As far as his father was concerned, the young man, though an architecture student, was really only good for sneaking away at night to strum on the requinto — a higher-pitched, smaller cousin to the classical guitar. He needed to get his act together.
So his father had him move into a hotel until giving in about two weeks later: His son could become a musician, he said, as long as he wasn’t a mediocre one.
It didn’t take long for the teen to live up to his father’s demand. Since his rise to fame in the 1950s, Correa — known widely by the nickname “el requinto de oro,” or “the requinto of gold” — remained a sensation across Mexico and beyond for his distinctive strumming style, particularly as part of the balladeer trio Los Tres Caballeros.
Correa, 90, died Tuesday of a heart attack in Mexico, following nearly a decade of lung problems, his nephew Fernando Correa told Televisa News.
“He changed musical history,” Jesús Monarrez, a Mexican composer, told Infobae Mexico. “He created a unique and irreplaceable style, and it’s undoubtedly a huge loss for lovers of romantic music.”
During nearly seven decades as a working musician, Correa was best known for his boleros, guitar-backed tunes popular among older listeners, and their effusive, often bittersweet lyrics of love — unrequited, eternal or both.
“As long as there are women,” Correa once said, “there will be good boleros expressing a love for them.”
Born Benjamín Correa in Mexico City on Dec. 4, 1929, he learned to love music at an early age. His father, a military architect and practiced musician, taught him his first guitar chords at age 5, and his maternal grandfather would soon start giving Correa formal lessons at home. He was hooked.
After performing at parties as a teenager, he got a gig playing the requinto in a six-person ensemble on the radio.
Producers at the station trimmed the sextet down to a trio, and Correa, together with Roberto Cantoral and Leonel Gálvez, formed the balladeering trio Los Tres Caballeros, their name inspired by the Disney cartoon about a band of three musical birds from across the Americas.
In 1952, they moved to New York in search of greater exposure, turning John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe into fans and befriending vocal group the Platters during regular gigs in the city, Correa told Reforma in 2006.
But the trio arguably solidified their spot in Mexican music when they returned home in 1956. Propelled by Cantoral’s melodic lyrics, Gálvez’s smooth vocals and Correa’s skills on the requinto, they gained national fame with “El Reloj” and “La Barca,” two ballads off an album that year.
In particular, Correa became known for his high-pitched backup vocals and the rich, aggressive sound of his requinto, in which he’d mix simple and straightforward strumming with more elaborate four-, and five-string chords. (The instrument, which Correa would go on to produce and sell, is distinguishable from a guitar by a cutout to reach higher frets.)
Both with and without the trio, which disbanded in 1961, Correa worked on 150 records, showing off his musical prowess as he arranged compositions and directed bands for Latin stars like Julio Iglesias, Luis Miguel and Gloria Estefan. He branched out to other genres: In 1967, he joined jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and his quartet on a tour around Mexico.
“An infinite number of people were helped by him,” Mexican singer Carlos Cuevas told Once Noticias TV. “He knew how to direct with tons and tons of precision.”
Cuevas, who credited Correa with teaching him how to sing boleros, added the careers of the most famous Mexican singers would not have been the same without the late musician.
Throughout a decades-long career of seemingly nonstop tours and albums, Correa kept up a remarkable work ethic, practicing no less than 15 hours a day on all manner of stringed instruments, from electric bass to classical guitar.
A heavy smoker for most of his life, he developed emphysema in 2013 and began using an oxygen tank after being hospitalized that year with a bout of pneumonia. But it didn’t stop him from recording music, including an album he released with his son Manolo in 2015.
Toward the end of his life, Correa alternately insisted on the timelessness of romantic ballads and lamented changing tastes in popular music, telling Mexico City newspaper La Jornada last year that neither the lyrics nor the sounds of newer genres like reggaeton were memorable.
“I want young people to go with me. I’d love to help them, to guide them,” he said. “Some people play electric guitar, but they fall back on pedals, on hundreds of electronic sounds. To me, they’re special effects more than they are musical notes.”
Yet even as he grumbled about the declining popularity of the music that made him famous, particularly among younger generations, he noted the feeling of those songs will never go away.
While boleros may have stopped appearing on the radio, he said, people will always want music to fall in love with, as they fall in love. Just like the ballads he strummed on his guitar, regional Mexican banda and rock-and-roll can contain those powerful emotions.
“I believe that a good ‘I love you,’ regardless of the musical genre in which it’s said, will always be the highest form of flattery for a woman,” he told the Mexican newspaper El Universal in 2013.