By Mike Walter
There’s a great line towards the end of the movie Stand By Me where the narrator says “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.” And while I can relate to the feeling that your childhood friendships are the deepest you’ll ever have, I can also honestly say I never had friends like the ones I had when I was 25 either.
When I was 25, and only a 3 year veteran of this great Mobile DJ industry, I was a full-time DJ and operations manager with Star DJs. The talent that we accumulated and had on staff there, for about an eight to ten year run, from the mid 80s to the mid 90s, was the deepest DJ roster that has ever been assembled anywhere at any time. Sure, it finally all fell apart. I think anything as meteoric and ego-driven as that is bound to, but while we were all together, we did great things. We helped change the Mobile DJ industry. We helped it mature from mom and pop, part-time solo ops, to big, legitimate, event production companies. We helped get the DJ from behind his table and out on the dance floor. And of course, we had an awesome time doing it.
Recently we held a reunion for some Star DJ alumni. If you had overheard the conversations that night you’d think we’d all invented DJing. You’d think the cordless microphone had been made for us and that no one ever did a line dance before we showed them how. Sure it’s bravado. It’s also the thing we all do with our memories – we romanticize them and make them bigger than life. When I’m not a coupla beers deep and in a room full of ex-Star DJs I’m sober and sane enough to know that we weren’t all that. But we were something. In fact, we were something else.
Star DJs was founded by John Murphy (aka Johnny James). You may have met John, he still makes appearances from time to time at DJ conventions even though he’s no longer in the biz (in fact for an interesting look at what John has been up to since his DJing days, check out an interview that Marcello just did with him: http://mmpentertainmentblog.com/index.php?s=john+murphy). I worked with John for five years. He was a mentor, an older brother and a pisser to be around. One of the very first things that John ever said to me, I was assisting with him on only my second wedding ever and we were in cocktail hour. I grabbed a piece of cheese and as I ate it John said, “you better watch out, that’ll give you the ‘zactlies.” I looked at him inquisitively and he said, “that’s when your breath smells exactly like your ass.” I knew right then and there it would be fun to work for this guy.
And it was. I mean, not always, of course, what is? But mostly. John had a very strong personality and a very clear vision for what he wanted in his company and in every individual DJ who went out with a fuchsia colored Star DJ banner (hey, it was the 80s!) He wanted entertainers. He wanted talent. He knew that just about anyone could spin tunes, but to really stand out you had to look good, sound good and move well. You had to smile and be the life of the party. In our monthly staff meetings he was constantly driving this point home. One moment that stands out so vividly for me, John was berating someone on staff for not being on the dance floor enough and he said, “why do you even have a cordless mic?” That was the essence of what John expected: get out there and interact!
John was a visionary. What other DJ company owner, before or since, has gone after big corporate sponsors? Or launched his own infomercial TV show to promote his DJs? (Here’s one of the episodes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud1ORHYZmm4) And like all visionaries, every one of his ideas wasn’t gold (in fact the “How to Dance” videos we produced probably helped lead to the company’s demise). But no one ever said you had to bat 1.000 to be successful in life. In fact John’s hubris and big ideas where what drove the company and made us such an influential force in the industry. Without his cult of personality Star never would have reached its heights. So what if those heights eventually led to our demise?
John’s right hand man and partner in the business was Rick Galdi. For years they had the perfect partnership: John’s Ying to Rick’s Yang. I heard Jon Acuff say in a seminar once that every good marriage should have a “wow person” and a “how person.” I’d say the same thing about good business partnerships. Rick was the perfect “how” guy to compliment John’s “wows”. Rick was all about processes and getting things done. I learned most everything I know about running a multi-op (hey, that would be a great title for a book wouldn’t it?) under his tutelage. Rick’s tough and no-nonsense attitude kept us in line and if he gave off a whiff of Mafioso it was only because he could quote Goodfellas and both Godfathers line for line.
As far as the talent went, Star’s roster was unprecedented. I was the 16th DJ on their booking board when I started in 1988. Just a few years later we were booking over 50. And when I throw that number out there I’m sure the first impression is that we had watered things down but that was never the case. John and Rick had very high standards and never allowed an MC to go out under their name who wasn’t awesome. There are two main reasons we were able to grow so quickly: one, we were generating a ton of referrals (great talent tends to make the phone ring, remember that) and two, our name was getting so well known that talent was starting to seek us out. In fact, there were a few articles and news pieces done about Star DJs back then that attracted more new talent than they did new customers. But that was ok, the customers were coming in droves anyway. This was before email so any and every new lead came in by phone. I remember sitting in that Star DJ office for ten hour days with the chirping of the phone as a constant background noise.
I saw things changing at Star by the end 1992 and decided to try it on my own with Elite Entertainment. Soon after things started to crumble at Star but I’ve never taken any credit for that. My departure had nothing to do with it. John and Rick had decided to see if they could make true rock stars out of themselves and some of the talent (something we all used to believe about ourselves anyway) and I think taking their eye off what was the bread and butter ultimately led to the company’s demise. To borrow an idea from a fable, they didn’t take care of the Golden Goose. Or maybe it was like the myth of Icarus. Maybe Star just flew too high.
As Star DJs splintered, much of the talent went to work for other companies or started their own things. I’ve always felt like Star’s demise was akin to the Big Bang. As they imploded all these other companies began in New Jersey (and some elsewhere). It’ll never cease to amaze me how many DJs, not only in The Garden State but all over the world, can trace their roots back to John Murphy. Indeed anyone I’ve ever trained in my years at Elite, or anyone who has ever purchased and used my Training DVD, has a bit of Star DJ DNA in them.
Like all reunions, the one I attended the other night featured lots of great conversation and catching up. We had just lost one of our own when Dan “The Man” Vineis passed away on May 6th. But happily, this didn’t cast a pall over the evening. Danny wouldn’t have wanted it to. In fact, I think it added some energy to the night. When someone dies too young, we’re all reminded of our own mortality which also adds urgency to reconnecting with old friends. And that’s what our reunion became. A night to reconnect. A night to watch and laugh at some of those old videos. And a night to pay tribute to Dan “The Man” (which John did so eloquently and Mario Panicucci did with a great video tribute).
Star DJs had an impact on the mobile DJ industry for sure. I realize as a DJ and employee there for 5 years I probably overstate that impact a little, but there’s no denying it happened. I’m proud to have been there for some of the headier years. I was there for a lot of the incredible growth and I learned so much that I have used to help grow Elite and also in the things I talk about in seminars. Someone at the reunion (half jokingly, I’m sure, because that’s the way the whole night was) called me “the spokesman for The DJ industry.” If I am in anyway, it’s due to all the things I learned and all the experiences I shared in my time at Star DJs.
From John Murphy
I want to thank Mike Walter for sharing his insights and experiences about our reunion and Star DJ’s history. I agree with many of his thoughts and feelings.
Yes the industry was growing but Star DJs was still the #1 Wedding Entertainment company when I sold the company in 1996 to a wall street billionaire and Isiah Thomas the MVP world champion basketball player.
In retrospect, had I not done that I believe that Star DJ’s would still be thriving today. As Mike spoke about, we always went the extra step, cared about our customers and each other and had a real brotherhood (and sisterhood) of incredible entertainers. It’s unfortunate that after that, things really went south but that was because the Heart and Soul of what made Star DJ’s great was gone. But now after many years, and with the loss of too many of our brothers and sisters, we have built and embraced each other and that transcends industry. We were and are a family. Any mobile DJ that strives to deliver and exceed expectations is welcome to join us! I am proud of our heritage and what we accomplished!