As he awaited jail time last month after his conviction for conspiracy to distribute narcotics at the Peter Gatien nightspots Limelight and Tunnel, clubland impresario Steven Lewis offered this bit of advice to the up-and-coming club promoter John Davis: “The biggest tree in the forest always falls first.”
While the British-born Davis, 36, isn’t yet a Gatien-size sequoia, his branches are growing rapidly. And as the controversial club kingpin’s future becomes more uncertain, Davis – responsible for the wildly popular party “Body & Soul,” perhaps the most important New York club presence since the Paradise Garage – is poised to succeed him.
Davis is also behind Life’s Wednesday-night party “Legends,” is about to launch the Sunday-night party “Heartbeat” at Life, plans a series of one-off events (and eventually an actual club) called “Rockstar Loft,” and intends to expand the “Body & Soul” empire with a record label. His accomplishments are even more impressive when you consider that he doesn’t kowtow to boldface names (“All the celebrities who’ve been to ‘Body & Soul’ have paid to get in,” he says with a laugh), doesn’t swig champagne or preside over slavering minions in VIP rooms, and doesn’t even have a publicist. With his unkempt goatee and shoulder-length hair, Davis looks more Grizzly Adams than Ian Schrager.
It’s no surprise that his entry into New York nightlife was accidental. In 1995, Davis, then a computer consultant in London who fancied the city’s Sunday-afternoon parties, was transferred to his company’s New York office. “I thought, Great, I’m gonna be in New York, the home of house music,” he remembers. “And then I went out to every club in the city and was very disappointed. The only party I enjoyed was ‘Underground Network’ at the Sound Factory Bar.”
Inspired, Davis decided to throw a party of his own. Naïve about the Upper East Side location (“I didn’t realize that all the clubs were downtown”) and his lack of connections (“I thought that I could throw a party and 500 people would show up”), he admits that the night was a disaster.
But a visit to the downtown club Vinyl lifted his spirits, and Davis decided to try again. “I went down on my lunch hour in a suit and tie,” Davis recalls. “I said, ‘I’d like to try a Sunday-afternoon party.’ The owner said, ‘Are you crazy?’ But he gave me the club.”
A friend suggested that Davis talk to François Kevorkian, the D.J., producer, and clubland fixture, and “Body & Soul” was born in the summer of 1996. The no-velvet-rope, no-guest-list, and no-alcohol party was a big risk, and for the first weeks, only a few people trickled in. So Davis and Kevorkian brainstormed a tribute to Larry Levan, the Paradise Garage D.J. who had died from heart failure at 38. That night, hundreds of people crowded into the club. “It was very emotional,” Davis remembers. “People in their forties and fifties came out. People were weeping, screaming, ‘Larry’s in the house!’ I realized that we had something very special.”
Davis and his crew have preserved that rapturous atmosphere for the past three years, garnering a cultlike following and recognition that reaches far beyond the city’s clubland cognoscenti. “You can find ‘Body & Soul’-style parties in London and Tokyo,” says Billboard dance-music editor Michael Paoletta. “It’s a global phenomenon.”
Now, with more than 1,000 “Body & Soul” devotees crowding Vinyl’s dance floor every Sunday, Davis finds himself in a new position: actually worrying about where to put all those dancing feet. “We’re literally a victim of our own success,” Davis says. “Everybody wants to come to our party.”