Two years ago at the Universal Amphitheatre, Mexican singer Jose Jose told the audience a joke: "They used to bring me here in a limousine. . . . Now, they use an ambulance."
The wisecrack was a pointed reference to the alcohol problems that reached a peak in the early '90s and nearly ruined his career and life. He had deteriorated to the point where a monthlong stay in a Denver recovery clinic spurred rumors that he had died.
Since then, though, he hasn't had to make more ambulance jokes.
Born Jose Sosa, Jose Jose, 47, went from that clinic in 1992 to an alcohol support program and then mounted a remarkable comeback that, three albums later, has reestablished him as one of Mexico's premier romantic balladeers.
"The reception these last two years has been very important for me," said Jose Jose, who was 15 when he began a professional career that has included 32 albums (with sales in the millions) and two starring film roles and made him one of the most beloved figures in Mexican pop.
"I believed that I had the weapons needed to stay sober, but . . . what if you go out and nobody cares about your music anymore? I would've died of sadness," he says, reflecting on the comeback period.
His latest album, "Mujeriego" (meaning, in the best of senses, "woman-chaser"), is a testimony to both his personal ordeal and his newfound willingness to experiment with musical areas seldom touched in romantic Latin pop.
Produced and co-written by Argentina's Roberto Livi (a Miami-based Grammy winner who has worked with virtually all major Latin pop stars and also translated Sting's ". . . And Nothing Like the Sun" lyrics into Portuguese), the album is about love, but not in the usual rosy way.
Instead, Jose Jose sings about unreciprocated love, loneliness, pain, Bohemian escapism, his weakness for all women and even an unusual, tender homage to a prostitute who works at night and writes love letters to her family during the day. The album closes with an optimistic message in "Dele gracias a la vida" (Give Thanks to Life).
And, thanks to the nortena and cumbia-influenced "Llora corazon" (Cry Heart), and a collaboration in one track with Cuban trumpet player Arturo Sandoval, the first single is played on virtually all Latin music stations.
The album was released in October and sold 180,000 copies in its first two weeks in stores (in Mexico and the United States), reaching No. 12 on the Billboard Latin charts.
"Thanks to this new approach, now you can hear me in the regional stations," said Jose Jose. "That 'adult contemporary' status nearly killed me. . . . C'mon, I'm not a teenager, but I'm not a dinosaur either."
Married for the third time in January, and the father of 4-month-old Sofia, Jose Jose says he feels rejuvenated.
"Before going onstage you can always feel the adrenaline pouring through your veins," he says. "The doubts that turned me into a vegetable are buried in the past."
* Jose Jose will be in concert Saturday and Sunday, 9:30 p.m. Saturday show $95 and Sunday $125, both days with complete dinner (no drinks included). Stevens Steak House, 5332 E. Stevens Place, City of Commerce, (213) 723-9856.