“They said you have to change your name. You have to take the piano out and the horns. Because that’s too Latin. But me and Gloria, we always were firm that we’re real people. I don’t want to lie to people with a different sound. To me it was a lack of respect to my family to change my name.”
Dr. Beat first hit it big in Europe, then the United States. That set up Gloria Estefan for her first mega hit, Conga, which climbed to No. 10 on the Billboards chart in 1985. It remains the unofficial anthem of Miami. When the Miami Heat visited the White House in January to celebrate their NBA championship, the Marine Band chose Conga as President Obama’s walk-off music at the end of the event.
Music continues to drive the business for Estefan Enterprises, the corporate umbrella with two offices — one in South Beach, the other on Bird Road just outside Coral Gables, which houses the couple’s Crescent Moon Studios. The Estefans hold one of the largest song catalogs in Latin music, with writing credits for hits by Ricky Martin, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Emilio also continues to scout new talent, employing a squad of producers and song writers looking for the next Latin dance or pop hit.
Standing before a mixing board, Emilio cranks the volume and plays a track of his wife’s version of Smile, the familiar Latina voice backed by a full orchestra in an English rendition of a song Nat King Cole made a hit in 1954. An album of American standards is set for release in September, with an eye on markets from Brazil to continental Europe.
“Would you like to hear it in Portuguese?” Emilio asks as he switches to a track with the same song in a tongue the former translator picked up to target the Brazilian market. She recorded the same song in Italian, English and Spanish as well — along with one track in French, which Gloria studied at the University of Miami . “Gloria is worldwide,’’ Emilio said.
One business venture that won’t be getting high-profile attention from the Estefans in the coming weeks will be the Miami Dolphins. In 2009, the team’s owner, Stephen Ross, recruited the pair to join a roster of celebrities buying tiny shares of the team — a partnership roster that now includes Fergie, the Williams sisters and Marc Anthony.
While seen as a publicity coup at the time, the deal soon brought a political dimension as Ross began lobbying lawmakers for tax dollars to partially fund a stadium renovation. The team is revving up for an all-out campaign in advance of a possible referendum on the issue in May, but Estefan said he will sit out of the fight.
“I told Steve, I don’t want to campaign... I would never ask for money personally,’’ Estefan said. “As a citizen, I can tell you, improving the stadium would be a great thing.”
Revenues aren’t what they used to be from the Estefans’ music ventures, given the sharp decline in album sales with the popularity of song-by-song online purchases. That puts more focus on the Estefans’ hospitality ventures, which accounts for the bulk of the 3,000 workers Emilio said are employed by Estefan Enterprises.
The worst year for that business? Emilio picks 2001, thanks to the tourism crisis brought on by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The downturn struck the most visible arm of the Estefan empire: their restaurants and hotels, which now include a Bongos Cuban Cafe in Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena, the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood and in Downtown Disney in Orlando, and hotels in Vero Beach and South Beach, along with the Lario’s restaurant on Ocean Drive.
But Estefan said less noticed is the success he’s had trading commercial real estate, including block-sized tracts in downtown Miami.
“The music business is suffering a lot now,” he said. “People don’t know it, but more of my money I made in real estate.”
Though he said he was approached, Estefan said he stayed out of the building boom that brought soaring real estate values, but did pick up some discounted property when prices crashed.
“I don’t want to take over the world, I have a little piece of it,” he said. “I have work to do every single day of my life. I want to keep it that way.”