Latin America and the music world is in mourning today with news that Mexican music superstar Juan Gabriel died today of a heart attack at age 66.
A proper obituary is beyond my capabilities, so all I can offer are quick thoughts—besides, I wrote my essay on him over a decade ago. If fellow portly singer-songwriter José Alfred Jiménez represents Mexico's soul, then the man born Alberto Aguilera Valadez is Mexico's tears. Gabriel is without comparison—and while the same was true of his recently deceased peers in gender-fucking, Prince and David Bowie, there is simply no parallel to JuanGa (what everyone called him, and how I'll refer to him here). His songs were the soundtrack to aching hearts, suffering women, and closeted folks for nearly 45 years, and gave them solace and comfort when few others would. He was proudly flamboyant in an era, in a country, synonymous with machismo, and made its power wane through him being him—as I tweeted today, Mexican boys are taught to ridicule Juan Gabriel, while Mexican men learn to respect the legend.
Juan Gabriel not only sang hit after hit, but wrote said hit after hit, and saw them covered by everyone ranging from ranchera singers to punks, girl groups to banda. That puts him beyond contemporary singer-songwriters and into the echelon of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart—but don't forget that those tunesmiths never became popular as performers, while JuanGa filled arenas around the world. Indeed, he just performed this Friday at the Forum, and was going to perform at the Honda Center in December, a concert my sister already bought tickets for to see him one last time—one last time that'll never come.
I could go on—but I'd rather remember him through songs. Following, then, are my choices for his 20 best. Not all are his most famous, but they speak to different facets of what made JuanGa so spectacular, and his loss so crushing. I also tried to pick not just the originals but the best of the many, many remakes of his work. Enjoy, and leave your favorites in the comments below!
20. “Have You Ever Seen the Rain? (“Gracias al Sol”)
This was his last hit, released just a couple of months ago, and while all his fans lovingly snickered at the idea of 60-some JuaGa interpreting the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic, it also showed how he was pushing himself even at the end, even when he didn't have to anymore. Yeah, he basically just took CCR's music and rewrote the lyrics, and he probably didn't play the guitar as seen here, but who cares? If JuanGa wanted to start singing Brujería, he'd do it—and do it good.
19. “La Frontera”
On that note, JuanGa wasn't afraid of remixing himself and getting other, younger artists to challenge him in his later years ala Tony Bennett's Duets. Last year, he remade his 1980 paean to the U.S.-Mexican border with Mexican regional star Julión Álvarez, Colombian mega-star J. Balvin, and a gospel choir. Yeah, it gets goofy and doesn't match the '80s'-doo-wop giddiness of the original, but again: JuanGa DGAF about what others thought about his career. #respect
18. “El Sinaolense”
While JuanGa usually stuck to singing through his 1,000-plus songbook in concerts and on albums, he didn't mind jumping around genres. He sang with Celia Cruz, with música romántica legend Marco Antonio Solís, and even with Vicente Fernández—the yin and yang of Mexican malehood. But his best remake was when he recorded an album with Banda El Recodo, the kings of banda sinaloense. And the best song on the album was the opener: the banda standard “El Sinaloense.” You need to sing fast, precise, and muy macho to properly get this song—and JuanGa nails it like no one since Luís Pérez Meza.
17. “Perdóname Olvidado”
JuanGa's great muse was Spanish singer Rocio Durcal, who recorded track after track of his straight-up gold. This duet isn't their best effort, but it always pops up on my Pandora track, and I've never given it a thumbs-down, a skip, or a I'm-tired-of-this-track timeout, so I gotta give it a shoutout here haha.
16. That One Juan Gabriel Song—You Know the One
Because everyone has that one song who knows the beat—you know, the one, the one that goes “ta-da-ta tadatadata.” No, seriously: there's one song of his that I love, that should be in top five—but I can't remember the pinche name right now. Take your pick: “Hasta Que te Conocí.” “Abrázame Muy Fuerte.” “Costumbres.” That other one. Another one. For all of ustedes who suffer from this stupidity, this spot is for YOU!
15. “Lo Pasado, Pasado”
Like the Beatles, JuanGa wrote songs for other artists. Unlike the Beatles, he didn't give groups throwaways but rather bona fide, career-making beauties. The most famous example is this song, “The Past, Passed,” which became a mega-smash for eternal lounge lizard José José. JuanGa recorded a version, but it didn't match José José's take, and that's fine.
Perhaps JuanGa's most joyous song, it tells the tale of getting his heart broken by a woman who left him to marry a rich man when the protagonist was poor, only to have the tables turn and the formerly heartbroken JuanGa now laughing and whooping in joy at the woman's misery. Revenge is a dish best served with mariachi, a bit of accordion, and a strong drumbeat.
13. “Yo No Nací Para Amar”
“I Wasn't Born to Love” is the translation, and it goes from there—baroque, morose, the aural version of a walk down a rainy street at night trying to keep warm by putting your hands into your trenchcoat extra-tight. In a career built on sadness saved by the promise of love, you'll rarely hear JuanGa so defeatist—hence, singalongs FOR DAYS at his concerts.
12. “Te Lo Pido Por Favor”
It wasn't just Mexican regional and pop singers who loved to cover JuanGa's songs. Rockeros in particular adored the guy—no other songwriter was covered as much by them as JuanGa, not even José Alfredo Jiménez. It wasn't just the lyrics, but also the smart, imminently hummable beats that allowed groups to throw in their own flourishes while not deviate too much from the legend. Take rock en español dinosaurs Jaguares, who take the original—a slow ballad—and chilango it up with Saúl Hernández' smoky vocals, a bluesy harmonica, and a general languor that wasn't in JuanGa's take yet somehow seems natural—cover songs at their best.
11. “No Vale la Pena”
This is actually one of JuanGa's simpler compositions, but it's a beloved tune because of its straightforwardness. A guy is at point where all the heartbreak he suffered ain't worth it, and says so. By the way, JuanGa mixed genres—in this case, ranchera and norteño—long before it became popular in Mexican music—something I hope the obits note.
10. “La Diferencia”
Chente. Singing JuanGa. Fire.
9. “La Muerte del Palomo”
JuanGa usually sang straight-ahead songs about love—no metaphors, no grandiose lyrics, just life. But in this ranchera tour de force, JuanGa takes love to the aviary level, creating a parable on the level of “Dos Arbolitos.” This also hinted at JuanGa's mastery of mariachi, which grants him a spot in the pantheon of Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, and others.
8. “La Farsante”
Every mariachi singer tasked with being the Juan Gabriel of the group—you know, the “gay” guy—tackles this one, so this might be one of JuanGa's most-heard songs for the gabacho set—I've heard it sung everywhere from weddings to Tlaquepaque to even the goddamn Balboa Bay Club, with clueless gabachos whooping along. Despite this, it's a miraculous synthesis of flamboyancy and machismo that only JuanGa could do, as he absolutely savage the titular phony with high, mocking notes of heartbreak.
This was always a showstopper at JuanGa's show, with demands on the singer's vocals so booming that they even proved tough for Pepe Aguilar at his recent Segerstrom show, when he tried to cover “Querida” (“Beloved”). It's all about vavoom and swoon, yet Mexican skankeros Maldita Vecindad somehow sped up the tune to breakneck speed and made it even dreamier than the original. And if you think moms swaying to this song is a beautiful sight, you should've seen the cheers and elbows in the mosh pit back in the day at JC Fandango when la Maldita would trot out this rola.
6. “El Noa Noa”
In a career of cheesy-sounding songs to the gabacho ear, none might be seemingly cheesier-sounding than this one: a song about a nightclub, with an somewhat annoying female backup, even more-annoying male backups and, a weird honky-tonky rhythm. But this one was near to his heart, since it was the name of a famous nightclub in Ciudad Juarez where he got his start. And it's really about what JuanGa represented to his fans: not just solace, but release, in a plane of life where, as the song goes, “everything is different/where you'll always happily dance the night away there.” Where? Wherever JuanGa may be.
5. “No Tengo Dinero”
My favorite Juan Gabriel song, mainly because it was his first hit and it was about his hardscrabble life up to this song. Go ahead and call it his “Your Song,” which was released just a year before. And while the original is great, I always liked this remake by the Kumbia Kings featuring El Gran Silencio and JuanGa, because it showed how even the toughest, most-down Chicanos and paisas absolutely adored him. Also, one of the cutest videos ever made in rock en español history.
4. “Con tu Amor”
While Durcal was JuanGa's most celebrated interpreter, …Con Amor Eterno (…With Eternal Love) by the Mexican girl group Pandora is the best album of JuanGa covers, and was the album every Mexican mami y tía in the United States owned during the 1990s, usually blasting it outta Kenwood speakers on Saturday mornings while doing chores. It's a dated album with its synths and clangy keyboards, but FUCK: the harmonies of the three ladies combined with JuanGa's lyrics was salvation for these women from the machos that oppressed and humiliated them day after day. And this track, the opener, lays out JuanGa's promise to the lovelorn: someone will come and save you, so you, too, can one day sing, “Gracias a ti/no ciento tristezas/ni dolor/Hoy soy muy feliz” (“Thanks to you/I don't feel sadness/nor pain/Today, I'm very happy”). Absolute beauty.
3. “Se Me Olvido Otra Vez”
Perhaps JuanGa's saddest song of romance—the refrain “Se me olvido otra vez/Que solo yo te quize” is Pet Sounds distilled into one line. Even more miraculous is that it allowed a lame group like Maná to record one great song—BOOM.
2. “Así Fue”
Women singers loved JuanGa's songs, because he probably understood mujeres better than any man ever, alive or dead. Singers from Durcal to Ana Gabriel to Lucha Villa, Lola Beltrán. They often interpreted JuanGa's songs better than him, as if he was the warmup pitcher to their mighty swings, and a great example is “Así Fue” (“That's How it Was”). The song deals with a man trying to tell a past love who has returned that he's over her, saved “by a divine being/by a good love/who taught me/to love/and to forgive.” There is no anger, no resentment—only anguish, a resurrection of a past long forgotten and that must be forgotten post-haste. JuanGa does it great, but the Spanish singer Isabel Pantoja put a feminine touch that makes it one of JuanGa's best covers. I don't think this version gets enough love, or the song, so it gets #2.
1. “Amor Eterno”
But despite all of his music, all of his songs, all of the remakes, the most famous tune in the JuanGa canon, the one that will most likely get played at his funeral, is this one. “Amor Eterno” is a eulogy to JuanGa's mom, who passed away when he was just starting to become famous. While JuanGa obviously nailed it every time he sang “Eternal Love”—and it was always a deserved highlight of his concerts—Durcal's as-strong voice sharpens every pain, every regret to tap into a universal well of matronly love. The slow strums of a guitarrón serves as the base for other flourishes—xylophones here, strings there, horns as well—that create a slow, melancholy weeper. It's played almost all the time whenever a Mexican woman passes away to the point of being a cliché but whatever: if you hear this song and don't get tears in your eyes, you have the heart of Trump.