The Story of Juan Gabriel
Juan Gabriel in 1990, performing in Bellas Artes for the first time
Juan Gabriel has been one of the most important singers and songwriters of Mexico. His success has transcended borders, generations and social classes. In Mexico, it is said that almost all of its citizens know at least 3 songs: 1) The national anthem 2) Las mañanitas 3) One of Juan Gabriel’s songs. Singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas recently confessed, "Juan Gabriel has been in every stage of my life," something that most Mexicans probably share with her. But the story of his life is just as astonishing as his artistic success.
A Tough Beginning
Alberto Aguilera Valadez was born on January 7, 1950 in Paracuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. He was the tenth child of the marriage between the peasants, Gabriel Aguilera and Victoria Valadez. When Alberto was barely 3 months old tragedy struck: his father accidentally burned a foreign land, which sparked his nerves and caused him to try to drown himself in a river. Gabriel survived, however, he was taken to jail and then admitted to a mental hospital in Mexico City. It is not known if Gabriel escaped or died there, his family never heard from him again. This incident caused many problems in Alberto’s family. Soon after, Alberto's mother decided to flee to Ciudad Juarez with all of her children.
In Ciudad Juarez, Victoria began working as a maid and realized she could no longer care for her youngest child, for he was rebellious and had caused her problems with the landlady. Therefore, Victoria decided to take Alberto to a boarding school when he was only 5 years old. Alberto missed his mother and longed to leave the boarding school. However, his stay there was productive as he met Juan Contreras, the teacher who taught him to sing and play guitar.
Juan Gabriel's parents, Victoria Valadez and Gabriel Aguilera
The Path to Success
At 13, Alberto used his chore of taking out the trash as an excuse to escape from the boarding school, he looked for his mother and went to live with her. Alberto sang and wrote songs at night while he washed cars or served at restaurants during the day. As his mother had very little money and did not like her son to stay up writing songs, Alberto decided to leave his home at the tender age of 16. He began singing in church choirs, restaurants, bars and nightclubs even though sometimes they would not let him sing for being underage. One of these nightclubs, El Noa Noa, was immortalized in one of his songs later. During this time, Alberto used the stage name of Adan Luna.
Soon after, Alberto decided to try his luck in Mexico City, he knocked on the door of several record labels, but all rejected him arguing that they did not need any more pop singers and that his songs were too simple. Alberto returned to Juarez where he spent some time singing at night and working during the day washing prostitutes’ clothes. It was not long until he left for the capital again. This time he got a job as a backup singer for several well-known artists. All was well, until one day after attending a friend's party, Alberto was wrongly accused of theft and imprisoned in a prison called Lecumberri where he spent a year and a half.
Juan Gabriel singing one of his classic songs during his first performance in Bellas Artes
His stay in prison was not quite unfortunate since Alberto befriended the director who, moved by his story, introduced him to singer, Enriqueta Jiménez, "La Prieta Linda." Impacted by the young man’s talent, the Prieta Linda spoke to the judge and asked him to free Alberto. The judge revisited the case and determined that there was insufficient evidence to hold him. After his release, the Prieta Linda accompanied Alberto to the record label, RCA Victor, where he auditioned for a second time and was accepted. The young singer then signed a contract with the record label under the stage name of Juan Gabriel (Juan in honor of his teacher and Gabriel in honor of his father). His first album, El alma joven, was released in 1971 and had as its first single, "No Tengo Dinero." Success was immediate. Juan Gabriel received a golden award for his album’s high sales and Prieta Linda recorded one of his songs, "Noche a Noche." Other artists followed such as Roberto Jordan, Estela Nunez, Angelica Maria, Jose Jose and Rocio Durcal.
With all the money earned, Juan Gabriel bought his mother the house where she had worked as a maid. Unfortunately, Juan Gabriel’s mother only enjoyed three years of her son’s success because she died of a heart attack in 1974. Naturally, this caused Juan Gabriel great pain and was the inspiration for his song, "Amor Eterno," which has become a classic ranchera song and is often played at funerals throughout Mexico.
What is your favorite Juan Gabriel song?
Juan Gabriel and his sister, Virginia, one of his muses
Juan Gabriel in the beginning of his artistic career
Juan Gabriel’s success increased during the 80s, and 90s and remained in force in the 2000s. More and more singers recorded and performed his songs, his hit, “Querida” stayed more than a year on the number one spot of the Latin Charts, his concerts sold out, and he wrote and sang the entrance themes of the best Mexican telenovelas. Most notably, he was the first popular singer to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City) in 1990. In 1986, Los Angeles mayor instituted May 5 as the day of Juan Gabriel. Juan Gabriel was also the recipient of numerous awards such as a Grammy for his artistic achievements, 17 Billboard Awards, 11 Lo Nuestro Awards, 2 ASCAP Awards for songwriter of the year, an MTV Award, and many more. He was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2002.
Juan Gabriel’s life was not far from controversy. In the mid-80s, he began a lawsuit with his record label which resulted in 8 years of absence from the recording studio. The Mexican and American governments persecuted him for not paying his taxes. His unique dance style with which he captivated millions of people, was the subject of speculation about his sexual orientation by the press. Juan Gabriel was always discreet about his private life and when a reporter asked whether he was gay or not, Juan Gabriel simply replied, "What can be seen, should not be asked."
However, no scandal or speculation could overshadow his talent. Juan Gabriel performed again at El palacio de Bellas Artes in 1997 and in 2013. His music was the inspiration for the film, “¿Qué le dijiste a Dios?” And the most successful Latin singers of the new millennium such as Thalía, Mana, Jaguares and Julieta Venegas, continued to record his songs. The last album that Juan Gabriel recorded is Los Duo where he picked 12 of his favorite songs to sing along with the most famous Latin stars of the present such as Marc Anthony, Natalia Lafourcade and Marco Antonio Solis. In 2016, Juan Gabriel recorded a cover of "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival which is included in the album Quiero Credence. During this year Juan Gabriel was also on his tour, Mexxico es todo, which he unfortunately did not finish for he died of a heart attack on August, 28th.
Juan Gabriel in the 1980's
His Death and Legacy
Juan Gabriel's death shocked all of Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. Mexico's president publicly expressed condolences and ordered that he be commemorated at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Similarly, the presidents of Venezuela and the United States expressed their condolences via social media.
Juan Gabriel has left behind 66 albums, over 100 million copies sold, more than 1,800 songs and two movies and a TV series based on his life. The songs "Se me olvido otra vez," "Amor eterno," "Inocente pobre amigo" "Costumbres" and "Mi fracaso," have become classic ranchera songs. Latin singers of the new millennium state that Juan Gabriel was one of their biggest influences. "I always wanted to be a songwriter, and I looked at Juan Gabriel as a role model," said the singer-songwriter, Julieta Venegas. "Without him, I would not be who I am," confessed singer Marc Anthony. Juan Gabriel's success is even more impressive when considering his humble origins, the early loss of his parents, and his unjust imprisonment. He overcame all obstacles and hardships thanks to his optimistic attitude and great confidence, "I always convinced that I would be very famous, very important," he once said.