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Gary Sperrazza: Apollo’s Orbit

Once upon a time, Gary Sperrazza owned a shop on Elmwood Avenue known as Apollo Records. Sperrazza displayed his wares in row upon row of black bins, rimmed with day-glo pink marker. Anyone who looked into the windows could almost see everything at once, while the beat beckoned them in.
If a patron cared to, Sperrazza would educate them on every type of music they could imagine, and he was frequently responsible for putting the oddest genre combinations together. “I had a total cross-cultural thing going. When a DJ would come in from the other side of town, I’d cue up what we were playing here and vice versa. DJs would come in for one thing and I’d introduce them to things they never heard of. Imagine mixing Paul Revere and the Raiders with Sisters of Mercy. They’d say, ‘What the Hell is that?’ and then take it back to their clubs.”
Sperrazza, who alternately calls himself a music nerd and part rocker, part soul-boy, didn’t so much keep shop as he did create a scene. He was in the record business, but he was a DJ too, spending time in the 80s spinning at the Continental, the Pink, and the 3rd Room. Then there was the stint at Mulligan’s on Hertel, where he “brought downtown uptown one day a week” for a very short time. More on that later.
Just 17 when he published his first piece of music writing back in the 70s, Sperrazza says, “I was that kid in Almost Famous. I was the guy who followed the band and wrote about them for Creem Magazine. I was the good friend to the groupies who wanted to sleep with the bass players.”
Wiry and black clad (“Sometimes I throw in pink or red cause I figure if it was good enough for Elvis, it’s good enough for me.”), Sperrazza has lived through disco, rock, punk, glam, is a total devotee of R & B, and has been known to mix darkness and trash with bubblegum.
As a DJ at the Continental in 1984, Sperrazza was spinning records and then had an epiphany due to mix tape he made for his girlfriend, Roxanne. “She was a stripper, and I made her sets,” Sperrazza said. “Stripper sets were very well organized, but with two turntables. I’d drop her off with her cassettes that were everything she wanted to dance to, in order.” After splicing sets for Roxanne, Sperrazza realized he could do the same for himself in the DJ booth.
“The action was on the floor,” Sperrazza said. “I wanted to get sweaty with the crowd, so I’d put on mixes, pack the jams in.” He picked the slowest night of the week to thrill the regulars and pump up the jams with his mixes, complete with champagne and red and green lights in the big, mirrored room. “I even got permission from the guy who had the Bat Cave [nightclub] in London, to call that night The Bat Cave. We had The Disco Death Dollies, girls that would come in wearing leather and lace, with their teased hair and ripped stockings.”
Sperrazza laughs, “It was like Plato’s Retreat meets CBGB’s. I didn’t want to play regular stuff on those nights. We wanted to get trashy.”
By 1985, Sperrazza said, “Disco was faded, punk was starting to get moldy, and new wave dance was lame. So we talked to Mulligan’s and brought the show there one night per week. We wanted to take their worst night and make it their best, but I think they got more than they bargained for.” Saying that his patrons were simply working class stiffs that wanted to blow it out when they went out, Sperrazza and his Continental cronies gave them what they wanted.
“We brought [Mark] Corsi and his crew to work the back bar and dry ice machines, put body lines all over the floor,” Sperrazza explained. “We had doormen in kilts and zombie make-up and sleazy, hardcore bondage leather. We wanted to give them something they couldn’t sit on their asses at home and get.”
It lasted exactly three weeks. “It may have looked like total chaos, but they didn’t break anything,” Sperrazza said. “Take it back downtown, is what they essentially said.”
And then the scene changed. Sperrazza said that the cliché of goth got tired, people didn’t have as much disposable income, and it was hard to find 500 people decked out and getting down. When the music changed, so did the sense of humor. “Ecstasy and techno. You have to be high to actually listen to it,” Sperrazza said. “There wasn’t a scene anymore. It was just drink ’til you puke.”
When it occurred to him that he could make as much selling online as he did from a brick and mortar location, Sperrazza closed his doors and headed to UC-Berkeley to design a site and set up shop online. He pushed a lot of vinyl in the beginning, but now every one of his mixes is there, for sale. As he says when he passes off a CD to those lucky enough to know him, “This’ll get your weekend rockin’. I’m like a drug dealer—the first one’s free.”
He stays in touch with what’s left of the local scene, saying that Hardware Café’s DJ, Scott Down, knows how to get them dancing on the bar. “When people around town said he was fantastic, I said, ‘You don’t understand—he grew up in my store. I know how good he is.'”
Sperrazza has gotten his due from a lot of musicians. “I’m thanked on the liner notes of Mott the Hoople, Hawkwind, REM, the Goo Goo Dolls—you know, silly-name bands,” Sperrazza says. Go to apollojams.com to see just how entrenched in music Sperrazza is, snap up some of his vintage vinyl, or purchase one of the best fun and funky mixes you’ll ever get your hands on.
Now in the writing phase of his life, which he says he planned (and started) decades ago, Sperrazza is working on a multi-volume history of soul. After being reprinted in other people’s books such as The Sound and the Fury, due out next year, and the recently released Bomp! magazine/label. Sperrazza is ready to share more. “I’m so into soul, it’s almost obscene, man.”
Get a taste of Sperrazza’s mixes here:Apollo Jams

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