Gloria Estefan Raises the Standard
By Ray Rogers
Like many great ideas, the inspiration for Gloria Estefan's take on "The Day You Say You Love Me", the emotional centerpiece of her new album The Standards, came in a rush—this one involving a stream of water from the showerhead of her Star Island manse.
"It was 2 o'clock in the morning, and as I stepped into the shower, this whole thing came into my head—I was hanging out of the shower, dripping on a piece of paper writing this down,", recalls Estefan. "I had been thinking for weeks in my head about the hook of the song, and then one night it just all poured out." The result? A passion project more than a lifetime in the making
An album of standards has been a long-held dream for the Miami icon, who first rose to worldwide fame with “Conga” in 1985, from the Miami Sound Machine’s second English-language album (and ninth overall). She’s gone on to sell more than 100 million records around the globe in a career that’s spanned pop, dance, ballads, salsa, and all manner of Latin music, netting her seven Grammy Awards and countless other trophies, titles, and accolades along the way.
An artist of versatile talent, Estefan had the business savvy early on not to get pigeonholed as a dance-pop singer after her first big hit. “Obviously the record company wanted us to keep doing ‘Conga,’ but it was very important to us that ‘Words Get in the Way’ come out next as a single. I told the record company it may be tougher to brand us by changing, but in the long run, it’s gonna free us. Because this is what I do: I love ballads, I write ballads, I sing them.”
But before any of that, she was weaned on standards. “This genre really is the first music that I ever listened to in my life and is something that I’ve sung forever,” says Estefan, who turns 56 on September 1. “I had the opportunity with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett to do tracks on their duet albums, but I always wanted to do a standards record of my own.”
That dream resurfaced at a trustee dinner last year for her alma mater, the University of Miami, when Estefan sang an impromptu number, “Good Morning Heartache,” accompanied by composer Shelly Berg at the piano (Berg is also the dean at UM’s Frost School of Music). “The whole thing unfolded before my very eyes,” she says. The recording then came together with the help of Berg (who co-produced the album along with Estefan’s husband, Emilio) and some of the musical greats who played with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. The team laid down 16 tracks in the span of four days at the Hit Factory.
It’s a sentimental journey for the Cuban-born Miami legend, each song imbued not just with the weight of its legacy but with her own personal history. “I chose them all because they had something particular to do in my life.” Case in point: The aforementioned “The Day You Say You Love Me”—an English-language translation by Estefan herself of the 1935 Carlos Gardel tango classic “El Día Que Me Quieras”—was the Estefans’ wedding song from a day of roller-coaster emotions. “We never planned to have a reception, because my dad was very ill. We went to see him in the hospital after the church service in my wedding gown, and it was actually one of the few moments he recognized me in the last four years of his life. Then we went home to supposedly have a Champagne toast and cut the cake, and our friends threw us a surprise reception in our home.”
The very thought of it makes her swoon—and laugh. “It was a very hot day, September 2, 1978. So I had gone to our bedroom and was in the bathroom changing out of my wedding dress, and all of a sudden I hear the DJ going, ‘And now the couple will dance their first song,’ and I had to open the bathroom window and yell, ‘Hey, wait a minute! I’m changing!’”
The rest of the track list is rich with rites of passage. “What a Difference a Day Makes” is the very first song she sang onstage with the Miami Latin Boys, which would become the Miami Sound Machine. “It was on October 25, 1975, at the old DuPont Plaza, which is where the Epic stands now,” she recalls as if it were just the blink of an eye ago.
Estefan is in a state of rather heightened emotions the day we speak, and not just due to opening up about the memories attached to the album. She’s also mourning the death of her beloved bulldog, Noelle, the muse for her two children’s books, who died just a week before our meeting. Her ashes were delivered today, and Estefan wrestles back the tears. “I dreamed of her last night, and she arrived today. I’m wearing the crystal that I wore the day that my husband transitioned her,” she says, her voice shaking. “She was a very Zen, calming presence with me.” And with that, Estefan indeed collects herself.
As often happens, life imitates art, and transformations in Estefan’s professional career are mirroring changes she’s experiencing in her personal life. She is steeling her nerves for another tumultuous shift at home: Her daughter, Emily, is preparing to leave the nest to study music at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “She’s the best musician of all of us. She lives and breathes music, she plays drums, piano, everything you can imagine,” raves the proud mom, who, while excited and happy for her daughter, is naturally feeling the sting of change. “I’m practically in a fetal position, because we’re very close—it’s gonna hurt. I will make it as happy for her as possible. But it’s hard, it’s my baby—thank God I have the grandbaby, let’s put it that way,” says the doting grandmother to son Nayib’s 1-year-old boy, Sasha.
It’s all adding up to a busy year. Aside from promoting The Standards with appearances and one-off live concerts, she and Emilio are at work on a Broadway theatrical production of their life story, which they hope to see hit the Great White Way in 2014. Together 37 years now, Estefan says the pair have a special relationship that’s allowed them to live and work in harmony. “We’ve been able to achieve what we’ve achieved because we’re together.” Having a husband as a manager, though, “is not something I would recommend to most people,” she cautions. “Emilio and I have in our relationship certain things that really make this work: Number one, there are no egos involved. We’re very different personality-wise, but in the things that count—values, morals, business—we rarely disagree. But I wouldn’t tell everyone, ‘Hey, do this,’ because it’s tough. You have to learn where the manager stops and my husband begins.” Clearly the Estefans have found that boundary: The pair celebrates its 35th wedding anniversary this month.
Of course, the two enjoy nights out at local restaurants, with Cipriani being a recent favorite, in addition to Bongos Cuban Café and Larios on the Beach—both of which they own. They’re also courtside fixtures at Miami Heat games, cheering on the hometown heroes during their second straight NBA title run, and have a minor ownership stake in the Miami Dolphins. Other adventures include bonding over adrenaline rushes on the Colorado slopes, or soaking up the serenity of boating around Miami.
Tooling around Miami today, dressed casually in black stretch athletic Lululemon pants, she’s off to Whole Foods to hand-pick vegetables to juice for her mother, who instilled in her the values of family and her own homeland from an early age. “We grew up with our parents thinking that eventually we would go back. This was the thought process for many, many years—they planted us here, but they watered us with Cuban sun and fed us with Cuban food, and made sure that our culture wasn’t diluted in our family life,” she says.
“In Miami we have tried to save the Cuba, Cuba BC, I call it—Before Castro—and that’s been a major part of Emilio’s and my contribution to the city.” But what a journey it’s been, the epitome of the rags-to-riches American dream—rising up from poverty and discrimination and hardship to the heights of fame and fortune via sheer force of will combined with innate talent. Despite today’s success, those early childhood days in Miami, and the struggles and sacrifices her parents endured to give their children a better life, remain potent. “We arrived in May of 1959. I remember going with my mom looking for a place to rent and her being very upset about reading signs that said, "No Cubans." My dad actually got a job parking cars when he first came from Cuba. This was while he was getting ready to go enlist, which he didn’t tell my mom he was going to do; he left a note for her and the telephone number of a doctor in case we had an emergency, and he went off to training for the Bay of Pigs, and then he ended up being a political prisoner for a couple of years there.”
Times were tough for the family on all fronts while he was imprisoned. “We lived in a kind of commune because [my mom] found a little strip of apartments a block away from the Orange Bowl, and she called all her friends whose husbands were also in Cuba and we kind of took over this little space; it was like 10 apartments, five on each side. They bought a car for $50, and we would all go together everywhere. They’d pile all those kids in the backseat,” Estefan recalls.
“So I’ve kind of grown up along with Miami, and Emilio and I are very fortunate to feel a part of the growth of this city. If anybody’s anywhere in the world and they say they’re from Miami, they ask them if they know me! We really live in paradise.”
That paradise is not something she takes for granted. She and Emilio continue to give back to the city that raised them and helped fuel their musical success. “What’s always made me happy in my life is to be of service to others and help others, so we established the Gloria Estefan Foundation to try to maximize that possibility,” she notes of her namesake organization, which has raised some $40 million for The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. It’s a cause dear to her, following her near-devastating tour-bus accident in 1990, which almost left her paralyzed. Beyond the bigger-picture goals of medical research and funding, she says, “We try to help [with] things in our community, things that maybe fell through the cracks, or can help on a day-to-day basis.”
Protecting the city’s heritage as Miami morphs into its future is also important to Estefan. She’s on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, raising her voice for causes like the restoration of the local landmark Miami Marine Stadium, which has sat dormant since 1992 in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. “It’s nice that you can contribute to the growth of a place where you live and work and raise your kids,” she says. “I played at that stadium! I’m a boater, and I’ve enjoyed the view from the water many times. It’s a survivor; it survived Andrew like a lot of us did in the city. And me personally having had that accident and my back being titanium-reinforced, it also kind of mirrors my physical being in this place because it survived, and hopefully it will have a new resurgence and a whole new opportunity to offer wonderful enjoyment to this city.” Likewise, Miami is continually reinforced by Gloria’s presence and rich history. “I love Miami. There’s no city like this anywhere in the world,” she says. Hey, Gloria, we love ya right back!
Photography by Andrew Eccles; Styling by Mario Vergel; Hair by Georgina Del Pino; Makeup by Sidney Jamila using M.A.C. Cosmetics; Catering by SF Catering; sf-catering.com. Shot on location at the New World Center, 500 17th St., Miami Beach, 305-673-3330; newworldcenter.com.