Paco Navarro, a disc jockey who became the sultry voice of disco in New York City in the late 1970s, helping WKTU-FM become the highest-rated radio station in the city, died on Aug. 8 at a hospice facility in Saddle River, N.J. He was 82.
His wife, Margarita Sosa Navarro, said the cause was complications of liver cancer and other ailments.
Mr. Navarro spent much of his career playing Latin music on Spanish-language radio stations in Los Angeles, New York and his native Puerto Rico both before and after his time at WKTU. He used the name Paquito Navarro (his given name at birth was Manuel) when he was the host of a salsa show on WKTU’s AM sister station, WJIT, before moving to WKTU in 1978.
WKTU had played relatively mellow rock music, reaching a minuscule share of the New York market, before Mr. Navarro arrived. At the time, many stations programmed mainly Top 40 hits (as many still do). The rock ’n’ roll station WABC-AM had long dominated the New York airwaves with star D.J.s like Harry Harrison, Dan Ingram and Bruce Morrow, known to audiences as Cousin Brucie. Many stations played disco records, but few if any had experimented with an all-disco format.
WKTU switched to disco months after John Travolta created a sensation as a disco denizen in the hit film “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), just as the music’s popularity peaked. Mr. Navarro tailored his on-air persona to help sell the new format.
“Unlike his former WJIT delivery — higher pitched and with words tripping out at an awesome clip — his WKTU voice is a deep, lyrical, Latin-accented bass that combines playfulness with unabashed sensuality,” the New Jersey newspaper The Record said in 1978.
Within months WKTU had become the highest-rated station in the New York market, deposing WABC.
“All of a sudden we were the establishment and the kids who were around then were looking for something that said, ‘I don’t want to listen to my father’s music,’” Mr. Ingram was quoted as saying in an article about WABC’s history in The New York Times in 2002.
In a tribute written after his death on the website Medium, the journalist David Hinckley quoted Mr. Navarro as saying: “It was the music that appealed to all the kids in the city. Black, white, Latino. ‘Saturday Night Fever’ was out. Groups like the Village People were expressing what was happening all over the country. I’d go out at night and disco was everywhere. It was the pulse of the city.”
The disco era had waned by the early 1980s, and Mr. Navarro’s ratings plummeted. WKTU switched to rock and adopted the call letters WXRK; Mr. Navarro left in 1985. He briefly returned to WJIT, but left in 1986 and struggled to find radio work.
Mr. Navarro then started a seafood importing business and an advertising agency, but both foundered, and his financial situation worsened. In 1987 he was arrested at a delicatessen in Closter, N.J., and charged with conspiracy to distribute a kilogram of heroin. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of heroin distribution and went to prison. He was released in 1991.
“He wants to get back on New York radio,” Pat Baird, a friend, told Newsday before Mr. Navarro was released. “He fully expects to have a job, hopefully on the New York dial.”
He soon did, hosting an afternoon music show with a mixture of salsa, merengue and charanga on the Spanish-language AM station WADO. He worked at different radio stations into the 2000s, but never again enjoyed the ratings of his disco days.
Manuel Francisco Navarro was born on Dec. 26, 1936, in Santurce, P.R. He grew up on the island, where his father was a master plumber who taught the trade; his mother was a homemaker. He began acting on Puerto Rican soap operas when he was a child and worked in radio as a teenager.
Mr. Navarro moved to the continental United States after a brief stint in the Coast Guard in the mid-1950s. He was married and divorced three times before he married Ms. Sosa Navarro.
In addition to his wife, with whom he lived in Secaucus, N.J., he is survived by two daughters, Eileen and Maria Navarro; two sons, Hector and Richard; and eight grandchildren.
Mr. Navarro told Billboard magazine in 1979 that establishing a rapport with the audience was almost as important as playing music that got them moving.
“People like to have someone warm to listen to,” he said. “You have to be good company.”
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