Despite the fact that they are often the single-most important force behind the success of a hit record, it isn’t often that producers come out of the control room to share in the public spotlight with musicians and vocalists. In this respect, Jellybean Benitez joins the ranks of such notable producers as Phil Spector, Alan Parsons, Quincy Jones, George Martin, and a handful of others who have come to symbolize the certain style and feel of a musical genre. In fact, Benitez’s name carries such a recognition factor in the pop and dance music realms that it is often displayed as prominently on the record cover as that of the artist. Occasionally his is the only name appearing on the product, as in the case of the four “solo” albums he has released since 1984.
Born John Benitez to Puerto Rican immigrants in the Bronx, New York, Jellybean learned early on that he had a gift for both music and self-promotion. He began playing records in his early teens at parties for friends and before long had maneuvered his way via a combination of talent and style into the position of disc jockey at New York’s most popular and exclusive nightclubs, including the Funhouse, Xenon, and Studio 54.
With the rise of the punk rock movement in the mid-1970s, however, rockers around the world cheered gleefully what they saw as the death of the much-maligned disco scene. The truth, however, was different. “I would read in magazines that disco was over,” Benitez remembered in New York magazine in 1993, “but I was still playing to 2,000 people a night. At three o’clock in the morning, I’d think, The reporter didn’t come here. ” In fact, dance music was still very much alive. It had simply altered its appearance slightly and taken on the monikers “techno” and “new wave.” The ultrahip Benitez figured prominently in the conversion.
By this time, Benitez had earned a spectacular reputation as a DJ and was beginning to make his way into recording and producing. He first captured the public eye when he became pop superstar Madonna’s producer/boyfriend in the early 1980s, functioning as the behind-the-scenes architect of some of her biggest hits, including “Holiday” and “Crazy for You.“Benitez reflected on his first meeting with Madonna in Norman King’s Madonna: The Book: “She was introduced to me by her record company. I thought she had a lot of style, and she crossed over a lot of boundaries, because everyone in the rock clubs played her—the black clubs, the gay, the straight. And very few records have that appeal.” Their business relationship quickly developed into something more. “She didn’t bowl me over at first,” he continued. “We just used to go to the movies and clubs
For the Record …
Born John Benitez in the Bronx, NY.
Established reputation as a disc jockey in New York City nightclubs, 1970s; producer for albums by Madonna, mid-1980s; released first album as producer, Wotups-ki!?! EMI, 1984; served as music producer and supervisor on numerous motion pictures, including Mi Vida Loca.
Addresses: Home — New York City.
together. Then we started holding hands and buying each other presents.”
Soon Benitez and Madonna were sharing an apartment in a fashionable district of Manhattan. After the release of her first album, however, Madonna decided it was time to move on. She felt that for her second album she needed a more experienced producer—she is quoted in Madonna: The Book as referring to Benitez as “a technician rather than a musician”—and she had grown tired of Benitez’s club-hopping nightlife. Apparently there were no hard feelings on either side, as evidenced by Benitez’s Top 20 recording of the Madonna-penned “Sidewalk Talk” in 1984 and his production of her Number One single “Crazy for You” in 1985.
Benitez’s record-producing success with Madonna and his burgeoning public notoriety unfortunately led to something of a falling-out with the top club owners, but he was not about to let that stop him. He quickly became dance music’s most sought-after remix master, working with artists as diverse as Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis, Hall & Oates, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, and the Muppets. As for some of his more unusual choices for collaboration, Benitez explained in New York, “I figured if I could have a Huey Lewis dance hit and a Billy Joel dance hit, it would be the ultimate accomplishment.”
I Don’t Write the Songs
Benitez also takes a rather unique approach to making his own records, expanding on a technique pioneered in the 1970s by pop/rock producer Alan Parsons for his Alan Parsons Project. Benitez does not write the songs, sing the words, or—for the most part—play the music, but he has put out albums of performances by other musicians and vocalists that feature his name on the cover. He has defended this tactic against detractors by arguing that as the producer and visionary he supplies the creative backdrop on which his LPs are based. “Jellybean is the artist— it’s a concept,” he explained in New York in 1988. “It might be a little abstract for some people.”
Whatever the public’s response on an intellectual level, there is certainly no confusion on the dance floor. Benitez’s first album, 1984’s Wotupski?!?, contained the aforementioned Number 18 single “Sidewalk Talk,” making him the first former DJ to become a Top 40 pop artist. His later releases, Just Visiting This Planet, the greatest-hits collection Rocks The House!, and Spillin’ the Beans, yielded 1987’s “Who Found Who,” which reached Number 16, and other songs that were hits on the dance charts. “In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if it was luck or talent,” he revealed in New York. “But then I kept having hit after hit after hit, and I realized there was a certain art in what I was doing.... I was functioning creatively in an environment that was usually creative because of musical acumen, and I didn’t have any of that. All I had was a feel.”
Right Places, Right Times
Benitez also has a feel for meeting the right people and being at the right place at the right time—a talent that has figured prominently in his rapid rise to success. He skillfully built upon his star-quality association with Madonna throughout the 1980s. New York quoted an anecdote about Benitez told by “professional party-giver” Alan Rish: “On New Year’s Eve, [Benitez] said ’Come over,’ and it was the most amazing party I’ve ever seen. There were twenty people in the room, but it was, like, [actors] Cher and Vincent Spano ... and Kelly McGillis and Judd Nelson. I was the only non-celebrity star there, and he was just having a few of his friends over at his apartment.”
Another source of Benitez’s success is the way he always sets his sights just over the next hill. In 1995, for example, Entertainment Weekly reported that he had garnered funding for a new bilingual record label he hopes will become the Latino Motown. Betraying a depth not often found in today’s pop world, Benitez also admits to fantasies of working with eighteenth-century classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. “I mean, he made incredible symphonies then with a little piano,” he told New York. “If he’d had synthesizers and all these multitracks and could record stuff ... I mean, it’s amazing. Do you understand what this guy could be doing? I would love to be producing this guy.”
Benitez walks the middle of the road when it comes to assessing the fruits of his achievements. While not letting his rapid success go to his head, he makes no bones about treating himself to a justly deserved reward or two. “When I was younger, I always wanted a big TV,” he revealed in Vogue. “I always wanted to have a deejay booth in my apartment. I’m not really a materialistic person, but success has been great.”
Wotupski!?!, EMI, 1984.
Just Visiting This Planet, Chrysalis, 1987.
Rocks the House!, Chrysalis, 1988.
Spillin’ the Beans, Atlantic, 1991.
(Various artists) Carlito’s Way (soundtrack), 550 Music, 1993.
Also produced motion picture soundtracks and albums and singles by Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis, Hall & Oates, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, and others.
King, Norman, Madonna: The Book, Morrow, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, May 12, 1995.
Musician, August 1989.
New York, March 28, 1988; November 22, 1993.
Rolling Stone, My July 14, 1994.
Seventeen, May 1991.
Vogue, May 1988.
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