Los Producers

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

At least not on the face of it. As Chirino ascended in the copper-lined elevator of Estefan Enterprises' South Beach offices on November 13, she understood she was on her way to sign a "receipt." Instead she found a single-page document containing legal language she didn't quite understand. She sent the letter to her manager, Steve Drimmer. "When I looked at it, I realized it was a lot more than a receipt," says Drimmer. "I realized it was completely onerous."

A clause in the document could be construed to mean that the money Chirino made as a songwriter could be withheld by the company to offset the costs she had racked up as a producer or the costs that were adding up for the Chirino Sisters. The clause could even be interpreted to mean her contract would not end until she had paid off all those costs. Richard Wolfe, who represents the Chirino Sisters as well as Santander, declares dramatically: "This says she could never make any money and her contract would go on forever."

Attorney Karen Stetson calmly explains, as she does about similarly ambiguous points in Santander's contract, that of course the company never had any intention of enforcing such an unreasonable interpretation. But the words were on the page. Drimmer advised Chirino not to sign.

Estefan nurtures his writers and producers; Richard Wolfe (above) will tell the judge it's not such a happy family
Estefan nurtures his writers and producers; Richard Wolfe (above) will tell the judge it's not such a happy family

Dinette set notwithstanding, Estefan was not pleased by Chirino's antics. E-mails were exchanged between manager Drimmer and Estefan executives, each more accusatory than the last. On November 15 Estefan's in-house attorney Jessie Abad withdrew the offered advance. When Chirino weighed in on November 16, she implored her onetime benefactor: "I really need some help right now, and this company is being very coldhearted with me."

On that day, Drimmer claims, Crescent Moon president Doelp called to tell him "that production had been suspended until Emilio had returned from China." (Anti-communist Estefan shares credit for the official song of the Beijing Olympics.) "He told me," Drimmer claims, "ďIt has something to do with Angie's publishing.'"

Doelp maintains he had only the vaguest notion about the conflict with Angie, although records show that he too received a copy of her plea on November 16.

The sisters were turned away from the studio that same day.

"It's just bad timing," says Estefan Enterprises president Amadeo. "A complete coincidence," Stetson agrees.

With a hint of sadness in his voice, Doelp explains the decision had nothing to do with the $5000. It just so happened that when he played the first Chirino Sisters' songs for Sony at a meeting that November, the shirts deemed the project not commercial enough to proceed.

Juan Zambrano, whose work with Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez suggests that his sense of the commercial is very strong indeed, disagrees. "I know the reason is not the music," says the producer. "The people who approve were listening, and they never questioned anything. Everyone was pleased. It was a hit until the day they said it wasn't."

The final decision came down ten days later, when Estefan returned from the People's Republic of China: The Chirino Sisters were through at Crescent Moon.

What happened next is not clear. Doelp says the label tried to convince the sisters to go back to the studio and get commercial. Drimmer says efforts to rescue the project only began after Wolfe asserted that Sony owes the Chirino Sisters $322,000, whether they release the disc or not. Whatever the catalyst, the salvage effort was doomed. By spring 2001 the bitterness of the dispute had silenced the angel voices.

Willy Chirino intervened, patriarch to patriarch, asking Estefan to work something out with Sony. A settlement meeting was arranged for September 14, conveniently scheduled after the Latin Grammys.

This year there will be no Gramilios. The Estefans did not receive a single nod from the Latin academy and will not even be in attendance at the ceremony that honors Latin pop's hottest stars. The only nominations garnered by Estefan Enterprises go to Celia Cruz's Siempre Viviré; the self-titled debut from the Crescent Moon party band from Panama, Los Rabanes, produced by Roberto Blades; and Thalia's crossover launch, Arrasando (It's My Party), produced by Marco Flores. Both Blades and Flores (represented by Wolfe) recently settled out of court and slipped quietly away from the empire. Zambrano also has recently negotiated an early release from his contract.

"A lot of people leave and come back," shrugs Stetson. "They find out the grass isn't any greener."

But neither Santander nor Angie Chirino are likely to return. Santander will, however, be at the Latin Grammys, as a nominee for writing merengue singer Gisselle's single "Júrame" ("Swear to Me"). And last week Santander signed Chirino as a songwriter at his Clear Mind Publishing.

It is too soon, however, to predict the fall of Estefan. The hunger that drove him to build his empire from the trunk of a car will likely make him determined to hang on to the throne. There is no shortage of talent, young or old, eager for the benefit of Estefan's fatherly attention and star-making image. Who cares if his name shows up on the credits, too?

Two weeks ago the Santander phenomenon that is Cristian Castro's "Azul" was knocked out of the top spot on Billboard's Hot Latin Tracks by Jaci Velasquez's "Como Curar una Herida" ("How to Heal a Wound"). Listed among the many producers on her album Mi Corazon (My Heart): Emilio Estefan, Jr.

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