Richard Long & Associates: The Men Who Made Disco Go Boom

By Jim Allen

I would do my systems, Alex Rosner did his systems…nobody was badmouthing anybody’s work.

In the disco era, the initials RLA loomed large for top-tier DJs and industry insiders. Richard Long & Associates were renowned as the premier designers of dance-club sound systems, but Long wasn’t just a technician, he was an artist, whose designs and installations helped make the disco scene of the ’70s and ’80s what it was. The hottest discos in New York — Paradise Garage, Studio 54, Regine’s — all sported RLA sound systems, but so did cutting-edge clubs all across the globe.

Long’s right-hand man, Kenny Powers, recalls one of his first jobs upon joining RLA in 1980. “I ended up going to Venezuela with Richard,” he remembers, “we built a nightclub in Caracas called Le Parnasse, we built a system over about two weeks. From ’81 till Richard died in ’86…we did a bunch of clubs; a lot of stuff in Europe. We did one job in Germany, one job in Egypt…we did a job in St. Thomas, which was part of Regine’s. She [Regine] was franchising, trying to open up a chain of nightclubs.”

The reason RLA became a worldwide name was that each of their systems was thoughtfully and painstakingly tailored to the individual needs of the space. The process was somewhere between that of a high-end tailor crafting a bespoke suit for a VIP customer and a specially commissioned artist painting a portrait of an esteemed patron. The results won Long not only the awed admiration of DJs and club owners, but honors like the Billboard award for Best Disco Sound Design.

Powers says part of the reason for RLA’s success was their willingness to work with their competitors rather than try to blow them out of the water. In an interview given last year, he recalled, “In the old days, I would do my systems, Alex Rosner did his systems…nobody was badmouthing anybody’s work. Richard went into [legendary NYC nightspot] The Loft, Rosner was involved in the Loft — you had two competitors that were working on the same system together. You never get that anymore, everybody’s got to claim all the glory. It compromises what’s going on.”

After Long’s death, Powers continued to carry the RLA torch forward. As an integral part of the RLA audio empire, he was the best choice to take the reins – it’s no coincidence, for instance, that the hallowed London house music haven Ministry of Sound was outfitted with an RLA system including a bass box named Puissance (French for “power”) in honor of Long’s colleague and successor. Heading up the company, Powers kept the same lofty level of work going all the way into the 21st century – just last year, he was at the helm of the creation and installation of a system for one of New York’s most hotly anticipated new venues, District 36.

For Powers, it’s been a long, fruitful sonic sojourn. “In the early ’70s I started doing car stereos, and I did my first club in about ’74,” he recalls. And these days, believe it or not, in addition to his RLA duties he keeps an ear out for the sounds of the river lapping against the sides of his ship, as the real-deal captain of a ferry boat for New York’s Harbor Experience line. Presumably, the folks at NYHE figured that if Powers could survive the disco era unscathed, he’d have no trouble keeping his head above water.

Kenny Powers (L) unveiling District 36's disco ball