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Feeling Mighty Real 

How disco changed the face of local dance music

Wednesday, Aug 16 2000
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San Francisco's mainstream nightlife in the mid-1970s didn't exactly revolve around dancing. Sure, the rock and jazz bands that ruled the clubs invited some motion, but more often their music encouraged deep listening from audiences. So big club promoters didn't quite welcome the new sound of disco with open arms, what with its repetitive beats and structures that required no amount of pondering to appreciate. Other cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles already had discos and even disco stars by 1975. San Francisco's scene arrived late, but when it did, it was creatively richer and survived longer than the rest of the nation's. By developing a handful of independent labels, a network of supportive clubs, and an audience for DJ-delivered dance music, its architects laid the foundation for today's San Francisco dance scene -- one of electronic music's most supportive in the world.

Sylvester, who would become local disco's biggest star, grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where he attended the last three years of high school dressed as a woman. Weaned on gospel and soul, he trained his far-ranging voice by singing in church. After witnessing the cross-dressing cabaret act the Cockettes during a 1970 trip to San Francisco, he moved north to become a member himself.

A year later, Elyria, Ohio, native John Hedges moved to the city and began spinning records at the Mineshaft, a Market Street club that would become one of the city's key discos later in the decade. As there were no proper disco singles or turntables with pitch control yet, Hedges would mix together the A and B sides of Motown 45s. Underground gay clubs such as the Mineshaft were the first in the city to embrace dance music, and they served as the ideal training grounds for the DJs who would push the disco sound later.

Around 1974, DJs on the East Coast began favoring urban records with the key elements that would coalesce into disco's signature sound: a 4/4 kick drum accentuated with shakers and other hand percussion, lush string sections, and energetic R&B vocals. New York jock Nicky Siano, one of the pioneers of the continuously mixed set, started giving heavy rotation to the sweaty, 17-minute "Love's Theme" by Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra. The recording industry was stunned when the song climbed to No. 1 on the charts. That was the year Kiss debuted and Led Zeppelin was at its zenith -- the last thing label executives expected was to be upstaged by some black kids in goofy outfits. A string of outlandishly arranged R&B tracks stormed the charts in the months to come -- "Boogie Down" by Eddie Knowles, "Rock the Boat" by the Hues Corporation, "Rock Your Baby" by George McCrae -- and disco was born.

As the music caught on, clubs sprouted up everywhere. Along with the Mineshaft, there was the I-Beam on Haight Street, Dreamland on Harrison Street, Disco International in Oakland, the Trocadero Transfer on Fourth Street, prominent straight club Dance Your Ass Off in North Beach, and, most famous of all, the City on Montgomery and Broadway. The City boasted a large oval bar made of glass tiles and a very hip and racially mixed clientele. John Hedges, who had received Billboard's first Best Disco DJ award in 1976, scored a regular gig there with his partner, Marty Blecman.

Through their slot at the City, Hedges and Blecman met Sylvester. Patrick Cowley, who besides being the City's light technician was creating dance tracks with modified guitars and other self-constructed equipment, introduced the three of them. The decadent flamboyance of disco proved to be the perfect vehicle for Sylvester, who had made an unsuccessful bid in the early '70s to break into rock music. Backed by Cowley's driving synthesizer work and harmony singers Two Tons of Fun, Sylvester hit the Top 40 with the single "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" from his LP Mighty Real. The uptempo scorcher allowed Sylvester's mighty falsetto to strut and sashay all over the steady drums, unconstrained by traditional song structures. Sylvester had come home.

When it came time to make promotional appearances on television, the label and his management pressured him to tone down his look, conscious of how severely his image would restrict sales. Sylvester, who didn't consider himself out of the closet because he had never been in one, wouldn't budge an inch. When he visited The Tonight Show, for instance, he was asked by substitute host Joan Rivers if he was a transvestite. "No," he shot back with a defiant lisp, "I'm Sylvester."

Terri Hinte, the head of publicity at Sylvester's record company, Fantasy, recalls the tension between the artist and the label at the time. "The record was out, and certain stations refused to play it because he was gay ... a lot of black stations among them. Sylvester's records, as far as the way music genres worked and what was happening with radio at the time, would have been a natural fit for R&B radio. So every time a station turned it down, it called into question how he was handling his career. Decisions like going on Merv Griffin in a dress really affected how his music was going to get out there."

But by 1979, the year Sylvester released his third album for Fantasy, something even more striking about him than his look would deny him radio play -- his genre. Between baseball games in a White Sox-Tigers double-header, Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl detonated a pile of disco records, thus launching the official "Disco Sucks" campaign. The very next day, a competing Chicago station played Donna Summer's "Last Dance" for 24 hours and then switched its format to Top 40.

According to Hedges, who had made the transition from DJ to producer by this time, "The "Disco Sucks' thing absolutely did not affect San Francisco's club scene at all. It still hasn't let up.

"Basically radio gave up on it. And I mean literally overnight. I had a record climbing up the charts, "Disco Sucks' came out, and all the radio stations dropped it instantly. It was very shocking."

Meanwhile, Blecman founded the Megatone label to release Patrick Cowley's innovative Megatron Man album. Megatone quickly became the disco label of note, and the schematic on which the current generation of house music indie labels was built. The operation earned a reputation strong enough to lure one of disco's most important promoters, Audrey Josephs, from New York City.

A few days after Josephs, who had broken Chic in 1977, arrived in the city, Cowley died of a mysterious, undiagnosed disease. Josephs helped put out Cowley's last work and decided to stay on to promote Sylvester's Megatone debut, All I Need, produced by Hedges and James Wirrick. She would also go on to be a part owner of Club Townsend later in the 1980s.

Other specialty labels followed Megatone's lead. Moby Dick and CNM were founded, and for a few years in the early '80s, San Francisco churned out top-flight disco records on a regular basis. One of Moby Dick's biggest sellers was Boys Town Gang, a campy studio group modeled after the Village People that sung explicit songs about gay sex. At a time when industry folk elsewhere were trying to distance themselves from the genre, disco was in full swing in the bay. Clubs were packed to the gills with dancers doing the Hustle; Sylvester was even handed the keys to the city (March 11 is still Sylvester Day). Tomorrow seemed like it would never come, and the cocaine and Quaaludes were flowing like water.

"I would not trade that time for anything," Josephs says. "It was living devil-may-care, caution-to-the-wind, who-gives-a-fuck-about-the-world, be free, be loose, and you can be anything. It was so fabulous. ... Anyone who didn't live through that era, I feel sorry for you. Because you don't know what a total, cool, fabulous, wonderful, free, happy, feel-good time [it was]."

But through this idyllic haze, the grimmer realities of life slipped in and brought the party to a halt. By the late '80s, AIDS had devastated the disco community. Cowley had been one of the city's first casualties. Sylvester died in 1988, just after releasing his first major-label record, Mutual Attraction. Blecman died, leaving Megatone to Hedges, who in turn was forced to sell it to pay for his own HIV-related expenses.

"AIDS ravaged the entire industry," Josephs says. "Not just DJs and performers but also the writers, the producers, the promoters. [Everyone at] Moby Dick, except the one girl who worked there, was devastated by AIDS. The entire label. Same with CNM Records."

"All our stars and producers were dropping like flies," Hedges says.

The heritage of the disco scene -- both in music and artifacts -- lives on. The I-Beam's sign still hangs in the Upper Haight, Hedges spins once a week in the Castro (albeit on oldies night at Daddy's), and house producers continue to mine disco classics for "new" ideas. Club Townsend houses one of only eight existing Richard Long sound systems in the world. It features monstrous bass bins and precisely engineered mixers like those used in the famous Paradise Garage and Flamingo after-hours clubs. Josephs hunted down its pieces from places as far away as Rotterdam and assembled them here in 1992.

"Richard had developed a way of rolling a bass sound through the construction of his cabinets," Josephs explains of its mystical properties. "The kind of wood he used, the finishes he put on his wood, the type of speakers ... he was the first person to come across with the huge 18-inch bass speakers. He invented the kind of bass that disco music truly grew out of, and [his systems] have become something of an icon."

Long's system stands as something of a memorial to disco's late pioneers; a monument to their tenacity and innovation rather than their decline and fall. Maybe the words to describe the music have changed, and some of its sexual politics have shifted, but the ethos of San Francisco's dance music scene remains stubborn and unapologetic -- just as Sylvester and his associates defined it.

About The Author

Darren Keast

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