My guilty affection for some Latin pop began at El Patio, a Mexico City nightcub where you got served undistinguished nightclub food and were entertained by a headliner. That night it was Juan Gabriel. I knew who he was but, frankly, I'd never listened to him. Still, this music was my job so I went, ate my chicken and waited for the show.
This guy was good! For one, he played with gender roles. He would sing macho rancheras backed by a mariachi and then poke fun at himself with some swish comment and gesture. He would sing love ballads. And he sang a song that jazzed me up.
It began sweetly, like a Latin pop ballad, and slowly escalated to something like a rock anthem, as Juanga, as some called him, belted out: QUERIDAAAAA!!!
I was hooked. Later, at tequila-fueled parties back home I would join friends in improvised karaoke. QUERIDAAAA!!!
"Querida" was his biggest hit, but he had literally hundreds of them. Juan Gabriel was Mexico's most prolific songwriter. Some had the raunchy, frankly bad, sound of border cantina songs. Some were elaborate productions. Many were beautiful and always unique. I let down my guard. I started liking more Latin pop singers and songs.
I had my favorites. Some Jose Jose. Some El Puma. Some Julio. Many more here and there. I kept wishing the arrangements were better -- and eventually Latin pop dropped Europop orchestration and became almost indistinguishable from American pop. But I liked the sentiment and the lyrics.
"The best poet in the Spanish language is Manuel Alejandro", Gabriel Garcia Marquez famously said to the press. He admitted he bought Latin pop albums, not for the music but for the lyrics, praising those of Alejandro, a Spaniard who composed, arranged and produced albums that would always become hits. And Rafael Botija, who wrote Jose Jose's biggest hits. I already knew Armando Manzanero from his "Somos Novios", which as "It's Impossible" was an English-language hit, but when the great bolero singer Tania Libertad teamed up with him in concert and recording, I discovered even better songs.
One Brazilian was as big a star in the Spanish-language market as any baladista. Roberto Carlos. And though most of his songs were unashamedly pop, he was a link to the sophisticated sounds of MPB, the world of Maria Bethania, Simone, and others with whom he sang duets. One evening at a concert I noticed that whenever the Brazilian star started a song there would be an audible sound flowing through the auditorium, a sound that was, well, sexual. It dawned on me that Carlos' dreamy voice (like that of so many Brazilians) was or had been a lovemaking soundtrack for many. One of his hits, "Concavo y Convexo", is explicitly yet elegantly about sexual intercourse.
I came of age American and these singers were not my love soundtrack. But, having played music that was no less flagrant, I could appreciate the sentiment. After Billboard I still wrote occasionally about Latin pop. As destiny would have it, I kept being asked to pen pieces about Julio Iglesias. Since he is my age, his career and his personal life always fascinated me, and I could not help think of another, radically different, superstar who was also my age, Mick Jagger. Until at a dinner in Los Angeles a record company executive told me of the night in Paris when these two pole-opposite icons of my generation met. The catalyst was a woman, of course. But that's a story for another time.