Warren Lee and the ESSC

The Empress, Eddie Floyd, Warren Lee and Jeff “The Chef” tearing it up at an ESSC. Get on up Big Bird! Photo courtesy Connie “The Empress” Frances.

While this blog has covered mostly garage music in NYC during a specific time period, it was by no means the only game in town. Hardcore, pop-punk and all permutations of “rock” existed as well. Out of the many choices available, one thing seemed to cross all tastes. Soul. And not the overly processed, slickly produced, over-sung type that was all the rage during the time, but the powerfully simple, stripped-down style of the 50s and 60s. As Philippe Marcade of the Senders so astutely pointed out. Soul and R&B was (and is) an essential ingredient in the musical stew that is NYC.

Ad for a sixties night at Danceteria, December 30, 1984. With WNYU DJ’s Capt. Weems and Warren Lee. Courtesy of Waterloo Station fanzine.

Around the time the infamous Dive began organizing “garage” shows, they also started booking “mod” nights. During these performances, it was not unusual to see hundreds of young kids decked out in parkas with a litany of Vespas parked by the curb, like mirrored steeds in waiting. Quadrophenia filtered through a subway grating if you will. And while the Mods brought along their own type of rocking bands, they also brought along something else. And that was a deep appreciation of 60s soul.

Into this atmosphere, the Empire State Soul Club was born. The brainchild of Connie T. Empress and Warren Lee, both avid lovers of 60s soul. They saw that something was lacking in NYC. As Connie puts it “We had discovered the soul scene in England and realized there was nothing like that here. ESSC was originally called Get On The Good Foot. We started doing a few nights at the Dive and Mudd Club, but the name wasn’t working for me. So, I came up with a new logo and name. Warren penned the Pinnacle of Soul line. We wanted to make an American soul club with member cards, badges, the works.

The Empire State Soul Club button. Courtesy of Lee Michaels.

I started it off with that in mind on Monday nights at the old Tramp’s on 15th St. When we lost that venue, we rented out a loft. When we lost the loft, we went to Coney Island High. Warren was the one that found the North River Bar at 145 Hudson St. and that was our home for years. We believed that people here would like to not just hear, but DANCE to soul records.” Connie proudly added “we’re the club that launched empty wallets and full dance floors. From collectors to casual listeners—all were equal at ESSC.”

Warren Lee on the decks at the Empire State Soul Club. Mercury Lounge, Summer 1994. Photo courtesy of William Luther, Jr.

Sadly, Warren Lee passed away yesterday morning. However, instead of focusing on the sadness of his loss, I thought it would be best to focus on the incredible joy and community the ESSC brought to many New Yorkers.

Former young Mod, ex-Insomniacs drummer and WFMU DJ Mike Sin said “Warren turned me to so many great tracks. He was always so friendly and had a great sense of humor. The memories I hold most dear are all the conversations I had with him when he was bartending at the Great Jones Cafe. For a period in my life there back in the ’90s, it seemed like I was strolling in that joint about twice a week, and it was funny to be greeted so many times with Warren’s smile and his “Welcome back, ya mensch!” line. I always ended up having a bunch of questions about particular songs and 45s that were in the bar’s jukebox, and Warren was an encyclopedia of generous knowledge.”

Another denizen of the Dive Mod nights and then subsequent ESSC alum, William Luther, Jr. added. “I first encountered Warren Lee when him and Weems DJ-ed a mod night organized by members of a NYC mod band called The Scene at Danceteria on December 30, 1984. I remember the date because it was like the gathering of the tribes as far as mods were concerned and I met so many people that night who I know to this day. Stepping into that room was like walking into a 60’s film set with mods everywhere, dancers on elevated podiums and Dobie Grey’s “Out On The Floor” pumping through the sound system.  I did not encounter Warren again until the Empire State Soul Club rolled into Maxwell’s in 1988. A whole gang of us besuited mod types joined the ESSC that night and got our light blue membership cards and stylish Empire State building soul club badges and the stage was set.  There were never any consistent DJ nights in New York at that time, it was more about bands. Finally, we now had an opportunity to dance into the wee hours to DJ’s spinning 60’s soul. In my opinion, there was never a better soul night in the Big Apple and there never will be! Eventually, I got to know Warren from their gigs at the Mercury Lounge and The North River Bar. He was always patient, kind and perfectly willing to indulge my barrage of questions about what he spun and was my go-to guy when I heard some British band doing a soul cover and I needed to know who the original was. In an area where snobbery and pretension eventually prevailed and everyone and their grandmother is a DJ, Warren Lee stood for what it was all about: an unpretentious guy who spun music not to impress or show off his records but to keep the dance floor packed. If Warren was spinning at the E.S.S.C. I was never at the bar I was always on the floor.” For more Warren check out Bill’s blog Anorak Thing.

Actually, Connie T. Empress continues to DJ at various clubs throughout the city and is currently working on an online tribute to Warren, Keepin’ the Faith.

While the 7″ DJ tradition lives on with many excellent DJ’s following in his tracks such as Jonathan Toubin, Mr. Fine Wine, The Subway Soul Club, Dig Deeper…etc., I am sure all would give a sincere tip of the hat to Connie and Warren. They kept our feet happy when our young minds had way too much to sort through. R.I.P. Warren.

One thought on “Warren Lee and the ESSC”

  1. Kudos Jeff, well done as always! It was really cool seeing those scans from “Waterloo Station” (I never had any of those and briefly thumbed through a friend’s once).

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