Vicente ‘Chente’ Fernandez, Mexican music icon, dies at 81

Vicente Fernández, the elegant Mexican crooner with the buttery baritone whose romantic rancheras and timeless folk anthems defined the value and romance of his turbulent land and elevated him to a cultural icon for generations of fans throughout Latin America and beyond, has died. The announcement was made on his Instagram page. The cause of death was not reported. He was 81 years old.

Fernández, who performed his last live show at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca in 2016, had a variety of health problems in recent years, including liver and prostate cancer. In 2013, he was forced to interrupt his farewell tour after being hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. On numerous occasions, fictitious reports of his death surfaced online, prompting the singer to release a video in which he humorously declared, “When I die, I’ll let you know.”

But time finally caught up with an artist who seemed eternal.

A fall on his ranch in August led to emergency spinal surgery at a Guadalajara hospital, followed by a months-long stay in the intensive care unit that required periods on a ventilator. His condition improved and Fernández was transferred to a regular hospital ward in mid-November. But, at the end of the month, he was back in the ICU with respiratory inflammation, according to a statement issued by the singer’s medical team and posted on his official Instagram account.

During a career that began on the street corners of Guadalajara, the self-taught troubadour recorded more than 50 albums, all in Spanish, and sold tens of millions of copies, almost half in the United States. He toured non-stop, created the themes for wildly popular soap operas, and starred in more than two dozen films throughout the 70s and 80s, often depicted in his iconic series. charro suit, the typical outfit of the Mexican rancher gentleman, with ornate hats, embroidered jackets and narrow pants.

In 1998, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, his highest award, he once said, because he considered it a gift from his fans. But even in 2016, the inveterate performer continued to receive praise: Fernández took home the Grammy award for the regional Mexican album for the live recording of his latest show, entitled “Un Azteca en el Azteca.”

Blessed with an operatic voice and a majestic sense of showmanship, Fernández was known for combining musical virtuosity with heart-breaking theatricality, folkloric traditions with mass market appeal. He was seen as the last of a race, the last entry in Mexico’s pantheon of matinee idols who sing. His nicknames were appropriately epic: The Number One, the Son of the People, the King of the Mexican Song. But to his legions of fans, he was “Chente,” short for Vicente, a presence so ubiquitous and long-lasting that, as a family member, he could be invoked with a simple nickname.

Indeed, Fernández, dressed in his embroidered ensembles, with an engraved and gold-plated pistol, served as the embodiment of Mexico itself, at least an older, more idealized Mexico. Backed by a mariachi band, he sang of love and heartbreak, ranches and cantinas, honor and patriotism, saluting working-class heroes who were penniless but happy, heartbroken but proud.

However, as Fernández approached his prime, the Mexico he represented began to unravel. The 1990s brought the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Zapatistas, and a parade of horrors that began with the drug wars. Globalization was reshaping the music industry; Mexican radio came to present more top 40 Americans than ranchera, the rural ballads that were Fernández’s bread and butter.

Rather than embrace contemporary styles, Fernández dug into his heels.

“When you are a ranchera singer, you represent your country,” he once told The Times. “It is a gift from God.”

Vicente Fernández, with a Latin Grammy for best ranchero album.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Fernández’s most significant feat may be that he managed to stay relevant, preserving a vernacular gender without being reduced to an act of novelty. He seemed to reintroduce himself to a new generation every decade without ever departing from the fans who turned him into a titan.

“The way people look at Vicente is part of his identity: as long as he is fine, they are fine,” said at the time his record promoter, the vice president of Sony Discos, José Rosario.

That role would have its greatest test in 1998, when the kidnappers ambushed Fernández’s oldest son and namesake, Vicente Jr., 33, as he was leaving his father’s ranch on the outskirts of Guadalajara. For almost four months they held him hostage. Their demands skyrocketed into the millions. To pressure Fernández, they cut off two of Vicente Jr.’s fingers.

Although he was distraught, Fernández kept the ordeal a secret. He refused to file a police report or cancel any concerts. In part, it was a pragmatic move; the kidnappers had warned him not to create trouble. But Fernández had his own reasons for wanting the show to continue. He was the quintessential old-school performer, an artist who lived to sing and sang to live.

Only after Vicente Jr. was released, unharmed except for his fingers, did Fernández publicly reveal what happened. Despite the tragedy, he remained true to his homeland. “I will not leave Mexico,” he told the Televisa network at the time. “From my country, they will only kick me out first.”

The story propelled Fernandez to headlines in the United States, marking his introduction to many in the English-speaking world. But for millions of Latin Americans, including those living in the United States, Fernández was already a legend on a par with those other mononymous singers from Elvis and Sinatra.

A vintage photo of Vicente Fernández around 1970.

Vicente Fernández around 1970.

(Los Angeles Times)

Vicente Fernández Gómez, born February 14, 1940, spent his early years in Huentitán El Alto, a rural settlement on the outskirts of Guadalajara, where his parents raised cattle. Dropped out of fifth grade, the young singer grew up milking cows and giving birth to calves; As a teenager in Tijuana, I washed dishes, shined shoes, tended bars, and laid bricks.

Though he would later become a billionaire, with his own Learjet and a guitar-shaped pool, Fernández held onto his bona fides of salt from the earth. “There are two types of people in the world,” he would tell the audience, “the rich poor and the rich poor.”

The song that he considered his most autobiographical, “El Hijo del Pueblo”, written by the legendary singer-songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez, echoed those themes:

It is a pride to have been born in the humblest of neighborhoods,
Away from the hustle and bustle and false society …
I go through life very happy with my poverty
Because I don’t have money, I have a lot of heart.

Fernández’s musical career began with the same humility, without the benefit of singing lessons or star-making machinery. At age 21, he returned to Guadalajara and joined the crowd of mariachis in the Plaza de la Iglesia San Juan de Dios, where he spent two years singing for tips. Later, he graduated from the restaurant circuit, then a slot on an Opry-style live radio show. But when he auditioned for his first record deal, the big record labels in Mexico City treated him like a jerk. “They told me I should go sell peanuts,” Fernández recalled.

Mexican music, until that moment, had been dominated by a succession of moustached cowboys, their mischievous charms and their silky voices marketed as symbols of national identity: Jiménez, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, Javier Solís. They all died at the height of their careers and before reaching middle age. It was the loss of Solís – during a gallbladder operation in 1966 – that opened the door for Fernández; within a week, he got a call from CBS Records. Fernández signed for the label, which later became Sony, a company with which he remained throughout his career.

He soon gained fame for his dexterous baritone, as thick and flexible as putty. He could moan and moan, laugh and coo, often lowering the microphone mid-song and ending the verse with a naked roar. Whether performing in a Mexican cockfighting pit or an expensive Las Vegas ballroom, he always started with the same promise: keep singing as long as his audience kept clapping. Often that meant a three- or four-hour marathon, leaving him drenched in sweat, drenched in kisses, and drenched in alcohol.

It was the romantic “Volver, Volver,” which he first released in 1972, that launched him to international stardom, a fiery ballad about a man who yearns to return to the arms of the woman he loves. The song is now a staple of Latin American song (and drunken nightlife), reinvented by countless mariachi acts, European vocalists, and the Los Lobos band, which featured a rock version of the tune in albums and concerts.

Unlike the other rancher kings, none of whom lived more than 40 years, Fernández spent his entire life at the top of the throne. Throughout his career, he won three Grammy Awards and eight Latin Grammy Awards, along with countless Mexican and Latin American honors. In 2002, he was honored as person of the year by the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, organizer of the Latin Grammys.

For decades, it reigned as one of the most profitable acts in Los Angeles, selling a number of shows each year at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena and the Universal Amphitheater. When its Hollywood star was unveiled, a record 4,500 people attended.

“It represents the maintenance of a culture, the heart and soul of the masses,” said Steve Loza, professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA. “Do you want to be proud of who you are? Do you want to tell your children what it is to be Mexican and never lose it? All you have to do is listen to Vicente ”.

His most important companion throughout his life was his wife, María del Refugio Abarca Villaseñor, known as Cuquita, the Guadalajarana neighbor whom he married in 1963, and with whom he had four children: Gerardo, Alejandra, Vicente Jr. and Alexander. The latter two, like their father, became singers, with the handsome Alejandro with a baritone voice, whose music mixes with pop and traditional Mexican styles, achieving a large measure of international stardom. Alejandro, nicknamed “El Potrillo”, or the Colt, used to accompany his father on stage to do duets, with the sad “Perdón”, whose lyrics asked the forgiveness of a loved one, becoming a basic element.

Vicente and Alejandro Fernández hold microphones while singing on stage.

Vicente Fernández sings with his son Alejandro at the Universal Amphitheater.

(George Wilhelm / Los Angeles Times)

To his fans, Fernández sometimes appeared ageless, his thin mustache and long sideburns remained supernaturally black, but he was very time conscious. He retired from the movie business in 1991, aware that his on-screen magnetism had begun to fade. But he remained a magnetic stage presence until the very end, even as his movements were slowed by age, his voice hollowed out by time. At his last concert at the Azteca Stadium, as was his custom, he held up a glass of tequila while shouting “Volver, Volver,” blowing kisses at the boisterous crowd.

Fernández used to talk about wanting his life to end on stage, a feeling that inspired one of his favorite songs, “Una Noche Como Esta”:

If you sing like that
I have earned your affection
I’d be happy if singing like this
One day i die.

Times columnists Carolina A. Miranda and Gustavo Arellano contributed to this article.

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