Obituary: David Mancuso, influential party host and DJ
David Mancuso was a musical pioneer and arguably the key figure in the birth of disco and contemporary club music amid the rough-edged and transformative New York scene of the 1970s. That he managed this without making any original music himself was even more worthy of praise; yes, he was a DJ whose wide and inclusive tastes helped forge the scene, but it was the iconic and boundary-pushing party The Loft with which he was synonymous. In their book The Record Players, dance music historians Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton called him “the most influential figure in nightlife history”.
“The Loft,” they continued, “lit the fuse on the kind of clubbing we enjoy today and certainly on the places we go to to do it.” In his history of the era, Life and Death on the New York Dancefloor, meanwhile, writer Tim Lawrence best described Mancuso as “a party host who happened to select music”. The Loft was held in Mancuso’s own loft apartment, and sold no alcohol, to give it a more flexible licensing arrangement as a private members’ club.
More than the music it played – in the early days an eclectic and worldly fusion of funk, soul and rock, particularly of the psychedelic variety – The Loft broke boundaries as a venue where the inclusiveness of club culture at its best was born. It was an event which truly rode the wave of its time. In the wake of the late 1960s’ free love and civil rights movements, and the Stonewall Riots of 1969, this was a place where black, white, straight, gay, bohemian dropout and career people could come together amid an air of communal inclusivity.
From 1970, The Loft welcomed underground figures of the New York music scene like Patti Labelle and Divine, and virtually every DJ and club boss who put the city on the map in the next decade. In 1972, Loft-goer Nicky Siano’s The Gallery opened up, taking direct inspiration from The Loft, and among its many other subsequent followers were the ground-zero disco venues Paradise Garage and Studio 54, and eventually the New York house music scene of the late 1980s.
David Mancuso was born on 20 October 1944 in the small New York State city of Utica, and was raised for the first few years of his life in an orphanage, until he moved back in with his mother at the age of five. It wasn’t a situation he liked to discuss in public in future years, although he did speak fondly of Sister Alicia, one of the nuns who ran the orphanage, and the parties she laid on for the children. These involved cups of juice, party balloons and music played on an old record player; it was a nostalgic and welcoming aesthetic which Mancuso would repeat at his Loft parties, blowing up balloons, squeezing fresh orange juice and laying out food for his guests.
An independent teenager, Mancuso was living on his own in Utica by the age of 15, shining shoes for money and to buy records for his collection. He first visited New York City at the age of 18, during the heart of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and moved there within a month. Along with the memory of Sr Alicia, Mancuso’s other big influence was the spiritual guru and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary, whose West Village lectures and parties he attended, and whose book The Psychedelic Experience he devoured.
Although it didn’t begin properly until 1970, 1965 was ground zero for The Loft. This was when Mancuso moved into his loft apartment at 647 Broadway in the city’s NoHo district, taking advantage of the flight of industrial and manufacturing businesses out of the area. Now hugely expensive pieces of upmarket property, in those days the landlords of these lofts were just happy to have tenants willing to pay rent, and these tenants – many of them artists and musicians – were excited by the thought of having larger living spaces than they might ever have imagined.
Mancuso worked for a publishing company, a health food store and as a personnel manager for a restaurant chain. In the second half of the 1960s he began staging parties in his home; at first, small, Leary-inspired “happenings” for a handful of friends, and then “rent parties” for larger numbers. These were inspired by similar events he had been to elsewhere, particularly in black neighbourhoods, where licensing laws allowed what was essentially a house party to charge entry, as long as the proceeds were exclusively used for paying the rent.
Five or six of these parties happened at his place, but the 1960s took a toll on Mancuso. He chose to drop out of life completely as an ascetic, giving up drugs and cigarettes, foregoing the wearing of clothes at home, and even taking the door off his apartment (he returned home one evening to find a homeless person asleep on the couch). In 1969 he was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital, and after “escaping” while on a field trip, he returned to his loft with renewed vigour. On Valentine’s Day 1970 he held a party, appropriately named Love Saves the Day; it was the first night of a new era in New York’s nightlife, and it inspired – directly or indirectly – the social lives of the Western world until the present day.
The Loft moved to a new, much larger space in SoHo in 1972, and Mancuso never stopped throwing parties, or DJing around the world after being “rediscovered” in Brewster and Broughton’s 1999 book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. A great lover of audio purity who didn’t use a mixer so as to play music as the artist intended, his taste can be heard on two The Loft compilations issued by Nuphonic in 1999 and 2000, while his influence extends to the continuing ethos of a nightclub being an open, inclusive place where only a shared love of music defines people.