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Selena's Last Words : Will She Achieve Crossover Success With Her Final Album?

July 18, 1995|STEVE BENNETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — Things seem normal at Q Productions, a former body shop turned recording facility near the airport of this South Texas coastal city. Big semis loaded with musical equipment churn up dust in the chalky parking lot. Over the roar of the engines, men yell at each other in Spanish. A tejano band is in the studio, putting final touches on an album of the accordion-based music that dominates the region.

In the front office, the phone rings constantly. Suzette Quintanilla Arriaga swivels in her chair and opens a filing cabinet drawer behind her. "Look at this," she says, pointing to a pile of brown mailers inside. "And that's only a few days' worth. They're coming from all over, and then a lot of people have been stopping by and leaving tapes. They think we're trying to replace her! It's too weird."

Two things become clear: Things aren't quite normal here and there's no replacing Suzette's sister, Selena Quintanilla Perez.

Since the shooting death of the tejano music star on March 31, the big question in South Texas has been: "Why?"

Why did she go to the motel where she met her death? Why was she shot? Why couldn't the doctors save her? Why did she have to die so young? Those questions probably won't be answered until the trial of her accused killer, Yolanda Saldivar, is concluded later this year . . . if then.

Now, fans and newcomers to the Selena phenomenon can ask themselves another question: "How far would she have gone?"

When she was killed, Selena was at work on her first English-language album, which was expected to break her out of the tejano market and make her a multicultural household name. With her tragic death having accomplished that, the posthumous album, "Dreaming of You" (see review, F4), which combines four tracks from those English sessions with Spanish material, is being released jointly today by EMI Latin and EMI Records and is eagerly anticipated within the industry.

Would Selena have become the next Gloria Estefan? The next Latin artist, after Jon Secada, to conquer the pop charts? Friends and family think so.

"She would have been up there with the Janets and the Madonnas," EMI Latin President Jose Behar says. "I truly believe this CD will supersede anyone's expectations in retail."

Her father and manager, Abraham Quintanilla, believes she would have become a superstar because she had worked so hard for so long, taking the stage at age 6 in the family band and establishing a firm following in major Latin markets from Mexico to Puerto Rico. "I knew from Day 1 that she had something special," he says.

Selena had conquered the tejano market, bringing a regional blend of traditional Mexican musical forms and mainstream pop and country to a much wider audience, and her 1993 disc "Live!" won a Grammy Award for best Mexican/American album.

"She was looking for a new challenge," says her brother, A.B. Quintanilla, who played bass in her band and handled production and songwriting duties as well. "I mean, she was my sister, she was kooky. But she just had this force about her."

We will never know if Selena, just 23 years old when she was shot down--two days shy of her third wedding anniversary--would have become the "Mexican Madonna," as she was sometimes called. But based on the legacy she left, she certainly had a chance at superstar status.

"Dreaming of You" offers many new reasons to grieve and to celebrate. One thing the album makes crystal-clear is that Selena was unique, clearly more than a regional talent.

"What struck me on first listen was her complete comfort in this environment," says Davitt Siggerson, president of EMI Records Group. "She made a record that felt totally natural in English." And while fans can enjoy such songs as the tender ballad "I Could Fall in Love With You" or the sinewy "Captive Heart," that nagging thought remains: "Whatif . . . ?"

"Selena never thought of herself as a star. She wasn't about that," says Suzette Arriaga, former drummer and now manager of the two boutiques, in Corpus Christi and San Antonio, that Selena had opened to sell her line of clothing. In a nearby room, the late singer's flamboyant designs hang like ghosts, as her personal seamstress stitches together another creation.

"It was her dream to have an English-language album out, and it will be out," Arriaga continues. "And that's the main thing. It's not about sales or stardom. It was her dream. Two or three days after she passed away, someone asked whether we were going to put the English-language album out. It wasn't even a question with us. We were like, 'It's done.' "

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