In their latest burst of TV fame, the Estefans have familiar duties.
Gloria is out-front, doing most of the talking; she’s the people person, the fan favorite. Emilio says a little, then returns to the background.
It all seems natural, during PBS’ “Gershwin Prize” special. But in the old days, it was flip-flopped.
Gloria was the quiet one. “I love studying and I wanted an education,” she said. At the University of Miami she “graduated in three years …. They had accepted me in the Sorbonne, in France, to study international law and diplomacy.” Instead, she decided to study psychology. “And then I met him.”
Well, they had met earlier, but it was fleeting. She was 16 and hoped to start a music group; he was 20 and had one. He was asked to give some tips; he had short shorts, an accordion and a lot to say.
Emilio says he also heard her sing at a church. “I said, ‘What a beautiful voice.’ Then, probably six months later, I was playing a wedding and she came in. I said, ‘Why don’t you (do) one song with us?’”
At a time when Latino bands didn’t seem to have female singers, this one soon had two – Gloria and her cousin. The Miami Latin Boys became the Miami Sound Machine.
Think of that machine as a blender. “I was born in Cuba; I grew up in Spain,” Emilio said. “My dad was Lebanese. My mom was from Spain …. In a way, I’m very confused.”
He had no music education, Anthony DeStefano wrote in “Gloria Estefan” (Signet, 1997), but when he was 9 in Cuba “he began experimenting with an accordion he and a friend had found.”
Then he moved to Spain with his dad at 12 and to Miami at about 16. He had a day job, went to night school … and created the Latin Boys for weekend gigs.
He was outgoing and optimistic. Gloria was, she said, “very different from Emilio, personality-wise …. Music was what got me through he toughest times as a kid …. I would lock myself up in my room and use other people’s songs. I would learn to play them on my guitar and literally cry by myself.”
There was much to weep about. Her family had prospered in Havana, where her mom taught and her dad worked security for President Fulgencio Batista; when Batista was overthrown, the family fled.
Gloria was in the U.S. by the time she was 2, but her dad often wasn’t. He spent 20 months in Cuban prison after the Bay of Pigs invasion, then was a U.S. Army officer in Vietnam.
“He bought two reel-to-reel tape recorders,” she said. Her mother and sister talked on the tapes; Gloria sang. “Music was what got me through my toughest times as a kid, when my dad was very ill.”
Shortly after returning home, he had a debilitating illness, alternately considered multiple sclerosis and Agent Orange impact. As a teen whose mother was teaching, Gloria became a caregiver, a student and, at times, a singer. “Music was always my catharsis, but I didn’t plan on doing it as a business.”
But then it caught on. “We found this fusion of sounds,” Emilio said.
It became “one of the most popular groups in Miami, playing a mix of disco-pop and salsa,” wrote the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll” (Fireside, 2001).
There were complaints that Emilio underpaid and undercredited the people who wrote and played on the early hits, putting more focus on his wife Gloria. She was also accused of plagiarizing “Conga” from a previous hit; a judge decided that both were variations on Cuban folk traditions.
She began writing many of the hits, springing from her own tastes – Karen Carpenter, Nat King Cole, etc. — and mood. “It’s easier writing from pain,” she said.
There was much pain to write about, including the 1990 bus-truck crash that almost left her paralyzed. Using a phrase Emilio had scribbled (when the sun came out during their helicopter ride to surgery), she wrote “Coming Out of the Dark,” one of her No. 1 hits.
Now they’re winners of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The annual Library of Congress award has gone to Stevie Wonder, two Pauls (Simon and McCartney), Carole King and more; now it adds what was once a mismatch of a quiet student and an un-quiet accordion player in short-shorts.
— “Gershwin Prize,” 9-10:30 p.m. Friday (May 3), PBS (check local listings).
— Gloria and Emilio Estefan perform, plus their daughter, singer-percussionist Emily Estefan, 24.
— Their music and other standards will be done by Patti LaBelle, Cyndi Lauper, Jose Feliciano, Rita Moreno, Il Volo and more, including the cast of the Estefans’ Broadway musical, “On Your Feet.”