the jazz clubs that were popular in many areas of New York City and the wildly successful rock ’n’ roll record parties at the Brooklyn Paramount, French promoter Oliver Coquelin imitated his homeland’s Whisky a Go Go format with the opening of Le Club discothèque in 1960. In the decade that followed, technology continued to improve, and the increasing popularity of dance clubs gave DJs a viable career alternative to radio broadcasting.
In 1965, Terry Noel, resident DJ at New York’s Arthur club, became the first well-known spinner to build what we now refer to as a set (series of records seamlessly mixed together) although these sets were technically imperfect by today’s standards due to the dearth of dedicated DJ equipment. Mixing (combining the sound of two records that have matching rhythm and tempo) became a lot easier later that year when Alex Rosner, who installed sound systems in many of New York’s best venues, put together "Rosie," a new kind of stereo mixer that allowed DJs to listen to how two records went together before playing the result through the speakers.
Although Rosie was built for Rosner’s personal use, it inspired manufacturer Bozak to create the CMA series of mixers in the late 1960s, the first commercially available models designed specifically for DJs. Similar technology from now-defunct stereo supplier Reco-Cut enabled DJ Francis Grasso, a regular at the Sanctuary club in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, to improve on Terry Noel’s example by beat matching (matching the beats of two records before mixing them together) in 1969, setting a precedent for all the DJs who followed him.
Within twenty years of Savile’s first dance party, clubs in New York, London, Paris, and other major cities that played jazz, soul, rock ’n’ roll, and funk records became the place to go out. Young people realized that their favorite tracks and exciting new music creatively blended together by a skilled DJ was better than anything a jukebox could offer, and sometimes even better than watching a live band. While the radio DJ continued to be a prominent trendsetter within youth culture, the momentum shifted to club DJs such as Noel, Grasso, and John "Jellybean" Benitez, who became the new hit makers. The times were a-changin’ and, with the advent of disco and hip hop in the ’70s and house music in the ’80s, the profile and influence of the DJ would soon climb to even greater heights.
Excerpted from On the Record by Phil White and Luke Crisell with Rob Principe.
Copyright © 2009 by Scratch DJ Academy LLC.
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.