José José, the Mexican crooner whose velvety voice and regal demeanor earned him the moniker The Prince of Song, has died in South Florida, according to multiple reports. He was 71 years old. The singer had been battling cancer for the past few years.
José José, whose real name was José Rómulo Sosa Ortiz, was one of the towering names of Latin balladry, and popularized some of the most enduring and beautiful compositions in the Latin American songbook.
“El Triste,” “Lo Pasado, Pasado,” “Payaso,” “Gavilán y Paloma” and “La Nave del Olvido,” to name just a few, all became standards thanks to José José’s extraordinary voice, the one that earned him the nickname “El Príncipe de la Canción.”
“We recorded important songs by important musicians,” José José told Billboard when asked why his music has endured. “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.”
So riveting was the voice, so enduring the repertoire, that over the years, José José sparked dozens of tribute albums, including one by Cristian Castro, whose career revived thanks to Viva el Príncipe, his 2010 tribute.
With nearly 40 million copies sold worldwide, according to his family, and nine Grammy nominations, José José was the recipient of the 2013 Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award.
Born to a family of musicians in Mexico — his father was an operatic tenor, his mother a pianist — José José (he later tacked on the second José to his name in his father’s memory) began to sing for a living in 1963, giving serenatas (serenades) in city streets.
His first record deal came in 1965, when a friend asked him to give a serenade for his sister’s birthday.
“And she happened to be the executive secretary for the managing director of Orfeon Records,” he told Billboard in a 2013 interview. “And she said, ‘You sing very well. Wouldn’t you like to audition for the label?’ And I did, and they hired me in October, 1965. I recorded under my real name, Pepe Sosa. I recorded ‘El Mundo’ by Jimmy Fontana and ‘Ma Vie’ by Alain Barrier. My deal was for one single per year.”
But José José’s songs were deemed too “elegant” for commercial radio, until 1969, when he recorded “La Nave del Olvido,” written by Dino Ramos. It was his breakthrough.
“To this day, every time I sing, I have to sing that song and “El Triste,” José José told Billboard in 2003. “Can you imagine, young kids now ask me for ‘La Nave del Olvido’ and ‘El Triste.’ When young people fall in love, they start to understand my music.”
Nicknamed “El Príncipe” after his hit of the same name by Manuel Marroquín, José José also had monumental setbacks, including bankruptcy, alcoholism, illness, failed marriages and a notable diminishment of his vocal qualities. But in the past 15 years, José José had found stability and happiness with his third wife Sara Salazar, with whom he had his youngest daughter, Sara Sosa. He resumed touring and was relatively active until 2016. Two years ago, he became a grandfather.
Despite the ups and downs, the music of José José remained very much alive, and in early 2018, the Telemundo network aired a series based on his life. At the time, the singer had been diagnosed with cancer, and almost a year ago, he posted a message on Twitter where, in a shaky, raspy voice, he assured fans that he was home and recuperating, despite rumors that his wife was holding him captive. In February, his music was again in the spotlight when his hit “La Nave Del Olvido” was included in the soundtrack of Oscar-winning film Roma.
José José is also survived by his older children, Marysol and José Joel, who earlier today posted a black ribbon on his Twitter account.