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His Success Is the Same in Any Language

Tejano Sensation Emilio Makes Smooth Transition to Mainstream

July 25, 1996|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Tejano superstar Emilio plunged into the mainstream with a country album sung mostly in English last fall, he knew he was going to tread where only a few have gone before.

"It's two separate worlds, and now I'm living in both of them," said the 33-year-old musician from his San Antonio home recently.

In both worlds he is now known simply as Emilio, having dropped his last name--Navaira--when the album, "Life Is Good," was released in October.

Accordion-based Tejano music--also called Tex-Mex because of its evolution from border towns--entered the spotlight abruptly last year after Emilio's female counterpart, Selena, was shot to death by a former fan. Less than a month before her death, Selena and Emilio had headlined a concert at the Houston Astrodome that drew more than 61,000, the venue's largest concert attendance since Garth Brooks played there in 1993.

Selena was about to debut a pop music album in English; meanwhile, Emilio went the country route with a Capitol album out of Nashville. His album, featuring a rendition of Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately" as one of only two Spanish tracks, broke in at No. 13 on the Billboard country album chart.

Crossing over musical and cultural boundaries with his sexy swagger--called the "Emilio Shuffle"--and his powerful voice, Emilio now aims to maintain a presence on both playing fields.

"A lot of my success has to do with timing," said the San Antonio native, who is married with two children. "To be able to cross over and still hold onto my Latin audience wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago."

Emilio says that although his Tejano and country audiences differ, the musical transition hasn't been strange for him because the two genres are essentially the same, except one is sung largely in English and the other mostly in Spanish.

He's been on a 70-date tour opening for country giant Alan Jackson off and on since the "Life Is Good" album debuted. He fills time between his tour dates recording in the studio and doing concerts with his Tejano band, Grupo Rio.

"I like to feel out the crowd first. Then I play the crowd," said Emilio, who has traveled to 31 states in the last 10 months. "A good example is our concert in Seattle last week. We opened with country, then saw that the crowd was Latin and we did three Latin songs in row."

He says his Orange County Fair concert Friday will probably follow the same format of "wait and see." Ditto for when he plays the Forum in Inglewood on Aug. 18.

Emilio has been part of the Tejano music boom, along with Selena and other artists such as Little Joe and La Mafia, which saw sales in the Tex-Mex genre quadruple in the past four years to more than $120 million annually. Over the past decade, two-time Grammy nominee Emilio has built a core base of fans in the Southwest with seven Spanish albums, some sprinkled with English tracks.

His crisscross is not something new among bicultural musicians. Although a few other Spanish-speaking musicians, such as Cuban American Gloria Estefan, have won large English-speaking audiences in the United States, their success has been isolated.

It wasn't until Rick Trevino arrived a couple of years ago that a Mexican American country singer could make a dent in the national country music market. Trevino made the kind of strides that hadn't been seen since Johnny Rodriguez and Freddy Fender came out of Texas more than two decades ago.

Nashville's acceptance of a new generation of Texas artists, including Trevino, has helped propel Emilio into the mainstream.

When Emilio came out with "Life Is Good," some observers speculated that he'd lose his Latino audience. But with his next all-Spanish Tejano album, "Quedate" (Stay), due in September, Emilio hopes to calm those fears.

"My fans didn't know that I was going to continue my Latin music, and this posed a problem for them," he said. "But with my new album coming out, they'll realize I've never left them."

* Who: Emilio.

* When: 7 and 9 p.m. Friday.

* Where: Arlington Theater at the Orange County Fair, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa.

* Whereabouts: Exit the San Diego (405) Freeway at Fairview Road; go south. Turn left onto Fair Drive.

* Wherewithal: Included with fair admission: $6 general, $5 for seniors 55 and older, $2 for ages 6-12, free for children under age 6.

* Where to call: (714) 708-3247.

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