Original Article by Leila Cobo BILLBOARD
“There was just one issue: Christina was not fluent in Spanish.”
On July 23, Christian book imprint Zondervan will publish The Latin Hitmaker, a memoir by Latin producer and songwriter Rudy Pérez.
Pérez, one of Latin music’s most successful and prolific producers, has worked with many of Latin pop’s biggest names — including Luis Fonsi, Alejandro Fernandez, Christian Castro, Christina Aguilera, Los Temerarios and Julio Iglesias — in a career that spans nearly three decades. Pérez was so remarkably successful in the early 2000s that he was Billboard’s Hot Latin Tracks Producer of the Year for four consecutive years, and in 2010, he was named Billboard’s Producer of the Decade for having the most top 10 hits on the chart between 2000 and 2010.
Beyond his work with Latin acts, Pérez was also a pivotal figure in the movement of English-speaking artists singing in Spanish, producing early Spanish-language tracks for the likes of Beyoncé and Aguilera, in addition to producing full albums for the likes of Michael Bolton. Pérez also produced Natalie Cole’s 2015 En Español album, her last before her death.
But it’s Perez’s earlier work in that realm, coaching English-speaking singers how to pronounce in Spanish, that’s most prescient to what the market is today. In this exclusive excerpt from the memoir, Perez details how he worked with Christina Aguilera on her 2000 Spanish-language album Mi Reflejo.
The excerpt below begins when Ron Fair, then-head of RCA, asked Pérez to produce Aguilera’s Spanish-language set, following the huge success of her debut album in 1999.
But there was just one issue: Christina was not fluent in Spanish. Speaking and understanding enough of a language to communicate is one thing, but singing and properly interpreting an entire album is quite another. I had my work cut out for me, because if she was so focused on proper pronunciation, she might not be able to do what Christina is so amazing at doing—singing like no one else.
After Ron talked with me about the vision for the album, RCA’s Latin division started pitching him other producers. At one point in the process, he was at my house and told me that the next morning, at 10:30, he had to go meet with another producer, to whom the label was pushing him. Knowing all too well how the game is played, I just put the outcome in the Lord’s hands. I felt no need to try to sell myself to Ron or RCA. As with all my projects, if God wants me to work with someone, He will bring it about in His time and His way.
The next morning, by 11:10, Ron was already back at my house. Surprised, I said, “That was quick. Did you meet with the other producer?” Frustrated, he responded, “Yes, but he was all wrong. He wouldn’t know what to do with Christina, and she wouldn’t like him. Rudy, you need to produce this record.” I’m not certain what discussions transpired between Ron and the label, but from that point, the back-and-forth with other producers ended and I was the guy.
Christina would need to be convincing to the Latino world in how she sang the lyrics, and I was going to do whatever it took to make that happen. Because so much attention was on her career at that time, her project was going to provide the opportunity for the American mainstream music market to see what a Latin release could accomplish. Needless to say, there was a great deal riding on her album, and no one realized that more than me.
After we settled on the songs we would be recording, I wrote out all the lyrics phonetically in Spanish. Yes, phonetically. I spelled out every word the way she would have to say it, so she could start to interpret the vocal performance. I also devised a method to teach her how to roll her r’s. This created an incredible amount of additional work for me and for Christina. Recording an album for a major label is already an arduous and stressful task, and having to navigate a different language on top of everything else makes for a true challenge.
On Christina’s first few trips to Miami, RCA put her up in a nearby five-star hotel. Because she didn’t like being alone in her hotel room, our oldest son, Chris, 16 at the time and also a musician, would go stay with her to keep her company. Because of the time they spent hanging out together, the two became good friends. We would hear stories of them ordering every single item on the room service menu. Needless to say, Chris loved it and had so much fun with her. And I think she had a lot of fun too. Hey, if you’re selling millions of records, why not go crazy on room service with your producer’s kid, right?
Two Strikes and a Grand Slam
One day in the studio, we took a short break and Christina left the room. To clear my head, I walked over to the grand piano, sat down, and started to play and sing an old Cuban standard called “Contigo en la Distancia” (“With You in the Distance”), a beautiful, haunting ballad written in the mid-’40s by musical legend César Portillo de la Luz. I deeply loved and respected all of his work, but of course the American audience likely would not know of his songs.
Unbeknownst to me, Christina had walked back into the room and over to the piano. I was singing with my eyes closed, so I wasn’t aware that she was standing there, listening intently. As the final chord faded, she asked, “Rudy, what was that song? It is absolutely beautiful. What do the lyrics say?” I told her the name and history of the songwriter and explained the meaning of the lyrics, which are about the pain of being away from a loved one.
As I spoke, tears filled her eyes and she expressed how the beautiful words reminded her of her mom and her sister and how much she missed them when she had to be away on the road. I could tell the song touched her soul, as it had mine for so many years. That connection of the heart to a message is what an artist constantly seeks.
What Christina said next totally surprised me and created a dilemma at the same time. Wiping her eyes, she said, “Rudy, I love that song and what the lyrics communicate. I want to record my own version on this album.” As a producer hired by a major label that desired a clear direction for the project, I shook my head. “Christina, ‘Contigo en la Distancia’ is a classic romantic Latin standard. RCA hired me to create a Latin pop album that sounds musically and stylistically like your English record. We can’t record this. They won’t allow it. They would be furious with me. They might even fire me.”
But to her credit, even at a very young age Christina has always known what she wants as an artist. She was insistent. So I went against my gut and went with her. We arranged a beautiful version and, as always, she nailed an incredible vocal interpretation of the song.
Sure enough, just as I predicted, after I sent in the final mix of the record, I got a call from the label, and they were very upset about our including an old standard. I explained the situation and what had occurred. Christina also pushed back and—long story short—fortunately for us all, RCA relented. The track made it on the final version of the album.
I can’t possibly tell the story of this project without including how the duet on the record came about. My friend Eddie Fernandez at Universal Records had signed a young male artist to a development deal. (A development deal is when an artist signs with a label, the intent being to work toward a record contract. Some end in success, while many just fade away, with nothing ever materializing.) This young Puerto Rican singer was unique, because while he sang in Spanish, his style was distinctly R&B (rhythm and blues). As soon as I heard him sing, I was all in on this kid. He was phenomenal. I offered to work with him in any capacity. Timing-wise, this connection began after Christina’s project had already started.
I had written a song called “Si No Te Hubiera Conocido” (“If I Hadn’t Met You”). I planned for the song to be a duet. I had laid down the male vocal just as a guide for Christina as she worked on her part, knowing that when we landed on the right male artist, my track would be replaced.
Wanting the song to be on the record and agreeing that a duet was a great idea for this project, the label started looking at male Latino superstars to sing the part. Because so many of the major Latin recording artists lived in Miami, the label sent several to my house to meet Christina and sing with her. Because of her incredible success, anybody who was anybody wanted to be on the record. (Because they weren’t chosen, I will avoid giving their names.)
After everyone on the list had come and gone, I asked Christina, “Do you want to sing with someone famous or someone who can hold his own with you? You have such a unique style, with your vocal riffs and inflections. These guys are all great singers and great guys whom I love, but are you going to have to adapt to them, dial back your own vocal to not outsing them, and match their performance?” She responded that she wanted to be true to who she was and sing at her very best. I said, “Well, the best singer for this song is a kid you don’t know yet.” Christina asked, “Who is he?” I replied, “His name is Luis Fonsi.” She said, “Well then, can I hear him?”
While Luis’s debut album had come out in 1998 and he’d had success in Latino markets, he was not yet known to the American record-buying audience or to radio. I played her one of Luis’s singles, a song I had written titled “Imagíname Sin Ti” (“Imagine Me Without You”).
When the song ended, Christina said, “Wow! He’s great. I want to meet him.” As any good, efficient producer should, I had Luis sitting in his car outside the house. I called him in, and they quickly hit it off. We went in the studio and recorded their vocals. And of course, with Christina and Luis being the amazing talents they are, the takes were stellar and the chemistry was incredible.