Francis Grasso – The First Modern DJ
Francis Grasso (25.3.1949-20.3.2001) was an American disc jockey from New York City, best known for inventing the technique of slip-cueing and beatmatching (sometimes referred to as mixing or blending) which is the foundation of the modern club DJ’s technique. Francis started his DJ career in 1967 at a New York City nightclub called Salvation II. When the primary DJ Terry Noel failed to show up on time one night, the owners offered Francis a chance at the job. The crowd responded almost immediately and soon he had his first regular gig. It was there and at subsequent New York City clubs such as Tarots and his most famous nightclub, Sanctuary (featured in the movie Klute) where Francis perfected his craft. Though he died in March of 2001, the skills and techniques he pioneered remain the foundation of what is heard in a modern nightclub.
Francis Grasso was the first dj to require headphones as part of his setup. This allowed him to preview a record on one turntable while another played on the second turntable. By using headphones in combination with slip-cueing, he forever changed the art of djing. The records that Grasso was mixing used live drummers and not beat machines. It took incredible skill and a good ear to mix these records for more than a few seconds which Grasso perfected to longer and longer sequences. The most impressive addition Grasso brought to dj culture was music programming; the art of picking up on the energy of the crowd and sending that energy right back to them through the next track. Early on, Grasso used Thorens turntables although they were a far cry from the Technics turntables most djs use in clubs today. Soon he taught others and Grasso spread the art of mixing by maintaining a constant beat and working the crowd with the music throughout New York.
From “Disco” by Albert Goldman, 1978.
“One of the greatest draws at Sanctuary was the only straight guy in the place, its legendary DJ, Francis. The most influential spinner in the short history of the craft, Francis Grasso is (sic) a small, muscular, long-haired lad from Brooklyn who got his start in the business working as a dancer at Trude Hellar’s club in the Village, where he was obliged to perform on a narrow ledge against the wall that allowed him to move only laterally, like a figure in a frieze. One night while visiting Salvation II, a club perched on top of an apartment house on Central Park South (today, the site of the Bengali restaurant, Nirvana), Francis was asked to substitute for Terry Noel, who failed to show up for work. Grasso approached his trial with fear and trembling; but when Noel appeared, the manager fired him and hired the novice. Francis soon demonstrated that he had a fresh slant on spinning. Unlike Terry, who was heavy into rock and kept a picture of Elvis Presley stuck up in the booth, Francis worked the soul track. When he got up on the altar at Sanctuary, he would preach that old-time religion with Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Booker T. and the MG’s. Into this mix he would drop Chicago’s and Cat Mother’s Track In A. Once he had the crowd hooked, he’d dip into his African bag with Olatunji and the authentic Nigerian drums and chants of Drums of Passion. Francis was the first DJ to perfect the current technique for stitching records together in seamless sequences. He invented the trick of “slip-cuing”; Holding the disc with his thumb while the turntable whirled beneath insulated by a felt pad, he would locate with an earphone the best spot to make the splice, then release the next side precisely on the beat. When he got Thorens turntables with speed controls, he supplemented his cuing technique with speed changes that enabled him to match up the records perfectly in tempo. He also got into playing around with the equalization controls not only to boost the bass for ass-wagging but to compensate for the loss of highs that occurred when a record was slowed down for mixing. Eventually, Francis became a virtuoso. His tour de force was playing two records simultaneously for as long as two minutes at a stretch. He would super the drum break of I’m A Man over the orgasmic moans of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love to make a powerfully erotic mix that anticipated by many years the formula of bass-drum beats and love cries that is now one of the clich»s of disco mix. What this pioneering jock was doing was composing a hitherto nonexistent disco music out of prefab parts. What’s more, he was forging the new music right in the heart of the discotheque, with the dancers freaking out in front of him and sending back their waves to his soul, exactly as Lindy dancers used to turn on jazz musicians in the old swing bands. Not a high-powered show-biz jock like Terry Noel, who wanted to sweep up the audience and carry them off on his trip, Francis was instead like an energy mirror, catching the vibes off the floor and shooting them back again recharged by the powerful sounds of his big horns. Eventually, Francis taught other jocks his tricks and established his style of playing as the new standard.”
From the liner notes of the Rhino Disco Box Set:
New York, Francis Grasso, The Sanctuary. “Back then, you couldn’t adjust the speeds. You had to catch it at the right moment. There was no room for error. And you couldn’t play catch up. You couldn’t touch the turntables. I had Thorens, and you couldn’t do that on Thorens. All you had to do was start at the right moment. Nobody mixed like me. Nobody was willing to hang out that long. Because if you hang out that long, the chances of mistakes are that much greater. But to me it was second nature. I did it like I walk my dog.”
Photo: Testing Audio Equipment @ Club Francis
Exclusive interview with Jackie Columbo-Pasternack, who was Francis’ girlfriend during early 70s, when Francis was djing @ the Sanctuary and when he tried to open his Club Francis.
– When did Francis start his dj Career?
I believe Francis’s DJing started in the winter of 1968 when he was all of 19 years old. Although I did bump into him just about when he got that job, I never went to the club to see him. But my guess and from what I remember him telling me later on is that he just fell into the job. But from what I remember about Francis, I would guess he watched the DJ he replaced who I believe was Terry Noel (who was terrible) and saw what the clientele didn’t want. The usual DJ who announced what song he was going to play and paused between records. I’m sure Francis was thinking how great it would be if one song just went into another and played continuously. I’m also sure Francis knew what music the crowd wanted to hear since he and they were part of the times. He must’ve realized slip cueing then and when he started DJing the crowd’s loved his choice of music and the flowing of the music. So a pioneer was born.
– Where did Francis buy his music?
Francis bought his records at a small record store near his home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY. I also went with him to the larger stores in Manhattan, somewhere on Broadway but don’t remember the name. Strange thinking about it now, we don’t use records anymore.
– Tell me what i could see if i joined the Sanctuary in the early 70s (Atmosphere, People, Soul…, Music). I have read that Francis was the only etero inside. Is it correct?
Don’t know if you saw the movie Klute which was shot at the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary was a converted church and it was packed with people. It had both gay and straight crowds. The music was loud especially because the music echoed up to the steeple. Everyone was dancing, and the music was great. Francis would be up on the pulpit dancing along with the music. He was a great dancer and really into the music. He’d kicked his legs up real high when he danced. There were a lot of drugs also. Cocaine, tuinals(? downers), speed, pot, you name it. The crowd was young. Francis started working at the Sanctuary from around February 1971 through summer of 1973. The girls had long hair, either straight or natural waves and some afro’s. The clothes were pretty much what NY is wearing now. Hip hugger dungarees, but everyone was thin, skinny and the guys had long hair. The shoes were platform and I don’t know how we danced in them but we did. The atmosphere was up beat, lively, kick up your heel kinda thing. (Hope you know American slang). Everyone was friendly, no fights, no drinking and it was a place to escape. Remember, America had a bad economy, Nixon and Vietnam. Francis liked soul music, not the Beatles, America, Neil Young‘s type of music, although he would play that when we were alone. What was in is what we heard.
– I think at that time Francis was a beautiful and sexy guy so… i think you were angry with him because i think he fell in love with a lot of women!!
Francis was straight and what we called macho at the time. He was a very hot, sexy guy who had a great body. I started our real relationship in the summer of 1970 when he was DJing at the Haven which was a 90 per cent Gay Club. In fact Francis’s friends were mostly gay then. I did meet Steve Aquisto, who was straight and he used to come to the Haven a lot and we would all go to breakfast together when the cub closed which was about 5am. I wasn’t threatened about other girls at the time because there weren’t any at the Haven and Francis wasn’t the type to hurt me. When he was at the Sanctuary that was another thing. I broke up with him after he filmed Klute because it went to his head. He was high on an ego trip. I dated others but caught him with a blonde at the Sanctuary. We were respectful to each other and I never saw another girl with in or suspected there was one, but there were groupies and they’d wave to him and be outside watching him walk in. I’m sure that during our break ups there were girls and groupies all over him and outside watching him enter the club. He didn’t confess that to me, but he was a healthy 22, 23 year old at that time.
– What can you say about Club Francis?
About Club Francis. That’s a nightmare. In the fall of 1970 Francis told me that these guys wanted to open a club which was over the Cafè Wha which was in Greenwich Village and name it Club Francis. He was thrilled at first and was excited. He would DJ and be a partner as well. Then, as the Club was being built, he started getting nervous and frightened. He advised me that the people he signed a contract with was a part of the Mafia and he didn’t trust them. He also told me he had a bad feeling about signing the contract and didn’t like the way they were treating him. He wanted out while they were setting the club up. I’m attaching a picture of him in Club Francis when Francis was checking out the sound equipment. He still worked at the Haven at this time but gave notice before Club Francis’s opening.
I believe the opening was around Christmas time 1970. Finally Francis didn’t want to go through with it so he went by himself to the Club to get out of the contract he signed. Strange, I don’t know why he didn’t go to a lawyer, but who knows about those times. It was either a Thursday night or Friday for the Grand Opening and Francis wanted out and wouldn’t work. Three men took him outside in the back and two held his arms while the third beat his face up. Francis’ nose was broken his face was badly bruised. The bastard put a cigarette out in his face and he had a burn mark. Francis called me the next day when he left the hospital and picked me up for dinner. I almost fainted seeing him He had a bandage from one ear to the other, covering his nose, cheeks and all you can see were his blackened eyes, lips and chin. He was lucky they didn’t kill him. He went into a depression and became paranoid for awhile after that. He would insist they were outside his apartment and for weeks, maybe a month, he didn’t go out. I literally babysat him. But eventually he took a job at the Sanctuary and he snapped out of it.
Club Francis wasn’t opened for long, I remember seeing the sign on top of Cafe Wha, Club Francis it felt like he was famous.
I hope I didn’t write too much. Francis was a beautiful person and I’m happy he died with the recognition he should have had in life. I don’t think Francis, who was raised without a father, had the right support system and self worth to further himself. He should have moved on into sound and music, maybe the movies or records. Why he went into construction? Brooklyn mentality. Get a job where you don’t have to go to an office and get benefits. I guess he was 30 + and DJing was too much. He was a genius, very smart and he could have done better. But he loved what he was doing.
– I have only a few things to ask:
You said Francis went into the Sanctuary from 1971 and he went into an ego trip after Klute’s movie (yes, i have seen it… Francis appeared 3-5 seconds djing inside the club!) what was the club he worked before Sanctuary, from 1968 to 1970? Do you remember… Arthur Club? I have understand that you didn’t go to his first club but only at the Sanctuary first… true?
I’m pleased you liked my answers. When I first met Francis in the summer of 1966 and when he was 17, he was in college. From 1967-1968 he was a Trude Heller’s Dancer. From 1968 through 1969 he first dj’d at Salvation II where he replaced Terri Noel. From 1969 to 1970 he worked at the Haven. It’s at the Haven I bumped into him and we started our two year relationship. I watched him dj at the Haven and the Sanctuary. The last time I saw Francis was in August 1972. He was still at the Sanctuary but I believe it closed soon after that.
Performing live @ Sanctuary in Movie “Klute”, 1971
interview: late 2009 by ROMO
Post Update: Sep 13, 2018