"Right place at the right
time" was the prescription for this disco spinner
John Bisci Jr. - a.k.a. "Dr.
John" - was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1956. As a child, he
had but two interests: music and auto racing. Buffalo's Top-40
disc jockeys of the '60s and early '70s - including Jackson
Armstrong, Dan Neaverth and Sandy Beach -
were his heroes, and he hoped to
someday land a job at WKBW, a powerful 50,000-watt AM powerhouse
whose signal was heard in many states and Canada.
"When my parents brought me
home from the hospital, they placed a radio next to my crib and
turned on KB," said Bisci. "When I was six months
old, they took me to my first stock car race, at Civic Stadium.
That pretty much set the tone for the rest of my life."
Bisci attended Erie Community
College in Hamburg, N.Y., in 1974, and joined the radio club.
His hands-on experience at the school's tiny broadcast facility
launched an 18-year career as a nightclub DJ.
"I was playing R&B
records to a primarily-rural audience," Bisci recalled.
"The city kids who attended the school liked it, but I wondered
if anybody was listening. Sitting in that little studio, I had
no idea how my choice of music was being received.
"I was 17 and hanging out at
the Executive Inn in Cheektowaga and this other place called the
Crossbow (formerly the Sizzle Steakhouse near Boulevard Mall) and
enjoyed going to see groups like Junction West, Isaac (with Lance
Diamond) and Talas. I had heard about this concept where a DJ
played records in a club and wondered why people would be interested
in that. The Club 747 had just opened inside the Executive, so
I checked it out one evening. The music was loud, and I
recognized some of it as what I was playing at school. There
were lots of flashing lights, not to mention well-dressed girls
socializing with well-dressed guys. And I thought,
'Hmmnnn...they just might have something here.'
"A place called Frisco's had
just opened up near my house, on Union Rd. in the Garden Village
Plaza. A buddy and I stopped there one night, and the DJ was
Tony Dragotta, a.k.a. Tony Dee. I told my friend, 'I'd
like to try that - I wonder if they need someone.' My friend
replied, 'Forget it - you'll never cut it as a DJ.' That was my
challenge. I spoke with Tony for about an hour, and he offered
me one night a week. Tony Dee gave me my first break as a disco
DJ in 1976.
"The pay for my first disco
DJ gig was $15, an order of chicken wings and all the
vodka and iced tea I could
drink. I never told them, but I would have done it for free.
"Everything in the
soundbooth was painted flat brown. They had two A-R turntables
(you had to remove the platter and shift the drive belt to go from 45
rpm to 33 rpm -- and the motor took a full revolution to get up to
speed), a Seneca Sound mixer and six colored spotlights hooked up to
a color organ - that was it. But the place was packed at least
four nights a week.
"Eventually, Tony left for
the Charter House, and I inherited Frisco's - seven nights a
week. I started reading Billboard Magazine's disco charts.
I went to Record Theatre and bought every new disco record I could
find. Many of the dancers at Frisco's also went to Buffalo's
two hottest clubs -- Fridays & Saturdays and the Club 747 - and
they would tip me off to the new stuff Charlie Cimino and Charlie
Anzalone were playing. Charlie Cimino visited Frisco's one
night - at his sister Helena's urging - and said, 'You're on the
right track.' Later, the Buffalo Courier Express rated us as
the No. 3 nightclub in Buffalo and I was walking on air.
"By this time, staying up
'til 4:00 a.m. did not mix well with going to school. I never
cared for the school - except for the radio station - so I figured
I'd do this for about two years and then return to school when I knew
what I really wanted to be.
"Before Tony Dee left
Frisco's, I got a gig downtown at the Stage Door Disco - a converted
strip club. This was when Chippewa Street was not a very nice
place. Sam, the owner said, 'Ya gotta have a name. What
do you call yourself?' Well, Charlie Anzalone was 'Capt.
Disco,' and this other DJ, John Mills, called himself
"General" Mills. I remembered back to when I was a
little kid. I had to wear glasses when I was in
kindergarten. My dad used to call me the doctor or the
professor. The first night I announced myself as "Dr.
John," I had to turn off the microphone - I was laughing too
hard. But it stuck. That's where the 'Dr. John' came from."
Bisci left Frisco's in the spring
of '77 and honed his skills at a variety of clubs as journeyman DJ.
"I was working at as many as
four clubs each week during the summer of '77. I spun at the
Electric Company (on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, Ali Baba's (East
Aurora), Port Shark (Cheektowaga), and briefly at the Club 747 on
Friday nights. I learned how to tailor my music to each
audience. A hit record at one club in the city may not
necessarily be as popular in another. But I always tried to
arrange to have Wednesdays off so I could catch Charlie Anzalone at
Fridays & Saturdays for Drink 'n' Drown night. If Charlie
made a mix between two records that I really liked, I'd unashamedly
write it down.
"I met Marty Angelo at the
Club 747, and wound up spinning on his TV show. It was ironic:
I was on TV, but couldn't watch the show. The show aired on
cable, and the development where my parents lived in Depew could not
get cable. The whole street was forced to go the rabbit-ear
route until '88.
"I learned so much about the
business in the brief time I worked on that show. Part of that
education included the ugly side of the business. A DJ,
who I thought was my friend, talked his way into taking my Friday
nights at the Club 747. Then a sound-company owner - who I also
thought was a friend - weaseled his way onto the TV show and replaced
me as the DJ. I learned - the hard way - to always protect my turf.
"I met Tony Spencer that
year. He was also spinning at the Electric Company and Ali
Baba's. He too wanted to improve his skills and advance his
career. We became good friends. Gary Larkin, a DJ in
Pennsylvania, published a disco playlist called The G&B
Report. I started reporting to his disco chart. One day,
he called me with this concept, called 'beats-per-minute.'
Before 'BPM,' DJs were really guessing as to how fast a record
was. Some records had a fast tempo but sounded slower than they
really were. Other records were slow but sounded faster.
Some DJs were really distorting the speeds of the records to try to
get them to blend. With this beats-per-minute system, you would
know (by counting how many times the drum beat in a minute) how fast
the record was, and you could mix records that were similar in
speed. Knowing how to do that, you could start out slow (the
Commodores' "Brick House" was 111 or 112 bpm, for
example), and build up a set that ended somewhere in the 130s (Disco
Inferno, MacArthur Park, etc.). Then you let all these sweating
dancers take a break with a few slow songs and started the process
all over again. I introduced the beats-per-minute system to
Buffalo. A lot of the DJs made fun of it at first, but now
everyone uses it.
"Spencer and I practiced
every chance we got, usually on the clubs' slow nights. There
were many weeks where we actually spent more than we earned on
records. Tony later got hired at the Club 747 and got me hired
back there too. Suddenly, I was on the radio! The club
had cut a deal with WYSL - a once-strong AM station that had
plummeted in the ratings - and we were broadcasting live from 10:00
p.m. to 4:00 a.m. every night. It was our music -- and our
spinning -- but the station refused to acknowledge us as the
talent! The studio DJ - 'Truckin' Tom... whoever - hated us
because we had taken over his show. All he did were the
announcements leading up to or coming out of commercial breaks.
The station's one 'mistake' was to install an ambient microphone over
the dance floor to pick up crowd noise for atmosphere. When I
played slow songs, I would announce who the real DJ was and the
ambient mike would pick it up and send it out over the airwaves.
No one told us how long this arrangement was supposed to last.
About six months into the gig, a friend came in and told me WYSL was
playing rock music. I called the studio and hollered, 'Where
the hell is our show?' Truckin' Tom chuckled, 'We don't do that
anymore.' There always seemed to be a running battle with
radio. A station would add a disco record, but refused to call
it disco. I remember when WGR added Donna Summer's 'I Feel
Love' to their rotation in '78. They called it a 'boogie
tune.' We'd play a record for a solid month in the clubs, and
then a station would add it and announce it as 'brand new!'
Girls would come up to the soundbooth and say, 'Would you play that
brand-new record from so-and-so?' And I'd say, 'You mean that
record that I've been playing for four weeks now?' The one
exception was WBLK. I 'discovered' WBLK in '74 after Jackson
Armstrong quit WKBW. I was bored with Buffalo's stagnant AM
radio scene and had just installed one of those $19 FM converters
from Brand Names in my '69 Impala. WBLK was playing all this
great, funky, soulful music that I'd never heard before. I
recognized about 10 percent of what they were playing. Then
came the 'BLK Pic-of-the-Week,' where they would take a brand-new
record and absolutely pound it into the airwaves for the next six
days. Many times, the 'blik pick' (as it was called) was a
danceable record. You got so used to hearing it 30 times a day
that when you got to the club and the DJ played it, it was already
familiar. Peter Brown's 'Do Ya Wanna Get Funky' bombed in
Buffalo when TK Records first released it. But 'BLK later chose
it as the 'BLK Pic-of the-Week,' and it became a monster."
Over the next decade, Bisci spun
at a number of dance clubs, including Brandy's ("The most fun I
ever had!"), Sgt. Pepper's ("Lenny Casola turned his
mother's house into a disco - my soundbooth was located in his
childhood bedroom and the bar was in the kitchen."), Cirillo's
("An Italian restaurant in Ft. Erie that had suspended its
speakers from the ceiling with Chevrolet seat belts."), The Late
Show, Mean Alice's, Me & My Arrow, Le Club and The Stuffed
Mushroom. As the '80s came to a close, he felt the urge to
"By 1988, I had grown
disenchanted with the bar business in Buffalo. The music had
changed, and I didn't like it. The customers had changed.
Dress codes went away.
"Society had lost its
manners and spinning just wasn't as much fun anymore. I had
just graduated from college with a marketing degree, and answered an
ad for a co-announcer job at Lancaster Speedway. To me, it had
always been a sacrilege to take Saturday nights off, but it was time
for a change."
Bisci later became the track's
Public Relations Director and his motorsports career took off.
"I'd spin at night and work
for the tracks during the day. From '88 to '94, Saturday nights
during the summer were reserved for auto racing."
Bisci moved to North Carolina in
1994 to work in NASCAR public relations for a number of sponsors,
then moved to Las Vegas (for the second time) in 2000. He is
currently the Public Relations Manager for Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"I think I was at the right
place at the right time, as far as disco was concerned," Bisci
admits. "I started as a DJ when discos were beginning to
boom and good spinners were in demand. It was nice to be
appreciated. I am the luckiest kid in the world. I wanted
to be a DJ, and work in auto racing, and I've been able to do
both. And yes, I did finally get to work at WKBW. It was
in 1993, and I co-hosted a weekly auto racing show with Paul
Mecca. By then of course, 'KB' wasn't the good old WKBW that we
grew up with, but it was still KB."
"I think it's great that
Marty Angelo, Charlie Anzalone, Tony Spencer, Charlie Cimino, John
Ceglia (all former Buffalo disco DJs) and I are still friends after
all these years. In fact, I think some of us get along better
now that we're no longer competing against each other in the same market."
Dr. John's Top-10 All-Time
Favorite Disco Records
"Romeo & Juliet" -
Alec R. Costandinos
"Do Ya Wanna Get Funky (With
Me)" - Peter Brown
"Open Sesame" - Kool
& The Gang
"Best Of My Love" - The Emotions
"Cerrone's Paradise" - Cerrone
"Devil's Gun" - C.J.
"Love Magic" - John
Davis & The Monster Orchestra
"I Found Love" - Love
"Fire Island" - Village People
"Love Disco Style" -
Erotic Drum Band
Three Songs He Hated But Had To
"Bama Lama" - Belle Epoque
"Double Dutch Bus" -
"We Are Family" -
His Three All-Time Favorite
"Don't Ask My Neighbors"
- The Emotions
"I Don't Want To Lose
You" - Phyllis Hyman
"No One Can Love You
More" - Phyllis Hyman
"Being referred to as a
'sound man' by club owners. 'You want sounds? Here, I've
got a couple of sounds I'd like to make...'
"Cheap, inadequate sound
systems. This is the one thing Catholic churches and
discotheques had in common. The sound system and DJ were
crucial to the success of the bar, and more than a few club owners
spent as little money as possible on their most important
department. Once I had to spin on home stereo equipment
purchased from Radio Shack.
"Customers and bartenders
that tried to change the format. In a club packed with people
whose sole purpose was to dance all night, at least one jackass would
demand that I stop playing disco music. You want Stones?
Buy Sticky Fingers and go home.
"And of course, the clueless
individuals who would come up to the soundbooth and demand, 'Play
something good!' 'Okay, what would you like to hear?' 'I
don't know - just play something good.' It's funny - if some
artist would have recorded a song called 'Something Good,' it might
have been the most-requested tune of the '70s."