Joan Sebastian, the fabled Mexican singer/songwriter who rose from a poverty-stricken childhood in rural Mexico to become one of the most recorded and top-selling contemporary acts of all time, died on Sunday after a long battle with cancer. He was 64 years old.
A writer of achingly beautiful songs that he performed with the right dose of pathos in his ballads, bravura in his rancheras, and always that ineffable sense of intimacy — of singing to you and you alone — made him one of the top singers in the Latin world.
Add to that Sebastian’s trajectory as producer, as an actor of TV and film and as supreme showman known for his dazzling spectacles of horseback and music — or jaripeo — and you had one of the most well-rounded, singular Latin acts in the market.
On the Billboard charts, Sebastian’s success was extraordinary, up until the time of his death.
He charted 10 top 10 sets on Top Latin Albums, including two No. 1s: En Vivo: Desde La Plaza El Progreso De Guadalajara (2001) and 13 Celebrando El 13 (2013), his last studio album.
On Billbord’s Regional Mexican Albums chart, he placed 10 No. 1 albums, second only to Vicente Fernandez with 15 for the solo act with most No. 1s on the chart. But his Con Tambora spent 23 weeks at no. 1 on the chart, making Joan Sebastian the longest-running male artist with an album in the top position.
In the realm of songs, he had 22 hits on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart, including seven top 10s, while on the Regional Mexican Airplay chart, he charted 32 songs — the third-most for a solo act, with four of those hitting No. 1. Highly sought after as a composer, Sebastian’s songs were recorded by a veritable who’s who in Latin music, including Vicente and Alejandro Fernandez, Conjunto Primavera, Graciela Beltrán and Banda Machos.
“I don’t make up songs — I live songs,” Sebastian told Billboard. “My songs are a response to feelings, to what I’ve lived. … The important thing is that the songs be sincere, that they be truthful.”
In his very storied life, Sebastian had plenty of experience to draw from. Known for his highly publicized romances, he fathered eight children from five women. Born in the tiny Mexican town of Juliantla, he attended the seminary as a teenager, intent on becoming a priest before being seduced by music and landing his first record deal at 17 with Capitol Records in Mexico. Sebastian initially recorded under his real name, José Manuel Figueroa, and paid his bills selling cars in Chicago.
In 1977, he switched labels, signing to Musart, and changed his name to Juan Sebastian, because he liked the meaning of the composite name: Juan, which means free, and Sebastian, which means lover. His sister, a numerology expert, asked him to change the u for an o, leading to the Joan Sebastian moniker.
Sebastian’s success as a composer and an artist was almost immediate and continued unabated through the years, through genres and through devastating adversity; two of his sons — Juan Sebastian and Trigo de Jesús — were murdered in recent years, and for over a decade he battled bone cancer.
“He is a warrior,” Los Angeles-based radio personality Carlos Alvarez told Billboard in 2012. “Despite all he’s been through in his career and life, he’s been able to separate the pain and continue moving forward. His songs are very special because of the way they’re written, but that also goes hand in hand with the person we know as Joan Sebastian — a true fighter.”
In 2013, with his cancer in remission, Sebastian, now signed to Universal, recorded 13 Celebrando el 13 (13 Celebrating 13), a collection of 13 songs, many recorded previously by other artists.
“It’s a very significant number for me because I started playing guitar at 13,” Sebastian told Billboard. “The guitar Gibson made for me has 13 hearts, representing my eight children with five women. My name has 13 letters. And I’ve been a cancer survivor for 13 years.”
A perennial optimist, Sebastian admitted at the time that his battle against cancer had been initially difficult.
“I’ve returned to life three times and all three I’ve fought hard,” he said. “The hardest moment was the first time, when I gave it too much importance and I sat to wait for the doctors’ orders. That’s when I was closest to death. When I realized that the applause made me better, that my contact with my audience was what made me cling to life, I discovered the most vital aspect of my battle. I honestly think the story would be different if I didn’t have my fans’ support.”
Sebastian had been in and out of hospitals in the past several months, despite efforts to downplay the severity of his illness. He died in his ranch in Juliantla.