Cuban-American superstar Gloria Estefan fronted the band Miami Sound Machine. Songs like “Conga” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” topped the charts in the 1980s and 1990s and became pop classics.
Who Is Gloria Estefan?
Singer Gloria Estefan was born September 1, 1957, in Havana, Cuba. As a toddler Estefan fled Cuba with her family. In 1975 she met keyboardist Emilio Estefan, her future husband, who led a band called the Miami Latin Boys. Estefan became the lead singer and the band was renamed the Miami Sound Machine, before going on to score several Top 10 hits in the 1980s and 1990s. Estefan and her husband later produced a Broadway musical, On Your Feet!, which featured the Miami Sound Machine’s popular songs.
Singer. Born Gloria Fajardo on September 1, 1957, in Havana, Cuba. As a toddler Estefan fled Cuba with her family when Communist dictator Fidel Castro rose to power. Her father, Jose Manuel Fajardo, had been a Cuban soldier and bodyguard of President Fulgencio Batista.
After coming to the United States, the elder Fajardo was recruited into the 2506 Brigade, a CIA-funded band of Cuban refugees that was involved in the unsuccessful 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. After President John F. Kennedy negotiated the release of the captured soldiers, Fajardo rejoined his family. He eventually joined the U.S. Army and served for two years in Vietnam.
As a child Estefan liked to write poetry, and though she took classical guitar lessons, she found them tedious. She had no inkling that she would someday become a popular music star, but music played a very important role for her as a teenager.
After her father’s return from Vietnam, he was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis, possibly as a result of having been exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange while serving in the Army. Estefan’s mother, who had been a teacher in Cuba, worked to support the family during the day and attended school at night. Young Gloria was left to take care of her father and younger sister. She had little social life, and because she felt the weight of such responsibilities she turned to music as a release.
“When my father was ill, music was my escape,” Estefan told Washington Post reporter Richard Harrington. “I would lock myself up in my room for hours and just sing. I wouldn’t cry—I refused to cry. … Music was the only way I had to just let go, so I sang for fun and for emotional catharsis.”
Meeting Emilio Estefan
In 1975 Gloria met keyboardist Emilio Estefan, a sales manager for the rum dealer Bacardi who also led a band called the Miami Latin Boys. The band played popular Latin music, but because there was no lead singer, the quartet members took turns singing. A mutual friend asked Emilio to advise Gloria and some friends about organizing a band for a special event. Emilio heard Gloria sing, and when he met her again at a wedding at which the Miami Latin Boys were entertaining, he asked her to sit in with the band. A few weeks later Emilio asked Gloria to perform as lead singer with the band, and she accepted.
At first Gloria sang only on weekends, because she was still attending the University of Miami. A year and a half after Gloria joined the group, by then renamed the Miami Sound Machine, the band recorded its first album for a local label. Renacer was a collection of disco pop and original ballads sung in Spanish. Although Estefan was a little heavier and very shy when she joined the band, she slimmed down with a rigorous exercise program and worked to overcome her natural reticence.
After several months on a professional level, Emilio and Gloria’s professional relationship turned personal, and in September 1978, they were married. Their son Nayib was born two years later, about the time that Emilio quit his job at Bacardi to work full-time with the band, then made up of bassist Marcos Avila, drummer Kiki Garcia, keyboardist, arranger, and saxophonist Raul Murciano, keyboardist Emilio and soprano Gloria.
Miami Sound Machine
By 1980 the group had signed a contract with Discos CBS International, the Miami-based Hispanic division of CBS Records. Between 1981 and 1983 the Miami Sound Machine recorded four Spanish-language albums made up of ballads, disco, pop, and sambas. The Miami Sound Machine first met with success in Spanish-speaking countries. The group had dozens of hit songs around the world—particularly in Venezuela, Peru, Panama, and Honduras—but enjoyed little recognition in the United States.
The Miami Sound Machine’s first North American hit was from the band’s first English album, Eyes of Innocence (1984). The disco single “Dr. Beat” went to the top of the European dance charts. The song’s popularity prompted CBS to move the group to Epic, a parent label, and inspired group members to write songs in English. The rousing dance number “Conga” became the first single to crack Billboard’s pop, dance, black and Latin charts simultaneously.
Crossover Pop Star
In 1985 the album Primitive Love, the band’s first recording entirely in English, set off a string of hit singles. “Bad Boys” and “Words Get in the Way” made their way onto Billboard‘s Top 10 pop chart. Behind the scenes was the work of the trio known as the “Three Jerks”: producer/drummer Joe Galdo and his partners, Rafael Vigil and Lawrence Dermer, who wrote, arranged and performed the majority of the music on Primitive Love and the follow-up album, Let It Loose (1987).
As a band, the Miami Sound Machine developed a split personality. In the studio the Three Jerks and session players made records, and for concerts the road band, which included Garcia and Avila, performed. Estefan was the common denominator. Extensive tours, concerts in 40,000-seat stadiums and music videos on MTV and VH-1 made the Miami Sound Machine a leading U.S. band.
Estefan gradually became the star attraction, and the act came to be billed as Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine or sometimes simply Gloria Estefan. Some commentators on the popular music scene called Estefan a demure, Hispanic version of Madonna.
After the Let It Loose album, Galdo and friends quit working with the Miami Sound Machine, so the band was on its own creatively. Early in its evolution, the band’s biggest hits were rousing dance numbers, but by the end of the 1980s it was Estefan’s ballads that engendered its success. From the Let It Loose album the singles “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Betcha Say That,” and “1-2-3” made it to Billboard‘s Top 10 list, but it was the ballad “Anything For You” that topped the charts.
Despite the group’s popularity with English-speaking listeners, the Estefans never forgot their roots. The title of their 1989 album Cuts Both Ways attested to their intention to live up to their international reputation. Estefan contributed to Cuts Both Ways in more capacities than as just the lead singer. She was involved in its planning and production, composed some of the music and wrote lyrics to most of the songs. The rollicking salsa finale “Oye Mi Canto” (“Hear My Song”) rivaled “Conga” for its appeal.
Personal Life and Accident
Emilio Estefan relinquished his position as keyboardist with the Miami Sound Machine after the birth of son, Nayib. He then devoted his considerable energy and managerial talent to promoting the band and the other enterprises that were to eventually make the Estefans producers of their own and others’ records. While Gloria Estefan toured with the band, her husband ensured that Nayib would have at least one parent at home. A close family, the Estefans would arrange to meet as often as possible during tours.
While traveling together on March 20, 1990, the band’s bus was involved in an accident with a tractor-trailer on snowy Interstate 380 near the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Nayib suffered a fractured shoulder and Emilio received minor head and hand injuries, while Gloria suffered a broken vertebra in her back. In a four-hour operation several days later, surgeons realigned Estefan’s spine and implanted steel rods to buttress the fracture. With a prognosis for complete recovery doubtful, Estefan retired to her home on Star Island, near Miami, to begin her long recovery.
Her daughter Emily was born in 1994.
Thanks to extensive physical therapy, intense determination and the support of her family and fans, Gloria Estefan made what many consider a miraculous comeback. She marked her return to performing with an appearance on television’s American Music Awards in January of 1991, and beginning in March, she launched a year-long tour to tout her comeback album Into the Light.
During the next four years Gloria released four albums and embarked on a world tour. The albums alternated in style from Latin to pop. After recording the platinum album Destiny in 1996, Gloria began a high-tech world tour called Evolution. Each show commenced with a suspended globe moving above the audience from which Gloria emerged. The $14 million in receipts from the North American leg placed it as the 24th highest grossing tour of 1996.
In 1998 Gloria continued to combine pop, dance and Latin rhythms in her 12th album, gloria!. She also performed on the VH-1 concert special, Divas Live along with Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin, Shania Twain and others. The concert raised money to fund music education in elementary schools. Inclusion in this event affirmed her position among the top female singers in the music industry.
In recent years, Gloria Estefan has found another outlet for her creative talents. She wrote two picture books for children: The Magically Mysterious Adventures of Noelle the Bulldog (2005) and Noelle’s Treasure Tale (2006).
On September 18, 2007, Estefan released 90 Millas, a tribute to the music of her native Cuba, which featured a collaboration with musician Carlos Santana. It was her 29th album overall, her 11th studio solo album and her fourth in Spanish. The album landed Estefan at No. 11 on the Latin Female Artist of the Year chart in 2007.
In 2008, Estefan made a cameo appearance on the television competition American Idol with fellow musician Sheila E. That same year, Gloria and her husband collaborated on the cookbook Estefan Kitchen, which featured traditional Cuban recipes. She also embarked on an extensive American and European tour, which concluded in late 2009.
Even as pop music continues to churn out new stars and sounds, Estefan has displayed few signs of slowing down. She teamed with producer Pharrell Williams to create Miss Little Havana in 2011, and delivered her version of several American classics for The Standards in 2013. The singer and her husband also worked on bringing an autobiographical musical to life, with On Your Feet! debuting on Broadway in 2015.
That year, Estefan and her husband were both honored for their trailblazing contributions to music and Latin American culture with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2017, Estefan enjoyed additional recognition as one of five artists named a Kennedy Center honoree that year.