Mexican singer Juan Gabriel, who established himself as one of Latin music’s biggest stars, died Sunday morning in his California home.
Juan Gabriel’s publicist confirmed the musician’s death to the Associated Press but provided no details regarding the circumstances.
“He has passed on to become part of eternity and has left us his legacy through Juan Gabriel, the character created by him for all the music that has been sung and performed all around the world,” his press office said in a statement to the AP.
Juan Gabriel’s career spanned genres and more than three decades. Known as a flamboyant performer and prolific musician, he sold more than 100 million albums and produced more than 100 albums for other artists.
He also wrote more than 1,500 songs, and some of Latin music’s biggest names have covered them.
His death reverberated across the Spanish-speaking media, with politicians and celebrities alike sharing their condolences.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted that he was saddened by the death of “one the greatest musical icons of our country.”
“A voice and a talent that represented Mexico. His music is a legacy for the world,” Peña Nieto tweeted. “He’s gone too soon. May he rest in peace.”
President Barack Obama said in a statement Monday that Juan Gabriel brought “Mexican music to millions, transcending borders and generations. To so many Mexican-Americans, Mexicans and people all over the world, his music sounds like home.”
“With his romantic lyrics, passionate performances and signature style, Juan Gabriel captivated audiences and inspired countless young musicians,” Obama said. “He was one of the greats of Latin music–and his spirit will live on in his enduring songs, and in the hearts of the fans who love him. ”
Singer Marc Anthony tweeted that Juan Gabriel was his idol and included lyrics to a song the two sang together, “Yo Te Recuerdo.”
Juan Gabriel’s singing success contrasted with his tough childhood. Born Alberto Aguilera Valadez, he was sent to an orphanage in Ciudad Juarez at age 2 when his mother, a housekeeper, could not take care of him, he recounted to the Los Angeles Times in 1993.
He later said that he deeply loved his mother, who died in 1974, and that she inspired one of his greatest hits, “Endless Love,” according to the AP.
He had a love of music from a young age and began writing songs at 13.
“When I was 15, all I knew was that I had to be somebody and that I could be somebody. So I exploited the only thing I knew, which was singing and songwriting,” he told the L.A. Times. “Even if my childhood had been different, I would’ve still sung. But the [hardships] gave me strength and made me realize that I must do something if I wanted to get out of that situation. I’m glad it paid off.”
Juan Gabriel left school at fifth grade and went to Mexico City to try to break into music. There he met his mentor, Juan Contreras, according to the AP. The teenager ended up in jail, accused of robbery, but the jail director and his wife helped free him.
Juan Gabriel landed a record contract after his 1971 hit song, “No Tengo Dinero.”
“Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico’s leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits … not only for himself but for many leading Latin artists,” reads a biography from the Recording Academy. “In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, ‘Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes,’ broke sales records and established his iconic status.”
In 1986, then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 “The Day of Juan Gabriel.”
Even as Juan Gabriel enjoyed iconic status, he was still an active showman. He performed in Inglewood, Calif., just days before his death, singing for two hours straight in a “high energy show” that included a full mariachi band, orchestra and more than a dozen dancers, according to Billboard.
“[Juan] Gabriel ended the spectacular with his iconic song ‘El noa noa,’ getting the entire audience on their feet and dancing along with him and his dancers,” reads Billboard’s review of the concert. “The crowd was left with a beautiful and positive message on the screen that read, ‘Congratulations to all the people that are proud to be who they are.’ ”
In a statement Sunday, Gabriel Abaroa, president and chief executive of the Latin Recording Academy, said: “With a heavy heart and profound sense of nostalgia, The Latin Recording Academy mourns the passing of Alberto Aguilera Valadez, our beloved Juan Gabriel. He left us at an early age, but after almost five decades of enormous creativity. His musical legacy is much more than one or hundreds of songs; he composed philosophy. In addition, he carried out heartfelt philanthropy with orphans of his native Ciudad Juárez. He broke taboos, devoured stages and conquered diverse audiences. In 2009, the Latin Academy named him Person of the Year, and honored him for his career and social work during a star-studded gala. The voice of the Mexican icon will resonate forever in all those who knew him, as we continue to dance to his music and appreciate his art. Rest in peace, Juan Gabriel.”
[This post, originally published Aug. 28, has been updated.]