Singer/songwriter Joe “Bean” Esposito is currently the lead singer of The Brooklyn Bridge and a former member of The Brooklyn Dreams. His voice can be heard on hit recordings with Donna Summer and Brenda Russell, as well as in blockbuster movies including Flashdance and The Karate Kid. His original songs have been recorded by such artists as Aretha Franklin, Stephen Stills, and Diana Ross.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Esposito and asked him about his musical youth, his work with Eddie Hokenson and Bruce Sudano in The Brooklyn Dreams, his rise to fame as a singer/songwriter, singing lead with The Brooklyn Bridge, in addition to what he’s been up to lately.
Spotlight Central: We understand you were born in the Bronx but raised in Brooklyn. Did you grow up in a musical family?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Not at all. And on my birth certificate, even though it says Royal Hospital, Bronx, NY, all I can remember is Brooklyn. My mother was from the Bronx, but I can’t remember the Bronx at all, except taking the train from Brooklyn to the Bronx. So, other than that, my whole life has been Brooklyn.
But as far as the music is concerned, I did hear my father once fooling around singing — and he could sing. I had an older brother who said to me, “You know where you got your talent from, right?” and I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “It’s from our father’s side, not our mother’s side” — because I have a half-sister who also sang. So I guess it does come from my father’s side. And although no one in my family ever played an instrument or anything like that, I knew at a young age that I could sing.
Growing up in Brooklyn, in ninth grade, I met my friend Eddie Hokenson. I’ll never forget this: It was first period, and we were standing in the doorway and we happened to start talking and he then told me he sang. After I heard him and his brother and a couple of other guys sing, that was it for me. I was jumping up and down, and I started hanging out with them; I must have been around 14 years old.
From there, we just kept honing our craft on the street corners and eventually started playing in clubs. And, of course, a lot of this came out of the doo-wop era. When I was a little kid, I used to love The Flamingos, The Dubs, and The Danleers, but then when The Beatles and Motown hit, that just took it to a whole other direction.
Spotlight Central: Weren’t you a big fan of Elvis, too?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Oh, yeah, absolutely — a big time fan! I used to try to comb my hair like him but I couldn’t get it like his because he had such thick hair and I had thin hair.
But I have an interesting story about Elvis, because Elvis’s road manager’s name was Joe Esposito. When I got nominated for a Grammy, they put my name on my seat, and this guy saw it and he came over to me and said, “Who’s Joe Esposito?” and I said, “I am.” He looked at me and said, “Everybody always tells me I’m a great singer,” and I said to him, “Well, everybody always asks me about Elvis,” and we shook hands and he walked away. That was my introduction to Elvis’s road manager, Joe Esposito.
Spotlight Central: How did you end up getting your nickname, Joe “Bean” Esposito?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: There was a girl in my school named Wilhelmina Bean, and I always thought that was a funny name. Do you remember the TV show The Fugitive with David Janssen? Every week, he was in a different town and he had a different name. Well, one day, I walked into Eddie’s mother’s candy store and I made believe I was looking for a job and they said, “What do you do?” and I said, “I’m a soda jerk.” They said, “What’s your name?” and I said, “Joe ‘Bean’,” and everybody started cracking up. And just as soon as I said, “Joe ‘Bean,’” I knew I was gonna be Joe “Bean” for the rest of my life!
And I also use Joe “Bean” because there’s another Joe Esposito in the Screen Actor’s Guild. You can’t have two people in there with the same name, so I use Joe “Bean” to separate myself from him — because he got there first.
Spotlight Central: You just mentioned Eddie’s mom’s candy store. Is that where you and Eddie met Bruce Sudano?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: We actually met around the corner at a place called the Flatbush Terrace where all the local bands and musicians used to play. There, we met Bruce and Pepe Cardona who were in a group called Alive ’N Kickin’ — they had a hit record, “Tighter, Tighter” — and then we all congregated at Eddie’s mother’s candy store along with people from all the different neighborhoods. We would always be singing and doing steps and playing music on the jukebox at the candy store. That was like “the hub” for us, and when I speak to a lot of my friends now, they say that was the greatest time of their lives, just hanging out at the candy store.
Spotlight Central: When you got a little older, you went to LA and started doing background sessions and writing songs for other people. At the age of 26, you got to sing on Ringo Starr’s 1976 album, Ringo’s Rotogravure. What was that experience like?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Here’s what happened: Vini Poncia — who’s a very famous record producer; in fact, I’m doing an album with him right now — called me one day and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “I have a session. You want to come sing?” I’m like, “Yeah.” So we’re singing in the car, and he doesn’t tell me whose session it is.
I walk into the studio, Cherokee Sound Studios — just a great moment in my life — and there is Ringo Starr. And then I see Arif Mardin, the legendary producer from Atlantic Records. And who comes in unannounced about 20 minutes later? Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney. And now I’m singing with Melissa Manchester, and Vini, and myself, and we’re doing background vocals — I forget which song it was — and two of The Beatles are looking at me! And I’m thinking to myself, “You’ve gotta be kidding me! I just got to L.A, and this is the first thing I’m doing!”
I called Eddie on the phone. I said, “Two of The Beatles are here! I can’t believe it. I’m never leaving. This is the greatest!” and we were just flipping out. But that’s how I got to sing on the album — through Vini.
Spotlight Central: You, Bruce, and Eddie formed The Brooklyn Dreams, mixing R&B harmonies with contemporary dance music. Your 1977 self-titled Brooklyn Dreams album got positive reviews, and critics even compared the group’s sound to The Righteous Brothers. Was a “blue-eyed soul” style of music the genre you felt the most comfortable singing?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: It was natural for Eddie and myself. Bruce, basically, came from a different genre. Bruce is a great songwriter and if you listen to the stuff he’s doing today, it’s really really good. But Eddie and myself — and his brother, who wasn’t involved in this because he didn’t want to go to L.A. — were very much R&B singers. You know, we were total Temptations freaks and fans of all of that Motown stuff, so that was just in us as kids.
And that first Brooklyn Dreams album really wasn’t a disco album; it was more of an R&B album. After a while, Neil Bogart, the founder of Casablanca Records — who had Donna Summer and Kiss and The Village People on his label — said, “This first album is good, but you gotta do disco.” So we tried to follow his lead on a couple of albums after that, but to me that first album was who we really were.
Spotlight Central: In 1978, The Brooklyn Dreams appeared with Kenny Vance as Professor La Plano and the Planotones in the film, American Hot Wax. Do you have any fun memories of working on that film?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Oh, absolutely! And here’s another thing: Vini Poncia also got us into The Planotones. He said, “Listen, would you guys be willing to shave your mustaches? Because there’s this thing they want me to do — this movie, American Hot Wax.”
Now, believe it or not, I knew about Kenny from Brooklyn. Do you remember Jay Black, who was the lead singer of Jay and the Americans? Well, I lived in an apartment building, and Jay Black lived in the apartment right underneath me; I was in, like, B-502 and he was in B-402. Jay used to hear us practice and sing — and we would see Kenny and Jay and the Americans there — but they didn’t know who we were.
Then out in L.A., we found out that Kenny was going to be in American Hot Wax. We auditioned for it, and they loved us and they put us in the movie, and that’s how we got to meet Kenny and become The Planotones.
Spotlight Central: While in L.A. you also got to meet Donna Summer who, at the time, was known for her hit, “Love to Love You Baby.” Is it true that when you first met her she had just purchased a new car?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: After Donna did the Barry Manilow song, “Could It Be Magic,” and just before “Bad Girls” took off, we were at the VP of Casablanca Records, Susan Maneo’s, apartment in Beverly Hills.
Eddie, Bruce, and I were there and we saw this new Mercedes pulling up — driving up erratically, like somebody didn’t know how to drive — and it had on the license plate, “LTLY,” meaning “Love to Love You.” The driver came into Susan’s house and she said, “Hi, I’m Donna!” We introduced ourselves and someone said, “Is there something wrong with your car?” and she said, “No, I just got the car. I just don’t know how to drive.”
But we really hit it off with Donna, and we started writing songs right away.
Spotlight Central: One of the most successful songs being the hit, “Heaven Knows,” which reached the Top 5 — just a great female/male duet recording. What was it like singing lead with Donna on that record?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Here’s what happened: Before we did “Heaven Knows,” Donna had done “McArthur Park” on her Live and More album. And in the “McArthur Park Suite,” it breaks down into this one part called “Heaven Knows” — I don’t think they even had lyrics or anything for it. When Neil Bogart heard it, he asked, “What’s that?” and Giorgio Moroder, Donna’s producer, said, “That’s just something I wrote,” and Neil said. “That’s a hit record — you’ve got to do that!”
So Donna and Giorgio asked, “You want to sing on this?” and I’m like, “Yeah, sure!” So, believe me when I tell you that it was just one or two takes and it was done. The next thing I knew, we had a hit record. Donna had done her part already and I went into the studio and did my part, and the rest was history.
Spotlight Central: Some people may not know there’s another version of “Heaven Knows” which appears on The Brooklyn Dreams second album, Sleepless Nights, with you and Donna Summer swapping parts. Is that one of the albums you referred to when you suggested you weren’t so comfortable with the “disco” sound?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Well, we weren’t a disco act. We went on the road with Donna and we had some songs with her, but we were more of an R&B act — like Hall and Oates or The Doobie Brothers — but they kind of pushed us in that direction. And, I mean, we made some good records after that, but I still think the first record was really who we were.
Spotlight Central: And speaking about going on tour with Donna Summer, The Brooklyn Dreams toured as the opening act for her playing in front of crowds of 20,000 people, and also appeared on TV on such shows as The Midnight Special, The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, American Bandstand, Solid Gold, and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Do have a favorite memory of one of your many television appearances?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Oh yeah — and it was such a whirlwind! You know, we wanted to do the Bottom Line and The Roxy, but we started off with 20,000-seat venues. That is what was available to us, so that is what we did. We went out and sang and we killed it — and then when Donna came out, it just went to another level.
And then we started doing all these TV shows and we were getting to meet Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, and I can’t even explain it to you — it was like a dream come true. We had played in clubs in Brooklyn for years honing our craft, and when we went to L.A. and met Donna, it just went to another level. It was just a great, great experience and we had great experiences with Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas — and Dick Clark, too. You know, Donna hosted American Bandstand when we were on it? She’s the only one to ever co-host that show with Dick Clark. That’s something that had never happened before. He let her do it and it was just wonderful.
Spotlight Central: We have to ask you about one song in particular. You and the members of The Brooklyn Dreams co-wrote “Bad Girls” with Donna Summer, a song which rocketed to the top the Billboard Hot 100. How did the writing of that song come about?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: We were sitting in a lounge in Rusk Sound Studios — I can even remember all of these studio names because that’s how important all this stuff is to me — and Bruce was playing the chords to “Who’s That Lady?” by The Isley Brothers. And Donna said, “I’ve got this idea for a song. I want to write about the ladies of the night.” She starts [sings] “Bad girls” — just like that — I mean, “Talking about…” And we go into the studio and we’re throwing out lines like “You can score if your pocket’s right,” and we wrote it in ten minutes. And then it sat on the shelf for two years! Two years later, they needed one more song for the double album Donna was doing and the engineer happened to say, “Hey, what about that song, ‘Bad Girls?’”
And, literally, when I tell you I couldn’t believe it went to #1, I couldn’t — it was unreal. But I also really believe that we didn’t do anything different than what we were doing in Brooklyn writing songs, except we were with Donna Summer, because everything she touched and everything she did turned into magic.
Spotlight Central: You mentioned earlier that you worked with the well-known producer, Giorgio Moroder. You did Solitary Men with him, which became your first solo album, and then you started to work on music for films. But we understand that it was you — and not Irene Cara — who was supposed to sing the song “What a Feeling” from Flashdance. Isn’t that correct?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Boy, you did your homework! I don’t know how you knew that, but here’s what happened: I did the demo for “What a Feeling” — I made up some words and stuff — and, by the way, I ended up singing background vocals on the record, too. But Giorgio was working with Irene Cara and I had done “Lady Lady Lady” for Giorgio. There was a problem with Irene Cara and her manager and Giorgio said, “If they don’t make a decision, then you’re gonna sing the song. They’ve got ’til three o’clock” — and it was a quarter to three.
I think at ten minutes to three they called and made the deal, and that’s how Irene Cara got the song, but I did do “Lady Lady Lady” and that album sold 15 million copies.
Spotlight Central: And was nominated for a Grammy, too!
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Yeah, Album of the Year, but we were up against Thriller!
Spotlight Central: You followed that up with “You’re the Best” from The Karate Kid, but wasn’t that song intended to be used in another film?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Yeah, Rocky III. There’s a trivia question about that song. [Recites lyric] “History repeats itself/Try and you’ll succeed.” That really doesn’t fit with The Karate Kid because it’s the first time the Karate Kid is fighting in a championship, but in Rocky III, Stallone loses to Clubber Lang and then comes back and beats him.
So it was submitted for Rocky III. A good friend of mine, Allee Willis — great lyricist, great songwriter — wrote that with Bill Conti, and they knew Sylvester Stallone liked me, so we recorded it. But the Scotti Brothers, who had a record company, had Survivor and “Eye of the Tiger,” of course, which was another great song. So “You’re the Best” didn’t make it for Rocky III, but John Avildsen, the director of Rocky I — and who was directing The Karate Kid — liked the song a lot and that’s how it ended up in The Karate Kid. The record company didn’t even want my version for The Karate Kid and ended up having somebody else sing it, but John said, “I don’t want this. I want the other guy,” meaning me.
Spotlight Central: And that song went on to have a life of its own on TV shows, video games, and films, and, in fact, we recently heard it during the Super Bowl on an E*Trade commercial. How does it feel to have that kind of notoriety with a song?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: It’s the gift that keeps on giving! And I have another little story about that song: When Karate Kid first came out, the Bananarama song, “Cruel Summer,” was the hit from the movie. Twenty years down the road, I had a son who became a professional pitcher — he pitched for the Colorado Rockies — but when he was at Arizona State, he called me up one day and said, “Dad! You know your song, ‘You’re the Best?’ Everybody’s using that song when they warm up to pitch!” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” And then, from there, you started seeing it everywhere and it went on to become an iconic sports anthem.
And now here I am. I’m 72 years old. And with all the success of that song, Bruce Sedano said to me, “You’re gonna be like Tony Bennett!” — you know, he had that resurgence in the ‘70s? — and I said, “Yeah, “I’ll take it.”
Spotlight Central: And speaking of Bruce Sudano, in 1987, you recorded your second solo album, Joe, Bruce and 2nd Avenue, with Bruce — your former Brooklyn Dreams colleague. But the day you were working on a video for that record, the guy who signed you to do the album was fired, so you ended up having no record deal. What happened there?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: What happened was: “What do I do now?” I didn’t have a job anymore. But I got a call from my friend, Chuck Fiore, who was the bass player for Billy Vera and the Beaters. He said, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.” I said, “What’s the good news?” He said, “You know, I paint houses and stuff? I could hire you and I can pay you $17.50 an hour.” I said, “What’s the bad news?” and he said, “The bad news is it’s at Capitol Records.”
See, I had just been signed to Capitol Records — EMI America was part of Capitol — so I was an artist on their label. And the next thing I know I’m painting one of the floors of Capitol Records with my partner. And people there are looking at me like “Aren’t you…?” I had a mask on and I’m painting and I’m like, admitting,“Yeah, it’s me.”
And listen to this: I get nominated for a Grammy with Brenda Russell for “Piano in the Dark,” and I’m hearing myself on the radio as I’m scraping wallpaper off the wall, thinking to myself, “What is going on? What am I — in a movie, here? This feels like a movie.” And that night, I put on a tuxedo to go to the Grammys, because I had been nominated for a Grammy with Brenda Russell for “Piano in the Dark.”
Of course, when I was going through that, I was heartbroken, but now, it’s kind of a funny story that I was signed to Capitol and the next thing I knew I was painting Capitol.
Spotlight Central: Unbelievable. And that song, “Piano in the Dark,” is such a great song and performance. As you were doing it, did you realize what a terrific project you were a part of?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Yes, because Brenda Russell is a tremendous songwriter. She wrote “If Only For One Night” for Luther Vandross and “Get Here” for Oleta Adams. She’s really a special, special songwriter. I met her on American Hot Wax — she was a member of the group, The Delights — so I’d known Brenda since 1976. I sang on a bunch of her albums, too, with David Lasley and Arnold McCuller — who sang with James Taylor — and with Chaka Kahn, too. So for Brenda to call me to sing that duet with her was such an honor and I knew that anything she wrote would be incredible. And, by the way, Brenda, Arnold McCuller, and I also sang on the Different Strokes TV theme, too.
Spotlight Central: In the 1990s you toured with Kenny Vance and the Planotones and recorded your third solo album, Treated and Released; in the 2000s you worked with Dion on an infomercial; and in 2018, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical premiered on Broadway. Is it true that in addition to using some of the songs you wrote and performed on, your name is actually mentioned in the show?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Yeah. There’s a scene where Donna is singing in the studio and she wants to continue and, I guess, the Giorgio Moroder character says, “Well, listen, Bean is not here.” And they had the Bruce character playing bass guitar — I mean, this didn’t really happen in real life; it’s just in the play — but Bruce says, “Well, I can sing Bean’s part,” so that’s how I was in there.
Spotlight Central: And in 2013, you became the lead singer for one of our favorite groups, The Brooklyn Bridge. What was it like for you getting to sing such classic songs as Jimmy Webb’s “Worst That Could Happen” or Johnny Maestro and The Crests’ “16 Candles” and get to put your own spin on them?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: It’s twofold. First of all, I’m following a legend: Johnny Maestro sang “16 Candles,” and of the Top 100 doo wop songs of all time, that’s #10 — not to mention all the other songs he did with The Crests. As a kid, I used to listen to Johnny Maestro, and I used to sing those songs, too.
It was pretty amazing to me that after he passed away, I got the call to sing with them, so that was great. Most people liked it, but some people didn’t like it. Some people are true fans and they just don’t like the idea of somebody taking Johnny’s place. So I would always say, “I’m not taking Johnny Maestro’s place. I’m just carrying on with the music. This is a great band, and in his memory, we are continuing on with this great music.”
But, overall, it’s been wonderful for me. You know, years before, in a club in Staten Island, they were passing around the mic one night. They were doing “Little Bitty Pretty One,” and they winded up handing me the mic, and I started singing and the place went wild. Johnny Maestro and all of the guys in the band were there and Johnny said, “What are you doing? You giving the mic to somebody who can sing?” And then he said to me, “Who are you?” and I said, “I’m Joe Esposito,” and then somebody yelled out, “He’s from The Brooklyn Dreams.”
Fifteen years later, the guys in the band not only remembered that night, but they even remembered that it was me. The band’s original guitar player lives ten minutes away from me in Las Vegas and after Johnny passed away, he suggested to them, “Why don’t you call Joe? Maybe he could sing with us,” and that’s how I got in The Brooklyn Bridge.
Spotlight Central: But since the postponement of most live concerts, what have you been up to?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: As I mentioned earlier, I’m doing a new album with Vini Poncio. I record my vocals in my studio and then I send the WAV files to New York where an engineer adds the vocals to the recording. Plus, I’ve been doing a lot of Zoom videos involving all the stuff that goes in the Netflix TV show, Cobra Kai.
Spotlight Central: Tell us more about that — are they going to use “You’re the Best” on Cobra Kai?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: They may use it in Season Four. But, later today, I’m getting together with two of the writers from Cobra Kai. I wrote a follow-up song to “You’re the Best.” They liked it a lot, so I’m gonna get together with them and do a Zoom video to talk about the song.
And tomorrow night, I’m doing a fundraiser for the L.A. Dodgers, and I think Magic Johnson is gonna be on it. He does all these fundraisers for different charities with artists like Coldplay, John Legend, Michael McDonald, and Michael Bolton, so I’m doing my first one tomorrow night. And what I do is I sit in my room with my guitar and do it digitally. I’m doing a lot of things like that these days.
Spotlight Central: Is there anything else you’d like to add, or anything you’d like to say to fans of your music who are looking forward to hearing you perform again?
Joe “Bean” Esposito: Here’s what I would say: Stay tuned. I have this new album coming out which has some great songs — some real bluesy-type stuff — plus I’m really looking forward to performing live again, so just stay tuned!
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