On February 24th 1999, the TV lights at LA’s Shrine Auditorium powered up for the opening number at the 41st annual Grammy Awards. Taking the stage was a young Puerto Rican pop star called Ricky Martin. He was already a superstar in the Spanish-language market, but an unknown to this non- Latino audience—and he would perform a song in Spanish, “La Copa de La Vida” (The Cup of Life).
“This was a big deal,” says Billboard’s Leila Cobo, “because to this day, they hate to have Latin acts perform in Spanish at their Grammys. They think that ratings drop the minute you put another language in.”
Written by the duo of Desmond Child and Robi Draco Rosa, “The Cup of Life” was already the official song of the 1998 FIFA World Cup. But that evening on Ricky Martin’s lips and hips —he was a fine dancer— it was more than that. “I just had a feeling all over,” says Child. “It was goosebumps, that something special was happening.”
Martin sang the opening lines in English, and then switched to Spanish. It was a stunning performance. “I was there that night,” says music producer José Behar. “The place went insane.”
The performance launched a cultural phenomenon that became known as the Latin Wave. Retrospectively it can be seen as a golden age of Latin Music; a time when a dozen or so Latino artists moved into the American cultural mainstream, spearheading a transformation in US culture and music.
The son of a schoolteacher, Enrique Martín Morales was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico into a middle class family. He began his musical career at age twelve with Menudo, touring with the hugely popular teen group for five years. He then released several Spanish-language solo albums, including Me Amarás (You will Love Me) in 1994 and Vuelve (Come Back) in 1998, which included the song that would make his name at the Grammys, “La Copa de la Vida.” He had another hit with "1-2-3 María” from his third album, A Medio Vivir (Half Living).
He also tried his hand at acting, landing a part on Broadway as Marius, the romantic lead in Les Miserables, and taking various TV roles in Mexico. In 1994 he starred on the American TV soap opera General Hospital, playing a Puerto Rican singer.
But his future lay in his voice and his grace as a dancer, and soon after the success of the hit “1-2-3 María” came the offer of a lifetime. Tommy Mottola, head of Sony Music, offered Ricky the chance to record an English-language album. Titled Ricky Martin, and featuring a song and accompanying dance video called “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” the album took two years to complete.
Behind it was the juggernaut machinery of Sony Records and the genius of producer Desmond Child, who had written songs for Kiss, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith. Child saw his job as transforming Ricky Martin. “When I met Ricky Martin,” he says, “I didn’t think of him as a Latin-pop-tropical . . . hip-shaking dude. I thought of him as a rock star.”
The lyrics of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” drew on the tradition of a swing song. “Tony Bennett could do that song,” says Child. He added a visual element which he describes as “Elvis in Vegas - all black. In a kind of small setting that gave people an archetypal sense that that, that he was that thing that they had always loved.” And through it all the horns and Brazilian rhythms gave La Vida Loca a decidedly Latin base.
“…Unabashedly Pop,” wrote a Time magazine critic, “But…saved by its Latin soul.”
“Livin’ La Vida Loca” and the album Ricky Martin succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, debuting at number one on the Billboard Chart. “Livin’ La Vida Loca” has sold over 8 million copies, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time; the album went on to sell an estimated 22 million copies worldwide. It led the Latin pop explosion of 1999, opening the US market to Latino performers, including Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony and Cristina Aguilera, to cross into the American mainstream with English- language albums. Tommy Mottola moved fast with Jennifer López, releasing On the Six only three weeks after Ricky Martin. The album, which included the hit tracks “Waiting for Tonite” and “No me Ames” (Don’t Love Me), paid tribute to López’s roots in the Bronx, and brought the flavor of Latino hip hop to the American mainstream.
In 2000, Martin released Sound Loaded. Though its impact paled compared to the album Ricky Martin, the single “She Bangs” became popular. But he soon stepped away from the English market to focus on Spanish projects. His biggest Spanish-language hits were collected on 2001's La Historia (The History), followed in 2003 by Almas del Silencio (Souls from the Silence).
Martin went on to quieter projects, releasing a live album, MTV Unplugged, which led to a return to his Puerto Rican roots with his Black and WhiteTour in 2007. Following the final show in Madison Square Garden, Martin took a career break from music to focus on his private life. He fathered twin boys with a surrogate mother in 2008, and after years of speculation he revealed that he was “a fortunate homosexual man.” Martin spent the next couple of years focusing his energy on his charitable work for the Ricky Martin Foundation which focuses on ending human trafficking.
His 10th studio album, released in 2015, A Quien Quiera Escuchar (Who Wants to Listen) received a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album at the 58th Grammy Awards. In 2016, Martin released the hit-song “Vente Pa’ Ca” (Come Here), featuring Colombian sensation Maluma.
Credit: Retna, Ltd./Camera Press/Miguel Amador Larra