"I have to say that the first commercial house single that came out was Jesse Saunders', and the first big crossover house record was 'Love Can't Turn Around.'"
"I see Jesse as one of the pioneers of that thing we refer to as house music. It seemed like an electronic way of doing disco without a drummer... But thank God for guys like him experimenting and making this music...ha...for all we know we could all be playing Puffy and Marilyn Manson thinking it is the bomb!."
-Prince "Quick Mix"
XXXVI. JESSE SAUNDERS
Jesse Saunders is the self-described "originator," not "creator," of house music. In his own words this means that he "...started and/or fused a sound with a lot of different ingredients, but was derived with the help of other influences (time, place, people, etc.)." Jesse credits people like Frankie Knuckles, Vince Lawrence, Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and the Hot Mix 5 and others for setting the groundwork for house. But Jesse, continuing his cooking metaphor, put the ingredients together like a "gumbo" and produced the first house recording, "Fantasy," and later "On and On," which was in fact released before "Fantasy."
A. THE JESSE SAUNDERS STORY
Jesse Saunders will turn forty in a few days. He was born in Chicago on March 10, 1962 into an upper-middle class black family. Jesse's father was an absentee-type, but he was devoted to his mother, Lois, who had a graduate degree in Education with training in music. Lois had a passion for music, and she encouraged Jesse's early musical inclinations. There were piano lessons at age 6, and then further training over the years on drums, flute, bass, guitar and trumpet. He also toured with the Chicago Children's Choir. Jesse, therefore, unlike many DJs of the time, actually studied music and could work with a number of traditional instruments.
Jesse was much influenced by funk and the likes of James Brown, Parliament, Ohio Players and the amazing Isley Brothers. The repetitive two bar sequences and syncopated rhythms of this music, combined with melody and lyrics, formed the basis for his later musical creations.
He began mixing cassette tapes in his early teens, and altered various sections by creatively using the pause button and inserting segments like an intro, instrumental or extended drum or bass sections to refashion the music.
His first DJ "gig" was when he was a high school freshman at a venue called The Burning Spear. His cassette deck remixes were a success and, according to his own account, he actually learned to cue and mix records that night right in front of the dancers. The performance was a success, and he and his brother Wayne formed a DJ collective called the Chosen Few Disco Corp.
When Jesse was 16 he managed, with the help of friends, to get into the Warehouse and experience the Knuckles' New York and Philly sound that was evolving into deep house, and he had one of those epiphanic moments. This music that came out of the Garage in NYC was not being played anywhere else in Chicago. Much of it was shipped directly to Frankie by Larry Levan. Jesse found the sound "all consuming," and discovered one could dance all night long to this music and lose the self -- be set free -- in the communal mix. He had discovered the Chicago extension of the Paradise Garage tribe.
So Jesse went scurrying about town looking for Warehouse music and managed to find a record store on Clark that sold the stuff. He and the Chosen Few started to spin the new "garage" sound.
This Warehouse music, or "house" as it was coming to be called by the locals, spread around Chicago. Ron Hardy was spinning it at Den One, another gay club. In the late seventies Kenny Jason started the first disco mix show in Chicago on WDAI, although his mixes emphasized the more commercial disco music without the embellishments of pioneers like Knuckles and Hardy.
Al Mack, a Chicago promoter I happened to know at the time, wanted to bring the house sound to the more gangsta crowd on the far southside -- folks who were "stepping" to James Brown and the funky stuff. Farley Williams, later Jackmaster Funk, worked for Mack and I guess this is where Jesse and he first met. Mack began giving housey music parties with Jesse and crew to the stepper crowd and, after some sad attempts to mix the 90 bpm step music with the 120 bpm warehouse music, Jesse played straight house and began making converts in this milieu.
After a short stint at USC in LA, Jesse returned to Chicago in 1981 and discovered that his pal Farley had learned the art of DJing the new house music and was winning every DJ battle in town, including a legendary contest held by Mack at Sauer's. The famous Steve Hurley came in second in that battle. House music was heating up the windy city.
In 1982 Jesse opened a new club called the Playground at 14th and Michigan with the Thompson brothers. The Playground was one of the largest dance venues at that time in Chicago and could hold upwards of 1,500 dancers. The first night at the Playground Jesse, Farley and Frankie Knuckles DJed together for the first time. Jesse then became resident DJ at the club.
Jesse's mixes, like those of most DJs from the early eighties into the nineties, were quite eclectic. He would blend the new warehouse music with, for example, reggae, rock and new wave.
Like others, Jesse also incorporated the new Roland drum machines into his sets: the TR-303 bass line machine and the TR-606. You could synch the two with a cable so that 606 could play in time with the 303 bass line. This awesome electronic tool allowed DJs and producers to easily create rhythm sections without bringing in live drummers, etc. A revolution was in the making.
NEXT ISSUE: The First House Recording