Toward the end of the 1970s, the local women’s rock bands were playing larger, out-of-the-Valley music circuits. As “wimmin’s” dances grew in popularity, the music was more frequently provided by newly initiated professional lesbian disk jockeys, many of them Northampton residents. Dancing may be one of the oldest subculture traditions. It’s been important not just as recreation and community bonding, but also as part of the mating ritual. Longtime Northampton DJ known as Mary V[azquez] commented, “You often [didn’t] see women reappear at dances until they [were] looking for a new partner.” Mary also observed that lesbians into music and dancing were a different community from lesbians into softball.
Through correspondence and several interviews, Mary helped fill in the local DJ herstory. She recalled that Sheryl W. [later Jeribu (spelling?)] was the first Northampton lesbian DJ. Sheryl W. started in 1975 at the Gala Café and continued on regular nights there with assistance from Angela G. through 1979. Sheryl played a lot of Rhythm and Blues, spinning mostly Black women’s music with some by men.
Laura Kaye watercolor of the Gala Café (Bridge St. Northampton) 1981, commissioned by Mary Vazquez, used by permission of both.
Mary had followed all the developing women’s bands in the Valley and became interested in becoming a DJ when she heard Diane S. spinning for Wednesday Nights for Women at Farley Lodge/UMass. The 1976 remnants of the UMass Gay Women’s Caucus became the Lesbian Union and successfully lobbied for their own space and student government funding. In the summers of 1977 and 1978, the Lesbian Union offered events open to women from both off and on the UMass/Amherst campus. Diane S. was also part of the Women’s Media Project, producing and teaching women radio broadcasting at WMUA.
Notice in the Women’s Media Project newsletter Jul/Aug 1978
Sheryl let Mary assist a bit at the Gala Café and then let Mary borrow her equipment for gigs at other places. Soon Mary wanted to have her own equipment instead of being a roadie and lugging someone else’s heavy crate of records.
As she described recently, “ I met a very nice music man that made speakers in the late 70’s. They were beautiful but I could not afford them. He found me two speakers I could afford so I used them, an amplifier, and two record players I bought at a tag sale. In later years I was able to buy more professional turntables made for DJing and two CD players but continued to use those original speakers. They were very heavy but they worked just fine and did not cost me anything. The music had a good sound. “
“ I also had a great assistant that was strong so she did all the heavy lifting. I had what were called 12 inch [vinyl] records that contained one song so for a 3 hour gig I had to have between two and three milk crates full of 12 inch records that were also very heavy. I used some 45’s but only used them on occasion. Set up time took about 30 minutes. It was a lot of equipment from the car to the dance place. I later used cassettes at the very beginning before CD’s. Too difficult to cue up. Now I could do the same gig with two light weight speakers and a computer.”
Mary Vazquez vinyl record collection. The plastic crates on the left were used to take a selection to dance gigs. Photo courtesy of Mary Vazquez.
With her new equipment Mary began working Common Womon Club’s summer disco dances in 1978-79. The dances were first held in the Common Womon and later in the low-ceilinged basement of the Polish American Club/Home on Pearl Street in Northampton. Mary got paid $30 for a four hour dance gig.
undated flyer for a Common Womon Club dance
Mary Vazquez noted that ‘Hamp lesbians liked different music than the gay women at the Girls Club in Chicopee. While “Women’s Music” – that is, feminist – was beginning to be produced this decade (most notably through Olivia Records) except for a few slow songs, it just wasn’t danceable. This made it challenging for the new DJs to put together enough musicfor a four-hour dance that was not politically objectionable and also got women up on their feet and moving. In the beginning, Mary drew a lot on pop music by women as well, as, she said, “less offensive” men like Stevie Wonder to create the right eclectic mix.
By the end of the seventies, disco music began to come out with its distinctive dance beat. Disco was readily adopted by local lesbians, easing the DJ’s job of trying to be politically correct while getting women to have a good time dancing.
Mary Vazquez: “Here’s a few tunes from the seventies that I myself played when I first began DJing for the women’s community. As I said, it was a tough crowd as I had to be very careful that I was always politically correct. This often would put a ‘crimp’ in my personal choices. Here are some of the specific tunes that I know I played and were always a big hit on the dance floor: [all with youtube links. please have a little dance 🙂 KM]
‘Love Hangover,’ Diana Ross, 1976
‘Don’t Leave Me This way,’ Thelma Houston, 1977
‘Dancing Queen,’ Abba, 1978
‘Boogie Oogie Oogie,’ Taste of Honey
‘If I Can’t Have You, Yvonne Ellerman, 1977
‘Bad Girls, Donna Summer, 1979
‘I Will Survive,’ Gloria Gaynor, 1978 (still a dance floor pleaser)
‘YMCA, Village People, 1979
‘Ring My Bell, Anita Ward
‘MacArthur Park,’ Donna Summer
‘Good Times, Chic, 1979
‘Hot Stuff.’ Donna Summer.
Mary summed the list up: “Most of these songs if played today would still be crowd pleasers. The end of the 70s was the beginning of the Disco era, a great time for dancing the night away.”
Ad in Fresh Ink, Mar. 8, 1979
Mary V. recalls that Mary C. and Faye Wilson also began DJing at about the same time she did, circa 77-78. Mary C. spun the Common Womon Club’s New Year’s Eve Ball in ’77 at the Polish Home, a memorable costume event I wish we had pictures of. Faye incorporated New Wave into her mix. When the Polish Club/Home was sold circa 1979, the lesbian community lost a valuable large music venue. Since the Gala was sold and razed that year, as well, Northampton lesbians had to go out of town to dance. In the early 1980s, three of these pioneering DJs joined together to find a new venue in Amherst. Jeribu(Sheryl), Faye and Mary V. formed La Mix (the mix of their different kinds of dance music) to produce a regular series of womyn’s dances, a story for another time.
__[Raymond,] Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline. The Valley Women’s Movement: a Herstorical Chronology 1968-78. Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978. https://www.vwhc.org/timeline.htmlChronology
__Vazquez, Mary. Interviewed by Kaymarion Raymond. July 6 and Sep. 1, 1998.
__Vazquez, Mary. Email correspondence Nov 29, 2004, June-Nov.2019.
__Vazquez, Mary. Music of the 70’s. Email to Kaymarion. January 03, 2005.
__Dyke Doings. Sep/Oct 1976. Northampton.
__Women’s Media Project newsletter. July/Aug 1978.
__Carney, Maureen. “The Common Womon Keeps the Pot Boiling.” Valley Women’s Voice. Sep. 1979.
Further reading: Women in DJing is a popular topic right now. Mary shared this recent New York Times article, which nicely sums it up, past and present, the challenge of changing technology and the scarcity of women in the profession;
__Women Put a Spin on the D.J’s Art by Tammy La Gorce. New York Times. July 28, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/07/23/nyregion/women-djs-brooklyn.html
In the next decade as recording technology rapidly evolved Mary Vazquez and other DJs had to make the change from vinyl records to cassette tapes to CDs. For those interested here are some links to that tech history;
Mary and the three other women mentioned were rare birds in the 70s male dominated Discjockey world. That hasn’t changed, as these articles attest:
__I Grew Up Loving Dance Music. But Where Are All The Female DJs? by Serena Kutchinsky 17 April 2017. She not only offers statistics but asks “what can be done to make dance music less pale, male, stale?”