The sleeves for the seven albums recorded by Miami Sound Machine between 1977 and 1984. They are all out of print and remain in commercial oblivion, having never been released on CD or digital formats.
II. THE PREHISTORY OF GLORIA ESTEFAN (1977-1984)
Before there was a Gloria Estefan, there was Emilio Estefan Jr., a Cuban-born musician and hustler of Greek and Lebanese descent, born in 1953 (the same year as my father). He emigrated to the US at the age of fifteen, and almost immediately began playing accordion and keyboards in local bands among the Cuban-immigrant population of South Florida. He formed his own band, called the Miami Latin Boys, in 1975, which did the usual local weekend gigging. Weddings, house parties, playing for gringo and black customers as well as for Cubans, learning to master, or at least to fake, whatever kind of music would get them paid. A year into this, while working other jobs — retail, promotion, clerical — to make ends meet, he met an eighteen-year-old named Gloria Fajardo.
She had been born in Havana in 1957 (a year after my mother), into a family that had close ties to the Batista dictatorship. They fled Cuba after the Revolution, and her father joined the US military to try to help take down Castro. After the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, he was sent to Vietnam, and came back broken.
Emilio and Gloria began dating in 1976; he was her first and only boyfriend. She began singing in the band as a harmonizing duo with her cousin Mercy, who was involved with the band’s keyboard player Raul, and the band was renamed Miami Sound Machine. Estefan, already a shrewd businessman, was modeling the band after the world-conquering ABBA, and having noted that the real money wasn’t in performance but in songwriting, was pushing for original compositions.
The Prehistory of Gloria Estefan (a YouTube playlist)
In 1977, Miami Sound Machine cut their first record. The opening track and debut single was “Renacer” (b/w an English-language version called “Live Again” — some people like to talk as though the band only started recording in English when they crossed over in 1984, but they were always bilingual). A midtempo balada romántica about the revitalizing power of love, it’s distinguished mostly by the flanged synthesizer that introduces the melody: Emilio and his collaborators, who had come up playing traditional acoustic instruments, were already beginning to experiment with electronics.
In 1978, Gloria and Emilio were married. The big disco single from their second album, “I Want You to Love Me,” is probably the best the band ever got in its disco-ABBA-with-Latin-flavor period, a very good Salsoul pastiche with a terrifically funky breakdown. It’s Gloria’s first major non-duet song, and her voice is still immature, attempting to imitate Donna Summer’s coo and Agnetha Faltksog’s purr, but you can hear the beginnings of her immediately-identifiable vocal style on the chorus.
They released no singles from their third album, but “Don’t Look Back on Love,” the opening track, is the first to have an electronic rhythm line (the handclaps are sampled). They signed to CBS International in 1980, aiming at the ballad-loving Latin American audience, so their fourth, and second self-titled, album was primarily ballads (an alternate cover has the band posing around a grand piano) like "Regresa a Mí" and "No Me Olvidarás,” which continued to establish Gloria as the breakout star, as her fuller and richer voice took center stage.
1981’s Otra Vez was the last record to feature Mercy and Raul Murciano, who had found themselves more and more sidelined as Gloria’s performing ability and Emilio’s compositional and production strength grew stronger and more central to the band’s commercial fortunes. Miami Sound Machine were now touring Latin America, appearing on Colombian and Peruvian variety shows, recording Portuguese versions of selected songs in order to reach the Brazilian audience. “Baila Conmigo (Lanca Perfume)” is another disco song that begins almost to bend towards mutant disco, as Emilio’s impish musical imagination runs wild.
With Río (1982), it was so clear that Miami Sound Machine was the Gloria and Emilio show that they were the only two band members on the cover; the other guys were by now highly-skilled professionals, and would remain the core of the Estefan’s recording and performing band for the rest of their musical career.
Rio also represented the full flowering if the band as a monster dance act, with Gloria finally fully inhabiting the role of full-voiced disco diva that she had been gesturing towards since the 70s. On songs like “Yo Tambien Quiero Bailar” and especially “Dingui Li Bangui,” Miami Sound Machine first achieved the gloriously brash electro-Latin sound that would launch them to worldwide fame in a couple of years. That the album is named for the biggest dance city in Brazil, and that both songs include Brazilian Portuguese along with Spanish, is no accident: baile funk was hugely influenced by — and hugely influenced — Miami Sound Machine.
Which brings us to A Toda Máquina, the last album for CBS International, the title of which can be translated “with all machines” or “entirely mechanized.” It’s a long way from the string-abetted lite-disco: the title song, a cruise-worthy calypso, celebrates it’s own synthetic sound. The Estefans’ version of Latin pop, which has often been perceived as lagging behind Anglophone pop thanks to the traditionalism and clannishness of the audience, had now entirely embraced the 1980s. Of course it’s more complex than that; Latin performers are more likely than Anglophones (even many African-Americans) to see themselves as operating within a continuum that stretches back decades, even centuries in some places. Where Madonna might not feel she had anything in common with Doris Day, where Whitney Houston might consider herself as operating in an entirely different mode from Dinah Washington, Gloria Estefan would have seen herself as participating in the same stream as Spanish legend Rocío Dúrcal and Cuban queen Celia Cruz. That the timbres of instrument she’s using to offset the force and flutter of her voice are different doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that the rhythms, and the emotions, are the same.
Next: and now the world.