The seven-time Grammy winner shares the backstory of her new bilingual CD, “The Standards.”
Singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan
Tavis: Gloria Estefan’s been making hit records since her debut with the Miami Sound Machine back in 1985. With her Cuban roots, I should say, she was one of the first to cross over to bring Latin music into the mainstream. On her latest CD, titled “The Standards,” she takes tunes from the Great American Songbook as well as some Latin classics, singing in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Go on with your bad self. (Laughter)
Let’s take a look at Gloria singing the great Gershwin song, “How Long Has This Been Going On,” accompanied by friend Dave Koz.
Tavis: I love Dave Koz.
Gloria Estefan: I love him. He’s such a sweetie. Sexy, cute.
Tavis: Dave’s a nice-looking guy.
Estefan: And his tone, oh my gosh, it’s ridiculous.
Tavis: I love him. I didn’t believe this, and I read this and I went back and did a little research and it turns out that it’s true. So you got this standards project out now, but I did not realize that your very first appearance on “Carson,” you actually sang a standard.
Estefan: I did, “Good Morning, Heartache,” which started this whole project, oddly enough. Two years ago, when I had a trustee dinner, I sat at the piano with the dean of the Frost School of Music there, Shelly Berg, who arranged, conducted, did everything on the record, and he asked me to sit in with him.
I told him hey, do you know “Good Morning, Heartache,” because this is one of my favorite tunes. I did it on “Carson” way back on the day. With the piano right there while I was sitting, I got the whole idea for the record, because he just pulled me in with the way he was playing. It was amazing.
Tavis: What was happening in your world that made “Good Morning, Heartache” the song that you sang on your first “Carson” appearance?
Estefan: Well first of all, I’m a singer. I sing since I talk. So the great ballad singers, the people that sang with so much feeling, jazz, blues, all those singers, they were songs that I listened to, records that my mom played for me, and then later I bought.
When I went to do “Carson” that night, they wanted us to do two songs, but we were a brand new band. “Conga” hadn’t even hit the top 10 yet. They go, “Do you think you could do something that people know, because we want you to do a second song, but not two originals, because we don’t want to lose the audience, just in case.”
I go, “You know what? My piano player and I can do “Good Morning, Heartache.” We used to do it in the band at the gigs. We did, and I was so happy, because my thought process was okay, people can say that I do sing ballads as well.
That we love serious music and beautiful, amazing music, and it worked out. Because then when we came out with ballads later, it wasn’t that much of a shock for everybody.
Tavis: Yeah. So in some ways, this is coming full circle again.
Estefan: Full circle. It’s really amazing, and that’s why it starts the record, that song.
Tavis: Yeah. How did – the obvious question, but I’m curious. How did you go about choosing the material? Because anybody who’s listened to as much stuff as you have and has performed as much stuff as you have, and you’ve got 17 tracks on here – that’s a lot of whittling.
Estefan: Yeah, you’re not kidding.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s a lot of whittling.
Estefan: Well, I looked at over a thousand songs, first of all.
Tavis: I figured as much.
Estefan: Then I picked just titles that I loved that I thought oh, I’d love to sing this. Then, by the time I went over to Shelly, I whittled it down to 50, and we actually sat at the piano and I wrapped my vocal cords and him his fingers around the songs.
Because it’s one thing when you – oh, I love this tune. But then when you go to sing it, it’s got to have something really personal. Then down to 25, and then to pick the final ones I just picked the ones that were more personal, that had something to do with my life.
Like “What a Difference a Day Makes” was the first song I sang with Miami Latin Boys October 25th of ’75 at the DuPont Plaza Hotel. We did it in disco, because Viola Willis had done a killer version. And “Good Morning, Heartache,” you know the story.
The “El Dia Que Me Querias,” which I wrote in English, “The Day You Say You Love Me,” was our wedding song, old (unintelligible) song that was covered by Roberto Carlos, the one we danced to, a big star of Brazil. So everything has a very special meaning to me, very personal.
Tavis: Yeah. I joked earlier, but it is no joke – you’re singing in, like, multiple languages.
Estefan: Yes. Well, I studied French. In college, it was my minor. These are all romance languages. My new family, I have an Italian family, because my son married a girl, Lara Coppola di Dominicis, and the baby, they had a baby – we have a grandbaby 15 months old. (Laughter) So happy.
He’s got me crazy. I’m so in love with that baby. But they’re teaching him Italian, so I wanted to do something in homage to my new family. I wrote “Smile” in Spanish, which was another dream, because there wasn’t a version that really talked about what that’s song’s about, and that’s gotten me through some tough times, that song.
Then we did it in Italian as well. It just all fit. I wanted to focus on my global audience, which is something I can do that a lot of people, when they do standards, they don’t talk in these languages.
I know Spanish very well; I’m completely trilingual, kind of. So it was just a hop, skip, and a jump. I’ve done Portuguese before.
Tavis: Since you raised it, how much of a demand is it these days, particularly given all the seismic shifts and changes in the music business, to put a project out that does, in fact, play globally. If it only sells domestically –
Estefan: Listen, it helps. The numbers are crazy. When you realize before, like one of my albums would ship two million on the first week. Now if you sell two million worldwide on a project, you’re like, oh my God, that’s fantastic.
So things are – it’s not that people don’t have the music. They have it, they just don’t buy it in its – the way that we were used to selling it on CDs, so you don’t see a lot of those sales.
But for me particularly it’s important, because I’m a global artist. I’ve always had – I’ve ridden both worlds of Spanish and English, I’ve been lucky enough to tour the whole world and have a lot of fans all over.
So whenever I’ve put an album out, I do think more on that level than just a specific market, even if I’m doing a Spanish record. Because all our Latin American countries are very different. So I do think about that. I think of broadening rather than narrowing.
Tavis: Before I get too far away from this, you gave a shout-out to your son.
Tavis: I don’t want to leave your daughter out –
Estefan: Oh, no, never.
Tavis: – because she’s doing pretty well too, speaking of music.
Estefan: She’s an – she’s in the booklet, her picture, because she was at the studio every day.
Estefan: So my baby, the grandbaby’s there. I was holding him when I sang our wedding song, and it just took on a whole different meaning. Yeah, but she’s an amazing musician. She’s the best of all of us. She’s a drummer, like a killer drummer.
Tavis: She’s at – is it Berklee?
Estefan: She’s at Berklee College of Music.
Tavis: She’s at Berklee, yeah.
Estefan: Everybody thinks it’s California –
Tavis: In California, yeah.
Estefan: But no, it’s the College of Music, and –
Tavis: And she’s a drummer, percussionist.
Estefan: And she’s a drummer. This summer her and I started writing together, and the first two songs that we wrote, we produced them for an artist that Emilio is getting ready to launch named Fantina, who’s amazing.
She’s half-Russian, half Dominican, can sing in English and Spanish and all. She’s really an amazing singer, and she loved the tracks and we wrote and produced them for her, Em and I. She’s great.
Tavis: This is going to seem like a softball and it’s really not, because I really do want to dig into what this has meant to the breadth and depth of your career. So when you walked in, the first thing I asked you was, other than how you’re doing, where’s Emilio.
Estefan: Yes. He’s here. (Laughter)
Tavis: He’s off to the camera.
Estefan: Of course.
Tavis: The audience can’t see him. He’s off on the stage somewhere.
Estefan: My baby’s there.
Tavis: Because he is an artistic genius in his own right.
Estefan: He’s brilliant.
Tavis: Tell me more about what it has meant to run this race with Emilio, to have that partner, that artistic genius be the person that you spend your life with.
Estefan: You know what, it’s really given us the opportunity, given me the opportunity to have that balance that every woman would love to have, which is your family, your career.
It’s very tough for a woman in the music business, and he really was such a motivator from the beginning, when I was super-shy, and he saw a lot in me on a personal level that he knew could carry through on the stage.
We’ve both had this musical idea, and to make music in your life, it’s such a beautiful thing. We rarely differ on anything business-oriented or music-oriented, and we’re still so excited every time we put out a project.
He hasn’t lost that. Getting up every day really excited to be alive and to create new stuff. He’s a really motivating guy, and we’ve been married 35 years and been together 37, with him 38. He was my boss for a year before we even hooked up. (Laughter)
So it seems so fast. People tell me oh my God, it’s such a long – I swear to you, it seems like the blink of an eye, and I look at him and I still see that 22-year-old by that – he was a man to me. He was very mature. We’re only four years apart, so.
Tavis: And now you got a grandbaby.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs) The cycle continues.
Estefan: It’s been fast. (Laughs) Yes indeed.
Tavis: What is it about – back to the project, “The Standards,” here. What is it about the lyrical content of this stuff that holds up? Put another way, what for you makes such a great song?
Estefan: It’s juicy. I’m a songwriter, and I’ve always – to me, the stars have been the songs all my life. I’ve loved amazing artists like Stevie Wonder and Elton John and Carole King, but because of the songs, it’s not just their artistic genius and the musicality and everything.
It’s just the songs they wrote really got me to the core. For me, music was a healing thing. It was a catharsis. It got me through all my tough times. I’d lock myself in my room alone with my guitar and play.
I have a great deal of respect for it. So this genre, the standards, usually between 1920, 1949, a lot of Broadway, a lot of songs from movies and plays, they were very meaty.
They were very musical. The arrangements were amazing. What’s great about a good song is that anybody that sings it can make it their own and it’s still going to be great song, whether you play it just on a piano or you make a huge big-band arrangement.
These songs stand the test of time, and it’s fun to do something with it that’s your own.
Tavis: So pick a couple of – any two you want – and tell me in your own words what you, Emilio, and the rest of your team did to give this thing your own flavor, to take it and to put your own sort of stank on it.
Estefan: All right. Let’s take “Embraceable You,” for example, a typical love song. To me, it was all about my baby girl. She’s about to go to college. Every word in that song was about her.
When I say, “You irreplaceable you,” I can say that so wholeheartedly, and we wanted to do something that was a bit like Chopin with the arrangement. It’s just piano and strings.
Shelly outdid himself, because there was really a really good marriage of the idea that I had for the record, and he really got it. We sat through, he was sending me demos throughout the summer.
I would say, “Hey, this is really cool, what about if we try this.” So we wanted to make each song very intimate, and since that to me is almost like a lullaby, we created the arrangement for that.
“I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” it’s not “My Fair Lady” for me, it’s Emilio through and through. He whistles when he’s upset, he whistles when he’s happy. (Laughter) I can tell within three notes which one it is.
Everything about that song is, because he’s been with me every step of the way, night and day. When we were in the studio, he didn’t know but I sang the first pass and the guys that were playing along with me – because we did it live.
I recorded four songs a day for four days in the studio, because I wanted that symbiotic relationship with the musicians. They affect what I sing, and what I sing affects what they play.
There was like, you could hear a pin drop. I said to Emilio, “Baby, this one’s for you,” and the guys were crying, the musicians. These hardcore guys that, like, have done everything there is to do.
They were really moved and it was just very real, because I sang it for him. So it was so easy to make it my own, because it was my won (unintelligible).
Tavis: I think you’ve probably already answered this. Let me ask it just to make sure that I didn’t miss something here, and that is what it is over the years that you have loved so much, why this live thing, recording live, performing live, has worked so well for you.
Estefan: I think it’s worked well because that’s what music has been for me. For me, it was my way to emote. I was like my dad, or I am like my dad. We’re very kind of hermetically sealed, and I felt I needed to be really strong for my mom.
I am a strong person, but I took care of him for a long time, and it was tough. So I didn’t want to cry in front of my mom, I didn’t want to seem weak, and music would allow me to express.
In my room I’d sing, and the tears would come and I would cry. I hear a melody and it can just twist my heart into a ball. It allows me to get out all the emotions that were tough for me to be able to do, and music has been that for me.
So when you play live, when you perform live, that’s communication direct with your audience, communication with the musicians. You capture something very different when you do that.
Tavis: You’ve been on this artistic journey for quite some time now. I wonder, Gloria, whether or not – how might I put this? – I wonder whether or not you could have done this 20 years ago.
Estefan: No way.
Tavis: Is there a certain maturity, a certain –
Estefan: I could have sung it, because I did sing “Good Morning, Heartache,” on “Carson,” and people really loved it. But I just – I think you really need to feel very secure and very good in your own skin to let go enough of everything.
To just emote in these songs and be able to interpret some very nuanced words. If you listen to the words to “How Long Has This Been Going On,” you really – it could apply to so many different things.
There’s a lot of subtext, because at that time, it wasn’t blatant. There was a lot of things written and hidden in lyrics. I think that that makes it really interesting and fun.
Now I feel good. I feel good in my own skin, I’m confident. I’ve lived so many things, and I could understand a lot more of what these songs are about.
Tavis: So your lived experience helps (unintelligible).
Estefan: Oh, totally, I think so. No, most definitely. For me as a singer too, because like for example, 23 years ago, after I had that accident, that changed me, because it made me realize so clearly, even though everyone knows this, but until you live it in your own skin, that in two seconds, everything could be over.
I thought oh my God, I’m not going to waste one second expressing to the people that I love that I do love them, expressing more throughout my music, letting myself go, just singing more freely, being able to just jam and try different things.
Before, I just would have stuck more with the program because I’m a rule-follower, and a lot of my musicians tell me that they’re happy that I didn’t study music, because I would have followed the rules, and a lot of the songs I write break those rules.
Which is what you’re supposed to do when you do music – you learn the rules, then you break them. So it’s all worked out great for me.
Tavis: Since you referenced it, Gloria, a lot of your fans, and I count myself among them –
Estefan: Thank you.
Tavis: – remember that horrible accident, and we wondered whether or not you’d ever be the same again, whether you’d ever sing again, whether you were going to live through that.
It was a tough moment, obviously, for you and your family, but for your fans as well. I raise that only because, well, one, you raised it, but secondly, because another great artist, B. B. King, was in this chair just a few days ago.
Estefan: Love him.
Tavis: B. B. King is now 88 years old, he just had a birthday. He’s 88 years old now, had an accident, a horrible bus accident, many, many years ago, and sitting in this chair just a week or so ago, it was like that accident had just happened for him.
It was still so readily available to him in terms of how he tours, in terms of how he rides uncomfortably on his tour bus, how he yells at his driver, “Don’t take that turn so fast. Slow down.” (Laughter)
Estefan: Backseat driver.
Tavis: Yeah, backseat driver, yeah.
Estefan: Oh, I’m the worst.
Tavis: But I raise that to only ask how has that experience, beyond the fact that it’s given you a greater appreciation for life every day, has that in any way sort of kind of stuck with you?
Estefan: Of course.
Estefan: Well first of all, the power of prayer. I felt people’s prayers. It was like an electric current that I was hooked into, and I used it. I saw how connected we really all are. It was very clear to me.
I learned that I had a lot of discipline that I didn’t know I had, a lot of patience, and how much we can affect our own health and our own wellbeing, and how much power we have within ourselves to heal and to go beyond.
I’ll never forget that. It does, it seems like yesterday. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t erase it from my life, happily because it turned out so well.
Maybe if it wouldn’t have been a different outcome, I might not think that way. But I do, I wouldn’t change it, because it really did enrich my experience in life, and it gave me a lot of tools that I didn’t know I had.
Tavis: Don’t tell Emilio I said this, but you look amazing.
Estefan: Thank you so much. Why wouldn’t I tell him? Are you kidding me? (Laughter)
Tavis: I don’t want him to get mad at me.
Estefan: Why would he get mad? I would think he’d be happy about that.
Tavis: Well obviously, you wanted us to see this, because this cover – put that cover back up, Jonathan. The cover, the inside, these photos are amazing.
Estefan: You know what I love about that? You got the glam on the outside, but when you take out that little booklet inside, it’s all the real. It’s everybody in the studio, all the musicians that were a part of it, the experience that we lived through that.
So I like that mix, because that’s what this work is about. I actually reached back to old ’30s and ’40s pictures of Hollywood glam. I spoke to the photographer; I told them how they focused the light. They used a lot of shadows and simplicity in the things that they used on the set.
The two columns, very art deco kind of marries Miami, which we have a big deco area there. Also the time of these songs. So I really wanted to present physically the pictures, what the music is inside, and still like modern.
We’ve got the Dolce, which is modern, and beautiful dress, but very glam and old-style Hollywood.
Tavis: Since we’re on it, you reached back, of course, you reached back historically to get this music to do this project “The Standards,” so history’s written backwards, but our lives are lived forwards.
You’ve been at this for quite some time now, since you mentioned the grandbabies here. As an artist, how are you managing this aging thing? As my grandmother would say, becoming more “chronologically gifted.”
Estefan: Like age isn’t for sissies. (Laughter)
Tavis: As an artist, how are you handling this?
Estefan: You know what? I take it a day at a time. I really have never felt better. As a woman, I feel so great in my own skin, because we spent a lot of time in the early years, it’s your parents and it’s your boyfriend, your husband, your kids.
Everybody is usually before you until you get into your forties and fifties. The kids are pretty grown and they’ve got their own lives. I’ve been fortunate every step of the way to have my family with me.
I really can’t complain. I’ve got to tell you I feel great and yeah, your mortality, it’s closer. You know that even if you live a long time, it’s not going to be that long.
So you just make – I make every day count and don’t worry about it, because you’re either older or dead. So you know what, I’ll take older. (Laughter) Any day of the week, for sure.
Tavis: Yeah. My mother always says that “The only way you don’t live to get old is that you die young.”
Tavis: So that’s her line.
Estefan: That’s right.
Tavis: Let me circle back to this project, because I’m curious as to – we talked earlier about the musical arrangements on how you wanted to give these standards your own sound. How do you think your voice marries with this kind of music?
Estefan: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Because everybody – just because you can sing it don’t mean you can sing it.
Estefan: No, I know. But you know what, this is such a happy place for me and a perfect place. The reason that I wrote ballads in my career is because I love this kind of stuff.
I already had that in my psyche, and I prepared, by the way, too. I knew I wanted to do this record live, and I always like to keep learning and evolving. About a year and a half ago I found a new vocal coach that had a whole different twist on things, because I really –
Tavis: After all these years, you’re still using a vocal coach?
Estefan: Listen, you’ve got to keep your tools sharp.
Estefan: It doesn’t mean I see him every day, but he took me to another level, because I had a wonderful Italian coach, he passed away already. But you’ve got to – if you want to evolve and grow, you always can learn till the end of your days and keep getting stronger.
I wanted to be stronger vocally for this record, to give me the ability to go places that I might not have gone. Because you’re naked in this kind of thing. You don’t have – the arrangements are there and everything, but it’s all very quiet. It’s not like you’ve got horn sections and percussion blaring, and you’re in that mix. You’re naked in there.
Tavis: This is inside – I feel like I’m inside the musician’s studio, not the actor’s studio.
Estefan: Exactly. (Laughter)
Tavis: But what did you feel like this music required you to do with your voice that you needed to work at?
Estefan: You need control, you need to – I wanted to be able to really wrap my voice around these, hold notes longer, just be able to caress these songs. Even though I’ve done that with my ballad throughout time, I just wanted to be better and just keep evolving.
I love to keep growing. I always like to learn. I hope to learn until the last day on Earth, learn something new and especially in my craft. I’m always looking for – I never learned piano because we couldn’t afford it. I played guitar.
I’m always trying to learn new things on the instrument, and if I had time I would take piano lessons too. I really don’t have time for that, but I want to keep my tools sharp, so definitely.
I wanted to be completely in control so that I can be free to go anywhere I wanted with these melodies.
Tavis: I was thinking just a moment ago, of all the persons I’ve been fortunate to talk to in this chair who at some point in their career decided to do a standards project, and everybody from, that I’ve talked to, from Rod Stewart to Glenn Frey, I’ve never talked to a single person who did this once and didn’t think they were going to do it again.
Estefan: Yeah, (unintelligible).
Tavis: So –
Estefan: How many songs were left on that table?
Tavis: Yeah, so – (laughter) which raises the obvious question.
Estefan: Oh my God.
Tavis: Might you do this again?
Estefan: I would love to, of course I would. It was a wonderful experience, and it was an easy experience, because it was so legit and raw and organic. The guys came in, Shelly had the right guys. These guys are top of their line.
The drummer played with Ella Fitzgerald, with Sinatra. And by the way, that gave me a wonderful taste when I did the Sinatra duet, it was almost what, 18, 20 years ago, and then Tony Bennett, it just showed me every time I did this it got me chomping at the bit.
Oh my gosh, I really want to do this project, because I just feel very comfortable in that genre. Maybe I lived at that time, I don’t know.
Tavis: Yeah, another life.
Estefan: Maybe because my mom raised me on this. Nat King Cole, I used to watch Dean Martin as a kid and Andy Williams, and she had Mancini records. It’s just very much what I love. I love that whole time.
Tavis: I don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable spot of making comparisons, but is there anything quite like – and you’ve been blessed to do it with both of them – to do duets with Sinatra and Bennett? What gets better than that?
Estefan: It’s incredible. Nothing, because quite honestly, we’re making history there. I’m making history, because they made history. But in my own life, to be able to be singing with these greats of music is a privilege and an honor, and I didn’t take it lightly.
It was really a wonderful experience and we went to dinner with Mr. Sinatra after, we got to really chill with him and meet his wife, Barbara. I brought my mom to the dinner, and he was – what an amazing character he is on top of everything else.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Estefan: Because he was a chef and he had no qualms about telling everybody exactly what he thought of the food. (Laughter) I had such a ball.
Mr. Bennett, what a gentleman. I had run into him on the road several times, because we were always on tour. He was always the nicest guy. But to sing with him live in the studio, his chops are incredible and it’s a wonderful thing to see somebody in their eighties that’s still on top of their game. It’s a wonderful thing.
Tavis: Well, Sinatra’s the chairman of the board, and Sinatra said that Bennett was the best thing he ever heard.
Estefan: Bennett, solid.
Tavis: So you’ve got both of them covered.
Tavis: Her stuff ain’t bad either. (Laughter) Her name is Gloria.
Estefan: Thank you.
Tavis: Her name is Gloria Estefan. The new project is called “The Standards.” I highly recommend you adding this to your collection. I think you’ll enjoy it. Gloria, always honored to have you here.
Estefan: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Estefan: I love being here.
Tavis: Love having you, good to see you.
Estefan: Thank you very much.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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