Judy Russell’s downtown groove: Remembering a New York dance icon
Judy Russell had never thought about DJs until she heard Larry Levan play for the first time. “Why would you ever wanna know a DJ… it just never dawned on me,” said Russell in an interview with Ben Goldfarb for New York publication Love Injection last year.
An important member of the inner circle at the Paradise Garage, the historic New York distribution entity Downtown161, and both the Movin’ Records and Nu Groove records team, Judy Russell passed away this month at the age of 63 from a cardiac arrest.
Judy’s story is one of curiosity and commitment, passion and pain. Her legacy sheds light on the synthesis of dance music in America and the humanity required behind what would become a global phenomenon. A native New Yorker, Russell had an uncanny ability to balance grit and compassion in a way that indebted her to some of the greatest DJ talents of the eighties, personally supplying promo records and recommendations to everyone from Larry Levan to Tony Humphries.
Russell entered the world of the Paradise Garage as a patron and exited as a parishioner. Brought to the club by a Yonkers hair salon worker, Russell found herself so entranced with the members-only club that she returned soon after and waited outside for hours until she was granted entry. She soon met Larry Levan himself on a chance encounter as the DJ was returning from an acid-fueled viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark and began a friendship that proved monumental in her life. Eulogizing Levan at a memorial service after his untimely death, Russell cut to the core of Levan’s power, assuring the crowd of his dancers that “when you were down there dancing and you felt like he was playing that record for you, he was playing it for you.”
Russell’s work extended far past the Garage, however. As an integral part of legendary Manhattan record store Vinylmania, Judy and her best friend Manny Lehman played a pivotal role in providing the Garage’s dancers with the records Levan made famous. As a founding member of the distribution entity Downtown 161, she supported and launched the careers of countless North American dance artists and records labels for decades. As an integral figure at the legendary label Nu Groove, Russell helped cement the sound of house music in a way that is unmistakably influential to this day.
Much is often told of the early demise of early dance pioneers but less frequently do we reflect on the modern realities of those who survived. Albeit beautiful at many portions, Judy’s story is a painful reminder of how we treat those who opened the door for us all. After the closing of Downtown 161 in 2013, Judy fell upon chronic illness and hard times. Never one to ask for help, Judy reluctantly accepted the efforts of individuals like Ben Goldfarb and Love Injection’s Barbie Bertisch and Paul Raffaele, who organised fundraising efforts as recently as last year. In the months leading up to her death, Russell had moved into a new apartment in her home borough of the Bronx and re-entered nightlife, working the door at New York’s Sutherland club. A dancer til the end, Judy was known to finish the night on the club’s floor ’til the last call.