Setting the record straight on Tony Humphries

There’s always been a kind of revisionist rhetoric underpinning the history of music. Ever since we first established it as a bonafide subject of study, subjective opinion has overwhelmed fact. Whether it’s the points of contention between the origins of Techno or the emergence of blues in the UK, we’ve continually morphed and adapted musical history to suit contemporary thoughts in an effort to neatly organise often quite random musical anomalies. In the 20th century with the advent of the music- media and business this issue expounded as journalists, critics and record companies compartmentalised music into palatable categories defined by trend or stylistic trait even if it meant eschewing the reality of the situation. 

Dance music for all its subcultural worth has not been spared any adaptation either as lines started to form in the sand with the advent of House music. What was in fact a fluid movement from one sound to the next and occurring simultaneously across borders and musical jurisdictions, were broken up into factions, genres and styles. The results amongst countless others were that the sound of House in Chicago differed vastly from the sound of House in New York and Techno was the creation of three Belleville citizens, rather than the influence of Kraftwerk on a whole bunch Detroitian kids experimenting with synthesisers and drum machines. Journalistic enthusiasm and financial greed influenced the narrative of electronic music, continually revising and adapting the plot to the subjective impulses and/or ambitions of the various parties involved. 

Case and point: an article on the Red Bull Music Academy blog that posed “the convoluted story behind the discovery and remixes of the classic gospel record”. That record? The Joubert Singers and the supposed Larry Levan remix of that song. When a mysterious white label appeared in 2003 with an unreleased mix of the original it embellished the origins of the record with “LARRY 02” emblazoned on the centre disc, hinting in no obscure way, to Larry Levan and essentially accrediting the record to the Paradise Garage DJ posthumously. But no such remix ever existed and the article goes to prove that what we’re actually listening to is one of the original Tony Humphries mixes and elucidates how LARRY 02 officially became the Larry Levan remix for an entire generation of critic, DJ and music enthusiasts with Tony Humphries almost completely written out of the story. Larry Levan had always cast a long shadow over Disco and House, and curiously this would not be the only time it over-reached the legacy of Tony Humphries. 

Tony Humphries was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and started collecting records at the age of ten. It’s fair to say he was almost born into a career in music. Encouraged by his Columbian father, who himself had been a musician performing with artists like Tito Puente, and a host of relatives who had forged careers in the performing arts, Tony Humphries grew up into music through the 60’s and seventies. His afro-latin American roots formed the foundation of his musical education with an emphasis on blues, gospel and salsa soundtracking his formative years, while he was becoming familiar with the idea of the DJ. It would be the mobile DJ movement and specifically Jonathan Cameron Flowers that would influence Tony Humphries to indulge a career as a DJ. Flowers, later known as Grandmaster Flowers  was the “the single most important mobile DJ to come out of the US” according to a Humphries in Traxsource interview, which played no small part in establishing the Humphries’ career. 

Humphries, unlike like Levan, would set forth on a path as a DJ, not via a club or residency but rather through radio, and a significant chance encounter. Meeting Shep Pettibone, who at that stage was hosting the Mastermix show on Kiss FM, Humphries found himself taking over from the music legend with a single mixtape. Humphries took over from Pettibone in 1982, which was around the same time he would firm up the other part of his enduring legacy as a resident at club Zanzibar – Newark New Jersey’s equivalent to the Paradise Garage. Although Tony Humphries had held a few residencies, most notably at AZZ, it was at Zanzibar that his fate would be sealed. In an interview with Stamp the Wax Tony Humphries recalls the fateful events that lead up to his residency: “I made myself available to the residents there for about 6 months, filling in at various parts of every night, sometimes closing the night, and packing their records away safely.” The manager took note and realised the young DJ’s kind-hearted nature was being abused and installed him as a resident at Zanzibar. “That’s how I got the Wednesday night residency.”

Tony Humphries’ Wednesday night residency has gone to live on in DJ lore, but it’s always been kind of overshadowed by what was happening at the warehouse in Chicago and the Paradise Garage in New York. Although he sound of House has largely been attributed to those places, Humphries believes “it was more simultaneous than that” according to Skiddle interview. “The tracks coming out of Chicago made it a lot easier to do blends with R&B records”, elucidates Humphries in that same interview, but that only made up a small portion of the records being played on a night. House wasn’t just House, it was Disco, R&B and even Funk, and in New Jersey it also included a whole lot of Gospel. There would not have been enough House records in the world that time to fill the 3-6 hours the DJs like Humphries would have played in those days, so he  took a lot from the generation before him, who had brought Disco and characters like David Mancuso in to the world. Humphries would take note of them and established an eclectic style of mixing that incorporated things like “overlay mixing”; blending instrumental tracks with vocal records across genres, in a style of DJing that would be called House, based on the warehouse out of Chicago, where Frankie Knuckles held his residency. House was more a feeling than a style then and what we know as those 4/4 kicks and syncopated hats is the product of years of sublimation of a whole spectrum of musical genres. 

What was happening in Chicago was happening perpendicularly in New York and New Jersey, with the only real difference being that Chicago were the first to produce the records that started to distil that sound of the DJs that were House through labels like Trax and Strictly Rhythm. In New York the sound was coined Garage, in reference to the Paradise Garage. Tony Humphries was a fan of Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage and would spend his days prior to Zanzibar “mesmerized” by the older DJ’s “ability and stamina” according to the Stamp the Wax interview. Humphries was obviously influenced by the Paradise Garage’s resident and the long eclectic sets he would become known for in New Jersey is in part due to Levan’s remote influence, but the genre that would become known as Garage and would be closely associated with Levan, might not have anything to do with the Paradise Garage at all. 

Garage “came to refer to the more soulful, more jazz- and gospel inspired side of House” according to Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton in the book “Last night a DJ Saved My Life”. But the fact that it actually came from New York is a misnomer according to authors. What we know as Garage today, the high energy vocal tracks with jazzy instrumentals and crisp hi-hats, is actually just the “Jersey Sound” according to Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, and it “owes its emergence to Tony Humphries” they claim. Although the Paradise Garage inspired what Zanzibar would become and Tony Humphries idolised Levan, what Zanzibar and Humphries created and encouraged through the club and the artists like Kerry Chandler, Blaze and Smack Productions who passed through its doors would leave an irrevocable mark on House music and indeed get back to Levan, which the media and record companies would consequently call Garage. 

So Garage is the Jersey Sound and Zanzibar emulated New York, and one of Larry Levan’s most famous remix was actually mixed by Tony Humphries. So did Tony Humphries inadvertently invent House music with the world’s first disco edit? Well, according to Mathhew Collins’ book, Rave-on it was Derrick Carter that made the first proto House record called “on and on,” but that too is just conjecture depending on which perspective you choose. Perhaps it was in fact Talla 2XLC that invented Techno in Germany in the eighties rather than the Belleville three. Whichever way you cut it, there are those that have left legacies and an emphatic imprint on music, and Tony Humphries is one of those characters. 

Going through his discography and the multitude of production credits that have been credited to him, he’s had a hand in everything from the origins of Disco to R&B music, going from obscure whitelabels to chart-topping singles. His story might have been conflated over the years, and he being a humble character might not have been that eager to set the record straight, but his significance on music today can’t simply be ignored. Tony Humphries has made an indelible mark on the history of House music, but the significance is far greater than the common conjecture might have us believe and it’s time to set that record straight.


*Tony Humphries returns to jaeger this Frædag.