Quite simply, Robbie Leslie and his illustrious career are the kind of trajectory that DJ’s just starting out can only dream of. From nights in the Studio 54 DJ booth to being the last DJ at The Saint in New York City to decades on Fire Island, Leslie has lived a melody filled life and provided the soundtrack for literally millions of ours. Speaking to him is like cracking open a time capsule, one that gives us a peek into a world that many have heard about, but very few can convey into words.
I sat down with Robbie Leslie for an extended conversation, and during our talk he did much more than look back on what it was like to DJ at some of the biggest and most notorious places in the world. We talked about how nightlife has changed since he got into the game, staying relevant in today’s ultra fast paced era of nightlife, and what the younger generation can learn from the experiences he has had. Make no mistake; Robbie Leslie is one of giants of nightlife and his music has paved the way for our community; respect needs to be paid.
Michael Cook: You have been one of the most prolific DJ’s in the industry for decades. Simply, what do you contribute to your staying power?
Robbie Leslie: That is a good question with a deceptively complex answer, because nobody’s success is resultant on one specific factor. I believe there are three major reasons: How I do my work, where and with whom I do my work, and am I adaptable as times and club culture inevitably change. I’ve always had a strong work ethic and I understand responsibility. That comes from my family, my upbringing. Regardless of the fact that the public perceives us as artists (and all that that entails: temperamental behavior, feelings of entitlement, eccentric and sensitive leanings), the club owners, promoters, and management are not nearly so “stary-eyed”. They value and appreciate a DJ who is consistently a good draw, who shows up to work on time, and who is low-maintenance. I’ve always embraced those characteristics.
I remember Steven Cohn – a major New York promoter in the 70’s and 80’s – once said to me, “there are some DJ’s that can pack the floor one night and the next night they can’t get people to dance for love nor money. Some call in sick (or hungover) an hour before the club’s opening. Still others are so disagreeable that dealing with them is miserable. But you Robbie, I book and I know exactly what to expect: a good night and no problems from the booth. I could even stay home and not worry, because I know you consistently deliver.”
One night I worked with about a one-hundred two fever. I lay flat on the booth floor while the records played, and stood up only to mix the songs. I spun well, and I was advertised to appear, so I appeared.
MC: Your residences and the list of places you have had the pleasure of spinning is absolutely endless. That must be crucial in building a following and a brand today.
RL: There is no denying that a DJ’s resume is priceless, and mine is platinum. It was my good fortune to have started my career in a major market like New York City and at a very well respected club like The Sandpiper. The roster of resident DJ’s from The Sandpiper was incredible: Tom Savarese, Tom Moulton, Howard Merritt, Alan Dodd, Richie Rivera, Larry Sanders, and others. I started DJ’ing in the company of this pantheon of spinners. That was a great leg up when I moved on to seek work in New York City’s greatest venues. I was already known as an up-and-coming talent, and that opened a lot of doors; at least for an interview or an audition. It’s a romantic fantasy that DJ’s are “discovered” in unexpected, rarefied places and instantly become brilliant, gifted musical savants with a sound unlike any other. Most practice and get better and better gigs as they learn their craft.
MC: You are what many consider one of the elder statesmen of the dance music community. How important is it to also stay relevant to the community?
RL: I quote a song lyric I’ve used as a mantra for many years: “And if you keep it young, your song is always sung.” (“Street Life” – The Crusaders w/Randy Crawford). It’s no secret that club world is hyper-ageist. As you slide into middle age, you’re regarded as stodgy, or even worse, out of touch. You can easily be replaced by a “newer model” if you don’t keep on top of your game. And never ignore the tastes of your own crowd. Music is forever evolving and the DJ must keep up or even keep ahead of the curve. Now that even middle age is behind me, I scrupulously study my markets that I perform in, I know enough to turn down what is beyond (or beneath) me, and I’ve never lost that “performance anxiety” that keeps me sharp at every gig.
MC: You were on Fire Island in the 70’s before it became the mecca it is today. What was it like then?
RL: Well, if I may, Fire Island was far more of a mecca back in the day than it is now. That’s not to say that “The Island” has become some sleepy backwater – it’s still packed in season and chock full of amazing parties and special events each year, but because the gay community has gained so much ground legally and socially in America, Fire Island is no longer the rare haven it once was. In the sixties and early seventies, there were very few places where same-sex pairs could hold hands or dance all night or publicly kiss. So back then The Grove and The Pines were these bastions of tolerance and acceptance. Today, we have a gay man running for president and I haven’t seen any torches and pitchforks yet!
MC: You have made Fire Island one of your main residencies every year. What is that like to be so beloved every single summer that you return?
RL: I’ve now worked on Fire Island for forty four contiguous summers – even I am quite amazed. I am greeted by some each year like a visiting dignitary and am afforded every courtesy; others are more ambivalent, but it’s the old-timers that I’ve known for several decades who I always love to see. There’s no place like it, because it is all things to all people. It can provide a sleepy, recharging holiday, it can be a hedonist’s playground, you can bar-hop from noon ’til dawn or avoid the crowds and soak up the beauty around you – it is a natural masterpiece.
MC: Studio 54 was one of the premiere spaces in New York City (and the world); you had the privilege of playing there. Tell me about that experience?
RL: People are shocked, or don’t believe me, when I tell them that working at Studio was probably my least favorite job; it’s true! I’m sure you’ve all seen pictures of Halston and Diana Ross and Calvin Klein up in the DJ booth looking down at the packed dancefloor. It was like that all the time, and it was not a big booth really. You never knew who they’d bring in, how many or how long they’d stay under foot. I’d be struggling to keep my focus on the music while any number of people were blocking the way to my records, holding a cocktail dangerously close to the turntables, or trying to engage me in some inane conversation while my record was close to running out! I was part DJ and part babysitter in that booth, though I did get an eyeful of the world’s most notable and celebrated people, treating me just like I was their chum (probably because I was never starstruck and more often than not, mildly annoyed).
The irony is that today, of all the clubs and parties I have on my bio, it’s Studio 54 that has gotten me more work, more attention, and more respect by far. That’s a life lesson-you never know how things are going to play out in the long run.
MC: The Saint was legendary and you are one of the last DJ’s to play there; what was that magical space like and what was it like being a part of that history?
RL: Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was the last DJ to play there. I was the last of ten Saint DJs who played the marathon 40-hour closing party, called simply “The Last Party”. It ran from midnight Saturday to noon on Monday, and it was so packed for the last few hours, I don’t think I’d ever seen it so crowded in the club’s entire run. Everyone wanted to be there at the end.
To the uninitiated, the Saint was a massive club opened in 1980. It has to be the most magnificent dance space ever conceived and then actually built! Its most astounding feature was its dancefloor which was completely covered by a planetarium dome with a star projector in the center of the room which shown the constellations ten times brighter than at a conventional planetarium (to be visible over the clubs other lighting effects). The sound system was magnificent. It was a place created expressly for the dancer over every other consideration, and everyone came and danced and danced and danced.
Then in the early eighties the health crisis hit with a vengeance, and so many people who were regulars passed away suddenly and horribly and back then there was nothing to save them. We DJs had to play those long nights and push all the grief away, because it was our responsibility to make the people dance and forget all the misery around us. Many people came to dance as a way to cope with the inestimable loss.
MC: What artists are inspiring your right now? Are there any artists that no matter what, you will never get tired of playing or any particular tracks?
RL: Generally, I’m not overjoyed with the current crop of vocal artists or the product they’re foisting on us, and I’m giving far more attention to remixers and DJ/Producers. With today’s technology, there a million things one can do to and with a song, but I ask, “Who is able to make that song better than any other interpretation?” That’s why I pay far more attention to remix artists now.
MC: You have inspired so many younger DJ’s and remixers with your own accomplishments; who can you count as some of your own inspirations?
RL: I marvel at the fact that I’ve somehow inspired others to do what I do and try to be something very special. It humbles me and makes me feel very connected and very grateful for the life I’ve built. As one of only a few remaining DJs from the Seventies who still performs and is still viable today, I look upon my successes as something I share equally with all the DJs who had to put down their headphones for one reason or another. So, you see, it’s a show of respect that I take quite seriously because I am “representing” my absent DJ brothers and sisters. And that is imbued with much love and much respect.
Now, as to who inspired me, I learned as much on what not to do from some DJs as I did on what to do from the others. But the men who encouraged, taught, inspired, and believed in me are (or were) Bobby Viteritti, Alan Dodd, Roy Thode, Jim Burgess, and Richie Rivera. All first generation DJs and all quite amazing.
MC: You get to see the LGBT community change and morph from a birds eye view while you’re working. What have you seen change the most about the LGBT community from your vantage point?
RL: Certainly the biggest change over time is the dwindling size of dance clubs and the sometimes anemic attendance at too many of these venues. Of course I understand that going out to the local club is not quite as cutting edge as it was in the last century, and other pursuits have taken more and more attention away from the whole nightclubbing scene. Of course, the mobile phone has been, by far, the biggest agent of change in nightlife. A net loss, and I’m not afraid to admit it. For all its benefits, it is a constant distraction to the owner and to those in his orbit. It sprays light onto dancefloors and too many people take too many useless videos or selfies. But worst of all, it detaches the person from his surroundings, the people and the music, and that critically wounds the whole milieu.
MC: You are getting to expose a whole new group of fans to your music on Sirius XM’s Studio 54 radio on Robbie Leslie Presents. What do you hope they are getting out of this musical walk down memory lane?
RL: I’m immensely proud of my tenure at SiriusXM, as I celebrate seven years with Studio 54 Radio and my weekly broadcast of Robbie Leslie Presents. What makes my show particularly rewarding and also quite interesting is that the whole Presents concept was the foundation of my format. That is, I am “presenting” and that not only includes Dance and Disco music, but other DJ’s as well. The premise of my show is to showcase the amazing talents of legendary professional DJs, living and dead, in rotation with my own vintage recordings and also new sets I create. The list of DJs I have highlighted on the air is staggering – not only by sheer number but also by prestige and cumulative talent!
I’ve recorded myself going all the way back to the mid-seventies, and also have a massive collection of other DJ’s tape reels I have acquired over the years. It’s so great that I can share these amazing live sets – recorded on the spot at some of the most historically significant nightclubs – with listeners coast to coast in NorthAmerica and worldwide via streaming. To play a live set recorded by Roy Thode in 1979 at Studio, Jim Burgess at 12West, Larry Levan at Paradise Garage, or Tom Moulton recorded in 1974 is a thrill. You simply can’t hear these things anywhere else-because I hold the original master tapes!
I get awesome emails and messages from people who really appreciate what I’m doing, or want to share special memories they have of particular DJ’s and clubs. Connecting with them is unforgettable and it couldn’t have happened without SiriusXM. And by the way, they really get into what I’m doing. I’ve never worked corporate before and I didn’t expect this level of support and encouragement. The relationship has been truly rewarding.
MC: What continues to inspire you as an artist and as a person?
RL: Human nature! How people of all kinds and persuasions respond to music. Making the connection with them through music-it’s as thrilling and joyous now as it ever was. It’s really the main reason I do what I do; I never got into this line of work for the money. (grin)
MC: It’s the 50th anniversary of Stonewall this year; you are one of the best people who could answer this question; what gives you the most pride as a performer and as a person?
This may sound like boasting, or grandstanding, but I must speak truthfully to address such a thoughtful question. It’s integrity. And here’s why…
I’m a hugely lucky man for more reasons than I can tell you here. I was born in such a time and place that allowed my life’s path to lead me through historic places at the perfect moments of totality, and to meet and know people who have enriched me beyond measure. I came out shortly before the American Psychiatric Association made history by issuing a resolution stating that homosexuality was not a mental illness or sickness, so I saw and experienced both sides of prejudice and bigotry. I’ve now witnessed so much enlightenment, and though there were plenty of horrors along the way, looking back it’s still a large net gain for my community.
Through this long odyssey, I have strived to be a person, a DJ, and a public personality upon which people could rely. I have diligently protected my morals, values, ethics, and beliefs and to integrate them into all facets of my professional life. My business practices are honest, honorable, and fair. I have always tried to be a better listener than a speaker. I always looked at people as having something to share – I am interested in everything and everybody. I never “phoned-in” a gig, and I never gave less than my personal best, not only in the booth but in the public domain, because like it or not a substantial part of me is now public property.
I’m very active on social media and I make it my business to share all that’s positive, to encourage dialogue, to respect honesty and talent above all things, and to avoid black and white morality… because no one reasoning holds all the answers.
My greatest source of pride is the affirmation I receive time and time again that I’m sincerely appreciated for all that I’ve done-and all that I’ve given.
(Art Courtesy of Robbie Leslie-Facebook)