Johnny brought the disco

John Hedges, who was known colloquially as Johnny Disco, was one of the pioneers on the gay scene in San Francisco. He started out playing at the Mind Shaft during the pre-12-inch days, spinning 45s on a rudimentary setup (before discovering mixing at NYC’s 12 West). He went on to play at City Disco and Oil Can Harry’s, at the same time as working as disco consultant for local label, Fantasy Records. Sadly, John died in June 2022.

Tell me how you came to move from Cleveland to San Francisco?
Cleveland was very backwards then and being gay was not a good place to be. We’d heard that San Francisco was the place to be. So we packed up the car and drove all the way across the country to San Francisco. And from the day we got to San Francisco, we stayed for 25 years. I’m in Palm Springs, California now. 

When did you move to California? 
I believe 1971. 

Did you have an occupation when you moved there?

How did you come to work into the music business?
We were all looking for jobs and the local nightclub down the street from where I lived had jobs going. I went in there and I don’t know how it started but i met the manager and said I can play music because I had a bunch of records and so he hired me. It was called the Mind Shaft and it was on Market Street. I worked there for many years. That started me into the music business as a DJ. Then I moved on to some super clubs, which connected me up to meet some people from Fantasy Records, Sylvester’s managers. 

Can you tell me a little more about the Mind Shaft, like what it looked like, what music you played etc? 
It was a medium-sized club, but in the main dancing area the middle of the club was a raised gazebo and that was the dancefloor and I had all the lighting and all that stuff.  The music I played back then was pretty much Motown stuff or anything danceable. We were hungry for that. Near the end of my time at the Mind Shaft that’s when the record companies started noticing that the clubs were selling records so they started making 12-inch records. I remember getting, I think the first one was ‘Fly Robin Fly’ by Silver Convention.

If you were getting 12-inch singles there, you must’ve been there until 1975 or 76?
I would say that, yeah. 

Were you mixing at the Mind Shaft? 
Not beat mixing because it was mostly 45s, you know, but they’d have Part 1 and Part 2 of course and we’d mix those. But that came a little later.

When was the first time you saw someone mixing?
At a big nightclub called 12 West. 

Jim Burgess played there, right?
Yes, he was the first DJ that really turned my head around. I was playing at Oil Can Harry’s at the time. The really neat thing was he played one song that went to the other beat-matched. I didn’t know what the hell was going on! But the crowd was going nuts and the energy level kept going up and up. I brought that back to San Francisco, turned it onto a lot of people and got vari-speed turntables installed and it took off from there. 

Hi-NRG sounds from the ’80s

Do you remember what year that would’ve been?
Oil Can Harry’s was 77 I think. 

And that’s when you took the trip to New York?
Yes around that time. 

How did you come to move to City Disco?
I went from the Mind Shaft to the City Disco, which used to be called Cabaret (After Dark). Think that was in 1976. I worked there for many years. That was a super, huge disco. Two floors and the dance area upstairs, huge lights and sound. The DJ booth was built to look like a big jukebox and we were inside the jukebox, the top part of it. It was such a big disco it got a lot of newspaper press, which is how Fantasy found me. 

Is it true that City Disco was almost like an entertainment complex with restaurant?
It didn’t have a restaurant but it had a downstairs with a cabaret showroom and they had all kinds of acts there. Smaller shows, probably 100 seater. 

Who were your peers in the City?
Jon Randazzo, Tim Rivers, Michael Garrett. 

Bobby Viteritti?
He was very influential, but he worked at Trocadero Transfer. 

What was the difference between City Disco and the Troc?
The Troc was a huge big disco with a floating dancefloor and as the crowd grew the dancefloor expanded. It would go all night until 6am in the morning. People wouldn’t get there until 11pm and party till the sun came up. City Disco closed at 2 o’clock when the liquor stopped. 

Did t feel like a political time in San Francisco for the gay community?
It felt extremely political, yes. It was the days of Harvey Milk running for supervisor and he won and things started changing. He’d always come to the discos and hustle for votes. We were very political to get our rights. We sure did. 

How did that express itself?
There were some demonstrations with anything negative like Anita Bryant [singer and anti-gay activist]. Literally people would start marching in the streets and scream, ‘Out of the bars, into to the street!’ I remember that distinctly. People would come out of the bars and start marching down Market Street, the main street in town to City Hall, trying to get some action going – which they usually did. I had to do this on the mic many times especially when I worked in the Castro. And we did get out of the bar and into the street. It was amazing the pool of talent that came out of San Francisco in these wild, crazy, liberating days of gay pride. I think that because of disco we gained power because we would group together and talk about politics. I think disco was a major, major part of gay liberation; getting it out to the media and showing our power.

You were one of the Billboard DJs of the year right?
I won Billboard Best DJ for 1976. 

How did one win Disco DJ of the Year?
Billboard magazine would have reporters in major cities and I was one of them for San Francisco which put me on the national map. I’m not sure how they did the voting, I don’t know how. That’s a good question I don’t know how that happened. They just said you’ve been voted best DJ you have to come to New York, which I did. And I won, so that was nice. It really got me credibilityy.

Did it change your career?
Yeah and it just helped get me into the studio at Fantasy Records. 

How did you first come across Fantasy?
I was working at the City, and the local paper had recently done a story on disco and I was featured in the article with an interview, Harvey Fuqua and Nancy Pitts from Honey Records, distributed by Fantasy, they came into the City Disco and they invited me down to Fantasy to see if I could be a consultant on mixing. I did and I got to work on many more projects. 

How did that work? 
I worked right alongside Harvey in the studio. Harvey was really laidback, a nice guy. I think he was from Motown days. He knew how to get performers to do what he wanted to do and he came out with some good records including a big hit with ‘Mighty Real’ by Sylvester which went pop and he was happy for that. 

Did you meet Sylvester and get to know him?
Yes I did. As a matter of fact, we were neighbours. Working with him he was genuinely a nice guy and I initially met him before I worked with him. I was working for Fantasy on other artists, not producing yet, but mixing. It was my job to make anything they’d produced into something more danceable. 

Sylvester was someone who’d hang out at the studio?
No. I just knew him socially. 

Did he come to discos and dance?
All the time in San Fran, yeah. 

Presumably he was a pretty notable in the city?
Very famous in the city. He was funny, a very unique character, flamboyant. And he loved shopping, that’s why he was happy. He was being successful in the music business. He would spend money like crazy. He collected diamonds. He brought in a bag of diamonds into the studio, can you believe it?! He died penniless. He spent all his money on clothes, costumes and diamonds. 

Assuming you knew Patrick Cowley because he worked at the City Disco right?
Ooh yeah, he was the sound and lighting man at the cabaret downstairs. He was a really nice, gentle man. We would hang out and talk about music.

Who inspired you back then?
I was inspired by a lot of people in this business but one especially was Harvey Fuqua. He was Sylvester’s original producer. He’s the one who taught me how to work the controls in the studio, along with the engineers. The other person was Patrick Cowley. Unbelievable. He’d come into the studio with his little boxes, tape boxes, echo chambers, and made all these fabulous sound FX that made him so famous, even today.

Did you work with him in the studio?
The favourite things I produced were always by Sylvester because he would come in to the studio, help us on the controls, explain what he was doing and he was a pretty big star by then, so we were overwhelmed, but we learned a lot. His original producer Harvey Fuqua, who was the person who got me into the studio with Fantasy also told me how to do this and that’s where I learned that I could do it too. On the All I Need album by Sylvester he’d come into do tracks. In fact, I think he was on every record I was involved in until he died. He’s very famous now, though, I can always tell when it’s his birthday or the anniversary of his death because I always get calls from journalists. We weren’t hanging out buddies, but we loved music and he loved that electronic sound which was the San Francisco sound. 

When you were moving away, is it true that Honey Sound System discovered some unreleased Patrick Cowley music on your quarter inch tapes. Is that true?
Yes it’s true. When I took over Megatone Records I moved it… I had a huge three storey house and the lower level we converted it into Megatone Records. I was getting ready to move to Palm Springs in 2008 I put out the word to local DJs that if they wanted to get anything they could get whatever they wanted but they’d have to haul it down because it was three storeys down. So they came and took just about everything and when they were going through everything in the boxes, they found Patrick Cowley tapes. They were never released. And they said they might be able to put some sounds to it to finish it in their little studios and put it out which they did. 

That’s amazing!
Yeah the lost tapes! Lost in my basement! 

Did you have any idea?
No I had no idea. I sold Megatone before I moved and if I’d known I would’ve done the same thing , taken them back in the studio and released them on Megatone. 

Do you remember working with Fever?
Fever was the first production I ever did with Marty Blecman and Fantasy on our own where Fantasy actually signed us to a contract to produce this group out of Cleveland, Ohio. It was a non-stop vinyl album, three songs on each side, all segued together. It became a Billboard number one hit. Fever got us into a place where everybody was coming after us to produce for them. It was the first album we ever did at Fantasy. We did a 12-inch, Fever ‘Beat Of The Night’, and the flip side was ‘Pump It Up’. That’s where we learned how to work in the studio. Fantasy had the latest stuff you know and we learned how to operate it all and the computer stuff. That’s really where I learned how to produce. It was a great learning experience.

How important was disco in the story of gay liberation?
Discos were the hangouts for gays, almost like a church thing. It rallied all the gays and anything that was happening in politics, you could get the news from the discos. Everybody would hang out and share the news. It pulled us together. 

And how did Aids affect disco and the dance scene in San Francisco?
Tragically of course. It came on so fast that just about every day there was someone you knew who was dying. People walked down the street looking very sick. It was a very very sad, awful time but people rallied to help. It’s interesting that in the gay bars it was usually men and not very many lesbians but as it turned out when the Aids thing hit us, the lesbians came out and really helped the gay men when they were sick.

Did that bring the two communities together?
Yes big time. They helped nurse men or helped them when they were going broke. They’d feed them and house them, help with medical stuff and the lawyers. San Francisco was right on top of everything to help everybody.