Avant-garde cellist Arthur Russell deconstructed disco
Surrounded by legendary New York City DJs Nicky Siano and Larry Levan, the disco savant crafted left-field dance hits
There is an iconic image of Arthur Russell sitting by a lake on a dining-room chair with his cello between his knees. “I snatched my camera and went out on the main dock to take the picture,” says Russell’s father Chuck. “In the background you can see our fishing dock and the red canoe called Emily, named after Arthur’s mother. Arthur loved to play his cello over the water.” The picture was taken in Iowa in 1973 when Russell was twenty-two. Just four years later, he was working alongside Nicky Siano, New York club icon and Studio 54 resident DJ. How this leap was possible says much about Russell’s personal and musical evolution as he embraced a vibrant New York in the mid- to late ’70s. It also explains how he was able to produce music of such staggering originality, why he was so often misunderstood throughout his recording career, and why his methods and his legacy are only now beginning to be fully understood.
Oskaloosa, Iowa, where Arthur Russell was born and raised, is a long way from the New York clubs where he became a hero. A circuitous route via a Buddhist commune in northern California, a spell at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and then at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music led the young cellist to the Manhattan School of Music. Once in New York, he quickly established himself on the alternative downtown scene, playing with major figures like Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, even Bob Dylan, and becoming creative director of the key venue of the experimental scene, the Kitchen. Russell had a huge impact. Ginsberg described him as “a poet who sings,” while Glass commented, “This was a guy who could sit down with a cello and sing with it in a way that no one on this earth has ever done before, or will do so again.” However, it was Russell’s conversion to disco that cemented his legacy. Collaborations with legendary DJs and producers like Francois Kevorkian, Larry Levan, Nicky Siano, and Walter Gibbons transformed this classically trained cellist from experimental genius to avant-garde disco pioneer.
New York in the late ’70s was an exciting place for the young Russell. Steven Hall, a longtime friend and collaborator, explains: “When I met him, he had recently converted to queerdom during a time when the gay world in New York had fulfilled the promise of the ’60s flower children and was exploding in sexual expression, which was evident in the gay dance anthems [that] surrounded us daily on WBLS. Frankie Crocker would snap up the latest queer hits being played downtown in the gay sleaze clubs and broadcast them from way uptown in Harlem to the eagerly awaiting listeners all over the city.”
In this hotbed, Russell’s interest in music grew from more formal, avant-garde experimentation towards something entirely new. “Arthur got into Black music through old gospel tunes, and R&B music through such singer-songwriters as Curtis Mayfield and Lenny Williams,” says Hall. “Arthur’s concept of the groove was very much coming from Eastern influences like gamelan music and raga. I turned him onto the funk concept of syncopation within the groove.”
As Russell developed a love of artists like Funkadelic and Rick James, there was also a very sexual side to the music that he was discovering. “Funk represented the edging of the groove,” says Hall. “Edging in sexual terms, meaning bringing oneself almost to orgasm and then suddenly stopping to enhance the excitement—only to climb up to that peak again and again to produce an interior rhythm of rising and falling excitation. Funk in the classic sense of making the ass shake. There is no better illustration of this than ‘In the Bush’ by Musique, one of our favorite and much-played tracks.” This fascination with “In the Bush” would eventually lead to one of Russell’s most rewarding collaborations—with remixer Francois Kevorkian. It was also symptomatic of Russell’s growing love of disco.
If funk was a revelation for Russell, disco was earth shattering. According to popular myth, Russell experienced a eureka moment one night in 1977 in Nicky Siano’s legendary club, the Gallery. As Siano explains, this wasn’t exactly the case: “It wasn’t one night. It was over a series of nights. He started dating my best friend, Louis Aquilone. Louis was at the Gallery every single Saturday night. After not spending a few Saturday nights with Louis, Arthur decided to come. After the third or fourth time there, he started to come without Louis. He was definitely a White-boy dancer. He had this really outrageous, weird way he danced. He was very quiet but attentive in those early days.”
A slightly awkward cellist was an unlikely person to be seen soaking up Siano’s innovative DJing techniques at the Gallery, but this didn’t stop Russell’s desire to explore his new discovery. Siano says, “I was finishing up one morning, and Louis said, ‘Arthur wants to come in the booth a minute.’ Arthur said to me, ‘You know, we could make a record and it wouldn’t cost us too much money.’ We went through it, and I got the Gallery to produce the record, and we did ‘Kiss Me Again.’ ”
Curiously, Siano agreed to the project without knowing anything of Russell’s music—aside from the fact that he played cello. While Siano was a legendary DJ—playing regularly at Studio 54 as well as at the Gallery—production was new to him, so Russell was left to assemble the musicians. Amongst them was an acquaintance of Russell’s, a young David Byrne, who provided the track’s signature jagged guitar riff.
With Russell presiding over the production duties, the process revealed something that would become a recurring issue throughout his career. “The only thing that Arthur couldn’t do was finish anything,” says Siano. “Arthur kept getting new ideas and stretching things beyond where you wanted to go—way beyond.” That aside, “Kiss Me Again” was huge in the clubs. “For ages, I was playing two two-track, quarter-inch tapes of it at the Gallery, and it was getting really enormous reaction. Then the Gallery closed, and I started playing at Buttermilk Bottom. That’s when the 12-inch came out.” Seeing people dance to his music was a new experience for Russell. “He was ecstatic when he heard the record in the club,” says Siano. “Really ecstatic.”
Following the success of “Kiss Me Again,” Russell and Siano were signed by Sire and recorded a track with Gerri Griffin (of the Voices of East Harlem). But the record never came out, and the partnership broke down. “I left him,” says Siano. “I was very, very strung out on drugs and really wanted to get better and felt like I couldn’t stay in New York, so I went to California for a while. Without me here saying, ‘No, Arthur, we’re going to stop here. We’re going to mix now,’ Arthur couldn’t finish the record.”
Following Siano’s departure, Russell looked elsewhere for a musical partner. Russell had admired Steve D’Acquisto’s production work on Sandy Mercer’s “Play With Me” and approached him to work on a project, which would result in the seminal “Is It All Over My Face,” recorded under the name Loose Joints. However, early on, the project ran into problems as initial funding from West End Records dried up. Enter Will Socolov.
Socolov was a regular at David Mancuso’s Loft. He met and befriended Russell at the club when the Loose Joints project was running into trouble, and agreed to ask his father for enough money to finish the record. Even after the $2,200 to complete the project was secured, the problems didn’t go away. “Steve had some interesting ideas at times, but he really wasn’t a producer,” says Socolov. “Steve would walk in the Village and meet some guy playing music in the street and invite him to the session. That can have a very good effect if it works, but it ended up being very nonproductive, because these guys were way too raw. Arthur became really, really depressed that this thing was really out of control.”
Bob Blank, the engineer on the Loose Joints sessions, confirms that Russell and D’Acquisto were “sparring partners.” “Steve [had] what would be diagnosed today as attention deficit,” says Blank. “He was very inexperienced in the ways that Arthur or other musicians worked and thought, and tended to explode when confronted with an artist who needed to vent or needed a moment to center themselves.” One of the project’s main focuses was to reflect the sound of the Loft. D’Acquisto insisted that some of the club regulars participate in the sessions. This became a problem. “A stoned woman playing a poorly performed tambourine accompaniment, and some guys similarly playing along to the music was Steve’s idea,” explains Blank. “When it immediately became obvious that these folks could not play in time or with any sensitivity to the product, Arthur wanted me to turn their mics off so that the real musicians couldn’t hear them and be thrown off by their amateur playing. Steve got very loud and wild-eyed and started screaming at Arthur, stopping the session and making for a very embarrassing moment.”
What saved the project was the intervention of legendary DJ Larry Levan, who remixed the track. However, as with most things in the Arthur Russell story, this wasn’t without its difficulties. “Basically, Larry was doing a mix with time that he really didn’t have in the studio,” explains Socolov. “The studio bosses came in and found out he was in there and kicked him out. When they kicked him out, he wasn’t finished, but he had created something that was really good. The fact that he didn’t get to finish the mix was fortuitous. There was a rawness to it that became very appealing, and that record became huge.”
Despite the success of “Is It All Over My Face,” Russell and D’Acquisto parted company for several years, only joining forces again in 1983 to record “Tell You (Today),” the most glorious example of what Ginsberg referred to as Russell’s “Buddhist bubblegum music.” Steven Hall, who was to play a key role on the track, recalls the sessions: “I remember Steve flying on acid all the time, and there were huge joints everywhere. Steve always had a beautiful ornamental boy on his arm, a muse and someone/something he could use to drive Arthur round the bend. As with any close creative relationship, there was heat and much friction.”
Despite this, D’Acquisto was essential to Russell’s development, according to Hall: “Steve was a big, loud, wonderful, in-your-face, faggot genius. In their team setting, Steve represented the wild side of Arthur. Steve enabled shy Arthur to literally come out of his shell in the gayest sense. He also taught him how to let go in terms of slavishly and clairvoyantly searching for and then locking in the groove.”
Hall was initially tasked with singing backing vocals; this was not quite how things turned out. “During the recording of someone else’s part, I was whistling along with the track,” continues Hall. “Steve immediately halted the recording session and dragged me into the booth. He wanted me to whistle exactly as I had been doing, which I did, and it was down in one take with minor dubs. This is a perfect illustration of who Steve was.”
As Russell’s musical and personal development picked up pace, not everyone was excited by the results. By the early 1980s, Russell’s new musical direction was causing confusion amongst his peers in the avant-garde community. Steven Hall recounts the time when Russell’s 24-24 compositions caused a scandal at the Kitchen: “People were upset because he was bringing heavy drums into the avant-garden, but they missed the point that he was bringing in a proposal for an infinite and all-inclusive form much in the manner of Cage’s dictum that all noise, including silence, was music to enlightened ears. What he was saying was that dance music was simply the latest form of classical music.”
Seeking an outlet for his new sound, Russell went on to form a record label with Will Socolov. “I got this money for Arthur and then I split,” says Socolov. “Then I came back from California and Hawaii, and I was walking down West Broadway, and I ran into Arthur. He just popped the question. He said, ‘Do you want to start a record company?’ I said, ‘You got it. Let’s do it.’ I had no experience. I didn’t know anything about it—I didn’t know anything about any business. I just knew that I could work hard, that I loved music, and that was that.”
If the roots of the new label were unconventional, this was reflected in the name. “We made fun a little bit of the disco world at that time,” says Socolov. “It was an era of Nehru jackets; everything was really slick; there were these dudes that were supercool with Afro Sheen in their hair. Our thing was to be almost ridiculous.” So was born Sleeping Bag—a distinctly un-disco name. The initial concept was that Russell would provide the musical direction, Socolov the business sense, and veteran record-plugger Juggy Gales—who had promoted records like “White Christmas” for Bing Crosby—would look after promotion. “We didn’t have money,” says Socolov. “We weren’t going to compete with Salsoul. Instead of competing, we came out of left field doing all kinds of stuff.”
The label had huge success early on with Class Action’s “Weekend” and Russell’s seminal “Go Bang,” credited to Dinosaur L and remixed by Francois Kevorkian. However, these successes highlighted some fundamental differences between Socolov and Russell. Russell’s avant-garde sensibilities made it hard for him to view his work as a finished “product.” “The thing about Arthur is that he wanted to be successful,” says Socolov, “but he also had to deal with his own neuroses and craziness, because he couldn’t make a decision about a mix.”
A crucial moment came when Francois Kevorkian remixed “Go Bang.” “The night that Francois did the mix, he gave it to me on an acetate,” says Socolov. “I was going over to the Loft with it, and I was in a position of honor, because when I got there, instead of waiting like everybody else like I used to, the door just opened and one of the guys said, ‘David’s been waiting for you.’ I walked right in ahead of everybody. I felt like a God. I gave David the acetate. Whatever he was about to put on, he took off, and he put ‘Go Bang’ on there. The place…they went out of their minds. But Arthur wasn’t there at the time. When he got there, his first reaction was to say, ‘ I’m ruined. Listen to the drums…look how they’re EQ’d. The drums are not strong enough. Francois did this on purpose.’ I said, ‘Arthur, fuck you, you’re out of your fucking mind. Everybody in this place is going crazy for this record, and you’re telling me that we’re ruined.’ I just didn’t know what he was talking about. But he was serious. He would have wanted to work on the drums more, and do this and do that. That’s who Arthur was.”
Kevorkian tells a similar story: “Arthur wasn’t really thrilled about it, because his concept was quite different. What he put on there, he really liked. What I did was to say this is primo material and should be highlighted, because the way you have it, it’s really buried and no one’s going to hear it. But if you took everything else around it out and just made that the highlight, people would go nuts to it—especially if you repeated it three times instead of going briefly on that like a butterfly and then just moving on to the next flower.”
Kevorkian had also been involved in Larry Levan’s mix of “Is It All Over My Face.” “I helped Larry with the edit,” he explains. “I couldn’t be credited, because Prelude got mad at me for doing so many projects on the side.” For Kevorkian, the key to both mixes was simplification. “Larry spent fifteen minutes doing the rough mix of ‘Is It All Over My Face.’ Literally, he just pushed up the faders on the console and recorded it as he was doing that. In both cases, we simplified what was there that was just completely all over the place and tried to focus on the core elements. Arthur used a rhythm section from Philadelphia—the Ingram Brothers—these were people who really knew how to play. I think they were getting lost in all this artsy stuff—all the crazy, quirky vocals and horns and strings. Some people like their house to have a thousand things and magazines all over the place, and other people like to have neat houses. I’m not saying which one is better, but my function was to focus the track and do a remix for the dance floor, so I obviously tried to maximize the impact.” One thing that Russell couldn’t argue with was success. The record went on to be huge on the dance floor and on the charts.
Success, though, was confusing for Russell and Sleeping Bag. “The problem with Arthur was that nothing was coming out,” says Socolov. “I would meet Arthur, and he would pull out a cassette and play me one, and then he’d pull out another one, and he’d say, ‘The drums are EQ’d differently on this one,’ and I’d say, ‘Arthur, I can’t distinguish them. To my ear they both sound good.’ And he would say to me, ‘No, no, no. You’ve got to hear the drums on this one.’ It got to the point where I’d say, ‘Let’s just put some fucking thing out. We’re not putting anything out, and I can’t pay the rent.’ ”
Russell’s perfectionism was putting huge pressure on the partnership. As the commercial realities dawned on Socolov, the seeds of separation were sown. “I spent a lot of time at the clubs; I became friendly with a lot of people—Larry Levan and people like that. I wanted to do music that had a commercial feel. Arthur was much more interested in doing just his music. It wasn’t an egotistical thing. Arthur was always questioning me about the newest Salsoul or West End or Prelude records that were big in the clubs. But he obviously had his own take on it; he had a different feel.”
Russell and Socolov shared a lot of musical common ground, but the cracks were beginning to show. “I deem myself a businessman, and I got into feeling that the stuff I was doing with Arthur was never going to make money the way that we were doing it.” So Sleeping Bag moved further down a hip-hop route. Key to this new direction was the growing involvement of Kurtis Mantronik, who, according to Socolov, “used to live out of the office, more or less.” In an attempt to marry the two Sleeping Bag factions, Socolov encouraged a musical partnership between Russell and Mantronik, but the project didn’t get very far. “The problem was Kurtis was a kid,” explains Socolov. “He just couldn’t relate to Arthur properly. They tried. Kurtis was a very bright kid, but he’s a product of a commercial environment. Arthur studied all different styles of music; he was very sophisticated. And, also, just stylistically, they weren’t the same.”
Other failed attempts at musical partnerships at this time were with Konk front man Dana Vlcek and Larry Levan. “Larry loved ‘Go Bang,’ ” says Socolov. “Larry wanted to do mixes with Arthur’s stuff—he tried with ‘Tell You Today.’ But it didn’t really jive with Larry. It wasn’t that they were unfriendly. I used to go to the Garage a lot, and I used to bring Arthur. Larry was happy that Arthur would come by, but Arthur was introverted in ways, and he didn’t get into the whole Garage glamour scene. Maybe that’s not the right way of explaining it, though. Larry just didn’t take things seriously. He’d mix a record for you, and it’d cost a fortune because he’d fall asleep. That’s not the kind of shit that Arthur would do. Arthur wasn’t into wasting and being extravagant. Arthur used inexpensive studios and he figured out how to stretch his money the most. Larry just put it on someone’s bill and let them pay for it. Sometimes you got brilliant stuff out of Larry by doing that, other times you didn’t.”
Russell and Socolov split in 1983. “We started going our separate ways,” says Socolov. “But we didn’t go our separate ways saying, ‘Fuck you, I don’t want to talk to you anymore.’ I’m not positive, but my recollection is I gave him an ultimatum. I said something like, ‘You’ve got to start making records for the company. I’m giving you a certain amount of time to make some records so we have some income.’ I’d paid for studio time, and there was nothing coming of it. I just couldn’t take it any more.”
Without Russell, Sleeping Bag went on to enjoy considerable success. Socolov launched Fresh Records in 1985, advancing the cause of many soon-to-become-huge acts including Mantronix, EPMD, Just-Ice, T La Rock, Joyce Sims, and Todd Terry. The label was not without its problems, however. According to Socolov, one of the major issues was remaining partner Juggy Gayles and his dysfunctional relationship with his son, Ron Resnick. Drugs led to mismanagement. “The thing about it is that we had Kurtis, who at the time was making phenomenal records; we had EPMD; we had so many things going, but we ruined it. We hid it because the company was so successful, until it was all fucked up and we couldn’t hide it anymore.”
Meanwhile, Russell was forced to feed his need for studio time wherever he could. “Arthur was a junkie for studio time,” says Socolov. One of the people he turned to was Bob Blank. “One day, he traded a 1951 Chevy for studio time at my house,” recalls Blank. “That was typical of him. He goes to his aunt’s house and finds this ’51 Chevy in a barn, and drives it back at forty miles an hour to my house. He was such a character.”
Blank was a legendary New York engineer and producer who had worked with a wide mix of left-field artists including Tiny Tim, John Cale, and Sun Ra. In 1975, he produced one of the first 12-inch disco records, “To Be With You” by Jimmy Sabater, and also engineered Musique’s Keep on Jumpin’ album. As disco took off, Blank found himself working round-the-clock for labels like West End and Salsoul, which were seeking people who could provide that New York club sound.
Blank had started working with Russell in the mid-’70s. “We just hit it off,” he recalls. “He was so unique. Most artists had charts and positions, and a production scheme, and so forth. He walked into the studio and said, ‘Roll the tape.’ Now we’re rolling the tape—nobody’s in the studio. The drummer comes in, he’s warming up; the bass player comes in, getting the sound. All of a sudden, Arthur starts playing a groove and singing his thing, and everybody starts jamming along with him. His theory was that musicians naturally gravitate to what they hear and what they instinctively react to. So, if you’re a bass player and you hear a drummer go dip dip dap, you’ll play something, and that will feel totally natural.” But it didn’t end there. Editing was a crucial—and drawn out—process. “We’d spend the next twenty hours trying to reproduce that moment. The editing and remixing and making it work. It’s a real cathartic thing, and I had never been put through that until I worked with Arthur. It was nuts, but it was wonderful, because this is where magic happens.”
As Russell’s relationship with Socolov deteriorated, Russell began work on a track for Blank’s wife Lola called “Wax the Van.” “We started working on the project,” says Blank, “and we got to where it was pretty close to something, and [Sleeping Bag] started having problems financially. I had been financing ‘Wax the Van’—it had nothing to do with Sleeping Bag. I knew the people over at Jump Street, and they were really into it. The moment that Will [Socolov] found out that this product was at Jump Street, he freaked out. He was saying this is why he got together with Arthur, so that Arthur’s sound would be the Sleeping Bag sound. It was sort of embarrassing to be in that position, because after that point my relationship with Will was very, very strained. You could look at it like I took his production partner and head of the record company and made a record, and then sold it to somebody else. But, in reality, it was really Arthur’s idea not to do it on Sleeping Bag.”
The track went on to be a huge hit, especially at clubs like the Paradise Garage. “Performing ‘Wax the Van’ when it was number one in the New York area was a wild experience,” recalls Blank. “The group was scheduled to go on around 4:00 a.m., which was a peak time at the Garage. The audience went crazy when Lola started singing, and even crazier when she started dancing.” Lola was no shrinking violet, having performed with James Brown at the Rumble in the Jungle. “Arthur was there, and of course he was very ecstatic about the crowd response. He was a very quiet person, very self-effacing, so he was very comfortable being in the background. We stood [in the] back of [the] room, next to the audio rack, and watched. He smiled a lot.”
It had not always been smooth sailing for “Wax the Van.” In a familiar story, Russell had been dissatisfied with the end product. “He was uncomfortable with it when it came out,” says Blank. “But he grew to love the thing.” Blank has his own theory as to why Russell couldn’t let go. “He found it very, very difficult. Here’s a good example: he’d record a track and it would sound great, and then two weeks later, he’d come in and I’d notice that one of our studios was making a twenty-four-track copy of that song. Then I’d find that I’m booked in a session with two percussionists and Peter Zummo [a long-time Russell collaborator] playing over the track, and I’m supposed to turn up the bass drums and one keyboard. He just went into another direction. It’s not like a classic case of ‘I can’t let my art go.’ He just never heard it as a finished thing. He always heard it evolving. I think he realized—and it’s hard to say this given his untimely passing—but I think he realized that at the end of his life, even if he’d lived to his seventies or eighties, that all his work would have value and meaning. I think that he was uncomfortable saying, “This is all I can get out of this.” And that was what happened with the Necessaries album [released in 1981]. With the songs that he wrote, the day after the album was mastered, he came in and said, ‘Okay, here are my changes,’ and I said, ‘The album’s already out!’ ”
As Russell’s health deteriorated, there was to be one more chapter in his relationship with Socolov. “Arthur and I always maintained a friendship, even just before the end of his life,” says Socolov. “He came back to see me when he wanted to put another record out. He didn’t tell me he was sick. I found out. It was unfortunate. He couldn’t control things, and it became obvious. He then confided in me and said, ‘Look, I’m sick, but I want to do another record before I die.’ ”
And so was born Russell’s last great dance project, Indian Ocean. The sprawling epic “Schoolbell/Treehouse” is a mesmeric masterpiece “mixed with love” by Walter Gibbons. Released in 1986, it was the last Russell release on Sleeping Bag and marked the last great collaboration of Russell’s life. During a tragically brief period in the mid- to late ’80s, Russell worked with Gibbons on a number of projects, the highlight being the seminal album World of Echo, which spawned the 12-inch “Let’s Go Swimming.” Around this time, Gibbons also inadvertently played a key role in maintaining the Russell legacy by giving a copy of “Schoolbell/Treehouse” to Steve Knutson of Tommy Boy Records. The record changed Knutson’s life. Since then, he has set up Audika Records and devoted his life to releasing material from Russell’s extensive back catalog.
Russell’s enduring resistance to declaring a track finished meant that hundreds of workings and reworkings of tracks were left behind when he died in 1992. Knutson has access to Russell’s complete archive of over one thousand tapes on loan from Russell’s boyfriend Tom Lee—including over forty tapes of “Let’s Go Swimming,” and alternate versions of all the classic Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, and Indian Ocean material. While many—especially in the dance community—felt that much of Russell’s work was unfinished, what he left behind has proven to be gloriously tender and intensely personal documents. Thanks to Knutson, this material has begun to see the light of day.
Towards the late ’80s, Russell may have begun to lose his taste for the nightlife, but he could never stop recording. Tom Lee explains: “He would walk throughout the day around New York with his headphones on and just be constantly pushing rewind, listening to something over again, and pushing fast-forward and finding another take of something, just flicking back and forth.” It is here that we find the dichotomy at the heart of Russell’s music. Returning to the picture of the young cellist sitting on his own by the lake, we are forced to wonder if Russell was creating dream music for wandering, or deep-disco odysseys that you could dance to—if you put your mind to it. Whatever he was doing, this was never simple-formula dance music.
Read the sidebar with Francois Kevorkian on remixing “Go Bang.”
Special thanks to Chuck and Emily Russell, Tom Lee, and Steve Knutson (Audika Records).
Selected Discography of Arthur Russell
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