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 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.”
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.”
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.”