Sunday, 16 October 2016


Robert Ouimet (L) and Pierre Gagnon at their Oct. 5 Red Bull Music Academy lecture in Montreal. Gagnon is one-third of PAJ Disco Mix, the edit team that created exclusive cuts for Ouimet’s DJ sets and revolutionized the disco edit format using reel-to-reel tapes, selling over half a million records at their pinnacle in the late ’70s (photo by Karel Chladek/Red Bull Content Pool).

Montreal’s famed disco scene cranked out many disco stars during its 1970s heyday and the scene’s epicentre was the city’s famed Lime Light disco founded by Yvon Lafrance in September 1973, on Stanley Street above where the Chez Paree strip joint stands today. 

Montreal DJ Robert Ouimet was the house deejay at the Lime Light from 1973 to 1981, and today Yvon Lafrance says Ouimet – known worldwide as the Godfather of Montreal Disco – was hands-down the best deejay in Canada from 1973 to 1982, when Ouimet was declared best North American DJ by Rolling Stone magazine in 1976, and won Billboard magazine’s DJ of the Year Award in 1977.

“I used to go to New York all the time during the week – I remember I was flown over there once for the premiere of (the movie) Thank God It’s Friday (starring Donna Summer),” Ouimet told me in 2013. “Then I used to work in Montreal on the weekends.” 
Disco diva France Joli (Photo by David A Lee)

Meanwhile, Montreal singer France Joli became an “overnight success” at the age of 16 back on July 7, 1979, when she headlined a legendary beach concert performance for 5,000 gay men now famously known as Beach ’79.

Donna Summer had cancelled at the last minute, so Joli stepped in as a replacement and sang her song Come to Me, which would chart at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart  – then at #1 on the disco chart – and to this day the song is widely-known as “the definitive Fire Island dance classic.”

“I was blown away, I was a kid and had never seen gay life like that before, it was beautiful to see two men embracing – and it was 1979!” France Joli told me in 2013. “I loved that freedom and the happiness that disco reflected. It’s impossible not to be happy and dance to disco. The lyrics could be dark, but the music always lifted you up.”

Both Ouimet and Joli will take part in the Québec Électrique: Montréal Discoville event at the Paradoxe Theatre as part of the 2016 Red Bull Music Academy conference being held in Montreal. 

The RBMA describes Ouimet as “one of the most influential DJs of Montreal’s heyday, ruling the dancefloor of the legendary Lime Light club. Montreal was the second biggest disco metropolis in North America after NYC, with many homegrown disco stars, and was an important springboard for imports from Europe. As the city’s leading DJ, Ouimet played an important role breaking hits like Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” in North America.”

I interviewed both Ouimet and Joli in 2013 for stories about the evolution of disco in Montreal. It is important to remember that the Montreal of the 1970s was really a city of broken dreams, dreams that had their roots in the cosmopolitan explosion of Expo 67, the most successful World’s Fair of the 20th century, and the 1969 inaugural season of Nos Amours, the Montreal Expos.

Then came the FLQ and the October Crisis; the billion-dollar Summer Olympics that Montreal’s then-mayor Jean Drapeau infamously claimed couldn’t have a deficit any more than a man could have a baby; increased pressure by police on gay businesses as bathhouses and bars were raided. There was the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976 – which shattered yet more dreams and fueled the anglophone exodus – and four years later, the failed referendum of 1980, which in turn crushed the dreams of Quebec separatists.

Mirabel Airport – built where it was because politicians and urban planners anticipated that Montreal would triple in size to become one of the world’s great metropolises – became a symbol of everything that had gone wrong in Montreal.

So disco music became a salvation of sorts for Montrealers and discotheques their new cathedrals. As Harry Wayne Casey (aka KC of KC and the Sunshine Band) once told me, “Disco was feel-good music that delivered on the promises of the 1960s.” 

Joli was just 12 in 1975 when she signed with her first manager, legendary musician and songwriter Lee Gagnon, who at the time famously worked with Charles Aznavour and Ginette Reno and who now lives in NYC. “Lee taught me to walk in high heels and put me in singing and piano lessons!”

Joli then auditioned for producer Tony Green when she was 15-years-old. “I sang Evergreen and Hopelessly Devoted To You, and I guess I impressed him because three days later Come To Me was written for me.”

That classic #1 disco song was recorded in November 1978. By the time Joli replaced Donna summer at Fire Island in July 1979, she was on the cusp of full-fledged stardom.

“My head was spinning, but my Mom kept me grounded. I didn’t go crazy on drugs, I didn’t blow my money – but then again, what money? I’m not any different than any other artist from back then. Look at all those artists from the 70s and early 80s ­– and I perform with them all the time – nobody lives in a palace,” Joli says. “But it’s okay because we have longevity. We’re not filthy rich, but we’re still making a living.”

Today Robert Ouimet is known worldwide as The Godfather of Montreal Disco, and Montreal’s Queen of Disco France Joli is still hugely popular performing at Pride and other events, primarily in the United States.

Both Ouimet and Joli have fond memories of The Lime Light in Montreal.

Says Ouimet, “The Lime Light really was better than Studio 54, and that’s (mostly) because it was a fun place for everybody – men, women, black, white, straight and gay. A lot of international stars also (partied) or performed at the Lime Light. I saw Alice Cooper. Grace Jones used to come often. The Ritchie Family and Gloria Gaynor played there; so did James Brown (for five consecutive nights in 1977). One night I was at a David Bowie (concert) with a promotion man and I brought them and Iggy Pop to the Lime Light afterwards to see Gloria Gaynor perform live at the club!”

Joli also performed at the Lime Light twice.

“I have a very vivid memory of the Lime Light when Gonna Get Over You came out (in 1981) and the place was so full that people were hanging from the ceiling, on top of the speakers, from the railings, and the fire department came the place was so full!” Joli laughs. “People were dancing and screaming and I could feel the floor (bounce so much), I thought it was going to collapse! In its heyday the Lime Light was the place to be.”

While the homophobic “Disco Sucks” movement claimed discos from coast-to-coast, dance music never really went out of style in Montreal. 

However Quimet points out being a deejay in the 1970s and being a deejay today are essentially two different jobs.

“When I first started I was mixing fade in, fade out. After a while you get the hang of mixing records because the beats were never the same, so you wait until the end and you enter the other one. Today it’s not the same thing. Today it’s mostly machines doing drums and beats. They’re not real drummers like in the 1970s who were very hard to mix because the tempos were uneven. Disco was great because you had down-tempo stuff, mid-tempo and up-tempo stuff. I would start at 90 beats-per-minute and finish at 135-140. You don’t see that anymore. Today you hear 125, 126 to 127 and that’s it. There’s no variety. Today it’s easier to (deejay) because there is no fluctuation in the beat. It’s always the same thing.”

Whatever you do, just don’t call Robert Ouimet a living legend. He won’t have it. “I don’t feel like I’m a legend at all,” he says. “I feel more like a pioneer. I’ve been doing this for a long, long time. My career never went down. After the Lime Light I had a lot of gigs, was a resident at a lot of clubs. I never went away. I (even) won a Juno (Award). I just really love music and I love what I’m doing. And disco is happy music. You feel it because it’s from the heart.” 

As for Joli, she acknowledges the major role her gay fans have played in her career. “They kick started my career on Fire Island and their love today is still unconditional, and I feel very blessed.”

France Joli will perform live and Robert Ouimet will spin at the Québec Électrique : Montréal Discoville on Oct 21 at the Paradoxe Theatre (5959 Monk Boulevard) in Ville Emard. About the event, the RMBA states, “Montréal’s status as disco’s second city may be an unlikely one, but the DJs, record labels and clubs that sprouted up back in the late ’70s know the truth: The genre was the soundtrack to the city, in both French and English. In a special celebration of the vaunted Lime Light club’s enormous influence on the city, local disco royalty Robert Ouimet, Michel Simard and LOST HEROES (Christian Pronovost)  – three DJs with almost a century’s worth of experience among them – will play alongside disco diva France Joli and special European guest Alexander Robotnick, whose productions showcase the heavily synthesized Italo sounds that flavoured Montréal disco at the time. Held at the opulent Théâtre Paradoxe, it will be a night that puts Montréal disco back on the map for those who knew about it way back when, and those who are finding out about it for the very first time.” Admission: $10. Showtime: 9 p.m. Click here for tickets.

Excellent 2014 Red Bull Music Academy story “How Montreal Became Disco’s Second City.” 

RBMA Radio 60-minute Academy Afternoons podcast on Montreal Disco Pioneers

RBMA Radio 60-minute Academy Afternoons podcast on Montreal's Disco Heyday 

Transcript of the Oct. 5, 2016, Red Bull Music Academy lecture with Robert Ouimet and Pierre Gagnon about Disco's golden era in Montreal.

RBMA Daily goes behind-the-scenes and visits the legendary Lime Light DJ booth in excellent story Nightclubbing: Montréal’s Lime Light

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