Biography Circa 2006
Chances are, everyone has a favorite Jellybean record – even if they don’t know it’s his. Hardly a stretch when you consider the rise of John “Jellybean” Benitez to iconic status in the entertainment business is the direct result of a purposeful commitment to always following his passions, while creating a prolifically diverse body of work that rarely misses its mark. Embellished with tales of a challenging childhood and a résumé that boasts everything from global DJ appearances, multi-platinum record production and publishing sales, to award-winning film production, scoring and composing, Benitez’s story unfolds over more than four decades of unabated achievement. Add his celebrated collaborations with music’s most influential artists – in every genre from pop to hip-hop and disco to dance - and it’s clear why his projects have become intrinsically embedded in the globe’s culture of music. The fact that this soft-spoken, humble mogul isn’t driven by money or fame, but rather by the emotional connection he creates in all his projects, is only part of the secret to his success. To really get it to its source though, head straight to his affair with vinyl recordings that began during his youth in The “Boogie Down” Bronx.
Jellybean’s legend begins in a late fifties South Bronx where on November 7th, he became the first generation to be born outside of the family’s native Puerto Rico. Raised in the borough by a single mom, it was his younger sister Debbie that renamed him after the popular colloquial phrase, “Know what I mean, Jellybean?” – when he was just eight-years-old. A high school drop out with few positive role models, the family’s love of music from salsa, Motown and R&B to 70’s boo-ga-loo, inspired Jellybean’s affinity with melody and mixing as his pathway out. DJing with his precious 45’s for free in his building’s basement until someone asked how much he would charge to spin a Sweet 16, JB’s premiere party gig was at Bronx club Charlie’s on New Years Day in 1976. Affording him a new path to freedom from his uninspired surroundings. “I lived in a world where everyone aspired to be drug dealers, pimps or bouncers. I am not big enough to be a bouncer, so I hung out with the older guys in the booth who would actually pay me for something I was doing for free. I just felt I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The worst thing that would happen is I would fail in my quest.”
Far from failing and now ignited, his passion for delivering ecstatic mix sessions led to his first club residency at Experiment 4. Followed by stints in the city’s mainstream, hedonistic hot spots including Xenon and Studio 54 in the early eighties. But by the start of his legend-building run at the infamous club Fun House, Jellybean was already looking to move beyond the booth and for creative ways to get himself started. “I wanted to be a record producer but at the time you had to be either a songwriter, an arranger or an engineer. I couldn’t afford music or engineering lessons so I became [veteran producer] Michael Zager’s production assistant and I worked for free.” Leveraging his weekend DJ work, Benitez spent weekdays in the studio getting coffee, coordinating sessions and asking questions. In return, Zager – whom he had met at Xenon, would help actualize his transition into music production through an internship that taught him the ropes of the business from the inside out.
For another key to his success, we turn to the pulpit of his weekend ministry at the Fun House. From here, Jellybean’s dedicated dancers inspired his first song reworks and provided the secret ingredient of his best releases – pure dancer energy. “The reaction I got to the records I played from 10pm on Friday till 4am on Saturday mornings, is what went into the records I made,” he offers. “I took what I couldn’t really describe but could feel and put that in the songs.” A technique that kept the public clamoring for the unique versions they heard at the club or on his influential WKTU radio show, which was tops in the nation at the time. Thanks to remix or production work on the instant classics: Jimmy Spicer’s “The Bubble Bunch,” “Walking On Sunshine” by Rockers Revenge and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” the Jellybean brand was propelled out of the underground and on a meteoric rise up the charts. But after the serendipitous meeting with then unknown talent Madonna, not only would both their lives seismically shift, but so too the sound of music forever.
As a result of their fertile personal and professional alliance, JB’s dream to become a true music producer was realized with his complete original production of the single “Holiday.” Its inclusion as a last minute replacement on Madonna’s debut album was followed by the singles “Gambler” and “Crazy For You” (from the movie VISION QUEST), to the top of the charts and into the lore of 80’s culture. Next he progressed to studio work with music icons Whitney Houston, Barbara Streisand, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Sting; resulting in nearly one hundred Top 10 hits, over 35 number one records and a place atop the short list of the best producer / re-mixers in the world. The first of his three artist albums – Wotupski!?! dropped in 1984 spawning his seminal hits “The Mexican” and “Sidewalk Talk” – which was written by the Material Girl herself.
The following year, he inked the industry’s first joint-venture deal with Warner Brothers Records that established his own label and charged him with finding and producing more chart-topping talent. Among the lucky few to initially sign on with this hard-charging music exec were La India, Jocelyn Brown, Man Friday, and Anthony & The Camp. More hits weren’t far behind nor was more remix work, but thanks to an urgent call from friend and mentor Quincy Jones, his life would seismically shift again with even greater results. The project was a Sidney Poitier directed film called FAST FORWARD and they needed a song in a hurry. On the request of Q himself, Jellybean co-wrote (with Steve Ray and Tony C) and produced the song “Showdown” in a weekend for inclusion on the movie’s soundtrack. They liked it so much, the following week he was back on deadline and in the studio with newcomer Siedah Garret making “Do You Want It Right Now?” for the film as well.
Subsequent remixes for blockbuster movie projects like FLASHDANCE (“What A Feeling”) and others soon followed, affording Benitez a fresh way to use his music to connect with the world. And find his most lucrative and perhaps most satisfying creative field to date – as a film and television music supervisor or composer. “Ultimately, lyric and melody are what trigger all the emotions. Also doing music for film is very similar to being a DJ for me because you are feeding off those emotions and taking people on a journey.” By the nineties, JB’s personal journey encouraged his desire for a family and would be fulfilled with his marriage to Wilhemina model turned restaurateur Caroline Effer and the birth of their daughters. Being involved in his children’s lives was a priority, so his life as a traveling DJ / producer was out, taking with it his high public profile.
Instead, his influence over the pulse of modern music continued to flourish behind-the-scenes. Now through a steady flow of television and film music supervision projects, in addition to the stable of songwriters he nurtured through his JB Music Publishing firm created in 1994. Thanks to a roster of artists that have cultivated even more multi-platinum selling singles, top-grossing soundtracks (like MEN IN BLACK and SPACE JAM) while featuring the decade’s finest new legends including Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Nas, Celine Dion, Boyz II Men and LL Cool J, and their most timeless classics. His next generation relevance to the children of his early fans, was cemented with his Ricky Lake Show theme and hip commercial placements for Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Sandals Beach Resort (“Holiday”). Like we said, everyone has a favorite Jellybean record, everyone.
A self-proclaimed “magnet for talent,” Benitez brought his big-picture thinking to the biggest project of his career in 2000 as an executive producer on FOR LOVE OR COUNTRY: THE ARTURO SANDOVAL STORY. He oversaw all aspects of this powerful project that starred Andy Garcia, Gloria Estefan and Mia Maestro and was produced in association with HBO Films. His efforts hardly passed unnoticed earning him Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, along with an ALMA Award win for Best Producer. Proving once more there is nothing this entertainment guru can’t do – very well.
As the new millennium continues, Jellybean finds himself back on tour and in the DJ booth. Occasionally in the studio and still true to the things that mean the most to him. Which includes spinning at his Ain’t Nothing But A House Party events, broadcasting his Satellite Radio show, running his Jellybean Soul and Fuego labels or turning out the occasional remix like his latest for Jessica Simpson (“Public Affair”) or a personal favorite Rolling Stones tune called “I’m Free.” Clearly demonstrating that he does indeed still have it, his Simpson rework hovers in the Top 5 all over Europe and his Rolling Stones re-tune plays regularly in a New York Chase Bank commercial. So what does the man most famous as Madonna’s ex-boyfriend or the jingle creator for the Ricky Lake Show really want to be known for? Once he’s done laughing his thoughtful reply is “as someone who enjoyed life and took chances.” Perhaps a deeper reflection of the truth lies in the lyrics of his aforementioned Rolling Stones fave that avers, “I’m free to do what I want, any old time.” And in his forth decade of professional acclaim perhaps that is his greatest accomplishment of all.