Call him Manny from the hood. Like JLo, Manny Lehman, one of the biggest above-the-marquee names on the international gay club scene hails from the Bronx. And like Jennifer Lopez, he’s a proud product of parents from the island of Puerto Rico, where dancing is as essential as breathing. But whereas music has become a sideline for JLo, it’s remained the passion that drives Manny Lehman.
This is one DJ who doesn’t just feel the beats. This guy lives the beats.
Considered by the suits in the suites and revelers on the dance floor alike a true maestro, Lehman brings a lifetime of experience in the music industry that has encompassed every aspect of the business.
The DJ bug first bit him when he was clerking at Vinylmania. As hard as it is to imagine in a world where no one ventures any further than their desk to shop for music, DJs had to rely on a handful of stores to obtain the latest EPs. And no store anywhere matched up to the legendary Manhattan DJ record store Vinylmania. During the late ‘80s, if you wanted to see what your favorite turntable talents looked like in the daylight hours, a few hours flipping through the bins would afford you face time with gods of the dance like Junior Vasquez, Victor Calderone and Tony Moran.
Junior and Lehman shared a common experience: They both learned their craft by dancing, listening and grooving to the DJ many consider the greatest in the history of dance music, Larry Levan. The resident DJ at the legendary ‘80s Downtown Manhattan club Paradise Garage is credited with perfecting a musical style that incorporated disco, soul and Hi-NRG into a whole new animal. But it was another Levan fan, high school chum Frankie Knuckles, who, after moving to Chicago, became the resident DJ at a converted garage, where he discovered a new sound and so made it his own that he is universally known as the Godfather of House.
In the 1990s, Lehman graduated from selling records to marketing them when he became the director of dance promotions at A&M Records. Levan’s and Knuckles’ influence is readily apparent in one of his biggest discoveries, singer CeCe Peniston. In 1991, Lehman produced for Peniston a song simply called “Finally” that has gone on to become the most enduring house anthem of the golden age of house.
After working with artists that ranged from Janet Jackson to Sting, he moved to L.A. and made a fateful partnership with Jeffrey Sanker, then (as now) one of the biggest party promoter/producers on the gay club scene. In 1999, Lehman had his big break playing Sanker’s biggest extravaganza: White Party Palm Springs. Lehman credits that and the Recovery Party at Montreal’s mammoth Black & Blue Weekend the same year as responsible for his subsequent skyrocket ride to Amnesia, one of the seminal clubs that put South Beach on the international party map.
After that, Lehman was racking up the frequent flyer miles, with residencies at New York’s Twilo, famous for its impeccable sound system and space age décor; another Miami institution, Crobar; Factory and Here in Los Angeles; Nation in Washington, D.C.; Avalon in New York (better known as Limelight); and the club that has become a byword for gay dance clubs: New York’s megaclub, Roxy.
In the ensuing years, Lehman has headlined most every big-room club and major event from Thailand to Tel Aviv. Lehman has played Fireball in Chicago; Toronto Pride; Cherry in Washington; and Gay Disney in Orlando as well as the biggest rooms in London, Ibiza, Paris, Brazil (Rio and Sao Paulo), Amsterdam, Germany and Japan. He has also headlined beach parties in Miami, Thailand and Fire Island.
Along the way, he has become one of the most sought-after remixers in the business. His roster ranges from Cher to Sarah Brightman. Thanks to chart-topping remixes of songs like “Harder” featuring Stefanie and Madonna’s “What It Feels Like for a Girl” has enabled him to join the rarified ranks of Circuit DJs who have managed to break wide, with gigs like a stadium of 30,000 people and a Sony Pictures gala at the Cannes Film Festival. Through it all, he’s remained true to his Latin roots, which is probably why he may call L.A. home, but he feels equally comfortable in Miami and, of course, New York.
His compilation CDs reflect his talent for choosing just the right combination of sounds. When Atlantis Cruises decided to extend its brand into music, it seemed only natural to go to Lehman to give the gay travel company its sound. His output includes “Party Groove,” two “Circuit Sessions” compilations, and the four-disc A Night in Orbit. His double CD Freedom produced one of the most beautiful songs ever, a remix of “Change of Seasons” from the Broadway show Rent. But it’s his haunting remix of the title instrumental track from the film Brokeback Mountain that may best express the depth of musical knowledge Lehman brings with him into the studio.
The reason for Lehman’s continued success in a business where today’s “Flavor of the Month” becomes yesterday’s news is his ability to combine musical styles into a night that progresses through house, diva anthems, tribal and EDM. To all of that he adds the Latino syncopations that he grew up with and that are part of his DNA. How many DJs can play both the Circuit’s most glamorous party, the cocktail-hour White Party Miami and its most sordid, New York’s 18-hour tribal Black Party?
An ear for music allowed Lehman to assimilate new sounds, especially the now-ubiquitous EDM. As EDM grew like kudzu on the dance floor, Lehman summed it up as “the natural progression of the dance, trance and techno that we were listening to the in the late ‘90s.”
If you want to experience Lehman’s unique style, you couldn’t do much better than Bangin’ Vol. 2: Progressive Beats. Is there any other DJ who could combine on one CD Kristine W with Arthur Baker and Murk? This is what you pop into your headphones or car stereo Tuesday morning on the way back to work after a long weekend mob of men, muscle and music has left you bleary eyed but longing, for a few minutes at least, to recapture the magic.
Not surprisingly, Lehman has become a DJ’s DJ. So it’s only appropriate that the last word belong to another legend of the gay scene, now-retired DJ and heavy house hitter Billy Carroll: “Nobody can sum up the attitude of a room and keep the energy pumping like Manny Lehman. From the first song till the very last, he is relentless.”