From the Archives: Selena was on brink of major crossover, ‘up there with the Janets and the Madonnas’
Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the death of beloved Tejano music artist, Selena Quintanilla-Perez. The singer was only 23 when she was gunned down in her hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, by the founder of her fan club. Yolanda Saldivar was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1995. Although it’s been over two decades since her death, Selena remains a pop culture icon for many fans who remember her belly-baring outfits and catchy tunes like “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and “Baila Esta Cumbia.” The Times writer Steve Bennett talked with those closest to the late singer in this article which originally ran on July 18, 1995.
Things seem normal at Q Productions, a former body shop turned recording facility near the airport of this South Texas coastal city. Big semis loaded with musical equipment churn up dust in the chalky parking lot. Over the roar of the engines, men yell at each other in Spanish. A tejano band is in the studio, putting final touches on an album of the accordion-based music that dominates the region.
In the front office, the phone rings constantly. Suzette Quintanilla Arriaga swivels in her chair and opens a filing cabinet drawer behind her. “Look at this,” she says, pointing to a pile of brown mailers inside. “And that’s only a few days’ worth. They’re coming from all over, and then a lot of people have been stopping by and leaving tapes. They think we’re trying to replace her! It’s too weird.”
Two things become clear: Things aren’t quite normal here and there’s no replacing Suzette’s sister, Selena Quintanilla Perez.
Since the shooting death of the tejano music star on March 31, the big question in South Texas has been: “Why?”
Why did she go to the motel where she met her death? Why was she shot? Why couldn’t the doctors save her? Why did she have to die so young? Those questions probably won’t be answered until the trial of her accused killer, Yolanda Saldivar, is concluded later this year ... if then.
Now, fans and newcomers to the Selena phenomenon can ask themselves another question: “How far would she have gone?”
When she was killed, Selena was at work on her first English-language album, which was expected to break her out of the tejano market and make her a multicultural household name. With her tragic death having accomplished that, the posthumous album, “Dreaming of You,” which combines four tracks from those English sessions with Spanish material, is being released jointly today by EMI Latin and EMI Records and is eagerly anticipated within the industry.
Would Selena have become the next Gloria Estefan? The next Latin artist, after Jon Secada, to conquer the pop charts? Friends and family think so.
“She would have been up there with the Janets and the Madonnas,” EMI Latin President Jose Behar says. “I truly believe this CD will supersede anyone’s expectations in retail.”
Her father and manager, Abraham Quintanilla, believes she would have become a superstar because she had worked so hard for so long, taking the stage at age 6 in the family band and establishing a firm following in major Latin markets from Mexico to Puerto Rico. “I knew from Day 1 that she had something special,” he says.
Selena had conquered the tejano market, bringing a regional blend of traditional Mexican musical forms and mainstream pop and country to a much wider audience, and her 1993 disc “Live!” won a Grammy Award for best Mexican/American album.
“She was looking for a new challenge,” says her brother, A.B. Quintanilla, who played bass in her band and handled production and songwriting duties as well. “I mean, she was my sister, she was kooky. But she just had this force about her.”
We will never know if Selena, just 23 years old when she was shot down -- two days shy of her third wedding anniversary -- would have become the “Mexican Madonna,” as she was sometimes called. But based on the legacy she left, she certainly had a chance at superstar status.
“Dreaming of You” offers many new reasons to grieve and to celebrate. One thing the album makes crystal-clear is that Selena was unique, clearly more than a regional talent.
“What struck me on first listen was her complete comfort in this environment,” says Davitt Siggerson, president of EMI Records Group. “She made a record that felt totally natural in English.” And while fans can enjoy such songs as the tender ballad “I Could Fall in Love With You” or the sinewy “Captive Heart,” that nagging thought remains: “Whatif . . . ?”
“Selena never thought of herself as a star. She wasn’t about that,” says Suzette Arriaga, former drummer and now manager of the two boutiques, in Corpus Christi and San Antonio, that Selena had opened to sell her line of clothing. In a nearby room, the late singer’s flamboyant designs hang like ghosts, as her personal seamstress stitches together another creation.
“It was her dream to have an English-language album out, and it will be out,” Arriaga continues. “And that’s the main thing. It’s not about sales or stardom. It was her dream. Two or three days after she passed away, someone asked whether we were going to put the English-language album out. It wasn’t even a question with us. We were like, ‘It’s done.’ ”
“Dreaming of You” is just a fragment of what could have been a major crossover hit. A 13-song collection, it contains four English-language songs, combined with a remixed track previously recorded with Full Force, two English/Spanish duets (one with David Byrne and one with the Barrio Boyzz), two new Spanish-language tracks recorded for the film “Don Juan DeMarco” (in which Selena has a minor part as a mariachi singer) and several of her best-known tejano hits, including the infectious “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and her final No. 1, “Amor Prohibido.”
“We created a retrospective that will allow people who are buying a Selena record for the first time, because of the English-language songs, to hear the hits that got her where she was,” EMI’s Behar says.
The English-language tracks were designed to achieve the crossover dream. Working in Los Angeles and Nashville with such heavyweight producers as Keith Thomas (Vanessa Williams, Amy Grant, Whitney Houston), Guy Roche (Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, Expose, Cher) and Rhett Lawrence (Paula Abdul, Mariah Carey), Selena shows a wide range of vocal textures and emotions. And the producers have created musical environments that are as sophisticated as anything you’d hear on, say, a Whitney Houston album.
“I remember we were in L.A. working on [“I Could Fall in Love”], and she got to bring a demo back to the hotel with her,” says Chris Perez, her husband and the band’s guitarist. “She sat there with the tape in her Walkman listening to it, analyzing it, over and over for hours, until like 2 in the morning. She was just happy to be doing it. She couldn’t believe everything that was going on. It was a dream come true. For me just to have that, to know how happy it was going to make her, makes it all worthwhile. Yet, at the same time, she’s not here to see it and enjoy it, so it’s not the same.”
Although EMI’s Behar says that he signed Selena to the label in 1989 with eventual crossover to the pop charts in mind -- “She was that needle in the haystack” -- the singer appears to have been born to the spotlight.
“That was the goal from Day 1,” says father Abraham Quintanilla. “That’s what I had in mind when she was 6 years old. I had been an artist in the Tex-Mex market in the ‘60s, and so I knew the limitations. I’m telling you this not from a father’s point of view, but from a musician’s viewpoint, that she had it. With Selena, I always felt she had it. She was just a well-rounded package, with the voice, the looks, the moves, the instincts. I knew she could do it. Unfortunately, her life was cut short. . . . “
Quintanilla is clearly still grieving for his daughter, and the family is unsure of its next step. There is some talk of a tribute tour, but nobody seems too jazzed by the idea. Selena’s brother A.B. says he wants to start a “weekend band that plays Bee Gees and old retro music I grew up on.”
Chris still can’t leave the house because people come up to console him, and, he says, “I end up consoling them.” With the new album about to hit stores, “it’s starting again,” he says, referring to the tremendous outpouring of grief and support the family received in the weeks after Selena’s death.
Here at the studio, a steady stream of visitors comes through the door. One, a grandmotherly type, pushes a young girl up to Suzette’s desk. “Have you listened to the tape I sent you?” the woman asks. Suzette is polite, yet there is a glint in her eye. “No,” she says, pointing to the drawer full of tapes. “We have received so many that we haven’t had a chance to go through them all.” The grandmother hands her another cassette. “This one is much better,” she says.
After the pair leave, Suzette sighs and says, “It’s hard. It’s really hard. We know that people mean well, but we really haven’t had time to mourn. It’s just been crazy here.”
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