Levan began his first DJ residency while still a teenager, at a New York club called the Gallery in 1971. Both there and at his next club, the Continental Baths, Levan worked with (and profoundly influenced) the future godfather of house, Frankie Knuckles. After setting up the Soho Place midway through the decade, Levan joined the Paradise Garage in 1977 and began changing the face of dance music. Unlike other disco clubs around the city (including the notoriously hip, but musically flat Studio 54), the Paradise Garage featured a nightclub built on music, with attendees who were preferential about the music they danced to -- not who they were seen by. Levan and engineer Richard Long supervised construction of what has been called the best sound system ever produced, and spent hours before opening each night to make sure that acoustics, speaker placement, and atmosphere were perfect. To give club-goers the ultimate dance experience, experience used an assortment of subtle tricks; during the night, he would even upgrade the quality of his musical selections and turntable needles until music, mixer, and dancers hit their peak simultaneously. (The Paradise Garage's sound system was so good, in fact, that it was later bought by the London super-club Ministry of Sound, carefully disassembled, shipped overseas, and installed in a new space.)
By the beginning of the '80s, disco's flame had been extinguished by a glut of sub-par recordings and rabid anti-disco movements. Levan continued playing to an increasingly underground (though still ecstatic) audience. He also began working on studio production as well, recording remixes and special dance versions of pop songs for labels like Salsoul, Prelude, and West End as well as the occasional major label. Though many of his 12" productions were obscurities of the highest order (except in the crates of privileged DJs), tracks by the Peech Boys, Jimmy Castor Bunch, First Choice, Loleatta Holloway, and Skyy became certifiable dance classics. By the mid-'80s, the sound of New York/Chicago house music had begun to infiltrate England.
In an ironic twist, however, the man who did much to pave the way for dance music wasn't around during its rebirth. By September 1987, the Paradise Garage had closed its doors. Though Levan's name appeared on several remixes and productions during the late '80s and early '90s, he spent only a fraction of his time in the studio compared to during his heyday. Levan returned to the DJing booth on a 1992 trip to Japan with François Kevorkian, though later in the year he died from a congenital heart condition, exacerbated by drug use. Only his post-productions were collected on various albums until 2000, when Strut released an eye-opening set titled Live at the Paradise Garage. ~ John Bush, Rovi