The Prince's 40-Year Reign: A Billboard Q&A

Excerpted from the magazine for

In a long, storied career, José José -- whose fans refer to him as "El Príncipe de la Canción" (the Prince of Song) -- has won renown not just as one of the finest crooners in Mexican pop music but as one of the country's greatest song stylists of the 20th century. This year, by his own account, marks the 40th anniversary of his career.

During a recording career that spans five decades -- and despite a turbulent personal life -- the 55-year-old singer, whose full name is José Rómulo Sosa Ortiz, has remained a regal constant, singing timeless odes to love and loneliness. Injecting elements of trio/bolero music, American pop standards and even a little mariachi in his romantic classics, José José has influenced generations of subsequent vocalists.

To mark his 40th anniversary, BMG U.S. Latin this year has released a three-CD series of some of José José's favorite hits, recorded in the trio style that launched his career. "El Principe Con Trio Vol. 3" is set for a Nov. 25 release.

The walls of his home are covered with his life story. There are dozens of gold and platinum records, for 100,000, 500,000 and more than 1 million copies sold. There are commendations and proclamations and keys to cities around the world. And there are photos -- with his family, with politicians, with celebrities and with fellow musicians, from Diana Ross to Shakira.

José José, is a very rich and famous man. But until he bought this house 10 years ago, he didn't really know just how famous or rich he was.

"Look at how we live," he says, looking around his palatial estate in the posh enclave of Cocoplum in Miami. "I never imagined I would live in Cocoplum one day. I wake up every morning and pinch myself."

He says this without conceit. For, he has led a life that until recently, was far from charmed.

But today, surrounded by Sara Salazar -- his third wife and manager -- their 8-year-old daughter, Sarita; his mother; and Sara's two daughters from a previous marriage, José José lives in a matriarchal state of bliss.

With nearly four decades of recordings under his belt and a host of current projects in the making, he spoke with Billboard about his dramatic past and his ambitious future.

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You began singing professionally in 1963. How did this lead to a record deal?

In 1965, a friend of mine asked me to [play] a serenade for his sister's birthday. She happened to be the executive secretary for the managing director of Orfeon Records. And she said, "You sing very well. Would you like to audition for the label?" And I did; they hired me in October 1965.

I was on Orfeon's roster from '65 to '67, and nothing happened with my launch. I thought they were going to make me famous.

Well, your signing was like something out of a movie.

Yes, but I didn't even know you had to go out [for] promotion. I didn't know a thing. So I went to play with a group that was different from the guitar trio -- it was piano, bass and drums. I began to play jazz and bossa nova. We called ourselves [Los] Peg, for the three members of the group: Pepe, Enrique and Gilberto. I began to develop, musically speaking; it was a great education. And I said, "Here I'll stay. I'm no good as a soloist." Until Armando Manzanero helped me get an offer with RCA/Victor.

How did the nickname "El Príncipe" come about?

In 1976, I recorded a song called "El Príncipe" by Manuel Marroquín. And the DJ at Radio Mill [in Mexico], after playing the song, said, "You have just heard 'El Príncipe,' [from] the Prince of Song, José José." And since then, it stuck.

Your music is still played on the radio, even the older songs. Why haven't they fallen out of style?

Because we recorded important songs by important musicians. One of the advantages I've had as an interpreter -- because I'm not a composer -- is I've had the fortune of working with great composers: Armando Manzanero, Rafael Pérez Botija, Manuel Alejandro. These are the people who have built my career, especially Rafael Pérez Botija.

Nowadays, I hear many label executives talk about the importance of signing "complete" artists, those who can write and perform their own songs. Do you feel that too much emphasis is placed on the songwriting ability as opposed to the strength of the interpretation?

It's hard to find a singer/songwriter who, from the onset, can be successful with his or her own material. Ricky Martin hasn't needed to write his own songs to be the world star that he is. And Estéfano is a brilliant composer/producer, but he is less known as a singer. It's wonderful when people have both talents. Someone exceptional is Juan Gabriel. He writes the songs—words and music. Manzanero, too. But we don't all have that capacity. I'm an interpreter, and I've sold 40 million albums doing it.

Were the personal sacrifices you made for your career worth it?

I used to ask myself that, because I was always locked up somewhere -- from the truck to the plane to the show. I didn't see my children grow up --my [grown-up] son and daughter. You know what I don now? I've been with my daughter, the small one, every day, watching her grow.

Prior to Sara, your life was on a very different track.

I'll confess something: My dad died an alcoholic when he was 45 years old. I was going to die of alcoholism at 45, too. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they teach you to live only for today. For us [AA members] the past doesn't exist, only today, which we live to the fullest.

What do you think of Latin music today?

There's a lot of good music [that's] well done. Luis Miguel is the current purveyor of romanticism. Pedro Vargas used to say that every 20 years a new representative of romanticism appeared, like myself or Marco Antonio Muniz. Everything depends on the tastes and the fashion. But what never changes is romantic music.

When couples want to talk, they don't play rock -- they play romantic music. It's a kind of code that doesn't change. Plus, everything that's written continues to be based on the happiness of a couple.

Excerpted from a special section in the Nov. 29, 2003, issue of Billboard. honoring José José's 40th anniversary. The extended version of this interview and other articles highlighting his career are available in the Premium Services section.

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