Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Homage to Mel Cheren

T. Renner, "Homage to Mel Cheren," 2010, acrylic on paper, 4" x 6".

Here's some information about Mel Cheren from the painter Michael Davidson:
Another album cover painting that piqued my curiosity is featured on Archie Shepp’s Fire Music (1965). After inconclusive polling of the “experts” and unanswered industry inquiries, I gave up and bought the damned thing. I discovered that it is a painting by Mel Cheren. The “who?” lead me further, and as I discovered that Cheren continues to paint, but in the 1960s worked for ABC-Paramount and Dunhill Records before starting his own disco label in the 1970s. He now manages a small hotel in Chelsea and continues to work as a gay rights advocate and activist. Cheren is not encoded in the canonical history of art, not even that of a regional, New York history, but like the [Ornette] Coleman's painting [The Art of the Improvisers], created a still-useful sign that is kept alive — owes its freedom of expression — as long as the Shepp record is in production.

And here's Mel Cheren's obitutary from the New York Sun, December 11, 2007:
Mel Cheren, who died Friday at 74, was a founder of West End Records, a spearhead of disco from the mid-1970s.

As a producer for another label, Scepter Records, Cheren was credited by Billboard magazine with inventing the 12-inch single and the purely instrumental b-side, which allowed a DJ to extend a dance song infinitely.

At West End Records, which he co-founded in 1976, Cheren released some of the formative singles of the disco era, including "Hot Shot" by Karen Young and Raw Silk's "Do It To the Music." He also backed a memorable nightclub, the Paradise Garage, where disco dreams played out in the fabulous late 1970s and early 1980s. A 2006 documentary about Cheren's role in the music's early days was titled, "The Godfather of Disco."

All too notoriously, the predominantly gay social scene of early disco burned out in the face of the AIDS epidemic. Cheren became a leader in that cause as well, holding the first fund-raisers and donating the first office space to the Gay Men's Health Crisis in his Chelsea brownstone, a renovated SRO. After GMHC outgrew those quarters, Cheren converted the brownstone into a gay-oriented bed-and-breakfast, the Colonial House Inn.

Born January 21, 1933, in Everett, Mass., and raised in nearby Revere, Cheren got his first job in the record industry at ABC-Paramount Records, where he rose to head of production. Hot acts on the label included Paul Anka and B.B. King, but Cheren left when ABC-Paramount moved to Los Angeles, in 1970. At Scepter, he pioneered long-playing "danceable R&B" formats, and shepherded early disco hits including "Do It 'Til You're Satisfied" by B.T. Express. Scepter folded in 1976, and Cheren and another Scepter executive, Ed Kushins, founded West End Records. The label's first release was a long-playing disco version of an Italian film score title track, "Sessamato," famously used as the first record scratched by GrandMaster Flash. There were other connections to the later hip hop styles, including Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat," a West End hit that has become one of the most sampled tracks.

In 1977, Cheren and his companion, Michael Brody, opened the Paradise Garage, a seminal nightclub on King Street in the West Village in a former parking garage — a ramp led up to the dance floor. Smoke machines and music videos lurked in the corners and one of the most sophisticated sound systems in the city pumped out DJ Larry Levan's selections. As it was a private club and sold no alcohol, the dancing could continue far into the night, sometimes even until noon the next day. The endless throbbing at Paradise Garage is often cited as a precursor to house music and similar modern styles. Despite the onset of AIDS and the "death to disco" or "disco sucks" movement of the early 1980s, the Paradise Garage managed to stay open until 1987. Today it is again a garage.

Cheren first opened his home for GMHC's offices from the organization's founding in 1982, and sponsored its first fund-raiser, at the Paradise Garage. He remained involved, and last January celebrated his 74th birthday as a GMHC benefit. He was also an important benefactor to music industry AIDS charities, including 24 Hours for Life and Lifebeat.

An accomplished painter, Cheren's art was featured on the covers of ten albums, including John Lee Hooker's Urban Blues and Sonny Rollins's East Broadway Run Down. Other paintings, many lit by black lights to bring out the fluorescent paint, lined the halls of his B&B, which remains open.

In 2000, Cheren published a memoir, "My Life and the Paradise Garage:Keep on Dancin': " In the book's prologue, he wrote, "This is a story of my gay generation, the world we built, and the world we lost."

He died of complications of AIDS.

Originally posted October 9, 2011.

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