The Story of Italy's Biggest Disco Producer, His Ruthless Rise to the Top, and Eventual Assassination

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The Story of Italy's Biggest Disco Producer, His Ruthless Rise to the Top, and Eventual Assassination

Mafia under the mirrorball: disco's greatest untold story.
August 10, 2015, 2:38pm

In the early hours of a morning most probably still thick with tropical heat, Jacques "Fred" Petrus was shot several times in the head, at his villa in Guadeloupe. While information and sources are limited, and even the identity of the gunman remains a relative mystery, there is no debating that Italy's foremost disco producer was murdered. The challenge, however, in finding out who or why has less to do with an immaculate trail — rather it's a task of ascertaining who hated him the most.

Despite becoming a defining force in Italian dance music, Petrus' story began where it ended — in Guadeloupe. He was born there in 1948, and from an early age developed a fascination with R&B and soul records. Perhaps it was the records themselves, but something gave him the desire to spread his wings, and aged 15 he qualified as a mechanic, joined the crew of a cargo ship, and left Guadeloupe for Europe. His whereabouts went unknown for a couple of years, before in 1968 he emerged in Paris, DJing in clubs.

Paris was only home for a short spell however, and before long Petrus was drawn to Milan, from where his musical empire would eventually be built. This began as a continuation of his DJ career playing in the Good Mood club, until, in his own words, he realised he "could not keep on doing that kind of job for the rest of [his] life". So, wishing to further his links within the disco community, he began the process of exporting records into Italy from America, starting a widely used but expensive service for discotheques across the country. This eventually led to him founding his firm, Goody Music, which would later bloom into his label.

Read a bullshitter's guide to Italo-Disco.

The story to this point is remarkable enough, a studious and determined individual, uprooting himself from a Caribbean island on a cargo ship, only to cross the world and bring disco to Italy. It's a journey for the love of music but crucially in understanding Petrus, also a journey for the love of success, victory, and status. Not content with spending the money it required to bring records made by Americans into the country, Petrus turned to fulfilling his ultimate goal: putting his name to music of his own. Perhaps frustratingly for him, he never experienced the full glory of having music he himself had composed reaching audiences, but a fateful meeting in the mid-1970s secured that his name would be attached to hits all the same.

Mauro Malavasi was already a qualified classical musician when he met Petrus. Having been educated at the conservatory of Bologna, he was trained on the piano, as well as in choral and composition technique. Their meeting meant Petrus had the final element he needed to begin producing original disco — a musician. Together they formed Goody Music Productions in 1978, and began putting out records. The sound that they created was a synthetic fusion of European and American styles. An idiosyncratic attempt to hybridise the glamour of American production, with emerging electronic pop. Whether they knew it or not, they were creating Italo-Disco.

Listening to the earliest releases on Goody Music Productions, like Akka B's "Queens of Space", the patterns that came to define the Italo genre are more than present. Sexed up sci-fi thematics, popping bass-lines, crackly, charmingly sub-standard production, all combining to produce the beginnings of the next natural evolution from disco — and the GMP train didn't stop here.

From the years between 1978 and 1982 the label pressed records by a string of 'artists' who were essentially session musicians Petrus scouted in clubs and bars, before putting into bands that often only lasted for a single release. This process is a key facet of Italo; the mask of marketing selling anonymous musicians under the guise of fictional starlets or pop groups. The success of GMP's operation grew, and arguably peaked with the release of Macho's cover of The Spencer Davies Group's 1967 hit, "I'm a Man". The record went on to become the first ever Italian record, produced and recorded entirely by Italian musicians, to top the charts in America. Yet it also marked the turning point in Petrus' ascent.

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From the string of successes enjoyed by Petrus at the tail end of the 1970s, he decided to drastically reshape his business. Given the interest sparked stateside, he opened an office in New York and began operating under the name Little Macho. While Goody Music Productions would exist in Italy until 1982, it was Little Macho that became the focus of the operation. From here Petrus enjoyed even more success, this time with the band Change, as well as importing Italian records into America. Yet the changes continued, further rooting things in America and severing ties with Italy, gradually Petrus ceased working with almost all of the Italian musicians whom he had once relied on. Names like Davide Romani, Paolo Ginlolio and Rudy Trevisi, that had appeared on many of GMP's biggest hits were bypassed in favour of the American performers Petrus now had access to.

This time also meant Petrus worked in increasing circles, liaising with and brokering deals amongst musicians, agents, managers, and international labels who were interested in exporting his prolific output. What emerged with this increased interest was the abrasive manner with which Petrus conducted business. Again, this is an element of his story that can only be put together via anecdote and hearsay, but it is a fairly unanimously agreed fact that Jacques Petrus treated people like dirt.

From borrowing money, to firing people on the spot or ignoring them completely, Petrus ruled with erratic discipline — treating musicians and professionals who were integral to his company as if they were nobodies. Much can be taken from the thoughts of Bobby Douglas, an American vocalist who featured on a string of Petrus productions. When asked about the producer's death, he said "I know that it was something waiting to happen. Because you can't be that evil, to that many people, and not have your karma affected."

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It was also during this time that Petrus' long standing collaboration with Mauro Malavasi came to end. In subsequent interviews, the composer has stated that a myriad of troubles led to his departure from New York. "Honestly, I had enough of it, and I didn't feel an American, I couldn't focus my life on making money." Yet he also expresses the emergence of tension, vaguely stating, "I came in conflict with Goody Music." The partnership that had fostered the future of Italo-Disco, had come to an end.

During this time, his mistreatment of those around him began running parallel to a slide further and further into debt. As the hits slowed down, but Petrus' ambition didn't, he began borrowing money from more and more dubious sources. Links between the mafia and disco music in both Italy and New York are unsurprisingly hard to confirm — as is the nature of anything to do with mafia. What we can be sure of are Petrus' links to the mafia, which stretched back to his time in Milan. Initially, it is supposed he actually performed work for the mob — possibly in the shape of money laundering — but with the following decline in business, it seems the favours started going the other way. It's impossible to know for sure, but considering his background and reputation, the strange truth is there's a high chance the mafia funded some seriously popping early 1980s disco cuts.

The next few years saw the closure of GMP in Italy in 1982, before eventually Petrus was forced to leave New York, where he returned to Italy and established his final attempt at a creative company: Renaissance. While this organisation had the credential's of Luigi "Luis" Figini, of the Italo-Disco band Kano, as artistic director, the venture was only to be a footnote on the final chapter of Petrus' career.

If your mind is sensationally inclined, Jacques "Fred" Petrus' eventual death provides an irresistible curtain call to his already remarkable existence. For a man vilified by everyone he worked with, with mafia connections, a reputation for fast and loose money-borrowing, and an otherwise insatiable appetite for success, his murder was always — if not inevitable — an overwhelming possibility.

Yet, as is so often the strange mechanics of these situations, his murderer was most likely none of the many faces he had double-crossed and wronged during his short career. It is in fact supposed that he was shot and killed by a Swiss tourist in 1987, following a dispute that had occurred earlier in the night at Petrus' club in Guadeloupe. No mafia heads, no jilted composers, no loan sharks — just a drunk tourist and bar brawl. Unless of course, this was a cover up, the tourist was in fact a hit-man and the entire incident was just another shadow across the complex story of Italy's most prolific hit-maker. As with so much surrounding Petrus, it is unlikely we will ever know. Even today, his story is broken up, scattered through out interviews and diverging biographies across the internet. It seems that through sheer ruthlessness and reckless ambition, Jacques "Fred" Petrus has become something of a myth. Which is probably exactly how he would have wanted it.

Interview quotes sourced here.

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