The first time Jose Luis Rodriguez played Washington, you had to be a congressional wife to hear him (he performed at Nancy Reagan's annual luncheon last May). Tonight, the international pop star from Venezuela will be performing at Constitution Hall, more readily accessible to fans who have helped push him past 30 million record sales.
And Rodriguez, dubbed El Puma after a character he portrayed in a long-running Latin American soap opera, will be decidedly more comfortable crooning in English than he was the first time around. "It must be my second language by now, as Spanish is the second language for the American people," he says in barely accented English. "I started about one year and six months ago and I'm still learning, on the airplanes, in the hotels."
So far he has recorded only two songs in English ("Memory," from the musical "Cats," and "As Time Goes By"), but an all-English album is due out before year's end. Although he's still not entirely comfortable with challenges of phrasing, "the feeling is the same," he says. "Of course, I'm more comfortable singing in Spanish , it's my mother tongue. But I'm trying to communicate with a whole lot of people, and the first language of the world is English. It's not an obsession with me, just another step in my life and my career."
While non-Spanish-speaking Americans may have trouble distinguishing Jose Luis Rodriguez from Jose Jose, the Mexican pop star, they should be open to his fervently romantic style after Julio Iglesias' surprising success here. Rodriguez is quick to point out that while both sing in Spanish, Iglesias is European and that he himself is more properly cast as a Latin performer.
"The important thing is, I'm a Latin American singer trying to communicate with American people and all the countries that speak English. We need each other. Latins and Anglos need to become closer -- we're neighbors and we must learn to appreciate each other more."
Rodriguez 40, also notes that "in the United States there are 28 million people from Latin America. It's a little country inside another country. And we are 300 million people in Latin America." Brazil has 130 million people and Mexico 70 million, he added, two countries with the same combined population as the United States.
"It's a big market," he says, adding that it has only recently had the cultural penetration that the United States has been having in Latin America for the last 25 years. That's almost as long as Rodriguez has been performing, early on in Los Zeppy, a Venezuelan version of the Platters, and as a band singer with Billo's Caracas Boys. Stardom has come to him only over the last seven years, following the international success of "Voy a perder la cabeza por tu amor" ("Your Love Is Driving Me Mad"). He has also recorded albums in Portuguese and Italian -- "Latin languages are much easier for me" -- and his regular appearances on more than 17 soap operas shown all over Latin America, Spain and Spanish-speaking centers in the United States have certainly helped as well.
Rodriguez, 40, who has been described as a suave, cosmopolitan caballero, defines his style as "80 percent romantic ballads" about longing and loss, and 20 percent upbeat pop. "Love, romance and sweet music are coming back because we were created by God for love," he says emphatically. "I don't think anyone can be in love with the rock, it's impossible. I'm not against rock, but it's impossible to get together with a woman with rock. For love you need romantic music with a candle in the dark."
Although stateside demographics are shifting to an older audience, one more susceptible to romantic, adult music, Rodriguez says that in Latin America, the base of his worldwide success, "60 percent of the population is under 20 years old." It's not hard to understand both groups' attraction to his straightforward sex appeal -- a common sight at his concerts is women rushing the stage, tossing him flowers and hoping for a touch or a kiss.
While he maintains a home in Venezuela, Rodriguez now operates out of Miami, where he lives with his wife and two teen-age daughters. "It's a better base for world travel," he says. "You can catch airplanes any day for any place. America is like ancient Rome, the center of the world."
The master plan here includes a cautious program of television exposure: Rodriguez has performed on the last two Miss Universe pageants, an Anne Murray special and the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon, as well as "Solid Gold" and "Entertainment Tonight." He insists he won't be making any major accommodations to break in America -- "I cannot put another outfit on my life. I have to be myself and communicate to the people with my music" -- but does concede that television is the easiest tool to break through to a wider audience. "You have image, you have song. It's the most powerful communication."
He's even going back to the soaps he abandoned four years ago. "This year I'll be doing a 'Dallas/Dynasty' weekly show" inVenezuela, playing, as always, "a good guy. I don't like to play bad guys because of my image. I want to project positive things. And I like to be in situations where I can keep control of everything."