For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the Estefans. Gloria and Emilio, married for 31 years, have always been, in my mind, our First Family. The ballad, “Con Los Años Que Me Quedan,” which they co-wrote, epitomizes grown-up love to me. Sometimes, I even daydream that I am Gloria on the black-and-white cover of that Mi Tierra album, gorgeous as ever with the flowers in her hair and the white gown, in a 1950s nightclub in Havana, with some guy rolling cigars in the corner and a trio of handsome men trying to holler in the back.
Individually, Gloria and Emilio are extraordinary, but as a couple, they’re unstoppable. Just listen to Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga,” which, to this day, remains the only song ever to hit Billboard’s pop, soul, dance, and Latin charts simultaneously. Back in the 80s, when record execs asked Emilio to take out the crazy horns in “Dr. Beat;” when they asked Gloria to change her name to sound more Anglo; when, during the American Music Awards, someone asked Gloria to wear a costume with fruits on her head and do the Carmen Miranda dance; they said, “Absolutely not.” And they’ve stuck to their guns ever since.
Aside from MSM—founded by Emilio and fronted by Gloria—Emilio’s produced soundtracks, Olympics and Superbowl ceremonies, and advised presidents and dignitaries on U.S.-Cuba relations. Back in 2000, he had the brilliant idea to launch a separate, Latin Grammys, to honor the breadth of talent in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. He’d planted the seed five years earlier, when he had Gloria perform in Spanish with Tito Puente and Sheila E. at the American Grammys—another first. Emilio did it, as he does everything, because he lives by the words: “Don’t tell me I can’t…because I will find a way.”
In 2009, a year which saw America sink even deeper into a recession, the Estefans made history once again by purchasing a share of the Miami Dolphins, making them the first Cuban Americans to own a piece of an NFL franchise. In recognition of his influence, President Obama appointed Emilio to the Commission to Study the Potential Creation of a National Museum of the American Latino, something which I hope to see in my lifetime.
On January 5, Emilio Estefan, himself a winner of 19 Grammys as a producer and songwriter, releases his memoir, The Rhythm of Success: How An Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream (Celebra Hardcover), with a foreword by Quincy Jones. The book—which chronicles his journey from a communist Cuba to the shores of Miami, where he built a multi-million dollar empire that stretches across music, real estate, and hospitality— has a special dedication: “To any young kid with the dream of becoming the first Hispanic president of the United States.” If everything he’s accomplished in his life up until now is any indication, if Emilio can envision it, it will happen.
During a breakfast meeting in NYC this past November, I had the honor of asking Don Emilio, 56, some things I’ve always wondered about, like, does he mind being called “Don?” Turns out the answer is no! He loves it—and it’s been happening a lot lately for whatever reason. Among the many anecdotes he shared, was this one: “I’m sitting front row at the American Grammys in 1999, next to Celine Dion and Madonna, all my friends, and I say to them, ‘There’s a guy that’s going to come out in a few minutes and he’s going to blow your mind. Please give him a standing ovation.’ But we didn’t need that because everybody got up!”
That guy was Ricky Martin. A year later, Emilio would do the same for a certain Colombian rockera, whose career he managed during its now-epic crossover stage, and with whom he shares Lebanese roots. Recalling her 2000 performance of “Ojos Asi,” when Shakira bellydanced onto national TV for the first time, Emilio says: “When Shakira was about to perform during the Latin Grammys, I sat next to her mother and I told her, 'In about five minutes, your daughter’s life is going to change.'"
That, in a nutshell, is what you call a visionary.
The Rhythm of Success: How An Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream is available at Amazon.