Boyd Jarvis, who died after a two-year battle with cancer on February 16 at age 59, was one of the key architects of post-disco New York dance music. When I interviewed him five years ago, he was both genial and at pains to take credit for his innovations. It’s easy to understand why. Working with two synths — a Yamaha CS-15 and a Prophet 600 — Jarvis created “The Music Got Me” in November of 1982. Credited to Visual and issued the following year on Prelude, its plangent feel and simple patterns are a clear precedent for the Windy City’s recombinant cheapo disco, and it precedes the first Chicago house records by a year.
A synthesizer and organ player, as well as a radio and club DJ, Jarvis was a native of East Orange, New Jersey. He began hitting New York clubs as an early-Seventies teen, when there was little separation musically between the nascent disco and hip-hop scenes, and he cited Larry Levan, Tee Scott, Nicky Siano, Grandmaster Flowers, and Pete “DJ” Jones as favorite DJs.
Jarvis himself first got on the decks at outdoor parties in Fort Greene in 1977: “I was dragging my two huge Vox speakers. I had two Garrard turntables, [on which] you can really blend, but you can’t be doing any rugged scratching, and a McIntosh power amp. I would bring that shit out to the park. Right there at the corner, Fort Greene and Adelphi, plug up and had a little party, man, outside.”
Jarvis was an early regular at the Paradise Garage, which opened in Soho in 1977. “The entire room was designed to be a big huge speaker,” he remembered. But the recording studio interested him far more than the DJ booth. He began purchasing equipment, including, around 1981, a Yamaha CS-15 monophonic synthesizer. “I was intrigued by the ability to shape and create sounds,” he said. “Synthesizers can do some amazing things. I’ve created water. I’ve created wind. I’ve created chimpanzees jumping from tree to tree. I didn’t have any drum machine at that time. I created an artificial kick drum with the synthesizer and I played it with my finger. The snare was also artificial. I created that using white noise. You can make a combination of white noise and a tone and you can create a damn good kick drum.”
It was at the Garage that Jarvis first met Timmy Regisford. When Jarvis took his CS-15 to accompany another DJ, Derrick Davidson, at the NYC club Melons, Jarvis recalled, “Timmy happened to come down and heard me doing it and said, ‘Yo, what do you think about you doing my audition for WBLS with me?’ That was it, man. That started my whole career.”
With Jarvis adding keyboard lines and effects to the records Regisford spun, the duo would stay on the station until 1986. “We were so young and so naïve to be able to have that position and not knowing the power in that position,” he said. WBLS DJ program director Frankie Crocker had enough faith in Regisford and Jarvis that nothing held their creativity in check. “It was carte blanche. Wednesday was the day everybody came up to ’BLS to get their record played. Frankie had the chicken line. Anybody who came to get their records played — you’d better bring a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, or Frankie will not be playing your shit.”
Regisford, credited as co-producer on “The Music Got Me,” became Jarvis’s primary musical partner of the decade. “When I made ‘The Music Got Me,’ we didn’t even call anything house,” Jarvis said. “We call it club music or dance music. Most of that stuff was done straight to reel [-to-reel tape] in Timmy’s bedroom. I said, ‘What are we going to call this stuff?’ and he said, ‘Shit, let’s call this ‘bedroom music.’ ”
Jarvis was never too hot on early Chicago house — “I don’t know about the ‘jack, jack, jack your body’-type shit. It wasn’t too hard. It was too country for me.” The DJ classics he made with Regisford — including Circuit’s “Release the Tension” (4th & Broadway, 1984), Boyd Jarvis & Timmy Regisford’s “Battle of the Beats” (Next Plateau, 1985), and Colonel Abrams’ “You Got Me Running” (Echovolt, 1984) — had a far more professional sheen.
Billie’s “Nobody’s Business” (Fleetwood, 1986) may be his greatest record. Jarvis met the singer — real name Robin Williams — after leaving Studio 54. “Billie was kind of cute,” he said. “I was really trying to get some pussy. I was like, ‘Hey, what’s happening, baby?’ You know, that little spiel: ‘I am a producer and I make music.’ She said, ‘I can sing.’ I said, ‘Sing me a song.’ ‘The only song I know right now is a Billie Holiday song.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you come to my house? I got this track.’ I noticed that she had this little high range and I said [to] scream, [laughs] and she did.” A refurbished version of the Jazz Age standard “ ’Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” the track became a monster at the Paradise Garage, one of Levan’s all-timers, even though the club closed a year after the record’s release.
Following the success of “Nobody’s Business,” Jarvis had gotten heavily into cocaine; he entered rehab in the early Nineties. It was then that he found out his old assistant engineer Freedom Williams had issued a record, “Get Dumb (Free Your Body),” as the Crew featuring Freedom Williams — an early run for what would become C+C Music Factory — that heavily sampled “The Music Got Me.” “I don’t realize how bad it was until I was in Jersey one night at a club, and they played the record and I was excited. And then I started hearing the orchestra is coming and went up to the DJ, and he said ‘Yo, this is Freedom’s new record!’ I took them to court.”
The verdict, in Jarvis’s favor, set a sampling-law precedent. The judge’s opinion dismissed C+C producer Robert Clivillés’ statement that “Get Dumb” took a chunk of Jarvis’s track that was “mere background lasting for only a few seconds toward the end of plaintiff’s recording” as being “so untrue that I must question how defendant’s counsel could have allowed this statement to be submitted to the court in a sworn affidavit.”
Jarvis worked with big artists (he played keyboards on Jellybean’s 1984 single “Sidewalk Talk” and on Herbie Hancock’s 1988 single “Beat Wise”) as well as his clubland confreres. One memorable later gig was his late-Nineties residency at the Tribeca club Vinyl. “There was lots of drugs flowing in Vinyl,” he recalled. “I used to stash my boss’s drugs underneath the turntables. You had BTS, those little gangster white boys from Brooklyn coming in. They robbed the ravers. It was crazy: K-holes all over the place, bro. I have never seen such hilarious shit as these kids overdoing it with those drugs, that special K shit.”
In 2016, Jarvis was diagnosed with cancer; that October, a number of his colleagues — including Regisford, Francois K, Joe Claussell, and host Barbara Tucker — held a fundraiser at Brooklyn’s Output. Another colleague, Paul Simpson — who co-produced Serious Intention’s equally sparse and impactful “You Don’t Know” in 1984 — told Red Bull Music Academy in 2016, “Boyd Jarvis invented house…. When Boyd was doing it, the sound didn’t have a name.” Bedroom music, house — whatever you called it, it was Jarvis who first gave it shape.