MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — At a Miami Dolphins team banquet last year, CEO Mike Dee turned to the team’s newest minority owner, music producer and mogul Emilio Estefan, and asked what he thought of the event.
Estefan didn’t miss a beat as he rattled off his critique: There was no Spanish-language media there. How could the team reach out to the community without ensuring the presence of some of South Florida’s most popular and powerful networks?
Within days, Estefan reached out to the Spanish-language media and had the Dolphins franchise producing bilingual press releases, Dee recalls.
“His contributions transcend entertainment,” Dee said. “Clearly he had a hand in the entertainment side, whether it be orchestrating halftime shows and coordinating marching bands, but more important were the relationships that were established in communities that had previously been unnoticed or unattended by the Dolphin franchise.”
That kind of behind-the-scenes energy and action combined with his desire to help bring the Latino community into mainstream America has been Estefan’s trademark for nearly four decades. Whether it was molding the unique beat of his band Miami Sound Machine, guiding his wife Gloria Estefan’s career and those of countless other artists or helping to boost Miami’s image as a capital of Latin culture, he has left an indelible imprint.
Now, after years of promoting others, Estefan is sharing his own life in his memoir, “The Rhythm of Success,” released this month by Penguin Group’s Celebra division.
Estefan says people tried to get him to write a celebrity memoir for years, detailing all the famous artists he’s worked with, but he wanted to do something more.
“This generation of Hispanics has to know its history, everything Latinos who came before them have done to open the doors and to see what they can achieve,” he said. “That’s why I’ve dedicated the book to the first Latino president. Maybe it won’t happen now, but it will happen.”
His book is a tale he hopes will resonate with immigrants and natives alike: The secrets of how a young impoverished refugee reinvented himself into a world famous producer and entrepreneur.
Sitting in his penthouse offices, a baby grand piano to his left, windows on all sides, Estefan gazed over the city where he landed more than 40 years ago, recalling that first, terrifying reinvention.
At age 14, Estefan fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Spain and later Miami. His elder brother was at the university and of military age, and the newly installed communist government refused to let him go. Estefan’s father, a professional gambler, didn’t believe in making plans and lost or gave away as much as he won. His mother refused to leave behind her eldest son or her parents even after security agents raided their home. So it fell to Emilio to plan their escape.
Travel between the United States and Cuba was extremely difficult at the time, so Estefan and his father sought refuge first in Spain.
“When I left my mother at the airport, I thought I will probably never see her or my brother again. I got on the plane, and I saw all these families, and I cried the whole way to Spain,” he said.
In Spain, he ate at soup kitchens or earned dinner by playing the accordion at a cantina.
“To go from a family, based with grandparents and so many relatives to being almost homeless in a strange country, it was a drastic change,” he said.
Emilio traveled ahead of his father to the United States a year later and enrolled in night school, working by day in the mailroom of the Cuban-exile owned Bacardi liquor company, determined to bring his mother and brother here, and he eventually succeeded. He persuaded an uncle to lend him money for an accordion and formed a band, playing traditional Cuban tunes at local fiestas.
“Music was the one thing, even in the hard times, that always made me happy,” he said.
Soon, the group added a shy but charismatic singer named Gloria who would steal the heart of Estefan and audiences worldwide. The couple would have go on to have two children and a more than 30-year professional and personal partnership.
Back in the day, convincing CEOs of the value of reaching out to Hispanics and trying to mix the cultures was not easy task. Record executives said it would never work for the band to infuse their Latin rhythms with music they’d soaked up in their adopted country. But the Sound Machine soared to the top of the charts with hits like “Conga,” ”Bad Boys,” and the “Rhythm is Gonna Get You.”
His successes with Miami Sound Machine and later his wife’s solo career led him to work as a producer for others, helping reinvent the careers of Martin, Shakira and others, introducing them to English-speaking audiences.
“The hardest thing was to convince Shakira she could do the crossover because when I met her she didn’t know any English,” he laughed. “She was a genius, but she was still a child.”
Estefan encouraged her to try English but stay true to her roots with Colombian rhythms and a hint of traditional Lebanese sound.
It wasn’t just Latin artists he helped cross over. He turned a Lenny Kravitz ballad into a salsa remix, and he helped Madonna with the soundtrack for the film “Evita.”
Frustrated with the limited attention given to Latin music at the Grammys, he pushed for a separate show dedicated to the broad breadth of Spanish and Portuguese music with the Latin Grammys, now in their 10th year. He was even named by Republican and Democratic presidents to the Kennedy Center board.
As the music industry has struggled, Estefan has reinvented himself again with a hotel and the expansion of his upscale Bongos Cuban Cafe chain. And then came the Miami Dolphins in 2009, his involvement paving the way for Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and Fergie to buy shares too.
As for the key to his success, Estefan said: “Be unique.”
“That’s what I tell people. Even if they say it won’t work. Keep doing it,” he said. “Because in the end, no one else is going to be your cheerleader.”