When Walter was commissioned to remix Loleatta Holloway’s Hit And Run, which, according to Salsoul’s Cayre, was the first time a DJ had ever been given free access to the multi-track, he literally tore the tune apart and started again. Whereas a remixer like Tom Moulton was always respectful of the song, merely looking for ways to lengthen it without forsaking its structure, Gibbons happily threw everything out. This is exactly what he did with Hit And Run. “Hit And Run was the first song I did and I thought it was the worst song I ever heard,” says Loleatta Holloway of her Salsoul debut. “I didn’t wanna sing a about ‘I’m an old fashioned country girl’ because I hadn’t been born in the country, I was from Chicago, so to me it was an insult.”
Gibbons dispensed with the down-home lyrics, and concentrated on the ad-libs towards the end of the song, bringing them to prominence and using the groove to deliver the message, like a preacher sat atop a drum machine. A series of groundbreaking remixes followed but, after a short sojourn to Seattle, where he played at the Sanctuary, he returned to New York and, sometime in the late ’70s, the troubled soul became deeply religious, often refusing to work on remixes unless the band agreed to come in and change the apparently offensive lyrics (something that clearly was never going to happen). No one has ever been sure why he turned to God though, clearly, his sexuality (he was gay) and lifestyle could have been a factor. As a DJ, too, this led to innumerable problems, since he was now also refusing to play any records that contained a negative message. He was sacked from several gigs including one of Studio 54’s rivals, Xenon, where buddy Tony Smith was resident. “I’ve seen him break [CJ & Co’s] Devil’s Gun,” recalls Smith of this period. “I’m like ‘Walter, that record’s hot!’. There were certain records he would not play. I said to him if you listen to the words it’s not really saying what you think it’s saying. When he went into the extreme religion thing, we fell apart. When he didn’t keep the job at Xenon he kinda blamed me. I said, ‘Walter, you’re playing gospel and it’s not gonna work in Xenon!’”
The world closed iits ears to Gibbons, but he didn’t care. He continued to DJ at small parties at his house, where he would play gospel records to the (few) gathered there. Then, out of the blue, in the mid 80s, Gibbons made another smash record, a bizarre but brilliant remix of Strafe’s Set It Off. Based around a sparse but insistent electronic quasi-hip hop rhythm, it sounded like nothing else. It was a number one record in New York but, predictably, the artist hated it. It did not lead to more work and Walter continued to work in record stores around the city – including the famous Rock & Soul on 7th Avenue – trying to push gospel records to anyone who would listen to them (one of them, Joubert Singers’ Stand On The Word, actually became a huge hit in NYC thanks to Gibbons’ promptings). He also began to get sick from AIDS, his already frail body withering still further.
In September 1994, Walter Gibbons died, the result of AIDS-related complications. The obituaries – and there were not many – were modest. Few people attended his funeral and, unlike his peer Larry Levan, there is no party to celebrate his birthday each year. “It's interesting that, some of these places like the Loft and the Garage, or some of the people, Like [Loft resident DJ] David Mancuso and Walter Gibbons, are becoming icons,” reflects François K. “And people who never even knew them or saw them, are suddenly admiring them. Obviously there is a significance to all this. It's taken a very long time for some of this to surface, but you can see how strong, dense and rich [this scene] was because it's finally getting understood.”
Even though Gibbons is has been dead for over ten years now, thanks to his many remixes and productions, a new generation of dance music lovers – most of whom discovered him (and disco) through samples in house records – are beginning to appreciate how innovative he really was. “You really have to think that every time you change the record, the title or something about the record is going into people’s heads,” Gibbons told Steven Harvey in Collusion magazine. “For me, I have to let God play the records. I’m just an instrument.”
Walter Gibbons loved drums. As a young DJ, the beat-heavy records he played defined his sound and as a remixer he had the knack of drawing the rhythmic essence out of both the brilliant and the mediocre. Gibbons was responsible not only for remixing the first commercially released 12-inch but for challenging where the boundaries of a remix lay, often dissembling songs till they were little more than crazed beatscapes. In his later years, he discovered God, refused to play records with a negative message and, finally, died of an AIDS related illness, a largely forgotten figure.