The Latin music world lost one of its brightest and spangliest stars over the weekend, as TMZ reports that Juan Gabriel has died. The beloved 66-year-old musician, with more than 100 million record sales under his belt, was in the midst of his “MeXXico Es Todo Tour,” having just brought the “bucket list-worthy show” to Los Angeles on Friday night. The artist had been plagued with health problems in recent years, but the BBC reports that the cause of death was a heart attack.
Juan Gabriel blended Mexican folkloric music with a pop sensibility, combining romantic lyrics with spectacular showmanship in his live performances. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential Latin American artists ever. The artist was born Alberto Aguilera Valadez on January 7, 1950 in Michoácan, Mexico. He developed a love of singing as a preteen after joining a Methodist church in Cíudad Juarez, and eventually moved to Mexico City to secure a record deal. RCA Victor signed him as a background vocalist to Mexican stars like Angélica María, but Juan Gabriel was no supporting act.
When he returned to the country’s capital a third time to launch his career, he was wrongfully convicted of robbery and spent a year in a local prison. Juan Gabriel was exonerated with the help of a fellow Mexican artist, but the young singer-songwriter’s setbacks—he was also homeless for years while performing in bars—inspired some of his biggest hits, including “No Tengo Dinero” and “El Noa Noa.”
RCA Victor did end up signing Juan Gabriel, who adopted that stage name and released his first album, El Alma Joven, in 1971. He released dozens of albums over the next 45 years, including 1984’s Recuerdos, Vol. II, which remains the bestselling album in Mexico. Juan Gabriel became known as “El Divo de Juárez” for his flamboyant sequin-and-silk-heavy style of dress, but all that flash and flair was eclipsed by his prolific songwriting: He wrote over 1,800 songs in a variety of genres, including bolero, mariachi, and Latin pop. Here’s one of his earliest mega-hits, 1986’s “Te Lo Pido Por Favor,” as well as an acclaimed cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” from earlier this year.
Juan Gabriel was locked in a copyright dispute with BMG from 1986-1994, during which time he refused to record any more songs. But the Mexican icon did a dozen charity shows every year to benefit orphanages before founding his own charitable organization in 1987. Juan Gabriel went right back into songwriting mode when the conflict was settled, though, and went on to release 12 more albums, including 2016’s Vestido de Etiqueta por Eduardo Magallanes via Universal’s Fonovisa Records.
Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto responded to the news of Juan Gabriel’s death on Twitter, writing “We lament the death of Juan Gabriel, one of the biggest musical icons of our country. My condolences to his family and friend. A voice and a talent that represented Mexico. His music is a legacy to the world. He left us too soon. May he rest in peace.”