Estefan, Gloria (Maria nee Fajardo)

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Estefan, Gloria (Maria nee Fajardo)

Estefan, Gloria (Maria nee Fajardo ), petite powerhouse Cuban expatriate who went from singing watered-down pop music in Spanish to become one of the most versatile and durable pop singers of the 1980s and 1990s; b. Havana, Cuba, Sept. 1, 1957. Jose Fajardo, a former Olympic wrestler, was a bodyguard for Samoza in the pre-revolutionary Cuban government. Like so many loyal Cuban expatriates, he couldn’t give up his motherland without a fight. He was involved in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion and became a “guest” of the Castro government for the next two years. Upon his release from a Cuban prison, he relocated to Miami and went to war for his new country, fighting in Vietnam. He spent the 12 years after his return dying from exposure to Agent Orange.

Gloria showed early talents as both a singer and songwriter. She entered the musical arena after she met Emilio Estefan, a member of a local Miami group, The Miami Latin Boys. Gloria’s mother urged her to sing a couple of songs with the band. When she did, the band hired her. Because they were no longer “boys,” the group changed its name to the Miami Sound Machine. They made an album in 1978, spending $2,000 of their own money, which led to a contract with CBS International. For the label, they made four albums of main-stream, middle-of-the-road pop sung in Spanish. During the course of this time, Gloria and Emilio got married.

Emilio urged the record company to let him record at least a couple of tracks in English, believing the band had crossover potential. Emilio hooked up with three aspiring songwriter/producers, Joe Galdo, Lawrence Dermer, and Rafael Virgil, who were working on a project called Salsasize. Estefan liked one of their songs, which he felt could be that crossover hit: “Dr. Beat,” a nifty fusion of upbeat Afro-Cuban swing and mainstream dance rhythms. Ironically, while the Sound Machine’s Spanish language hits were largely MOR pop, the songs that set them on fire among mainstream (read: English-speaking) audiences around the world were distinctive for their Latin beat. “Dr. Beat” was a European hit in 1984 and even got some dance play in the U.S., but the album The Eyes of Innocence didn’t chart.

The success of “Dr. Beat” led to a tour of Europe. At one show, after they ran through their repertoire, the audience still wouldn’t let them off stage, so the group drew on their wedding background and played a Conga. The crowd went nuts. So, with the trio of Galdo, Dermer, and Virgil, now redubbed The Jerks, they wrote a high-tech dance song incorporating these rhythms: “Conga.” The song launched the band into the U.S. Top Ten and sold gold. Suddenly, there was no stopping them. The next single, a similarly Latinesque dance track called “Bad Boys,” also went gold, peaking at #8. The ballad “Words Get in The Way” did even better, rising to #5. “Falling in Love (Uh Oh)” only hit #25, but their 1986 album Primitive Love rose to #21 and triple-platinum.

Capitalizing on the newfound status as hit makers and Gloria’s dynamic presence as a frontperson, in 1988 the band became Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine on their next release, Let It Loose. Musically, they picked up where they left off with the drum intensive “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” which peaked at #5. The video for the song underlined the group’s “exotic” Latin heritage, with Gloria adopting an almost tribal look in her dress and makeup. They followed this with the #36 “Betcha Say That.” The ballad “Can’t Stay Away from You” landed at #6, topping the adult contemporary chart. Cleverly, the B-side of this single was the same song, sung in Spanish, which topped the Latin charts. In this way, the Estefans kept both of their audiences happy, the traditional Spanish market and the new-found pop one. The song’s success built up to the chart-topping ballad “Anything for You,” which went gold. The fifth hit from the album, the bouncy “1–2-3,” also topped the adult contemporary charts, while rising to #3 pop. Let It Loose wound up rising to #6 on the charts, staying in the Top 40 for nearly a year and equaling Primitive Love’s triple platinum status.

The Jerks left the fold after Primitive Love, striking out on their own (and landing a production deal with Island). People wondered who would take the reins, and Gloria and Emilio answered in several ways. Gloria wrote or cowrote most of the songs on the next album, 1989’s Cuts Both Ways. Additionally, the pretense of a band was abandoned: The album was billed solely as a Gloria Estefan project. Many solo singers cannot equal the success they had when fronting a band; Estefan defied the odds by achieving enormous success with this first “solo” outing. Her first single, the dramatic ballad “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” went to #1 and sold gold. Again, it had a Spanish version on the B-side. The danceable concert opener, “Get on Your Feet,” rose to #11. Another ballad, “Here We Are,” rose to #6 and topped the adult contemporary charts for six weeks. Cuts Both Ways also went triple platinum, peaking at #8.

While touring to support the album, a serious accident nearly derailed Gloria’s career. On their way to a concert in upstate N.Y., the group’s tour bus was involved in an accident. Both Gloria and her 11-year-old son were badly hurt. For a while her doctors worried if she would walk again. Eventually, she had two metal rods surgically implanted in her back to support her spine. Thus began a long, painful process of recovery.

Gloria returned to performing in 1991 with the aptly titled ballad “Coming Out of the Dark” from her new album Into the Light. The single topped the charts for two weeks, and also was successful in a Spanish version. The spritely “Live for Loving You” only reached #22, despite a clever video clip featuring Estefan and her dog in various settings (and with various hairdos). The album sold double-platinum, hitting #5. She followed with a world tour in 1992. One of the shows, a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Andrew, which devastated her home turf in Fla., raised $4 million.

Well-situated in the pop market and an international star, Gloria once again went back to her roots, recording Mi Tierra in 1993, a tribute to Cuban music of the 1940s. The album sold platinum in America, rising to #27 on the charts, an unprecedented success for a Spanish language album. It also won Gloria her first Grammy Award, taking home the statuette for Best Tropical Album. In Spain, the album became the best-selling recording in the country’s history.

In 1994, Gloria became pregnant again. With her health already precarious due to the accident, she had to take the year very slowly. She recorded an album of covers, Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me. Her version of the 1970s disco hit “Turn the Beat Around,” also featured in the movie The Specialist, sold gold and hit #13. Because of Estefan’s large size, her role in the video was taken by several (male) Gloria interpreters, gently mocking the convention of using a star’s visual appeal to sell records. Her cover of “Everlasting Love” rose to #27. The album peaked at #9 and sold double-platinum. Not long after the album came out, so did Gloria and Emilio’s daughter, Emily.

Gloria’s next recording was another Spanish album, Abriendo Puertas (Open Doors). A more diversified album covering Spanish music of much of Latin America, it too won a Grammy for Best Tropical Album, reaching #67 and selling gold.

For the 1996 Olympics, Gloria and Diane Warren wrote the song “Reach.” While it didn’t crack the Top 40, stalling at 42, it was heard in billions of households around the world. Part of Gloria’s Destiny album, it was one of the few songs not infused with a heavy dose of Latin rhythms. Its only hit, “I’m Never Giving You Up,” fared only a little better than “Reach,” topping out at #40. The album sold platinum and peaked at #23. Despite these lackluster sales, Gloria was named Bill-board’s #1 dance artist of 1996.

In 1998, Gloria went back to her roots again, only this time not her Latin roots. Instead, she took on dance music. What was originally slated to be an album of remixes became a set of steaming dance music, including “Heaven’s What I Feel,” which peaked at #23. The album did the same, in its first week on the charts, selling gold. She also made her film- acting debut, co-starring with Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett in Wes Craven’s 1999 Music of the Heart.

Despite a slight slowing of her career in the mid-1990s, Estefan’s strong talent—as vocalist, songwriter, and producer—plus her winning personality ensure that she will be a major star for years to come. That she has been able to achieve this without denying her Latino heritage in primarily whitebread America is a testimony to her determination and her capabilities.


Rio (1978); Eyes of Innocence (1984); Primitive Love (1986); A Toda Maquina (1986); Anything for You (1988); Let It Loose (1988); Cuts Both Ways (1989); Into the Light (1991); Mi Tierra (1993); Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1994); Christmas through Your Eyes (1995); Abriendo Puertas (1995); Destiny (1996); Gloria! (1998); Otra Vez (1982).

—Hank Bordowitz

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Estefan, Gloria (Maria nee Fajardo)

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