Nineteen eighty-four is often remembered as one of pop’s most seismic years, thanks in large part to Prince and Madonna. But it was also the year that gave us house music. Jesse Saunders’ “On and On” is widely considered to be the first house record to come out of the clubs in Chicago. Around the same time in New York, though, Colonel Abrams’ debut single, “Music Is the Answer,” signified a shift beyond disco and boogie toward that stripped-down, unnamed sound. The instrumental dub version on the B-side in particular got play at the Loft and the Paradise Garage in New York, by Ron Hardy and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk in Chicago, and by Jeff Mills in Detroit, the chorus becoming an anthem. The mix was credited to Evan Turner, but it would turn out to be his only production credit.
Or was it?
Evan Turner was actually Yvonne Turner, who had a prolific, if abridged, career as a producer, mixer, and remixer. Being erroneously credited was just the beginning: On subsequent pressings of “Music Is the Answer,” her name was left off altogether. These kinds of mistakes and misprints make piecing together Turner's discography especially tricky. She was often relegated to the small print on a record, bumped to associate or co-producer status, marked as mixer instead of remixer. In dance music, it's assumed that the singer is secondary to the producer in the creative process, but the inverse is true for Turner. Many male vocalists she worked with—be it Abrams, Willie Colón, or Arnold Jarvis—got credit for the music.
Viewed on the whole, Turner’s body of remix and production work is formidable. It had a lasting influence not only on the early days of house music—as heard in the producers that immediately came after her, like Masters at Work, Mood II Swing, and Kerri Chandler—but also in the genre’s offshoots, including garage music and Italian dream house. After decades of silence, Turner is now looking to set the record straight about her place in dance-music history. “If I had been a man, it wouldn’t have happened in that way, not being called for work anymore,” she tells me. “Being a girl, that’s the way it goes. I had to kick the door back down.”
The youngest of three, Turner was born in 1953 in Harlem but soon moved to the South Bronx Trinity Projects and then later to Hollis, Queens. She says her most vivid childhood memories were of “the Latin percussionists playing in the street… those warm summer days when the neighborhood would come alive with music.” Turner sang in school and taught herself some guitar. As a teenager, she found herself in charge of the music for her mother and stepfather’s summertime parties. By the late ’70s, she began DJing at picnics and on boat rides across the city, even trekking out to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to play at a nightclub called Ozone Layer. A Jamaican promoter bequeathed her with the nickname “Night Nurse,” an homage to the Gregory Isaacs hit.
“She knew her shit and she had great taste,” says Arthur Baker, the producer and remixer responsible for classics like Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and New Order’s “Thieves Like Us.” He first met Turner at Downstairs Records in Midtown, where she sold the latest singles and imports to Baker, Larry Levan, and the rest of New York’s DJ community. In 1983, Baker hired her at his label, Streetwise Records. Her first job was in the mailroom, but she says she always kept abreast of what was happening in the clubs. “I went to the bars for a minute, and then somebody invited me to the Loft—that was the last time I went to the bars,” she recalls with a laugh. “I’m a Loft baby. The sound was amazing, and the atmosphere was just different—very free and open. When you heard a song played at the Loft, it would breathe like a whole other dimension.”
She soon started sitting in on sessions and learning how to produce, often as “the only girl in the room.” According to Carol Cooper—who worked as a music journalist and was one of the first black women to head A&R at major labels, and is now an adjunct professor at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute—the new technology of the era leveled the playing field for almost everybody—except women. “The drum machines, digital samplers, MIDI, and synthesizers then coming into vogue were new to everybody, and everyone was learning as they went along,” Cooper says. “There should have been many more underground female producers and DJs in the ’80s than there were, but women often found themselves steering their passion into promotion, marketing, or other back office jobs.”
Renowned Latin, jazz, punk, and disco engineer Bob Blank worked with Turner often and admits it was a boys’ club. “At the time, nobody looked at women in the field as having ‘their ear to the ground,’” Blank says. “I don’t remember any major DJs or club owners that were female. Straight guys only saw women in this very simplistic view, so they couldn’t work alongside them.” There were exceptions across clubs and studios alike—like house producer Gail “Sky” King and Susan Rogers, Prince’s preferred engineer—but they were too few and far between.
Turner was undeterred, though. “I was sitting in on sessions that others were doing and was like, ‘I can do that!’ So I asked Arthur Baker if I could do a mix.” This is how she wound up making the dub version of “Music Is the Answer,” arranging things how she wanted to hear them. Baker still raves about her handiwork, calling her dub “one of the preeminent NYC pre-house music records.” But he, too, is baffled as to how “Evan Turner” got the credit instead of Yvonne. “Considering her name was on her earlier remixes correctly, that’s pretty strange.”
After the song swept through the clubs, Cooper conceived of a project for the Latin star Willie Colón and asked Turner to make a single aimed at dancefloors. “It was high-concept house music, and DJs loved it,” Cooper recalls of “Set Fire to Me,” Colón’s 1986 single. Turner’s version also featured her own voice on the descant melody—an almost unheard-of instance of a remixer singing atop a track. And, in a sly nod to her previous work, she looped in part of “Music is the Answer”—a riposte to having her name left off.
“Set Fire to Me (Latin Jazzbo Version)” became a smash at the Paradise Garage and the Loft (it would be included on The Loft compilation in 2000). “She made Willie Colón popular outside of his very small world,” Blank says. Turner would also dub out Colón’s equally heady follow-up, “She Don’t Know I’m Alive,” but that only made the singer more neurotic. As Cooper recalls, “He was afraid that Yvonne would get too much credit for the record and refused to work with her anymore.” When I ask Turner about the experience, she remains diplomatic: “He’s a Latin man, and I’m a woman, and he wanted to impose his ideas. It just didn’t work.” How many other such instances like this went down in the studio over the course of her career, she’s disinclined to say.
One of Turner’s best dubs is for Arnold Jarvis’ 1987 track “Take Some Time Out,” a song that she wrote and produced alongside Tommy Musto, who would go on to remix Michael Jackson and Gloria Estefan. With its luminous, drifting chords, slow-cresting climax, and Turner’s own soulful vocal, it was an early example of garage house and gained traction at the Garage, the Haçienda in Manchester, England, and all over Europe. For Turner, making instrumental dubs allowed her to truly express herself. “The dub is your own signature,” she says. “To me, it’s where I get to stretch out and show my creativity.”
As the ’80s shifted to the ’90s and the industry became slightly more open to women, Turner produced some big club hits, including a remix for Whitney Houston. Still, she hit roadblocks that her male peers did not. After completing several remixes that never saw the light of day, including one for Lenny Kravitz’s 1991 hit “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over,” Turner “felt like that was going to be [her] last hurrah,” she tells me, her voice breaking with a lingering sense of frustration. “Sometimes when you’re a successful woman, people don’t want you to maintain that success. If you don’t have representation, it’s difficult to get the work.”
The phone stopped ringing, and Turner left New York in 1994. For the next 18 years, she worked as a paraprofessional at an elementary school in the suburbs south of Chicago, primarily dealing with troubled kids. During the summers, she would still tour and record with one of her most trusted collaborators, Loleatta Holloway, up until the singer’s death in 2011. Turner’s own mother passed away in 2013, at which point she found herself considering life changes. She took the two-inch master tape of the last song she had produced with Holloway, “Can’t Let You Go,” which she kept in the trunk of her car, and gave it to Louie Vega, one half of the legendary NYC house duo Masters at Work, for a remix.
Turner began her 2018 at the Grammys, where Vega’s take on “Can’t Let You Go” was nominated for Best Remixed Recording. Though the song didn’t win, the occasion marked a shift for Turner. She retired from her school district and moved back to New York this past spring. Now she is readying the launch of her own production company, Strong Enough, named after a 1992 Holloway single she co-wrote and arranged. Despite the setbacks, she says, “I always knew I would get back to creating music eventually.”
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork