Los Producers

The emperor's clothes are wearing thin, as both his top songwriter and the Latin Grammys leave the Estefan court

The more successful the Miami Sound Machine, the more tightly the spotlight focused on Gloria. Garcia, the Jerks, and the rest of the musicians dropped off like so many interchangeable parts until in 1989 an ever-sleeker, ever-sexier Gloria stands alone on the cover of Cuts Both Ways. "Gloria didn't want to do it, because she doesn't care about those things," says Emilio. "But I told her it was very important that her voice be identified."

With the Gloria juggernaut seemingly unstoppable, Estefan looked to expand. When the plucky singer embarked on a five-continent tour in 1991, after narrowly surviving a tour-bus crash the year before, a bored Miami-bound Emilio turned his attention to background vocalist Jon Secada. The sound machine was about to turn into an assembly line.

Over the next three years, Estefan recruited a team of local songwriters, producers, and artists with the goal of grooming Miami-based talent. At this stage Estefan Enterprises most closely resembled Motown. The Magic City, however, met with nothing like the Motor City's success on the charts. Gloria remained a phenomenon, with her 1993 retro-Cuban project Mi Tierra (My Land) selling more than nine million units. Secada got off to an impressive start. But in commercial terms the rest of the raft of resident talent -- including Cuban country gal Albita, bass virtuoso Cachao, Puerto Rican salsero Cheito, and a couple of R&B acts -- sank.

Young Emilio and Gloria get a taste for winning
Young Emilio and Gloria get a taste for winning
Cogs in the machine: Roberto Blades (left) and Jon Secada flank Estefan
Bill Cooke
Cogs in the machine: Roberto Blades (left) and Jon Secada flank Estefan

Then one afternoon in 1995, Estefan summoned the Mexican telenovela queen Thalia Sodi to his office in the Crescent Moon Studios on Bird Road. At his first meeting with the lithe siren at a music festival in Acapulco two years before, Estefan predicted they would collaborate someday. "Oye, life has brought us together again," the mogul told Thalia over the phone when he learned she was in Miami to promote her latest soap. "Gloria and I watch Marimar every night, and I have the perfect song for you. Come to the studio tomorrow."

The next day Thalia sat nervously while Estefan cued up the demo. "Until then Emilio had not produced anyone but Gloria and Jon Secada," remembers the Latin Grammy-nominated singer. "I thought, I'm going to be the chosen one."

Over a flourish of classical guitar, enormous speakers pulsed to the dragging rhythm of vallenato from Colombia's Atlantic coast while a woman's voice sang of her desire for a dark-skinned lover. "It was exactly my style," Thalia coos. As soon as the song ended, she followed Estefan to an open studio where an engineer sat waiting. "[Emilio] had everything ready," she surmises. "I think he was putting me to the test."

"Piel Morena" ("Dusky Skin") transformed Thalia from Mexican Regional star to Latin pop superstar. The hit marked not only a turning point in her singing career, but a sea change at Estefan Enterprises. Thalia was soon followed by her compatriot Alejandro Fernandez; the Colombian Shakira and Carlos Vives; and from North America, Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, Celine Dion, and Cher. Crescent Moon studios had been transformed from a local talent mine into an international talent magnet.

Estefan did not do it alone. The song "Piel Morena" was written, arranged, and produced by Kike Santander. He played the music, too. Those are Santander's fingers dancing across the acoustic guitar, plucking the bass, tapping the block, and scraping the hollow wooden tube known as a guacharaca. That is his voice lending heft to the thin thrust of Thalia's delivery of the hook: "Eres piel morena" ("You are dusky skin").

His large frame hunched over a borrowed guitar, Santander looks up to tell his story as he deftly tunes the instrument. A serious student of music since childhood, Santander sings and plays guitar, cuatro, vijuela, bass, piano, synthesizers, percussion, and accordion at a professional level. Before writing songs Santander wrote jingles in Colombia, cranking out more than 1500 commercial ditties between 1983 and 1993. "I was a one-man band," says Santander of his operation. "I was engineer, songwriter, arranger, and musician. Sometimes I recorded myself with one foot."

Santander met Estefan shortly after co-writing and producing a hit for Venezuelan superstar Jose Luis "El Puma" Rodriguez. Emilio called Santander at his home in Calí soon after, asking for material for his wife. In short order the king of the jingle wrote ten songs that he would later produce for Gloria's Colombian folk-flavored Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors). Pleased, Estefan arranged for visas and accommodations for Santander's family to settle full-time in Miami. As his songs piled up, Santander signed a series of contracts in 1996 and 1997, leading to confusion over the closing date of his obligation. He would write and produce exclusively for Estefan until April 2002 -- or would it be April 2003 -- or would it be forever?

At the moment such niceties were hardly a concern: Abriendo Puertas won a Grammy; "Piel Morena" took Latin America by storm. What Estefan likes to call "A list" artists were lining up at the door. Roberto Blades, brother of Ruben and a rakish writer/producer who Estefan recruited as a singer in the talent-mine days, remembers the change: "You just had so many people walking in that building asking for songs. [Estefan] actually got to a point where he didn't have enough to put out." To keep up Estefan Enterprises signed a slew of new writers and publishers: First there were ten, then there were twenty, then there were thirty. "It was the blood the animal needed to grow," says Blades.

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