Great DJs know how to listen and look. Considering that Sam “the Man” Burns has been reading crowds since he started spinning disco records back in 1978, it’s fair to assume he’s witnessed our city change in more ways than most.

But for the 60-year-old District nightlife legend, what’s more interesting is what’s stayed the same. “Young people will always come to the club to find themselves,” Burns says. “So [DJing is] almost like giving them a blank canvas. They decide how they’re gonna express the tune, or the track, or the song. The thing that never changes is that human expression on the dance floor.”

(Victoria Ford/Sam Burns. )

Burns began his journey toward clubland as a busted-hearted teenager listening to music in his bedroom. The Trammps were on his stereo singing about a place “where the happy people go,” and Burns decided to follow the song’s advice. “I put on enough cologne to choke a mule,” he says. “I had my double-knit pants, my double-knit jacket, and I went down to the disco — and I danced for three hours on nothing but orange juice and Coca-Cola. I forgot all about the girl.”

Before long, he landed his first nightclub gig, underage, as a doorman, eventually working his way up to the DJ booth, then out into the city’s greater club circuit, first spinning disco, then house, then whatever made people move. Now, more than 40 years after hearing that Trammps cut, he takes his listening as seriously as ever. “I still like to prepare my sets by sitting down and listening — not hearing, but listening,” Burns says. “I have to know my tunes. It’s just like learning the lines in a play.”

That prep work pays off on nights when his audience shows up with open ears and loose limbs, ready for anything. “Enthusiasts like to be challenged,” Burns says. “They like taking chances, taking risks. You might put on something you’d never thought about playing, and if you play it at the right moment, people just lose themselves. Those are the memories that last forever.”

Chris Richards

Show: Opening for Jellybean Benitez on Friday at 10 p.m. at U Street Music Hall. 202-588-1889. ustreetmusichall . $10.