July 25, 2014

Denny McConnell: A 5-Decade Career with No Intention of Stopping

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Reading, PA — Denny McConnell, a DJ since the Niixon Administration, started his career at a club, back when they were called discos—on a bet.

“I bet a friend that I could get a job at this new nightclub that was opening in our area,” says McConnell.

His friend replied, “What do you know about being a DJ?”

To which Denny said: “We go dancing all the time and I know what I like to dance to.”

The next day McConnell went to the club, which was under construction, and asked to speak to someone in charge. A friend of his appeared from the back of the club and asked what he needed. McConnell asked what, exactly, was the club going to be? The friend said it’s going to be a discotheque with a DJ—not a nightclub with a band.

Then he informed McConnell that the company installing the sound and lights was going to train the DJ for the first two weeks that the club was open. So for the next two weeks, McConnell and seven others played music for 20 minutes each, and then received a critique. “It was things like, you shouldn’t have played this song after this one, and the BPM—which I had no idea what it was—was too far apart.”

The club was immaculate—its system included Crown amps, a Meteor Clubman mixer and two pre-1200 Technics turntables. A light show illuminated the entire dancefloor and a wall behind the dancefloor. The dancefloor was set on its side against the wall, with a gigantic $10,000 computer built into the wall to run the lights, a series of knobs above the mixer that positioned the lights to do something different at certain spots.

“After the two weeks, I was chosen as the best and got the job,” he says. “I was playing LPs and 45s—sometimes I would take two 45s and mix them to make the song longer.”

The pay for that job? He made $25 a night, playing from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Says McConnell: “I thought that was fantastic.” He stayed at the club for a year, but was replaced by a radio DJ from a town 40 miles away, who came in and promised to pack the club.

But that didn’t prevent McConnell from pursuing a life behind the wheels of steel, primarily as operator of Music to You. Fast forward through several Billboard Disco Conventions—where he saw the first 12-inch singles—and the karaoke craze in the ’80s, trivia and Jeopardy in the ’90s, beer pong and bean bag toss and videos in 2000s, and photo booths in 2012.

But now, at 65, things have changed. “I have noticed that brides look at me different,” he says. “Back in the ’70s, I was a young, hip guy and there were only a handful of DJs to choose from—so most times I would get the job. Now we are in 2013 and there is a DJ or someone who thinks they are a DJ—and I say someone, not some guy, because it is not only guys you are up against, it is girls, too, and they are skilled a lot more. And there are hundreds to choose from.”

A similar thing happens when McConnell meets the person in charge of the upcoming school dance. “When they see me, I get, ‘You don’t look like a DJ.’ And I say, ‘What does a DJ look like?’ It’s not how I look, but how I entertain that makes the difference. I get people coming up to me all the time with, ‘Wow, you are really good. We didn’t expect you to play the music you played.’ But it’s my job to know the music that suits the crowd that’s in front of me. I know music from the ’30s and ’40s right up to what is popular today in all formats.”

The biggest evolution he’s has seen in the last 10 years is the DJ’s changing role. “The DJ has stepped out from behind the booth,” he says, “and has really become an entertainer—from MC to dance instructor to lighting engineer to video mixer/editor to photo booth operator. It’s no longer just playing music.”

We asked McConnell what his family thinks of his DJing. “That is a loaded question,” he says. “I have been married for almost as long as I am a DJ. I have two daughters, for whom I did their school dances and birthday parties and some of their friend’s parties and weddings. They thought it was cool that their dad was a DJ.

“My wife? I am not so sure that she likes what I do. The money is great, but there is no such thing as a weekend—unless we plan it at least a year in advance. Her parents are still waiting for me to get that real job. One of the things I remember is being the one that got the kids ready for school because mom had to work. My DJ job gave me a lot of freedom to pick and choose what jobs I did and when I worked. I also was the t-ball coach for my oldest daughter. So I think the answer is, yes—they like me being a DJ.”

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