With a career that spans almost four decades, Gloria Estefan has been an acclaimed, international pop star who’s had a legendary career as a singer, songwriter, performer, actress and author. As a solo artist and as the lead singer of Latin/pop band Miami Sound Machine, she’s won eight Grammy Awards and sold over 100 million records worldwide. In addition, she’s been the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and The Kennedy Center Honors.
Now in 2023, Estefan is being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Impressively, she is being recognized for her excellence as a songwriter. Notably, Estefan wrote or co-wrote most of the hits she’s been associated with, for her solo artist career and with the Miami Sound Machine. This month (June) she will be inducted in a special ceremony at the Songwriters Hall of Fame event in New York City.
Estefan, who lives in Miami, Florida, has written many classic hit songs, including beautiful ballads as well as high-energy dance tunes. Three of her ballads became number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart: “Coming Out of the Dark,” “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Anything For You.” She’s also demonstrated her versatility by writing several uptempo hits: “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Get on Your Feet,” “1-2-3” and “Live for Loving You.” Other hits that she wrote are “Words Get in the Way,” “Here We Are” and “Can’t Stay Away From You.” On top of this, Estefan has written & recorded many Spanish language hits that reached #1 on the Billboard Latin chart, including “Mi Tierra” and “Con Los Anos Que Me Quedan.”
Estefan has had such a remarkable career, that she and her husband/producer Emilio Estefan were spotlighted in the highly entertaining, successful Broadway musical, On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan. The musical’s national touring company continues to perform shows throughout the U.S. Gloria & Emilio Estefan served as Executive Producers of this Tony Award-nominated show.
In addition to her Grammy Awards and other honors listed above, Estefan has received the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, an American Music Award, and she’s been inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Here’s the video of Gloria Estefan’s hit, “Rhythm Is
Gonna Get You.”
Estefan has also had success as an actress. Last year, she starred with Andy Garcia in the popular HBO Max movie, Father of the Bride. She’s also an author who has written two, best-selling children’s books. And she’s the founder of the Gloria Estefan Foundation, whose mission is to support charitable programs for disadvantaged children and empower young prople through education and opportunity.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Gloria Estefan. She discusses her outstanding career and her songwriting, and tells how she wrote her classic hits “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Coming Out of the Dark,” “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” “Anything For You” and “Words Get in the Way.”
DK: Congratulations on being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. How does it feel receive this honor?
Gloria Estefan: Oh my gosh, I can’t describe it. Honestly, it’s something that I knew was there, but I never even dreamed it could happen. There’s so many worthy people, and to be a part of that incredible group of people that have come before me, and everyone that’s getting inducted that night, is incredible. It’s a beautiful thing because music saved my life since I was a kid. It was my escape, my catharsis, and I used to pour over every word in songs from my favorite artists, and sing my heart out and let out everything. Music was always a great escape for me. So for my music to be that for other people, is an honor beyond anything I can ever imagine.
DK: I looked at your album credits, and I noticed that you’ve written many songs by yourself. When you’re writing songs on your own, what’s your writing process?
Estefan: First of all, it’s a very internal process for me. It’s a lot in my head. I like to write on big, giant pads or books, so that I can spread out my ideas. Some songs have come through me rather than from me…I feel like I’m a vehicle. And those songs…when you look at them on the page of my writing books, they have almost no changes to any word. They just come out the way they are. It was like that for “Anything For You.” And “Coming Out Of The Dark,” which I wrote with Emilio and Jon Secada, was a big thank you to everyone. It was channeling all the thanks that I had for people’s prayers from all over the world that I felt like a physical energy.
Here’s the video of Gloria Estefan’s hit, “Don’t Wanna Lose You.”
DK: Do you write songs on guitar, piano or both?
Estefan: The easiest instrument for me to play is guitar, because we couldn’t afford piano lessons. One of my dad’s troops when we were stationed in Fort Jackson when I was 8 years old, he was a famous singer from Cuba; his family had a TV show. And my dad asked him to give me some guitar lessons, so that’s when I started playing. However, sometimes what I’m hearing in my head is easier for me to pick the notes out on the piano, because I hear very specific inversions of chords and I can sit there and pick them out. It’s painful for me maybe (laughs) because I’m not a piano player. You know, I still think about taking lessons. But there’s some magic in just hearing what I want to put out in my head and then sitting there and scoping it out.
So writing each song is different; it’s a different process. There’s the craft of songwriting and there’s inspiration. Ideally, it’s a good combination of both because with the exception of the songs I told you that come through me, usually you can always make a song better. And the way I know this, is because I’ll sing it for my husband, having a little doubt about maybe a word or line in the song, and he will pick it out every single time (laughs). So he’ll say, “The song is great but you know that line…” and I’ll go damnit! (laughs). It’s uncanny. So then I’ll go back to the drawing board and find a better way to do that. I learned that through the years. I’ll keep working on it until I believe it’s perfect and says exactly what I want it to say.
DK: One of the first hits that you wrote was the ballad, “Words Get in the Way.” Can you talk about writing this song?
Estefan: It’s funny…Emilio and I lived in the home where we got married. He had bought it the year before we got married and it had four rooms, which we didn’t need. So when someone gave us this old upright piano, I put in in the fourth room. I would sit at the piano and try to write stuff. But that day for some reason, Emilio and I had an argument. We were both pretty upset and he left. Then I sat at that piano and again, that song came through me. The idea was that I could not communicate to him. It wasn’t exactly biographical, but I also feel that you have to give the song the freedom to become itself. Because if I were only going to write biographical things, that would really limit the scope. And as a writer, you’re imagination comes into it.
Here’s the video of Gloria Estefan’s hit, “Get On Your Feet.”
So that song started with the hook—the words get in the way—because no matter how I tried to explain to him my point of view, he just wasn’t getting it. Then I let the song flow from the chorus backwards into the verses. And I remember calling our record guy and playing him the song on the phone, and he goes “Nah, I don’t know…you guys doing ballads.” And I was like, “I’m telling you this is gonna be big for us, and that’s what happened because I had to convince the record company to let us release a ballad. Because we’d had such a hit with the dance tunes, and they just want to keep you doing the same thing while it’s hot. And I said, “We need to do this because I am a ballad writer and I sing ballads, so I want to have that freedom in my career.” The record company eventually figured it out (laughs).
DK: On your album, Let It Loose, you wrote the big hit “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” with Enrique “Kiki” Garcia, who had written the hit, “Conga.” How did you and Enrique get together to write “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”?
Estefan: Well Kiki was a drummer in our band. And when he wrote “Conga,” we were in Utrecht, Holland, promoting “Dr. Beat” which had become a huge hit. It was our first big international hit. We were finishing our set at this club and they were yelling, “We want more.” We had played all the songs we had, so Emilio whipped out his accordion that he had brought with him, and we did a medley of Cuban Congas—original ones, hundreds of years old—and they went nuts. So when we were standing in the alley, I told my drummer, “You know, we need to write a song with this rhythm. We can do it in English, we can do the fusion with what an actual conga is, with the funk bass line.” So we got on the plane and the next day he wrote it, playing on the tray tables sitting next to me on the plane.
So when he wrote “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” he started the idea, but he had “Boogie Man’s gonna get you” (laughs). And I go to him, “Dude, there’s no way—I’m a mother—I’m not singing “the Boogieman’s gonna get you. It’ll scare the hell out of kids all over.” So I said, “Let me take a stab at it,” because it was a great melody and the rhythm and everything, and I changed it to the “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” because I knew that that’s what we were talking about. We had experience throughout the world that it didn’t matter what language we sang in, ultimately everyone really understood the rhythm, and it moved them because the drums were human’s first communication. So it gets you on a very guttural level very deep.
Here’s the video of Gloria Estefan’s hit, “Anything For You.”
DK: In the late ‘80s, you wrote two big ballads that both went to #1: “Anything For You” and “Don’t Want To Lose You.” Can you talk about writing these two songs?
Estefan: With “Anything For You,” my husband was a big inspiration for me. I remember one day just looking at him, and thinking, “Oh my gosh, how would I feel if this didn’t work out somehow?” Because there were people breaking up left and right around me like friends, people in the band. And I go, “We’re very interconnected, and how would I feel? And that’s where “Anything For You” came from.
Then with “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” I had gotten this little keyboard and I was experimenting with little things. And on “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” there’s this recurring theme (she sings the melody) and this theme weaves throughout the song and changes subtly through it. So that song was again something that happened with Emilio and I, and then I sat at the keyboard and did the arrangement first. Then I wrote the song around it.
DK: I like your hit song “Coming Out of the Dark,” and I read that you wrote it after you had been severely injured when your tour bus crashed. Then I recently read (former Sony CEO) Tommy Mottola’s book, where he describes in detail what a dramatic period it was for you and recovering from the injury. Can you talk about making the full recovery and writing that song?
Estefan: Yes, Tommy was really instrumental in helping my husband through that moment. (At the time of the crash) we were in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and we were in a tiny hospital that had never done an operation like the one I needed (for a fractured vertebrae). And Emilio called Tommy, and he found a top doctor in the nation (in New York City) who could do the operation. So Tommy was really helpful in helping us get through that tough time, and putting us in contact with the right people.
Here’s the video of Gloria Estefan’s hit, “Coming Out of the Dark.”
On the day that I was being transported from Scranton to New York City for the operation, it was a gray day. I was in one helicopter with my doctor; they had bundled me up to prevent any further damage because my spinal cord was resting on a sliver of bone. My husband was in another helicopter with my son, and he was sitting with the pilot, and he says that no matter where he turned, there was this one ray of light that kept hitting him in the eye. So he asked the pilot for a piece of paper, and he wrote the words “Coming Out of the Dark” on a piece of paper, thinking and praying for the moment that we would be coming out of this darkness.
So we came home and while I recovered for the next three months, Emilio didn’t leave my side. One day he comes to me and he says, “I found this piece of paper that I had written the day that we got taken to New York.” Then I called (songwriter & artist) Jon Secada and I asked him to meet me at the studio. At the time, I was still in a brace and I went into one of the writing rooms at our studio and Jon was sitting there. Then Jon sang me the melody that he and Emilio had come up with for that song. As he sang, I sat there and it was like something poured through me. It was one of those songs that I tell you is inspirational, and I wrote it in 15 minutes. The song was a heartfelt “thank you” to all of those people…I felt their prayers and their energy. That’s why it talks about “I know the love that saved me, you’re sharing with me,” because I really felt that so many people had a lot to do with my recuperation and it was pretty miraculous. My doctor couldn’t believe it when he saw me onstage about a year later. He said, “I was in there; I know what was there. I thought you would come out and sit in a chair and sing.” He knew there had been extensive damage, but I know that everyone got me through that.
DK: In 2015, your Broadway musical On Your Feet! came out and it was a big success. Can you talk about the making of this show?
Estefan: We didn’t originally set out to do this. Ten years before the musical came out, (director/choreographer) Kenny Ortega came to us with the idea of doing an autobiographical musical show. So we went down that road for a while because it sounded like an exciting new proposition. But then something invariably happened, and everything fell through the cracks.
Here’s a video clip of the Broadway musical, On Your Feet!
The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan.
Then our good friend Bernie Yuman (former manager of Siegfried & Roy and Muhammad Ali), came to us and said, “Listen, do you mind if I take this idea to the Nederlanders for Broadway, because it would make a terrific show.” So we said, “Let’s see if they’re interested,” and they were very interested. They got us together with Alex Dinelaris, who’s an amazing, Oscar-winning writer. He had such a grasp on the story and he said to us, “Look, I’ve done so much research on everything you’ve done. What really stands out to me about yours and Emilio’s story is that throughout your life, you have continuously had to get back on your feet. And then you literally got back on your feet after that accident. That’s what I want the story to be about.”
That made us incredibly excited, because all we ever wanted to do through our music was inspire people and show them that you can. Because we’ve gotten a lot of No’s in our life, and Emilio and I have been our biggest cheerleaders. So we wanted to share that with people, besides sharing our culture and music. And we figured this was an amazing opportunity to do just that, but now onstage. To me, I’ve always loved Broadway. The first show I saw was (the play) Equus when I was 17. I think that Broadway performers are the hardest-working people in any of the entertainment avenues. I mean, to do eight shows a week, live singing, acting and dancing, blows my mind. So to see our story played out on such a unique and special avenue in entertainment, was really special for us.
DK: I recently watched and enjoyed your movie, Father of the Bride, that you starred in with Andy Garcia. Do you enjoy acting, and will you be in more movies and TV shows?
Estefan: I enjoy it very much, particularly that movie. We had a ball doing it. I’ve been friends with Andy for decades, so there’s a certain trust and comfort between the two of us, plus there’s chemistry. And I’ve known many of the actors, and is was great to work with them. The girls (actresses Adria Arjona & Isabela Merced) were incredible. We really were a family, and the script was great. I would love to do more things.
DK: I also enjoyed watching your concert movie, Live and Unwrapped (from 2003). Do you have plans to play live shows or tour in the future?
Estefan: Well, my last world tour was in 2004. I keep doing things here and there. I never say never, but it’s a lot of work. And I was able to take time off to spend time with my daughter and be there for her basketball games when she was in school in London. And now with my grandson, Sasha, I would freak out if I spent months without seeing him. So if the right thing comes along, I would absolutely do it. I would love to do something with my daughter, Emily…she’s an incredible musician. But we’ll see. I’m always doing something, trying new things.