Tag Archives: celestial choir

Larry Levan, Disco-Gospel and a (Possible) White Lie

7 Dec
Stand on the Word and Larry Levan

The “Stand on the Word” single and Larry Levan

Yesterday, NPR ran a story on the late Larry Levan, the legendary DJ from New York’s Paradise Garage and all-around golden boy of the ’70s and ’80s dance scene. The piece closed with Levan’s remix of “The Pressure” by Sounds of Blackness, which appears in the recently released box set by Ministry of Sound, the London nightclub/record label. The beginning of Levan’s dance mix is an anxious mashup of gospel vocals and pulsing beat, and it’s easy to imagine the track emerging from the club scene of a pre-Giuliani, vibrant but scary New York.

The story and the track got me thinking about the night I discovered Levan at a tavern uptown, several blocks north of the old Paradise Garage. Sometime during the spring of ’08, some friends and I wandered into a random, comfy bar that served cheap, tall, gin and tonics. The evening’s soundtrack was being curated by the bartender’s iPod, a mostly forgettable mix of low-key dance and pop, the kind of upbeat melodic murmur that easily fades into the background while you’re laughing at someone’s outrageous subway story.

All of the sudden, the sound of high-pitched piano started trickling out of the speakers. Hi-hat came in quickly behind it, steadying the soulful piano intro with an easy yet infectious beat. Organ fluttered gently under that, barely audible, but playing its part. Then the choir came in, layering gospel oohs over bass drum.

And then the party started. Bass guitar strutted, disco beat bounced, and the choir swelled, singing “That’s how the good Lord works!” with glorious, churchified exuberance.

I was feeling it, and had long checked out of whatever conversation was happening around me. This song was a combination of the gospel music that had dominated my Pentecostal childhood and the disco sound that I secretly discovered and fell in love with later in life. This song was me, past and present.

Once the track ended, I waved the bartender over and asked him what it was.

“‘Stand on the Word,'” he said. “The Larry Levan Mix.”

I wrote it down and Googled it as soon as I got home. I found out that the choir featured in the mix was called the Celestial Choir, and a commenter on YouTube claimed they were based at the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights back in 1982, when the original recording of “Stand on the Word” was made. Further details of the history of the track are hazy. Some say that Levan wasn’t even involved with the mix or the recording, and that his name was only slapped on the record after the fact in an effort to boost sales and give the song some cachet. If that’s true, then the plan seems to have worked. To this day, the celebrated Levan name is still associated with this mix.

But I hope it’s not true. I hope that Levan mixed this one sweaty night at the Paradise Lounge and everyone on the dance floor caught the holy ghost.

Listen: Celestial Choir, “Stand on the Word” (Larry Levan Mix)