The Story of SST
THE STORY OF SST parallels the story of the modern music industry. Founder and President, John Hanti, got his first lessons in the business as a child sitting at the feet of early R&B artists like Ray Charles and Little Richard in his father’s chitlin’ circuit nightclub. He prodigiously absorbed both their musical and business acumen. Throughout the early rock and roll explosion, he worked in the industry first as a regional rock star, later as a booking agent, and then as a backline pioneer during the 1980s “Second British Invasion.”
In 1983, he founded Studios, Systems, and Transport in Manhattan to serve the touring needs of British post-punk bands making their first appearances in the States. Early success led SST to New Jersey later in the decade, where Hanti eventually settled the business in its current Weehawken location. The company expanded from backline into full-service recording, rehearsal, and touring services, hosting some of the world’s most celebrated artists
A serious auto accident in 2012, followed a month later by the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, interrupted the company’s momentum for several years. Today, SST is fully rebuilt and fully operational. Hanti, too, is recovered and is again at the helm of what has become one of the industry’s most prestigious and successful industry service providers.
This is the complete story.
John Hanti (left) with Ruth Polsky (with the hat) on the train, circa 1984.
It starts one night in 1983 when two up-and-coming music industry visionaries got together over drinks in the early morning hours of a balmy New York night. The setting was the legendary New York City nightclub, Danceteria. John Hanti was making a name for himself in the city as a guy who got things done. Ruth Polsky was an influential talent buyer for the Danceteria and other cutting-edge clubs. She had a problem and she thought Hanti might be the solution.
SST’s birth, then, was an unplanned convergence of two needs, borne of convenience.
As an arbiter of musical taste, Polsky stood at the vanguard of what would come to be known as the Second British Invasion. The advent of MTV as the premier music marketing medium exploded the demand for young, video-friendly acts. British bands and singers have always been cutting edge and America has always been their ultimate conquest. New York became Ground Zero for the British post-punk explosion. A steady stream of young British rockers, ready-made for Gen X music lovers, started streaming in. It was 1964 all over again.
Hanti at the Flying Machine
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 1977
“If I Can Make it There…”
Hanti Moves to New York
John Hanti had been literally raised on rock and roll.
His parents owned a chitlin’ circuit nightclub in the predominately black community of Farrell, Pennsylvania. Little John (as he was called) had a front-row seat at Club Haiti every night to early R&B artists like Ray Charles, Faye Adams, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, and Jackie Wilson. Barely past infancy, Hanti absorbed those primitive rhythms. They seeped into his soul. They ordained his destiny.
Hanti learned to play the organ while still a child and started playing teen dances with his Sharon, PA high school friends. After sharpening his rock chops in a popular Pittsburgh band—daringly named Virgin—Hanti moved to South Florida in 1971. Soon, he began to shift his focus to the business of music as a booking agent. He booked top clubs in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area such as the Flying Machine, the She, and the famed Big Daddy’s Clubs. Wheeling and dealing appealed to him. He was, it turned out, a born facilitator. A series of adventures and misadventures in the Florida music scene led Hanti to New York City in 1978.
“Sinatra sang In New York, New York, ‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.’ So, New York was where I wanted to be,” Hanti recalls now.
Several early mentors helped to pave the way for Hanti’s entry into the Manhattan music community. They included Beatles’ merchandising genius Nat Weiss, Beatles attorney Walter Hofer, and legendary producer and engineer Roy Cicala. Hanti’s stock as a Manhattan mover and shaker grew.
By the time he met Ruth Polsky, Hanti had acquired a couple of vans and enough instruments to equip a full band. He had also opened the Ugly Door Studio on W. 30th Street, a popular rehearsal room that had been frequented by future Hall of Famers like John Cale and Patti Smith. The operation proved lucrative enough to expand his offerings and broaden his circle of influence.
Sisters of Mercy, New York City, 1984
The Second British Invasion
Polsky was importing the new wave of Post-Punk bands from Great Britain to New York for one-shot record company showcase performances in her clubs. Though well-known across the Atlantic, these acts were virtually unknown in the States.
The New York club shows were largely for the benefit of the New York music press. One good review could begin to bring a band to light, but Polsky wanted more. She believed that if she could book her acts into larger venues outside the city—Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, for instance—it could catapult them to fame.
The problem was that they had only the equipment they could rent for a night from music stores in the city. They had no transportation and no drivers. These were not big stars with tour buses and road crews. These were unknown outfits roughing it as best they could.
As it happened, Hanti could provide these bands with everything they needed to take their shows on the road. It is been said that success happens when preparation and opportunity meet. Polsky had the opportunity. And Hanti was prepared. SST Backline was born.
For the next few years, he managed numerous tours for Polsky’s proteges. These acts included The Smiths, New Order, Happy Mondays, Sisters of Mercy, Quando Quango, Gene Loves Jezebel, and The Pixies. Hanti often served as front-of-house sound engineer, as well, mixing sound for eclectic acts like Sisters of Mercy and Killing Joke
Goth Rock was another popular genre of the day--The Damned, The Cure, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, to name three. Hanti’s new company—Studios, Systems, and Transport—facilitated their entry into the U.S. market.
At the same time, Hanti was forging friendships with notable music business figures of the day. With Neil Cooper, he launched America’s first (and only the second in the world) all-cassette record label (ROIR). They ran an influential club called The 80s. With Louis Tropea and Sondro Dernini he opened Plexus, an innovative performance arts space where he hosted seminal performance artists like Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk. Among the live performances Hanti recorded there, Monk’s “Turtle Dreams” album stands out as one of his favorites.
Ironically, the Plexus space on W. 25th Street is now occupied by Studio Instrument Rentals (S.I.R.).
Continuing to build on his British connections, Hanti later added acts like Motorhead and Siouxsie and The Banshees to his client roster. Ian Copeland of IRS Records fame and Stiff Records’ Bruce Kirkland became allies, as well.
All this activity served to expand the scope of SST’s services and its reputation in the industry.
Tragically, the catalyst for the creation of SST did not live to see its fruition. A runaway cab struck Ruth Polsky on the steps of the Limelight club in New York and took her life on September 7, 1986.
SST Moves to New Jersey
AS DEMAND GREW, so did SST’s inventory and revenue. To accommodate the new business, Hanti decided in 1984 to move SST operations to New Jersey. Hanti believed that eventually, the tight real estate market in Manhattan would impel larger studios to scale back on their space. Where would they go? To New Jersey (or so he figured). It wouldn’t hurt, either, that by coming to Jersey, his clients would be relieved of a continual costly problem: Manhattan parking fees and fines.
Hanti rented space in Jersey City until a spacious waterfront building became available in Weehawken NJ in 1989. Hanti struck an advantageous deal and purchased it. Only two blocks from the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, this building become SST’s home.
This is when his close personal and professional relationship with Roy Cicala started paying off. Cicala’s Record Plant was, in fact, forced to close its tracking room in 1989. Other top studios like RCA, Bell, The Hit Factory and Media Sound soon followed suit. Again, opportunity knocked, and Hanti was prepared.
Cicala took the Record Plant mobile truck to Weehawken and linked it to SST’s 2,000 square-foot tracking room. This allowed Cicala to keep the Record Plant open, and it proved to be a big boost to SST’s recording and rehearsal business.
Hanti called Cicala “My Yoda.” For the rest of his life, Cicala continued to advise and mentor his protégé. After a fruitful second-phase production career in Brazil, he succumbed to cancer in São Paulo in 2014.
Roy Cicala at the Record Plant with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1974
By the year 2012, SST had become the go-to place in the New York area for discerning artists and production managers. Clients like Beyonce’, Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz, Rob Thomas, and the Jonas Brothers, continued to fuel SST’s growth and reputation.
During this period, songwriter Angela Hunte co-wrote the evocative Jay-Z/Alicia Keys hit, Empire State of Mind (along with Alicia Keys, and Alex Shux) at the Rebirth Entertainment Studio in SST's Willow Building. A powerful love song to New York, this was especially significant to Hanti. After thirty-three years in the New York music industry, he had at last “made it there."
The Summer of 2012 saw the coming of The Rolling Stones to SST for their 50th Anniversary rehearsals and recordings. To Hanti, the pinnacle of achievement. The future of SST looked limitless.
On the evening of September 28, 2012, Hanti and SST studio manager Dorothy McGuinness were riding in a car driven by an SST employee. The car hydroplaned on a rainy road in Pennsylvania, crashing into a tree at 60 miles per hour. Hanti and McGuinness were critically injured. The driver escaped unscathed.
One month later, on October 29th, Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey with 175 MPH winds and a record storm surge. 32-foot waves crashed onto the New Jersey Hudson River bank. SST was inundated. The water level in the main building reached 6 feet. IIWII’s rare Focusrite console was deluged in the river water. The tracking room was ruined. The backline equipment was destroyed. The storage bins and their contents were lost.
One of the few things to survive intact was SST’s treasured John Lennon piano, so named because Lennon played it at the Record Plant on many of his early-70s albums. It was seated on the soundstage riser, just above the water line.
The flood was a near-fatal blow. Hanti reeled under the force a one-two punch that no one could have foreseen. He thought seriously about shutting it down forever.
Tthis gives me the opportunity to say ‘maybe, just maybe, I’ve got one more shot.’”.
Suffering from his injuries, in excruciating pain, and facing years of physical rehabilitation, Hanti faced an agonizing choice: close the doors or rebuild. He was forced to lay off loyal employees and staff artists with whom he had been working for years. He despaired, especially, over the devastating loss of SST’s rare and precious Focusrite analog console.
In 2014, a filmmaker told the Focusrite Story in a documentary film. SST figured prominently in the film. Rupert Neve—the Leonardo DaVinci of recording console design—hand-built Focusrite #1 for Beatles producer George Martin. Neve then had only nine more such consoles replicated, all highly coveted by engineers the world over. SST possessed Focusrite #9.
Asked by the interviewer why he had decided to rebuild the studio, against all odds, Hanti reflected. “Do I wake up in the middle of the night going ‘Is this crazy? Have I made a huge mistake?’ he asks. “Absolutely. It’s a leap-of-faith. It’s a belief system. At least this gives me the opportunity to say ‘maybe, just maybe, I’ve got one more shot.’”
It took nearly five years to return to full speed. The first client to come back, even before the big room had been restored, was The Rascals. E-Street Band stalwart, Miami Steve Van Zandt. He brought the band in to rehearse for a planned Broadway show titled “Once Upon a Dream," knowing that it would be a boost that SST badly needed at that point.
As reconstruction continued, clients old and new returned. When another disabled Focusrite console came up for sale, SST purchased it. Chief engineer Billy Perez and his crew painstakingly fused the new console with the surviving components of the original board. They created a hybrid Focusrite console they affectionately call “Frankenstein.” Perez brilliantly preserved the warm analog qualities that made the Focusrite so desirable
Slowly, patiently, one piece at a time, Hanti and company restocked the SST Backline inventory. iHeart Radio gave the company another huge boost by choosing SST to provide backline for its Jingle Ball tour in 2014. They have done so every year since.
Hanti retired to his home in Las Vegas to focus on his own recovery. He left SST operations and rebuilding largely in the hands of Perez and company.
SST Studios and Rentals 2019
In 2017, Hanti, at last, felt sufficiently recovered to return to work. He has since aggressively sought to improve SST services, reach out to clients old and new, and plot a new vision of SST’s future.
Today, SST Studios and Rentals houses IIWII Recording, a 2,000 sq. ft rehearsal soundstage/tracking room, a 2,000 sq. ft, dance studio, an ISO room, a 15,000 square foot storage building, and newly remodeled facilities for clients’ comfort and relaxation. The adjoining Willow Building houses multiple personal production suites for several top producers.
New clients like Bruno Mars, Camila Cabello, Tove Lo, Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lopez are propelling the company into a new era. Billy Perez continues to direct day-to-day operations, along with Jeff Simoni and John DeSalvo. Dorothy McGuinness remains as SST’s spiritual Godmother, serving as Hanti’s close advisor and baking cookies for the visiting stars and production managers.