Paco de Lucía (Dec. 21, 1947-Feb. 25, 2014)
It's no exaggeration to say that flamenco gained global recognition thanks in large part to the music of Francisco Gustavo Sánchez Gomes, better known as Paco de Lucía. An innovator who began his career as a virtuoso guitarist alongside traditional flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla in the '60s and '70s, with whom he would record 10 albums, de Lucía later went way beyond the confines of flamenco. He experimented with jazz, bossa nova, salsa and pop, and recorded signature albums with global acts like Chick Corea, Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin. The fact that he had to constantly record, said de Lucía in an interview with Spanish daily El Pais in 2004, is what forced him to become a constant innovator. While previous flamenco stars could record maybe three, four or even 10 albums in their entire career, "I had to record almost one a year and I decided each album would be novel. In a way, that forced me to continue to grow and to learn." In November, de Lucía's last studio album, Canción Andaluza, won the Latin Grammy for Album of the Year.
Simón Díaz (Aug. 8, 1928-Feb. 19, 2014)
The Venezuelan singer/songwriter is best remembered for his song "Caballo Viejo" (Old Horse), which would become a Latin American classic covered by the likes of Julio Iglesias, Gipsy Kings, Plácido Domingo and Rubén Blades, among others. But Díaz's lasting contribution was as a composer who sought to highlight the traditional music of the Venezuelan plains, or llanos. Married to memorable melodies, many of his compositions became standards.
José Luis "Cheo" Feliciano (July 3, 1935-April 17, 2014)
Blessed with one of the most entreating -- and emblematic -- voices in tropical music, José Luis "Cheo" Feliciano (not to be confused with his fellow Puerto Rican and guitarist José Feliciano of "Feliz Navidad" fame) died as he lived: with flair. He crashed his Jaguar in the early morning hours after a night of music. An elegant, stylish man who always performed in natty suits, and who performed in public literally until the week he died, Feliciano, born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, rose to fame as the vocalist of the Joe Cuba sextet in the 1950s. A crooner who was also a master in the improvisational art of the soneo, Feliciano was a master at straddling dance and romance with a velvety voice that could fire up a room. He would become a member of the Fania All Stars and also embark on a prolific solo career, turning songs like "Anacaona" and "El Ratón" into signature hits. In 2012, Feliciano teamed up with fellow salsero Ruben Blades on Eba Say Aja, an album where both artists recorded each other's songs. He was also touring with Sergio George's Salsa Giants at the time of his death.
Juan Formell (Aug. 2, 1941-May 1, 2014)
Juan Formell used to say that his job was to make people dance, and his band Los Van Van did that for decades with an irresistible mix of Afro-Cuban rhythms and elements of pop, rock, funk and jazz that came to define the sound of contemporary Cuba. Bringing thousands of people together for the band's concerts, Formell became not only a bandleader, but a leader of the people in Cuba, who looked to Los Van Van's songs for guidance in good times and bad. Formell was a talented musician and arranger and an astute street-corner philosopher, a diplomatic man who survived Cuba's cultural politics and brought the band to success abroad as well as at home. After Formell's death at 71, Los Van Van are still doing their job; the fans keep dancing, in Havana and beyond.
Nelson Ned (March 2, 1947-Jan. 6, 2014)
Brazilian Nelson Ned was a balladeer who transcended his native Portuguese language to become a star singing in Spanish throughout Latin America. Known as the "Little Giant of Song" (El pequeño gigante de la canción) because of his size -- he was a dwarf -- Ned's popularity exploded after he released his first Spanish-language album in 1971 and toured extensively in the U.S. and Latin America, singing hits like "Happy Birthday to You My Love." In 1993, Ned became an evangelical Christian and devoted his music-making to songs of devotion.
Peret (March 24, 1935-Aug. 27, 2014)
Peret, known as the rumba king, pioneered the urban gypsy sound that combined flamenco, Afro-Cuban rhythms and American rock 'n' roll. The high-spirited singer and guitarist had his peak in the late 1960s, when go-go girls danced to the infectious gypsy rumba, and the sound became linked to Spain's efforts to project a modern image to the world. Peret was rediscovered by a new generation, and collaborated with younger artists before passing away at the age of 1979 in his native Barcelona.