From the Archives: The ballad of Juan Gabriel
First, who he is: the highest-paid Spanish-language singer on Earth. Where he lives: among a dozen mansions and ranches across the Americas--but mostly on a rose-filled estate in Malibu. Age: middle. Style of music: gigantic ballads. Years performing: 28. Number of records sold: 35 million.
Now, who he is not: Julio Iglesias, the Latin pop singer best known to English-language fans.
Yes, the actual king of Latin pop is Juan Gabriel--a debonair multimillionaire who is the ultimate superstar to the half of this city that listens to Spanish radio, and a man occasionally mistreated by the half that does not.
For instance, a West Hollywood antique store owner panicked recently when Gabriel and his manager came in, intending to drop a big--and we mean big--wad of cash.
As Gabriel’s manager tells it, the owner saw Mexicans (God forbid!) and requested they leave the store. Gabriel, who grew up in a Juarez, Mexico, orphanage, did not waste time explaining to her that he could probably buy the entire block. He just left graciously, he says, and spent his money elsewhere.
That’s not to say that he’s not open to change--but his way.
At 48, Gabriel is changing, in more ways than one. His last album, “Juan Gabriel Con La Banda El Recodo,” was a collection of upbeat banda dance music--with its crashing cymbals, oomping tuba and thumping bass drum a far cry from the sweeping romantic ballads that have been his trademark. It’s part of an exploration of newer Mexican musical forms that reflects Gabriel’s personal growth as well as an effort to connect with a younger audience.
Though Gabriel is working on a duet album with Jose Jose, he is also preparing an album of norteno music, the raucous border music that is a cousin to the tejano style made famous by Selena and her murder.
Gabriel says he’s immersing himself in these festive musical forms because he’s at a point in his life where he’s finally allowing himself to have fun, be silly and, he says, enjoy a childhood he never had. And as the proud father of four children, ranging in age from 7 to 11, he says he is learning through the joy of his own kids how to be carefree--a luxury he, an orphan at the age of 4, was never afforded. This “adult childhood” he says, is fueling his musical growth.
While the happy flavor of his new works may come as a pleasant surprise to his fans, Gabriel says his changes are limited to the Mexican musical spectrum; even though his record company would like--no, love--to see him record a crossover album in English, Gabriel says he will never do that.
Gabriel has sold out 39 consecutive concerts at the 6,200-seat Universal Amphitheatre--three a year for 13 years--which gives him the record for sold-out concerts there by a Latin artist. The legendary Vicente Fernandez is a distant second, with 15 straight sellouts.
But Gabriel’s status as this city’s most secret superstar is apparent when he strolls into Malibu’s exclusive Geoffrey’s restaurant for dinner and an interview. The hostess hardly gives him a second glance. The distracted waiter takes too long serving Gabriel’s Coca-Cola without ice and sloshes it on the table.
But the Mexican busboy?
He drops his tray and his jaw, then runs to the kitchen to tell his friends: Mexico’s patrimony (as Gabriel calls himself) is there, on the patio, eating a light pasta with vegetables. (Gabriel is a vegetarian, because he loves animals.)
The Italian tourists notice too. They have just seen Gabriel on European TV and beg for an autograph. Gabriel--with a classic toss of his head and a sweet, “Pues si, mi amor” (well, yes, my love)--obliges.
Wearing a simple, elegant black silk suit with a Chinese collar, and without his usual makeup and pompadour, Gabriel is so relaxed, so suntanned and so downright playful that it is easy to forget his status as the most-played Spanish voice on Los Angeles radio.
Gabriel has just driven himself here from the airport, where his flight from Miami landed late. “I’ve been circling,” he says, drawing a ring in the air with one graceful finger to convey his frustration.
Even though Gabriel dislikes flying (and interviews), he is unfailingly polite. He has not chosen this restaurant; a Versace-loving publicist from BMG, his label, has.
“When I’m in town, I never go out,” Gabriel explains. “I’m the kind of person who prefers to stay home.”
Gabriel removes his tinted glasses and hangs them through his buttonhole. Gesturing to the vines growing on the patio’s trellises, he nods appreciatively and says, “This is very nice, eh?”
Seemingly comfortable, he even compliments his interviewer, and jokes, “Mija, hablemos de novios.” (Honey, let’s talk boyfriends.)
It’s a gutsy tease. Gabriel probably knows that the question of his sexual identity is on his interviewer’s mind. According to his manager, Gabriel’s sexual preference is always of interest to prying American reporters.
An unabashedly effeminate man who has never been married, Gabriel is rumored among his fans to be gay. He has hinted over the years that they could be right, and his flowing capes, scarves and makeup do nothing to silence the talk. His publicist says his children, while biologically his, were conceived through artificial insemination. (Gabriel gave their mother’s name only as “Laura” and described her as his best friend.)
Several other stars have been accepted in Latino circles despite ambiguous sexuality, including television astrologer Walter Mercado and Cuban singer Albita. Scholars specializing in Latino culture and sexual norms attribute this acceptance to a Latino tradition of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” whereby a beloved family member--or celebrity--is “allowed” to be homosexual, as long as they don’t say so.
There is some evidence that this is happening with Gabriel. At a recent concert in Pico Rivera, where he gave his first all-banda performance, a grizzled older gentleman who described himself as a huge Gabriel fan spoke loudly about Gabriel’s music and talent, and then whispered, “We know what he is. You know what I’m talking about? He doesn’t have to say it. We don’t care. But we would never want him to talk about it. We respect him because he doesn’t.”
What Gabriel may or may not do in his private love life “does not matter” to his fans, according to Ralph Hauser, Gabriel’s longtime friend and manager. Says Hauser, “Who he is as an artist and a human being has always transcended everything else.”
Jose Z. Garcia, director of the Latin American studies program at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, has watched “the Juan Gabriel phenomenon” with great interest as a cultural critic.
“Here is a man who was not only poor, but orphaned,” Garcia says. “It’s a Cantinflas-type of stereotypical background, which may in some ways work in his favor now. But also you have a man whose sexual orientation is somewhat disparaged.
“Against those odds, he’s made it. In some ways all of this has now become the icon of who he is. It’s almost to the point now where there’s a conspiracy with his audience, sort of that we’ve been together this long time, we know who each other are, we admire ourselves for admiring you, and we know that you love us.
“It’s a postmodern mirror thing, in that we see ourselves in your music. And we see the best of ourselves in us when we give you a standing ovation; it’s proof that we aren’t prejudiced.”
Part of the appeal of Juan Gabriel, the human being, is his rags-to-riches life story.
Fans say he has struggled just as they have, and again and again point to the positive messages about hard work, forgiveness, family and self-esteem in his autobiographical lyrics.
Gabriel was born Alberto Aguilera Valadez, the youngest of 10 children born to Gabriel Aguilera Rodriguez and Victoria Valadez Ojas, two peasants from Paracuaro, Michoacan, Mexico. Alberto’s father died in a fire shortly after his son’s birth; years later, the son would take the father’s name as his stage name. His closest friends still call him Alberto.
Valadez fled town after running into problems with her in-laws and took work as a servant in Juarez. Unable to feed Alberto and the other children on her meager wages, she gave Alberto to an orphanage when he was 4.
Gabriel says his first memory in life is of her leaving him there. “You don’t know the word for ‘abandon’ at that age,” says Gabriel. “But you know what is happening. You know you want to be with your mother, and she is not there.”
Photos of leaders, stars and other notable figures who died in 2016.
Wong’s masterly touch brought a poetic quality to Disney’s “Bambi” that has helped it endure as a classic of animation. The pioneering Chinese American artist influenced later generations of animators. Full obituary(Peter Brenner / Handout)
After bursting onto the scene opposite Gene Kelly in the classic 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” Reynolds became America’s Sweetheart and a potent box office star for years. Her passing came only one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died at the age of 60. Reynolds was 84. Full obituary(John Rooney / Associated Press)
Actress and writer Carrie Fisher rose to global fame as the trailblazing intergalactic heroine Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” franchise. She later established herself as an author and screenwriter with an acerbic comic flair. She was 60. Full obituary.(20th Century Fox)
Rubin’s uncovering of evidence of the existence of dark matter revealed that “there’s much more out there than we would expect based on our common-sense experience,” said James Bullock, professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine. Full obituary(The Carnegie Institution )
George Michael, the English singer-songwriter who shot to stardom in the 1980s as half of the pop duo Wham!, went on to become one of the era’s biggest pop solo artists with hits such as “Faith” and “I Want Your Sex.” He was 53. Full obituary(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
The athlete known widely by the nickname “Miruts the Shifter” (No. 191) won two gold medals at the 1980 Moscow Olympics at age 40 and won bronze medals earlier at the 1972 Munich Games. The Ethiopian running legend inspired world-class athletes such as Haile Gebrselassie. He was 72. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The first woman to become a Lutheran pastor in Orange County, Wolfe-Devol reached out to the LGBT community and helped clear the way for the 2009 vote by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that permitted gay and lesbian clergy to openly marry and continue to serve in the church. She was 61. Full obituary(Courtesy of the Devol family)
She was the last surviving sibling of three sisters who were as famous for their lavish lifestyles and many marriages as for their show-business careers. Gabor’s film credits include “Touch of Evil” and “Queen of Outer Space.” She was 99. Full obituary(EPA)
The helicopter gunner in the Vietnam War helped end the slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. He was 67. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The thoracic surgeon came up with an anti-choking technique in 1974. So simple it could be performed by children, the eponymous maneuver made Heimlich a household name. He was 96. Full obituary(Al Behrman / Associated Press)
Glenn became an American hero as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth. He also served for 24 years as a U.S. senator from Ohio. Thirty-six years after his first flight, he became the oldest man to go into space. He was 95. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Greg Lake, left, pictured with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer of the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer, helped pioneer the expansive genre of progressive rock in the late 1960s and ‘70s. He was 69. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The hugely popular south Indian actress later turned to politics and became the highest elected official in the state of Tamil Nadu. She was 68. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Lee overcame discrimination to become the first Asian American to win an Olympic medal and the first diver to win back-to-back gold medals in two different Olympics — in London in 1948 and Helsinki in 1952. He was 96. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The former Cuban leader thrust his Caribbean nation onto the world stage by provoking Cold War confrontation and defying U.S. policy through 11 administrations. He was 90. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Best known for her portrayal of Carol Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” Henderson
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Dubbed “Dr. Wonderful” by the media, the Texas surgeon performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States and the world’s first implantation of a wholly artificial heart. He also founded the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. He was 96. Full obituary(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
The prominent Los Angeles attorney went from defending his father, a powerful mob boss, to representing celebrities, corrupt businessmen, drug kingpins and the so-called Hollywood Madam, Heidi Fleiss. He was 70. Full obituary(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
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The 1960s radical was in the vanguard of the movement to stop the Vietnam War and became one of the nation’s best-known champions of liberal causes. He was 76. Full obituary(George Brich / Associated Press)
Tabei was the first woman to climb Mount Everest in 1975. In 1992, she also became the first woman to complete the “Seven Summits,” reaching the highest peaks of the seven continents. She was 77. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
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Nixon was the creative force behind the popular soap operas “One Life to Live” and “All My Children.” She was a pioneer in bringing serious social issues, like racism, AIDS and prostitution, to daytime television. She was 93. Full obituary(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)
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Known as the Vatican’s exorcist, Amorth, a Roman Catholic priest, helped promote the ritual of banishing the devil from people or places. He was 91. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
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The Canadian novelist blended magical realism and baseball in his 1982 novel “Shoeless Joe,” which became the blueprint for the 1989 Oscar-nominated movie “Field of Dreams.” He was 81. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The longtime Los Angeles liberal lion was a friend of kings, presidents, moguls and Hollywood stars who used his wealth and connections to advance a wide range of causes and candidates. He was 96. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The ska pioneer and Jamaican music legend recorded thousands of records, including such hits as “Al Capone” and “Judge Dread.” He helped ignite the ska movement in England, and later helped carry it into the rock-steady era in the mid-1960s. He was 78. Full obituary(Larry Ellis / Getty Images)
Known as “the first lady of anti-feminism,” Schlafly was a political activist who galvanized grass-roots conservatives to help defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and, in ensuing decades, effectively push the Republican Party to the right. She was 92. Full obituary(Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)
O’Brian helped tame the Wild West as the star of TV’s “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” and was the founder of a long-running youth leadership development organization. “Wyatt Earp” became a top 10-rated series and made O’Brian a household name. He was 91. Full obituary(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Jerry Heller, the early manager of N.W.A, was an important and colorful personality in the emerging West Coast rap scene in the 1980s. Heller was 75. Full obituary(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Two-time Oscar nominee Gene Wilder brought a unique blend of manic energy and world-weary melancholy to films as varied as 1971’s children’s movie “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and the 1980 comedy “Stir Crazy.” He was 83. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The beloved top-selling Mexican singer wooed crowds on both sides of the border with ballads of love and heartbreak for more than four decades. He was 66. Full obituary(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Known as the “queen of knitwear,” Sonia Rykiel became a fixture of Paris’ fashion scene, starting in 1968. French President Francois Hollande praised her as “a pioneer” who “offered women freedom of movement.” She was 86. Full obituary(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
The conservative political commentator hosted the long-running weekly public television show “The McLaughlin Group” that helped alter the shape of political discourse since its debut in 1982. He was 89. Full obituary(Kevin Wolf / Associated Press)
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Born Youree Harris, Cleo became a cultural icon as the spokeswoman for Psychic Readers Network, where she starred in infomercials as a Jamaican psychic, replete with accent, who used tarot card readings to advise individuals using the pay-per-call service on their futures. She was 53. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Lowery was a pioneer in efforts to help people suffering from poverty, addiction and mental illness move out of tents and cardboard boxes on Los Angeles’ sidewalks and into supportive housing. She was 70. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Nixon, a Hollywood voice double, can be heard in place of the leading actresses in such classic movie musicals as “West Side Story,” “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady.” She was 86. Full obituary(Rob Kim / AFP/Getty Images)
The department store heir’s widow was a socialite and philanthropist who hobnobbed with the world’s elite, epitomized high fashion and was best friends with former first lady Nancy Reagan. She was 93. Full obituary(Evan Agostini / Associated Press)
The writer and director is best known for his TV hits “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” and the box-office successes “Pretty Woman” and “Runaway Bride.” He was 81. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The author and teacher was long established as a leading literary figure of Southern California. Her works include “Golden Days,” “There Will Never Be Another You” and her memoir “Dreaming, Hard Luck and Good Times in America.” She was 82. Full obituary(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
The Nazi concentration camp survivor won the Nobel in 1986 for his message “of peace, atonement and human dignity.” “Night,” his account of his year in death camps, is regarded as one of the most powerful achievements in Holocaust literature. He was 87. Full obituary(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
One of the greatest basketball coaches of any gender or generation, Summitt spent 38 years as coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team before dementia forced her early retirement. She was 64. Full obituary(Wade Payne / Associated Press)
The iconic New York Times fashion photographer darted around New York on a humble bicycle to cover the style of high society grand dames and downtown punks with equal verve. He was 87. Full obituary(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
Aguirre was best known for his portrayal of the towering “Profesor Jirafales,” the likable and often disrespected giraffe teacher on the 1970s-era hit show “El Chavo del Ocho.” The screwball comedy helped usher in an era of edgier comedy in Mexico and elsewhere. Aguirre was 82. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Known as “Mr. Hockey” for his enduring skills and fierce competitiveness, Howe was a member of hockey’s Hall of Fame and a longtime ambassador for the game. He was 88. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The Academy Award-winning British playwright is best known for his stage dramas “Amadeus” and “Equus,” which were both turned into acclaimed movies. “Amadeus” won eight Oscars, including one for Shaffer for adapted screenplay and one for best picture. He was 90. Full obituary(Mike Lawn / Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
The three-time heavyweight boxing champion’s brilliance in the ring and bravado outside it made his face one of the most recognizable in the world. He was 74. Full obituary(John Rooney / Associated Press)
Crouch, the co-founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network, was one of the most recognizable and enduring figures in Orange Country’s televangelism pantheon. She enjoyed vast, loyal support from viewers of “Praise the Lord,” the show in which she appeared with her husband, Paul. She was 78. Full obituary( Mark Boster / The LA Times)
Like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, the CBS newsman became part of a group of journalists who set the tone for storytelling on television. He was on “60 Minutes” for 46 years, holding the longest tenure on prime-time television of anyone in history. He was 84. Full obituary(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The first African American chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Williams steadied the agency in the tumultuous wake of the 1992 riots but was distrusted as an outsider by many officers and politicians. He was 72. Full obituary(Nick Ut / Associated Press)
A KPCC stalwart since 2000, Julian was a brisk, unflappable and earnest on-air presence familiar to masses of weekday public-radio listeners on their morning commutes. Outside work, he was a playwright and actor, active in local theater. He was 57. Full obituary(Bill Youngblood / KPCC)
The trailblazing performer sold more than 100 million records over his career, fusing rock, pop, funk and R&B. He was 57. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Best known for her role as Marie Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Roberts won four Emmys for her work on that show and one for her work on “St. Elsewhere.” She was 90. Full obituary(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Known as “the godfather of Rodeo Drive,” Hayman was a serial entrepreneur whose eye for trends, nose for fragrances and hospitality-driven approach to retail helped shape the luxury landscape of Beverly Hills. He was 90. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The country music legend sang of his law-breaking Bakersfield youth and penned a stream of No. 1 hits. He owed some of his fame to conservative anthems, including the combative 1969 release “Okie from Muskogee,” which seemed to mock San Francisco’s anti-war hippies. He was 79. Full obituary(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The acclaimed Native American historian was the last surviving war chief of Montana’s Crow Tribe. President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He was 102. Full obituary(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Germany’s longest-serving foreign minister brokered an end to the painful 40-year division of his homeland in 1990, but only after persevering for decades through the most tragic and destructive phases of Germany’s 20th century history. He was 89. Full obituary(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)
The Iraqi-born British architect was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor. She made her mark with buildings such as the London Aquatics Centre, the MAXXI museum for contemporary art in Rome and the innovative Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain. She was 65. Full obituary(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)
The former television talk show host became the first openly gay man to serve on the Los Angeles City Council. He advocated for the homeless, gays and lesbians and other liberal causes. He was 70. Full obituary(Christina House / For The Times)
Duke won an Oscar at age 16 for her portrayal of Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” the youngest person at the time to receive the honor. She was also known for her bouncy 1960s TV sitcom, “The Patty Duke Show.” She was 69. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Garry Shandling’s comedic career spanned decades, but he is best known for his role as Larry Sanders, the host of a fictional talk show. His sitcom pushed the boundaries of TV, influencing shows such as “The Office” and “Modern Family.” He was 66. Full obituary.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ken Howard was president of SAG-AFTRA and an actor known for his role on TV’s ‘The White Shadow.’ He championed the merger of Hollywood’s two largest actors unions, which had a history of sparring. He was 71. Full obituary(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Phife Dawg, right, formed the trailblazing hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest in the late 1980s in New York with his childhood friend Q-Tip, left. He was 45. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The former first lady’s devotion to her husband made her a formidable behind-the-scenes player in his administrations and one of the most influential presidential wives in modern times. She was 94. Full obituary(American Vantage Media )
Martin, second from right, with Paul McCartney, left, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in 1963, produced nearly all the Beatles’ recordings, advising them on songwriting and arranging and capturing the vitality of their early performances in the studio. He was 90. Full obituary(Michael Ochs Archives )
The longtime Los Angeles radio disc jockey, whose real name was Art Ferguson, hosted the morning radio show for popular and influential station KHJ-AM in the late 1960s and went on to be a key player in the launch of latter-day powerhouses KROQ-AM and KIIS-FM. He was 71. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
The veteran actor built his early career playing heavies and won an Academy Award in 1968 for his supporting role as the tough Southern prison-camp convict who grew to hero-worship Paul Newman’s defiant title character in “Cool Hand Luke.” He was 91. Full obituary(Warner Bros. / Getty Images)
A prolific entrepreneur, Mann over the course of seven decades founded 17 companies in fields ranging from aerospace to pharmaceuticals to medical devices. He was 90. Full obituary(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
The Egyptian diplomat helped negotiate his country’s landmark peace deal with Israel but then clashed with the United States when he served a single term as U.N. secretary-general. He was 93. Full obituary(Marty Lederhandler / Associated Press)
The novelist’s 1960 masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird” brought her a Pulitzer Prize and a venerated place in American literature. She was 89. Full obituary(Donald Uhrbrock / PBS)
Supreme Court Justice Scalia was a fiery conservative who used a sharp intellect, barbed wit and a zeal for verbal combat to fight against the tide of modern liberalism. He was 79. Full obituary(Ray Chavez / Bay Area News Group)
Pro-BMX biker Dave Mirra was one of the most decorated athletes in X Games history. He held the record for the most medals in history with 24. He was 41. Full obituary(Ed Reinke / Associated Press)
Maurice White, co-founder and leader of the groundbreaking ensemble Earth, Wind & Fire, was the source for a wealth of euphoric hits in the 1970s and early ‘80s, including ‘Shining Star,’ ‘September,’ and ‘Boogie Wonderland.’ He was 74. Full obituary(Kathy Willens / Associated Press)
Once a finalist for California poet laureate, Alarcón was known for his bilingual poetry about immigrants, love and the indigenous languages and traditions of Mexico, and also for bilingual books of children’s verse. He was 61. Full obituary(Nancy Aidé Gonzalez )
A founding member of the Eagles, Frey was credited with being the chief architect of the vocal and instrumental blend that defined the group. The group’s hits included “Best of My Love” and “Hotel California.” He was 67. Full obituary
(Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redferns)
In a career that encompassed everything from big-budget Hollywood movies to classical theater, Rickman made bad behavior fascinating to watch from “Die Hard” to the “Harry Potter” movies. He was 69. Full obituary
The barrier-breaking British rock musician and actor produced an astonishing range of work, from cosmic folk (“Space Oddity”) and glam rock (“Ziggy Stardust”) to blue-eyed soul (“Young Americans”) and electronic experiments with Brian Eno (“Heroes”). He was 69. Full obituary
The composer and former principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic was known for pushing music lovers and the music establishment to let go of the past and embrace new sounds, structures and textures. He was 90. Full obituary(Christophe Ena / Associated Press)
The Academy Award winner was revered as one of the most influential cinematographers in film history for his work on classics including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Deer Hunter.” He was 85. Full obituary(Tamas Kovacs / EPA)
Gordon helped revolutionize surfing with the creation of the foam surfboard. His polyurethane boards were lighter and easier to ride, making surfing accessible -- which helped popularize the sport globally. He was in his 70s. Full obituary(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA Press)
The attorney and almond farmer was known for his battle to stop the $68-billion California bullet train project from slicing up his almond orchards -- part of a deeply emotional land war that has drawn in hundreds of farming families from Merced to Bakersfield. He was 92. Full obituary
Resisting the legacy of her famous father, crooner Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole was a singer in her own right. Known for her jazz and gospel-inflected voice, she sold more than 30 million albums and earned nine Grammy Awards over her four-decade career. She was 65. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
Alberto spent eight years at the orphanage and saw his mother about once a year. He found surrogate parents in Micaela Alvarado, the institution’s director, and in Juan Contreras, a teacher there. The “Juan” in Juan Gabriel is a tribute to Contreras, who eventually invited Alberto to live with him, teaching him to make wooden trinkets and sell them on the street.
When Alberto was 14, he left Contreras’ home to find his mother, and then dedicated himself full time to selling food on the street to help support the family.
For fun, he wrote songs in his head and sang them as he worked. (A song he wrote at the age of 13, “La Muerte del Palomo,” about his father’s death, became a smash hit years later.)
One afternoon, as Alberto was selling tortillas on the street, his singing caught the attention of two sisters, Leonor and Beatriz Berumen, who, feeling sorry for him, invited Alberto to live with them so they could teach him to read the Bible and nurture his singing.
As he became involved with the Berumens’ church, young Alberto had a chance to travel to a sister church in Lake Elsinore, where he stayed for a time with an African American family.
“That’s where I was first exposed to African American music,” Gabriel said. “And I knew then that if there was a God, and if God was listening, he was listening to African American music.”
After a year in California, Alberto returned to Juarez, where a TV music show host was impressed with the big-voiced 16-year-old, and gave him his first stage name: Adan Luna.
Around this time, “Adan” began singing in local bars, including one called El Noa Noa, which he would make famous in song and film. By 19, the determined young singer had taken himself to Mexico City and sparked enough interest in his powerful voice to get his first recording contract, under his new stage name, Juan Gabriel. Within a year, he had a gold record, “No Tengo Dinero” (I’ve Got No Money).
The first major purchase Gabriel made with his new income was a house for his mother in Juarez in 1971; at the time, he paid what would have been $250,000 in the U.S. She lived for only three more years.
To explain his devotion to the woman who had abandoned him, Gabriel says, “Mexico is a very mom-centered culture. You’ll find stores open on Father’s Day, but never on Mother’s Day. For us, mothers are very important. I know she did the best she could, given what she knew.”
After his mother’s death, the owners of the house where his mother had been employed needed someone to buy the home, where Gabriel said his mother had been humiliated and treated like a slave. Gabriel stepped in.
“It was quite a scandal,” he says, smiling devilishly.
In addition to that house, Gabriel later bought a house in Juarez his mother had told him was her dream house. Eventually, the orphanage even came up for sale. Gabriel bought that too and turned it into a music school.
He bought a nicer building elsewhere in the city in 1987 and built a new orphanage, Semjase, home to 100 children. In addition to being an orphanage for boys, Semjase, named for Gabriel’s goddess of music, is also a music school for city children. The facility is a large house, renovated and filled with music rooms, recreation rooms with video games, and surrounded by gardens and apple trees. In all, Semjase has about 50 full-time employees; their salaries are all paid out of Gabriel’s pocket.
“We are very aware that apart from his music, Mr. Juan Gabriel is completely dedicated to children,” said Semjase director Luz Alicia Perez Gallegos. As she spoke, the blare of a young brass band practicing on a patio cut through. According to Perez, Gabriel’s philosophy is that children needing affection will find joy in music.
Perez says Gabriel is beloved in Juarez. “He’s a kind human being. He took a very difficult period in his life and turned it into something beautiful. He is the only singer I can think of who is doing something like this, completely from the goodness of his heart.”
Houses remain a passion for Gabriel, who owns ranches in New Mexico, Texas and Mexico and also mansions in Florida, Texas, Juarez, Cancun and elsewhere.
“Houses are an investment to me,” he says, finishing his dinner at Geoffrey’s. “It’s not that I have something to prove anymore. I did that when I was younger. I buy them so that my children will have some security when they grow up.”
Maria Nava, program director for La Nueva FM 101.9, has been a close friend of Gabriel for more than 10 years, and says that the most amazing thing about him is his parenting.
Nava said Gabriel plans surprise parties for his children on holidays and dotes on them, even writes them songs and sings to them. “His best compositions have never been recorded,” Nava said. “Because he writes his best songs for his kids’ ears only.”
Though Gabriel enjoys gardening, he does not have much time to tend to his gardens himself. He performs an average of once a week and travels often. Hauser says that “you see the same fans in Los Angeles and Chicago. They’re like the Grateful Dead fans. They follow him everywhere he goes.”
To relax, Gabriel says, he writes songs. His compulsive songwriting has made him Mexico’s most prolific living songwriter. He says he is “one of those lucky people whose work and fun are not distinct.”
“I don’t make plans,” he says. “I don’t follow a schedule every day. I live in the moment and let inspiration come to me. To me, music is mankind’s way of thanking the universe for letting us be here.
“For some, it’s a way to thank God. For others, it’s a way to thank nature. It is universal. And to make it, you have to be fully alive. I do my best to do that. I enjoy every moment, because I believe that once we die, that’s it. We’re not coming back. Lovers come back. Styles come back. But time? It never comes back.”
Some of Gabriel’s most enthusiastic fans are rival artists, including Luis Miguel and Marc Anthony. Anthony credits his entire salsa career to Gabriel’s composition “Hasta Que Te Conoci,” a remake of which became Anthony’s first hit.
“Juan Gabriel has changed the face of music,” Anthony said from Puerto Rico. “His music has transcended generations and genres because of his simple, timeless melodies. Add a little tear and a great voice and you have Juan Gabriel, which is what caught me right off the bat. I’m a huge fan. We’re talking huge!”
Gabriel has also won endless prizes, yet he insists that “the best prize I can think of is when I look out in the audience and see people singing my songs, or when people wish me well or when they say, ‘God bless you.’ ”
And as for money? “If I lost it all tomorrow I wouldn’t care,” he says. There is no hint of sarcasm in his voice, and his eyes are clear and sincere. There is no reason to doubt that he means this.
“Money doesn’t make you a moral person, or a good person, and neither does religion,” he says.
The waiter returns, to take desert orders.
“Do you have chocolate ice cream?” Gabriel asks.
The waiter manages a tight smile and says, “No, I’m sorry.” He rattles off the names of more complex after-dinner fare. Gabriel, unimpressed with the pretentious pastries, skips dessert.
“Money can be taken away from you, by the IRS or by pistol,” he continues. “That’s why I always measure riches in terms of wisdom. No one can ever take from you what you know.”
On the day after the restaurant interview, Gabriel rides in the back of his white limo to the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, where he gives two Valentine’s Day shows, performing banda music from his newest album. About 4,000 fans fill the arena for each show.
Playing at this arena is, for Mexican musicians, a little like playing the Grand Ole Opry for country musicians. Before Gabriel’s sets, cowboys perform tricks on horseback in the mud of the rodeo arena. Families sit on bleachers in their jeans and cowboy hats, eating popcorn and drinking soda or beer.
By performing banda at the Pico, Gabriel proved that no matter how many millions he is worth, no matter how many orchestras he’s played before, he is still in touch with regular people. The banda tunes are very different from Gabriel’s usual repertoire of ballads, and his enthusiasm for the festive new music prompts him to dance and laugh.
Wearing shiny black patent-leather boots and a luxuriously flowing red and black Valentine’s cape, Gabriel ignores the stage set up on one side of the arena, preferring to get down in the mud. A small round table with a white linen tablecloth, topped with a crystal vase holding two long-stemmed red roses, waits to one side, near bales of hay.
Without a second thought to his expensive shoes, Gabriel paces the Pico as he sings, stopping at intervals to hold eye contact with a fan, blowing kisses as he goes.
One woman hurls herself like a stunt double from the bleachers onto the stage and then flings her body into the mud next to Gabriel. He continues to sing, chuckling beneath the notes, and helps her to her feet. He appears genuinely touched, and surprised.
“Ay, mi amor,” he says as she stands, giving her a you-should-know-better look and a kiss on the cheek. “Ten cuidado, mi’ja.” (Be careful, sweetheart.)
Security comes, and one more Juan Gabriel fan is led away, flushed from coming into contact with him.
Down in the mud, the man who could be Julio sings on.
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