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A Crossover Dream Halted Prematurely, Tragically : Some Ambitious Plans Were Under Way to Bring Selena to Mainstream U.S. Audience

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Millions of U.S. pop fans have been intrigued by the emotional reaction in the Latino community following the shooting death last week of Selena, the 23-year-old tejano music superstar. Few of those millions, however, have ever heard Selena’s music.

The irony of her death is that it occurred just as ambitious plans were under way to introduce Selena’s music to a mainstream U.S. audience.

“I saw her for the last time (in March) at the post-Grammy party in Los Angeles,” said Stephen Finfer, the lawyer who negotiated both Selena’s 1989 deal with EMI Latin Records and her subsequent English-language pact with EMI sister label SBK Records. “That night, (SBK executives) approached me and said, ‘We hope next year we’ll be here to pick up Selena’s Grammys.’ ”

Indeed, Selena had recorded four tracks for an all-English album before she was shot to death March 31 in Corpus Christi, Tex., allegedly by a woman who was her personal assistant and founder of her fan club.

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The tracks for the album were recorded in Los Angeles, Nashville and in her own Corpus Christi studio. The plan was to finish the album by May 1 and have it in stores by late summer.

Davitt Sigerson, president and CEO of EMI Records, which distributes SBK releases, described the music as “mainstream American pop,” not a watered-down version of her spicy, cumbia -flavored tejano sound.

“In her own style, she was as original as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald,” Sigerson said.

Asked if the music will still be released, he said: “I’m sure we’ll be talking to Selena’s family to see what they want to do. Our view is that whatever they feel is the proper way of handling it. The way that’s most respectful to her memory and to her fans . . . that’s what we’ll do. We’re all still dealing with our pain over this terrible tragedy.”

The goal for SBK Records was to tap into the qualities that established Selena as an artist whose popularity stemmed not only from her music, but the warmth of her personality and the power of her performances.

Born Selena Quintanilla in Lake Jackson, Tex., she began singing at age 9 with her family band, and by age 15 she was an established regional act recording for a small Texas label. She later married Chris Perez, the band’s guitarist.

In 1987 she was voted performer of the year in the Tejano Music Awards and two years later stepped up to EMI Latin Records. “Selena Live,” her breakthrough album, earned a Grammy in 1993 for best Mexican American performance. “Amor Prohibido” (Forbidden Love), her last album, earned her a second Grammy nomination and has sold more than 600,000 copies. Since her death, four of her albums have soared into the Top 10 of Billboard’s Latin charts.

Though sometimes described as a “Latin Madonna,” the description was misleading. Selena’s image was sexy, but she was never viewed as a femme fatale, and her humble persona was far different from Madonna’s brashness.

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Dawn Soler, senior vice president of PolyGram Music, learned of Selena from a music business colleague. She was so enamored by Selena’s music and manner that she recommended her to New Line Cinema, which was searching for someone to sing mariachi songs in its just-released film “Don Juan DeMarco.”

“She just came on the set and made friends of everyone,” Soler said. “She talked with (Marlon) Brando for an hour and then sang beautifully in a style that wasn’t hers.”

Soler recommended Selena to Toby Emmerich, executive vice president of music for New Line Cinema.

“She recorded six songs in Spanish for the soundtrack, but the plans changed,” Emmerich said. “A&M; wanted to put out a soundtrack with just Bryan Adams songs. But the recordings she made were all great, including a duet she did with David Byrne. Maybe these recordings can be incorporated somehow into a future project.” (Three of the songs are heard in the film.)

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“She had a very small part in the film and I don’t think her involvement is something her fans should get excited about, expecting to see a huge role. But she was an absolute delight on the set. She became very loved.”

The director of the mariachi orchestra featured in the film also praised Selena’s performance.

“She sang with such powerful passion that she reminded me of Amalia Mendoza,” said Jose Hernandez, director of Los Angeles-based Mariachi Sol de Mexico, referring to the ranchera star of the ‘50s. Hernandez also remembered that while he and Selena were on the set at the Biltmore Hotel, he met Yolanda Saldivar--the alleged killer.

“They were very close, and she was very devoted to Selena, who seemed to trust her a lot,” said Hernandez. “When I saw her photograph, I couldn’t believe it. It was like a kick in my stomach.”

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Despite all of Selena’s appeal, Finfer, an attorney with EMI Latin, said he and Jose Behar, president of the label, had a difficult time at first stirring interest at EMI Records about an English-language project for the singer.

“I believe there were many options, but it was very tough to get interest internally,” said Finfer. “At certain stages of the shopping, we were both mystified by the inability for some people to recognize her true potential.”

Nevertheless, eventually things changed in Selena’s favor and they landed a deal in the fall of ’93 with Charles Koppelman, chairman and CEO of EMI Records Group North America, who had enjoyed huge success at SBK Records with crossover smash Jon Secada.

Though Finder declined to release details of the contract, he described it as substantial. “It was an open-ended deal. . . ,” he said. “The label was willing to spend whatever it took to make a great record for her.”

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Sigerson, who took over as head of EMI Records last September, was optimistic about Selena’s chances in the English-language market.

“This person was not just a star in terms of how many records she sold,” he said. “She was also an incredible talent. We had no doubts about the success of her album.”


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