Juan Gabriel, a prolific songwriter, flamboyant showman and icon of Mexican music, died yesterday after suffering a heart attack in Santa Monica, California.
The 66-year-old artist, who wrote close to 1,800 songs during a career that spanned close to 50 years, was known as the Divo of Juárez, having spent much of his childhood in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.
He was born Alberto Aguilera Valadez in Michoacán to a farming family that moved to Juárez after his father was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Unable to support the family of 10 children on her own, Gabriel’s mother sent him, her youngest child, to an orphanage, where he spent eight years.
It was in Juárez he wrote his first song at the age of 13. At 15, he debuted on a television program and began working as a singer at a local bar.
In 1971, after signing a recording contract with RCA Victor, he released his first studio album and the song No Tengo Dinero (I Have No Money), written after spending time looking for work in Mexico City, where he slept in bus and train stations.
No Tengo Dinero became his first hit.
Gabriel’s records have sold over 100 million copies worldwide, making him the best-selling artist in Mexico’s history. He wrote and performed pop, rock, disco and mariachi, easily crossing genre lines, appearing in concerts with full orchestras and mariachi bands with marathon shows of three hours or more.
His 1984 album called Recuerdos, Vol. II, was Mexico’s best-selling album with 8 million copies, and contained what has been described as Gabriel’s biggest hit, Querida.
One such concert was on Friday, his last, part of a 20-city tour. Accompanied by 60 musicians and dancers he performed with his trademark energy and emotion for two hours and 35 minutes before an audience of 17,500 in Inglewood, California.
Reported to have been suffering complications with a knee, Gabriel showed no sign that he was suffering anything, dancing in his traditional sensual style and captivating his admirers.
“Juan Gabriel was very effeminate on stage, yet he was one of these artists where if you went to a Juan Gabriel concert you would see these macho guys in tears and you would see girls in tears,” said Leila Cobo, who directs coverage of Latin music for Billboard Magazine.
“He was very sexually ambiguous and yet he was able to reach everybody,” Cobo said. “And I think it’s a little bit the power of the songs, too. His songs were easy to relate with. And this guy, he really kind of lived his songs.”
Cobo also said Gabriel’s music was making a big comeback this year. “He was having the year of his life.” He had the top-selling Latin album in the U.S., she said.
President Enrique Peña Nieto yesterday described him as one Mexico’s “greatest musical icons.”
Tweeting his condolences, Peña Nieto said his music was a legacy for the world.
Gabriel never married but he leaves four children.