By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Like a giant high school locker, the scented elevator is plastered with a collage of glossy magazine pictures and publicity shots of Gloria Estefan (Emilio's wife), Jon Secada, and other Estefan-produced artists. It's an entertaining between-floors distraction, especially in the spots where the seamless images of commercial-pop perfection are broken by small, grainy black-and-white photos of the Miami Latin Boys, Estefan's Seventies band. Those photos feature a young, chubby Gloria, a bearded Emilio, and the other Latin Boys dressed in tight black slacks, black vests, and puffy white long-sleeved shirts that recall the matching outfits worn by television's Partridge Family.
On the building's second floor, a shiny hallway and its adjoining offices are decorated with poster-size album-cover art that follows Gloria's post-Latin Boys transformation from voluptuous Miami Sound Machine disco queen into sleek, retro Latin sophisticate, the latter look captured on the cover of last year's Mi tierra, her Grammy-winning collection of traditional Cuban-style songs that so far has sold more than five million copies worldwide.
Bantering with an employee in Spanish, Emilio steps quickly down the hall past these images from the chart-topping hits he has produced, a string of successes that led to his signing a multimillion-dollar deal with Sony Music in January, the deal that created his Miami-based label, Crescent Moon Records. Sony is the parent company of Epic Records, for which Gloria has recorded over the last decade. The highest paid female Latin singer in the world, she pulled in a gross income of $38.5 million last year, according to Hispanic Business Magazine. Emilio Estefan, whose worth closely parallels that of his wife, has produced all of her albums.
As president of artist and talent development for Crescent Moon/Sony Music, which is distributed internationally through Epic, Estefan receives a salary that he says eclipses seven figures. (He will not disclose the exact amount, and numerous phone calls by New Times to Epic Records requesting information about Crescent Moon were not returned.) As part of the agreement he cut with Sony, Estefan receives a percentage of Crescent Moon's record sales, producer's fees, and royalties through his music-publishing company, Foreign Imported Productions and Publishing, which owns the rights to most of the songs sung by Gloria and Jon Secada, as well as the output of 29 other songwriters, including, of course, himself.
Sony Music President Tommy Mottola had been coaxing the Miami producer, now 41, to join the Japanese-owned music-business megacorporation for the last few years. But Estefan would settle only for complete control of his own label based here at Estefan Enterprises, which houses Crescent Moon Studios (the namesake of the record company) and offices for a staff of twenty.
"I said if I do something one day, I have to have the freedom because I can't have someone telling me, 'You cannot sign this.' That's not me," Estefan explains in his heavily accented English. "I'm going to put out something that I'm going to believe in. I have to believe in what I'm selling because otherwise I would be a hypocrite. Because money I don't need, you know what I mean?
"What they [Sony] gave me was the freedom to sign new talent," he goes on. "That's what I love because I like to create new sounds and new music and discover people. That was the only way I would do it." He fingers his clipped goatee and smiles. "I have no budget. I send everything to Sony, and Tommy Mottola says okay."
With the creation of the new company, Estefan Enterprises has outgrown its Bird Road building. Originally the Estefans had intended to expand into a small house with a pool, located next door on 62nd Avenue, which they also own, using it for additional office space and parking. But after they petitioned the city for a commercial-zoning permit, their plans were derailed by 62nd Avenue homeowners who protested that the couple's business was disrupting the neighborhood. Last month a story published in the Miami Herald A it referred to the Estefans as "the king and queen of pop" A reported that 40 self-described "little people" from the neighborhood met to discuss the problems created by cars and tractor trailers parked in front of Estefan Enterprises. Emilio and Gloria responded immediately with a letter to the newspaper. "It saddened us greatly to see us portrayed as the 'king and queen of pop' going against 'Dade's peasants,'" the letter said. "Our neighbors have been invited to view our facilities and have refused, choosing instead to surprise us with their actions."
"We never asked anyone for a favor," Estefan asserts. "We just wanted to do things right by asking for a permit. We were there for four years and we never had any complaints. And the only time we had eight-wheelers there was during the hurricane. Or maybe when we were moving in furniture."
In any case, the Estefans' neighbors no longer have anything to complain about. Days after the exchange in the Herald Estefan bought a South Beach warehouse on Jefferson Avenue at Sixth Street, and announced he was selling the 62nd Avenue house that had ignited the protest. He had been looking for a location on the Beach for some time, he says, and the Jefferson Avenue building, most recently the home of Raleigh Studios, happened to become available at this opportune moment. Eventually Estefan says he plans to move all operations to South Beach, where he also owns a former car-dealership lot near the Fifth Street entrance to the MacArthur Causeway. For now, however, only the Crescent Moon offices will be moved to the Beach location, while the large Bird Road building will continue to be used for recording and mixing.
Estefan gives a tour of the existing facility's four small studios where handwritten flyers that read "Crazy Moon Mixing, Do Not Disturb" have been taped to the state-of-the-art mixing boards. He gleefully introduces a visiting journalist as "his cousin from Cuba" to the engineers in one of the studios. It's a running gag they've heard before, but they still smile and nod warmly. Even when the boss has another idea and introduces the visitor to other young staffers as a new Crescent Moon artist, they still nod (a little skeptically), smile, and say hello, before they notice Estefan's grin and laugh indulgently. Estefan, like everyone who works for him, is casually but neatly dressed; this day he wears beige linen trousers and a white shirt. A small hoop earring in each ear adds a touch of record-industry radical chic, but he still looks muy nice.
Like a high-speed train on the local track he bounds from room to room, peering into offices, taking calls on different phones, cracking jokes, screening videos, and dancing with Patricia Escoto, his assistant and Gloria's best friend. The night before, 76-year-old Cuban bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez had appeared on the Tonight Show. Cachao's CD, Master Sessions, Volume I, produced by actor Andy Garcia (with Estefan as executive producer), has just been released on Crescent Moon and Estefan stayed up to watch the father of mambo lead a Cuban descarga on the popular TV show. Today Estefan is jubilant.
"Oh, he's always like that," confides Tinga Lopez, Crescent Moon's media relations executive. "I've never seen Emilio in a bad mood."
Gloria Estefan rounds the corner en route from the restroom dressed in baggy pants, a sleeveless work shirt, and sandals. She rubs her protruding belly as she complains of an insistent bladder induced by her six-month pregnancy. (The couple plans to name the baby, a girl, Emily.) The singer offers a stick from her pack of Juicy Fruit gum, apologizes sincerely for not being more "dressed up," and goes back to laying down vocals for her upcoming album of old Top 40 hits. Then her husband suggests we go to his office to view a video from the album, a cover of "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me," a Top 10 single for Mel Carter in 1965.
Inside Estefan's huge office, below gold and platinum albums hanging on the walls, two coffee tables are piled high with magazines boasting Gloria as cover girl. A couple of yards away an army of music-biz trophies guard a raised kidney-shaped desk covered with cassettes. Rather than sit at the desk, Estefan goes to a black marble conference table near his elaborate entertainment system and a cabinet on which a fencing mask, an autographed soccer ball, and some Oriental-looking objets d'art are displayed. Politely accepting a compliment on his impeccable work place, Estefan surveys the spotless room.
"I'll tell you something," he intones seriously, "I am a perfectionist."
In the video Estefan cues up, Gloria looks like a beautiful seventeen-year-old, with long straight hair and bangs. He stares at the monitor for a moment, bewitched by his wife's image, and then blurts out, "I wish I could get pregnant so I could glow like that."
Estefan jumps up and changes tapes, this time popping in a thunderous promo video of Sylvester Stallone's upcoming film The Specialist, for which the record producer just finished putting together the soundtrack. (Estefan and Stallone also have been talking about opening a Miami-based film studio with The Specialist producer Jerry Weintraub.) Gloria, Secada (both of whom record for Epic normally), and five Crescent Moon artists are featured on the disc, including Miami Sound Machine (minus Gloria), now known as MSM.
Estefan Enterprise's genteel, omnipresent corporate concierge, Tony, who is Emilio's cousin, pads into the office and offers sweet Cuban coffee in a white espresso cup that reads "Gloria Estefan A Mi tierra" in gold script.
Epic Records Mi tierra has been the number one Latin album in the United States for over a year, and is the only Spanish-language album in the last decade to sell over a million copies. It also has been a megahit throughout Latin America, while in Spain, where the market does not respond particularly well to salsa and other New World Latin dance music, Mi tierra is the biggest selling international album ever. It sat at number one on the Spanish charts for 37 weeks until it got knocked from the top spot by those chanting monks.
Gloria's album succeeded in globalizing the growing craze for Cuban nostalgia that has long been brewing in Miami's exile community, a craze that came to a boil in recent years. The prerevolutionary Cuban sound is by now as familiar as cafe con leche to local residents of all ages, both Latin and Anglo. By the time the Estefans made Mi tierra, a strong revival of internationally distributed recorded Cuban music was underway. David Byrne had started his splendid Luaka Bop/Warner Bros. "Cuba Classics" series, and Ned Sublette's herculean efforts with the Canadian-pressed Qbadisc label had brought many contemporary Cuban releases to the U.S. Other factors -- the soundtrack to the 1992 movie The Mambo Kings, for example -- already had sparked a broader market interest.
But Mi tierra, which cost $1 million to produce, succeeded in taking the son, rumba, and guaracha to an international level of popularity not seen since Cuban music's heyday as an export in the 1950s.
"I would not say that Mi tierra was the seminal work of Cuban music today," opines WLRN (91.3 FM) DJ Emilio San Pedro, who often features Cuban classics on the playlist for his show, Rhythm and Roots. "That would be an insult to someone like Cachao or to anyone coming out of Cuba today. But it's well-done, a lot of money was spent on it. It's a good package."
Juanito Marquez, a respected Cuban composer and guitarist (his song "Fifty/Fifty" shows up on Paquito D'Rivera's recent album 40 Years of Cuban Jam Session), was primarily responsible for the arrangements on Mi tierra, which features a roster of all-star Latin talent, including Cachao, the conservatory-trained flautist Nestor Torres, and percussionist Sheila E. The rhythms are Cuban but with a lightly seasoned sabor. Estefan likens the production concept to combining hamburgers with rice and beans.
"You have to catch a certain ethnic flavor, but not too much, to market this music to a certain public," comments San Pedro, "and that's a talent in itself. Mi tierra is commercial but you can listen to it, and that's a hard thing to accomplish."
Mi tierra might seem a bit bland for residents of Latin Miami accustomed to listening to guaguanco chants and dancing the casino. But Estefan points out that from Sony's point of view, having Gloria record what was basically a roots album constituted a risk because her success had been strictly in the pop arena.
"People at Sony thought I was crazy when I did Mi tierra," Emilio recalls. "They said, 'What are you doing? Gloria's such a big star in the pop market, why are you doing something in Spanish?' Well, Mi tierra sold more than any pop album of any of the company's other stars. This was the time to do Mi tierra. Now is the time to do these things. We're proud of where we come from. It's taken people a long time to recognize that.... Now it's [one of] the biggest growing markets in the United States."
While Estefan has indicated that Crescent Moon will not be restricted to Latin music, he clearly is poised to take advantage of this country's growing Latin consciousness by continuing to cull inspiration from the history of Cuban song. His first releases on Crescent Moon expand on the successful formula established with Mi tierra.
Cheito, the debut album of Juan "Cheito" Qui*ones, a 43-year-old Puerto Rican trumpet player and salsa singer who contributed backup vocals to Mi tierra, was released on Crescent Moon in March. Once again Juanito Marquez has arranged songs that depart from the standard salsa beat, moving instead toward the upbeat guaracha and bachata music of 1950s Cuba. The spicy lyrics on the album's dance tracks recall the playful, gossipy style of Celia Cruz in her days with the Sonora Mantanzero, or the son montunos performed in the Fifties by groups such as El Jilguero de Cienfuegos (for reference, listen to "Caminito de zaza" on Luaka Bop's Cuba Classics 2). Cheito also includes slow, romantic boleros. Representative of an Estefan production, it has a full, high-volume sound supported by plenty of brass.
"We were looking for a different sound that wasn't typical of Miami or Puerto Rico," explains Quinones, a slim, club-seasoned musician with a big gap between his front teeth. "It combines salsa with Cuban music, using drums rather than the cowbell that you hear in salsa all the time. We fill up that hollowness that the cowbell creates with another kind of complete rhythm. It's not the same old salsa thing."
While Cheito A which cost about $175,000 to produce A may not be destined for mass-market success on the level of Mi tierra, it already has scored commercial points by "crossing over." Its first single, "El baile de la vela," reached number seventeen on the Billboard dance chart.
"The guy's number seventeen on the American dance charts, and he doesn't even speak English," Estefan exclaims with delight.
The marketing people at Epic seem eager to use the concept of Cubanidad as a promotional tool. So eager, in fact, that an in-house product tip sheet describes Quinones, a native of San German, Puerto Rico, as "a trumpet player and percussionist hailing from Cuba."
The Epic sales force could get some coaching in authenticity from Cachao. Released in July and number five on Billboard's Latin chart at press time, his Master Sessions, Volume I is an example of pure Cuban genres, with most of its songs written and arranged by the maestro himself. While Quinones performs songs that are hybrids of various Cuban styles, Cachao's is a classic Cuban sampler: contradanza, mambo, danz centsn, conga, son, guajira, rumba, and guiro.
An upcoming album by Cuban singer Albita Rodriguez should fall somewhere in between the styles of these two first Crescent Moon efforts. It can be expected to combine the musicality of Cachao and the accessibility of Quinones. Rodriguez, 32, was responsible for the revival of guajira, or Cuban country music, on the island, and later became a star in Colombia, where she recorded two albums. Her popularity has spread throughout Miami by word of mouth after she defected here with her band a little over a year ago (see New Times, January 5, 1994). The audiences for her shows at Yuca Restaurant, in Coral Gables, and Centro Vasco, on Calle Ocho, quickly grew from a small cult following to capacity crowds. Still, every American record company executive and producer who heard her music passed on the opportunity to sign her, dismissing her work as "too Cuban."
The Estefans were latecomers to the Albita phenomenon. (Almost everyone refers to Rodriguez by her first name only.) It wasn't until after she had been consecrated by the local Latin community and the Miami press that Emilio and Gloria finally caught her show in March at Centro Vasco. Three days later she was signed to Crescent Moon.
"For someone like me there are two reasons to work with Emilio," says Albita, who will record new compositions by Estefan, Juanito Marquez, and other Crescent Moon writers as well as songs from her performing repertoire, for her album. "First, he's Cuban. Second, he's a professional. He's giving me the chance to work with technology I've never even seen before. I have complete confidence in him, his achievements speak for themselves. I got to the studios with the logical fears, but from the first moment he made me feel at home. Everyone gets down to business there. There's no fooling around."
Estefan returns the compliment: "A lot of people think I'm crazy, but I think Albita's going to be a big star." In the studio he has a technician play a couple of rough mixes from a DAT tape of Albita's album. Studio musicians have added a horn section to the singer's own five-member group. Even so, her voice, arguably the strongest female voice of revolutionary Cuba, dominates the recording, taking full advantage of digital technology. "This is going to appeal to people who love real music," enthuses Estefan. "At her shows you see old people, you see young people, everybody loves her music. Her album is going to come across a lot of formats. I think she's going to sell a lot of records."
Others remain unconvinced about the Cuban performer's possibilities for mainstream appeal. "It's one thing to have an act like Gloria doing Cuban music, it's another to have an unknown," cautions John Lannert, Billboard magazine's Latin music critic. "The Latin market is pretty tough right now. They want a specific sound and they don't want their formulas played with. I don't know if there's a sophisticated audience for that in this country."
The idea that traditional Cuban rhythms played on real instruments can have as broad an appeal as the monotonous beat of electronic salsa and merengue seems obvious. But not to many producers at Latin imprints, who continue to look elsewhere for music they perceive to be better suited to the Latin public.
"Sony Discos and other Latin labels look for the kind of talent that would hit lower-middle-class groups in Latin America," says Angela Rodriguez, Billboard's Florida and Latin marketing manager. "They jump at signing that talent. Emilio is going for a more sophisticated, artsy-fartsy group."
Crescent Moon's first releases are positioned to provide music in Spanish to an established group that has been neglected by both Latin record labels and radio: Latin yuppies on a quest for their roots and non-Latin adult listeners looking for a light, but still ethnic world-beat sound.
"I cannot expect everyone to get it unless they're cultured and well-traveled and know about different kinds of music,"explains Ingrid Casares, a former Wilhelmina model best known for her intimate friendship with Madonna. But a few months ago she started working for Estefan Enterprises in creative development, styling videos, magazine layouts, and the artists themselves. Her first job as an imagist was to repackage Jon Secada. She updated the singer's boy-next-door awkwardness with a suave, laid-back designer look for his most recent album, Heart, Soul and a Voice.
"Artists like Cachao and Albita are not for an MTV market," observes Casares, speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, where Secada's latest video is being shot. "Yet the music will appeal to a large audience. It's a sophisticated yet funky kind of thing."
Picking up on that theme, Estefan says, "I'm taking Latin music to the next level, qualitywise. For years Latin people have been given small budgets because sales have never been what they should be, with such a great flavor of musicians in our culture. But they've never been able to record the way we're recording now, with 80 channels digital. When you listen to a Latin album I want it to have the same sound as when you listen to Michael Jackson.
"You've got someone in New York saying, 'Don't sign them, they're too Cuban.' But they don't see what I see," insists Estefan, "this kind of thing as a catalogue, as a culture, as a theme."
At least one person is not particularly pleased to see Estefan break out of the pop field. "Is he the keeper of the rich tradition of Cuban music in this town? I don't think so," scoffs Arturo Campa, a Miami promoter who has been producing Latin masters in concert since 1976. Currently Campa markets a mail-order video he made of a 1990 jam session he produced with Cachao and other Cuban musicians. "Now this whole thing of being Cuban has become trendy," Campa adds. "The Cubans who are so excited about Cachao and traditional Cuban music were the ones who ignored it completely before. I don't see any genius in coming up with unoriginal ideas and putting them into production because he has the money to do so."
But to other members of the local Latin music scene, such as DJ San Pedro, Estefan is still a trailblazer, venturing into the international mass market with a specialized genre when he could just as well play it safe with pop music. "The chance for people like Cachao or Albita to be distributed by a major label used to almost none," San Pedro points out. "I think the fact that Crescent Moon is doing it is great. If it can call attention to some of these people, that's a lot better than the energy Sony pours into a lot of other junk. People can always say that they can do it better. But Emilio Estefan is the one who got the funding. We can just hope for the best."
Billboard's Rodriguez shares this view. "Listen," she says, "the only one who had the chutzpah to do this was him."
As he has made clear, Estefan isn't married to a wholly Latin lineup for Crescent Moon. More accurately his roster slides into a sort of regional eclecticism. Even before the first Crescent Moon CD was recorded, in fact, the local press was referring to the label as "Miami Motown." In addition to Cachao, Qui*ones, and Albita, Estefan's lineup now includes:
Funk rock/rhythm and blues singer Donna Allen, who had a hit pop single, "Serious," on an Atlantic Records subsidiary in 1987. After parting company with that label, she sang Top 40 tunes in Broward clubs. Highly recommended by studio musicians, she was hired to sing backup vocals for Secada. Estefan subsequently signed her, and Allen sings the song "Real" on The Specialist soundtrack, co-written by Secada.
LeGaylia, an African-American singer of pop ballads (think Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey) formerly with the local group Bandera and Wooden Ships.
The current incarnation of Miami Sound Machine (MSM), scheduled to record a sans-Gloria instrumental album.
Roberto Blades, Ruben's brother, who performs Spanish rock.
"I think it's very much what Miami's all about," explains Estefan. "Different cultures and different nationalities, and that's what I'm doing now."
"We've got such a collective world vibe on our label," Ingrid Casares adds. "We've got everything from black to Puerto Rican to Cuban American. It's a very positive and very culturally mixed image...sort of a commercial multicultural sound. Emilio has such a vision, which is usually right on."
Not everyone, however, sees this kind of variety as a virtue. One local musician, who asked not to be named because of Estefan's influence in the industry, questions whether there are a critical criteria behind the Crescent Moon choices. "I'd call it the fishing-net strategy," he says with a shrug. "He's just reeled in everything that was floating around."
The wisdom of Estefan's choices remains to be seen. But just the fact that these artists will be produced by him seems enough to give marketing people confidence.
"He has the touch of gold, the gold finger," declares Angela Rodriguez of Billboard. "The Motown comparison sounds like a cliche, but I do see him as the Berry Gordy of Miami."
Like Gordy's Sixties salad days with Motown in Detroit (before the label went into decline and moved to L.A.), Estefan has set up Crescent Moon as a production machine, a music factory where singers double as songwriters for other performers, and background vocalists suddenly can be positioned as stars. Given the amazing commercial successes of Gloria and Secada, Estefan's reputation as an idolmaker precedes him.
"What Emilio has are fantastic connections and the ability to get your song on the radio," claims one local music industry professional, who requested anonymity. "But what that costs you is your publishing rights."
Ownership of song rights is an important issue in the music business; each time a song is played on the radio a royalty fee is split equally between the songwriter and the owner of the song's publishing rights. If Estefan owns the rights to each song recorded on his label, the royalties go back into his own company. And if he also happens to have written the song, he gets 100 percent of the royalty fees.
"Most of the time we own the publishing rights. We like to have the publishing rights," Estefan allows. "I would not make a deal with someone who is going to sell 500,000 units worldwide if I do not own the publishing rights, because then we don't make a penny. We have an organization with almost 300 people working for us, and we don't make money on the live performance, we only make a small profit on the record deal. The only way we make a little bit of money is on the publishing company. That's where the money is. That's why we're so lucky because we write every song we publish."
Albita's arrangement, for example, consists of two contracts, according to her manager, Miriam Wong. One is a three-record recording deal on Crescent Moon; the other grants worldwide publishing rights of her songs to Foreign Imported Productions and Publishing, Estefan's publishing company. This is typical of the agreements Estefan makes with new artists.
However, for some musicians, such as local singer-songwriter Nil Lara, it's a bum deal. According to Lara, who at one time discussed a possible recording deal with Estefan, "The money just wasn't there." Since then Lara has opted to record two self-produced CDs of original music, and controls the rights to the songs himself.
A common alternative to the kind of recording-publishing deal that Estefan makes with singer-songwriters is one in which a recording contract with a label is signed and an album is recorded before the artist decides how to manage publishing rights. With the product in hand the writer can demand a high advance on royalties if songs on the album become radio hits. An artist also can decide to retain the copyrights to his or her songs and contract a publishing company to administer the royalties for a small percentage.
"Virtually every kind of arrangement imaginable exists," explains Loren Iosa of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), which monitors songs played on the radio and keeps track of royalties owed.
Jon Coletta, a spokesman for Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), a similar organization, notes that Estefan's arrangement isn't unusual, explaining, "It depends on what else he's [Estefan] doing for them."
With that in mind, for an artist such as Albita, the benefits of signing with Estefan go beyond the value of any royalties his company might receive for the compositions she writes. The Cuban singer puts it succinctly: "Emilio can make an artist's career."
"Albita's a Vogue model now," Estefan proclaims, beaming.
Well, not exactly. But the Cuban singer did don a man's white tuxedo for an Italian Vogue photo shoot with the Estefans and other Miami persnalities. Those pictures were taken by Cuban-American photographer Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte, with professional styling by Tico Torres, who gave Albita an elegant retro image that plays up her androgynous style. Rodriguez-Duarte subsequently showed the photos to an editor at Mirabella, who immediately commissioned an article on the Cuban singer for a fall issue of the magazine. And after celebrated fashion photographer Richard Avedon saw the shots, he had her sit for a portrait that will accompany an upcoming article in the New Yorker.
Known for stubbornness when it comes to maintaining her individuality, Albita nonetheless has agreed to alter her look slightly since joining the Estefan team, maintaining elements of the sophisticated style created for the Vogue shoot. She has traded in her once-trademark punky leather wristband and tight black jeans for long skirts and Guess boots. A flattering, Thirties-esque bob has replaced the short spiky hairdo she previously favored.
"The music business is all visuals these days," Ingrid Casares explains. "We're like any record company. If you've got raw talent, you sign them and then you work with what they've got." Lately Casares has been working on getting more exposure for Albita. A short article on the singer appears in Spin magazine's September issue, while a feature story for Interview magazine is scheduled to be published to coincide with her album's release in November. And in August, on Casares's recommendation, Albita performed at Madonna's birthday party at the star's Miami home. Madonna was so impressed that she asked Albita to appear in the video of a song on her upcoming album.
"There's nothing wrong with looking good," offers Estefan. "That's what happened with Jon Secada. Ingrid got better clothes for him and a better hair person, and that's great A you can see it in the video. When I signed Donna Allen, I signed her because I believe in her, but I said, 'Donna, try to see if you can lose some weight,' and she lost 40 pounds.... Now she feels she accomplished something.
"I work out. I'd like to be eating all day," continues Estefan, who can be spotted every morning running or biking on Ocean Drive. "I don't, because I like to look good. I don't want Gloria to look good and I weigh 400 pounds.... Now, if you look bad...like, okay, I cannot change my face. It's the face I was born with. It's a good thing Gloria fell in love with my hands because with this face she never would have married me," he says, contorting his mouth into a sad clown frown, then springing back to a smile.
"If you're a performer...you don't want to see someone jumping around on stage weighing 400 pounds."
An attractive commentator for a Spanish-language TV network entertainment program suddenly seizes her jersey minidress with both hands and yanks it down with the savage tug of a professional wrestler grabbing an opponent's hair. The movement thrusts her breasts up until they're threatening to pop out from the dress's low neckline. Satisfied with the adjustment, the TV reporter rubs her red lips together and points her microphone in Andy Garcia's face.
A tony crowd of telenovela stars, musicians, and dozens of representatives of Miami's Latin media have gathered at Little Havana's Centro Vasco for the CD release party celebrating Cachao's Master Sessions. By the time the descarga starts on stage, the restaurant's cocktail lounge is so packed that two competing photographers are physically threatening each other. At times the TV cameras outnumber the musicians, who include Estefan on timbales and Garcia playing congas.
"Emilio! Emilio! Emilio!" shout reporters, vying to get the producer on camera. Estefan moves through the crowd, slapping acquaintances on the back and enveloping friends in a bear hug. He spends about an hour being shuffled from one camera-reporter team to another, affably responding to their repetitive questions.
Such commotion is almost routine now at Centro Vasco. In recent months Albita's shows, which attracted only a few tables of faithful fans less than a year ago, have become fancy reservations-required affairs with Friday- and Saturday-night audiences of 250 lining up behind velvet ropes to get in. At the end of May, one of the restaurant's walls was knocked down to make more room for the singer's fans. "Cheito" Quinones also has begun performing at Centro Vasco, going on after Albita.
Totty Saizarbitoria, who owns the restaurant-club Centro Vasco with her husband, Juan, says that Albita's following grew gradually. But the crowds were never this big until Estefan signed the singer in March.
"Emilio is one of us who's made it," Saizarbitoria points out, explaining the secret of Estefan's influence on Miami's Latin community. "You always look up to someone who's made it."
Estefan, too, used to play at Centro Vasco. Back in the early Seventies, the Miami Latin Boys were booked there often for weddings and quinces. Estefan already was moving up in the music world. His first gig a short time earlier had been at an Italian restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard, where he played a used accordion for tips. Then he got the band together -- guitar, bass, keyboards, horns, drums A and they started playing private parties. Back then Estefan still had his day job at Bacardi, where, he reports, in twelve years he worked his way up from mail boy to a $100,000-a-year position as director of Hispanic marketing.
In 1975 the band expanded when Gloria Fajardo and her cousin Merci began singing with the group, whose name soon was changed to Miami Sound Machine.
"Miami Sound Machine was the sound of Cuban kids coming to America," Estefan says. Maybe for Emilio, who in 1966, at age thirteen, left the island for Miami with his parents, Lebanese immigrants who owned an underwear factory in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Not long afterward Estefan accompanied his father to Spain for a couple of years, where he attended school; he returned to Miami on a student visa. He has been back to Cuba only once, to pick up his brother during the Mariel boatlift.
For Gloria, her cousin, and other younger band members weaned on American rock, pop, and disco, the band's music was the sound of the kids of Cuban immigrants growing up in the U.S. Influenced by what was then considered the Miami sound -- KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees -- the group soon turned from playing Cuban standards to playing pop music. Miami Sound Machine mixed Cuban ballads with the reigning disco-pop style on their first album, the Spanish-language Renacer, recorded for approximately $2000 on the now-defunct Hialeah-based Electric Cat label. Although the title song was a Spanish radio hit, the band members, still record-industry novices, saw no return on their investment.
"We never got paid," Estefan recalls. "No publishing, no nothing."
Less than a year after Gloria joined the band, she and Emilio began dating. In 1978 they were married. After their son Najib was born in 1980, Estefan decided it was now or never regarding a music career. He quit his job at Bacardi to devote all of his time to the band. "They told me I could come back if the music didn't work out," Estefan says with a laugh. "Now Bacardi is an $18 million sponsor of Gloria's concert tour."
Miami Sound Machine was signed by Miami-based Discos CBS International, CBS's Latin division, which ultimately evolved into Sony Discos. The group made four Spanish-language pop albums between 1981 and 1983, enjoying a string of number-one hits in Latin America.
But the Latin-tinged American pop that would make Miami Sound Machine a sensation in the United States and Europe was first heard on their 1984 album Eyes of Innocence, which included the disco hit "Dr. Beat." Two more albums, Primitive Love (1986) and Let It Loose (1987), picked up by Epic for American distribution, redefined the Miami sound.
"I created the Miami Sound Machine, and I developed that sound, and that belongs to me and Gloria," Estefan says proudly.
But Joe Galdo, a producer and drummer who used to work with Estefan, doesn't see it that way. Galdo, now a producer for Island Records, was part of a production team known as the "Three Jerks," who Estefan hired to work on Primitive Love and Let it Loose. Galdo maintains that the Miami sound was a product of the trio's work in the studio, where they wrote, arranged, and performed the music, and that Estefan had little to do with it.
"The Jerks were definitely responsible for designing the sound," Galdo says during a phone interview from his office at South Beach Studios. "We put them [Miami Sound Machine] on the map. It's there in black and white. All you have to do is go and buy the albums they did before Primitive Love and compare them. It's the difference between night and day."
"Joe thinks he has the Miami sound," Estefan counters calmly. "But what about all of our number-one hits that came after he left?"
The producers were paid flat fees and a tiny percentage of total record sales for their work on the Miami Sound Machine albums, according to Galdo. Estefan owned the publishing rights. Any discontent that may have been simmering in the studio erupted when Estefan offered the Jerks an exclusive contract a few days before the 1988 Grammys; Estefan and the trio had been nominated jointly for a producer of the year award for Let It Loose.
"He wanted to sign us to a five-year deal that was very one-sided," Galdo claims. "He wanted us to marry him, but he didn't want to marry us. We didn't want to become just another production team in his stable." So the Jerks turned down the offer. Estefan responded by indicating that it was all or nothing. "We called his bluff and he called ours," Galdo remembers. "We went to the Grammy Awards without speaking to each other. It was pretty weird."
Galdo is not the only person to depart the Estefan camp over the years. Most of the original Miami Sound Machine members have not stuck around to share in the fame and fortune with Emilio and Gloria; gradually they've been replaced by music-school graduates from the University of Miami.
"Emilio doesn't give people the credit they deserve," says one local studio engineer, who asked to remain anonymous. "In the music circles in Miami, Emilio is not well-liked. But he is not in business to be well-liked. He is in business to make money."
"Sometimes people need to grow," Estefan asserts diplomatically. "If they work with me for two or three years and then they want to go, well, then, that's fine, go."
The producer most frequently describes his organization as "a very family-oriented thing. Most of the people working here have been here for ten years or more, so they grow with the company."
It is true that Estefan Enterprises-Crescent Moon has a casual ambiance that would be difficult to find within the bureaucratic structure of most other record company headquarters. And despite several defections from the Estefan camp, Lawrence Dermer, another of the Three Jerks, still works closely with Emilio -- he coproduced five of the twelve songs on The Specialist soundtrack. The third "Jerk," Rafael Vigil, also recently has come back to the fold, with plans to work on future Estefan projects.
"Those problems were really never my problems, they were problems between Joe and Emilio," Dermer stresses. "If I felt [as Galdo does], I wouldn't be working with him [Estefan]. He surrounds himself with topnotch people, he has a lot of foresight, and he's very persistent. If he believes in something, it doesn't matter if the president of the United States tells him he's wrong."
Estefan excitedly pulls a video from a shelf in his office and cues it up to footage from Gloria's 1991 concert in Bogota. The video shows thousands of fans awaiting her arrival at the airport and cars blocking the street in front of the couple's hotel at 3:00 a.m. During the actual concert, girls who've fainted are carried out of the crush on stretchers.
"Gloria did a lot for the music in Miami," Estefan says proudly, watching as his wife bounds around on stage in black stretch pants and a fishnet top. "But Crescent Moon represents the changing image of Miami. What we're trying to represent now is a more across-the-board sound. We're trying to cross every sort of base. It's about what all these cultures have to offer us as far as music is concerned.
"Miami's the best place in the world right now. People always think the grass is greener on the other side, but the good place to be seen right now is Miami. We have Latin music, we have black music, we have dance, we have pop. I think Crescent Moon represents the city where we come from. I think our label's going to be very much Miami."
Suddenly for the first time during the afternoon, Estefan's cheerful expression darkens. He mentions a recent Miami Herald article he read in which Rosco Martinez, a local singer with an album out on BMG's Zoo Entertainment label, criticized Estefan's concepts.
"This is a Cuban coming from another place," Martinez was quoted as saying about Estefan. "I have nothing to do with Emilio and that kind of thing."
Estefan shakes his head, obviously disappointed. "What's wrong with it?" he asks in disbelief. "What's wrong with the Miami thing? It's sold millions of albums."
Then he returns to gazing at the video monitor. On the screen the audience at the Bogota concert is transfixed by Gloria's performance. Even the squadron of special personal bodyguards flown in from London to ensure security at the show have turned around to watch her instead of tending to their duties. Emilio just smiles.