"Juan Gabriel is our Elvis," declares Juanes, the Colombian star who recorded the hit "Querida" with the singer in 2015.
Juan Gabriel Dies at 66
Born Alberto Aguilera Valadez, the son of a farmer, in Parácuaro, Mexico, about 165 miles west of Mexico City, Gabriel is a courtly gentleman, the single father of four adult children. Yet he transforms onstage into a master of melodrama (his nickname is "The Divo From Juárez") and is known to bring both men and women to tears during his two-and-a-half-hour concerts.
The shows may be hard work but "work is my best friend," said Gabriel after his 2009 gala. "When I have the opportunity to work, I organize a whole party -- like what [I did] that night."
Gabriel today is having the party of his life. He ranked at No. 18 on Billboard's 2015 Money Makers list (just below Ed Sheeran and above Florida Georgia Line), largely thanks to his $11.6 million in touring revenue in 2015. He scored the year's highest-grossing Latin tour and had the top-selling Latin album too, Los Dúo, which has moved 131,000 units, according to Nielsen Music.
That collection of his greatest hits, performed as duets with a long roster of acts that included J Balvin, Juanes and Fifth Harmony, led to Los Dúo 2, the highest-selling Latin album on Nielsen's 2016 midyear charts, with sales of 50,000 units.
On Aug. 19, Gabriel will launch another arena tour of the United States: the 21st century-themed MeXXIco Es Todos (Mexico Is All of Us), which will play nearly 30 cities in a 360-degree stage format. The show will include 50 mariachi and orchestra players, 10 singers and 20 dancers. This fall, Telemundo will premiere Hasta Que Te Conocí (Until I Met You), a TV series chronicling his rise that is named after his 1968 hit song.
Marking the 45th anniversary of Gabriel's first recording deal with RCA Victor Records in Mexico, Billboard asked friends and colleagues to share their memories of the singer.
Producer Eduardo Magallanes recalls when Enrique Okamura, then-music director of RCA Victor in Mexico, asked him to audition Gabriel, a slight teenage singer who "had more desire than size."
"I met him in 1968. He was very thin, very quiet, very observant, and his eyes shined with the desire to be heard.
"We went to Studio A at RCA Victor, which was a gigantic label at the time. I sat at the piano and suggested a couple of songs, and he chose 'Escándalo' by Rubén Fuentes. I even remember the key: E minor.
"My first impression was he had more desire than size. I told Okamura, 'The kid has the drive, but he's green. And he has a lisp.' But Enrique felt sorry for him, so we had him sing backup vocals for Angélica María on 'Cuando Me Enamoro.' Those were his first recordings.
"Then in 1971 -- it was January 4 -- Okamura says to me: 'Remember that guy? He's back with some really commercial songs.' I said, 'Sign him!' By then, he called himself Juan Gabriel -- Gabriel was the first name of his dad and Juan was for Juan Contreras, the music teacher at his boarding school. We put out a first recording on August 4, 1971, 'No Tengo Dinero,' and it was an immediate hit [reaching No. 5 on the Hot Latin Songs chart].
"I never imagined what he would develop into. If there were a list of the top singers in the world, he would be on it."
Espinoza Paz, the regional Mexican music star who dueted in 2015 with the singer on "Siempre en Mi Mente," says his friend was "the cute one."
"My mother, María de la Paz Espinoza, may she rest in peace, was a huge Juan Gabriel fan. She had one of his old vinyl records and she would literally pet it and say, 'My beautiful chulo [cute one].' That was 29 years ago. I was a little boy. She demonstrated this affection to someone she had never met. But I was able to grasp what this artist inspired in people.
"That was my first awareness of Juan Gabriel. Then, throughout my childhood and my youth, I heard his songs on the radio. 'Querida' [first recorded in 1984] was one of the biggest hits ever in Mexico. Even then, I understood the magnitude of his career."
Jesus Lopez, today the chairman of Universal Music Latin America & Iberian Peninsula, remembers when Gabriel sued BMG "and BMG sued him."
"When I was named managing director for BMG Mexico in 1989, Juan Gabriel hadn't recorded in seven years. He sued BMG and BMG sued him over copyrights. I decided to fix the problem and asked for an appointment.
"He asked me to come to his ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I flew from Mexico City to Dallas, then to Albuquerque, then drove to Santa Fe. It took me 24 hours, and it was snowing in Santa Fe. When I got there, I parked my car in a mall, because I had no clue how to get to his ranch. I called and his assistant picked me up and took me there.
"An hour later, Juan Gabriel showed up. He apologized for being late, but he had just flown in on his private plane and had barely slept. We spoke for over five hours, about life, politics, culture, about everything except the lawsuits or music. I think he wanted to get to know me before negotiating.
"We walked around the ranch in the snow, and when they dropped me off at my car, my shoes fell apart. Clearly they weren't made for the snow.
"We had many subsequent meetings -- at his ranch in San Miguel de Allende, his house in Acapulco, his apartment in Mexico City -- and eight months later, we reached a deal. Our first project was recording a CD and DVD at Palacio de Bellas Artes [the 19th-century Palace of Fine Arts] in Mexico City. It seemed to be an impossible mission; no pop act had performed there at the time. Juan Gabriel got the permit from the government and we released the recording in 1991, selling over 3 million copies. It was historic.
TV producer Mary Black-Suarez, executive producer of Telemundo's Hasta Que Te Conocí, says she and Gabriel "had an instant connection."
"In the early '90s, when I was director of special events for Univision, Juan Gabriel released his big comeback and BMG proposed a TV special. One day, the phone rang and a voice says, 'I'm Alberto Aguilera Valadez. I'm calling because my label tells me you want to interview me. I think people who are going to sit down to talk need to know each other first. Come to my house in Pompano Beach and we'll get to know each other.'
"My first impression was of someone very down to earth, very charming. We had pasta for lunch, and I vividly remember tasting agua de Jamaica [a traditional Mexican hibiscus punch] for the first time.
"We had an instant connection. I knew he was a great artist, but I hadn't seen him perform live. So, I met Alberto Aguilera Valadez before I met Juan Gabriel. He makes a distinction between himself and his artistic persona."
"When I heard this song, I saw lights," says friend Marc Anthony.
"I was doing freestyle [dance] music and Ralph Mercado [president of RMM Records] kept telling me to record salsa. I was driving with Little Louie Vega's sister in Manhattan and she put a tape on and said, 'You have to hear this song.' It was Juan Gabriel's 'Hasta Que Te Conocí.'
"Now, I had never in my life imagined I would sing salsa. Never. But when I heard this song, I swear I saw lights, I saw clarity. I knew the song was going to change my life. I called my manager at the time and he said, 'That's Juan Gabriel's song. But, what if you do a salsa version?' That was it. I never recorded freestyle again." (Anthony's version of Gabriel's hit reached No. 13 on Hot Latin Songs, igniting sales of Anthony's 1993 debut salsa album, Otra Nota.)
"Humble, respectful and generous" are the descriptions offered by Gabriel Abaroa, president of The Latin Recording Academy.
"In 2009 we wanted to honor him as Person of the Year, so I flew to meet him in Cancun, at a restaurant of his choice. I arrived 10 minutes early, as I knew he was extremely punctual. A few minutes later, a taxi pulled up but I paid no attention, as I was expecting a limo with a driver and bodyguards. The maitre d' came up to me and said, 'Mr. Aguilera is waiting for you at the table.' Shit! He got me.
"Later, I discovered his main asset and virtue: values. By values I mean being humble, punctual, respectful, strong in his opinions but generous while listening. Extremely well-mannered and an amazing entertainer. I tried to pay the bill, but he had already taken care of it. We left the restaurant and he hailed a cab. I walked back to my car and my driver, feeling stupid and embarrassed."
"He's a man with a vision," says Puerto Rican salsa star India.
"He requested that I perform at his Person of the Year gala. I was excited and emotional about it. He was someone I've idolized since I was 5 years old. And he's so big in every single country; he really represents all Latinos.
"I met him after I sang with his mariachi band at the gala and he fell in love with me and invited us to his studio in Cancun to work together. Since then, I perform with him whenever I can. He's a master. He knows what to do with each talent. He did it with me. He took everything I had locked up and made sure I opened up that lock. He produced the vocals for my album Intensamente Con Canciones de Juan Gabriel, which we released last year. He flew us in to film all the videos and even took creative control of my wardrobe ... He's a splendid, generous man with a vision."?
This article originally ran in the Sept. 3 issue of Billboard prior to Juan Gabriel's death on Aug. 28.