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A Life's Passion

Vicente Fernandez is Mexico's greatest living singer, revered by millions. A personal crisis casts him as a hero offstage as well as on.


The call came on the eve of his Los Angeles concert, just as he was leaving his home in Mexico. We have your son. Follow our instructions. Don't make trouble.

It was a year ago, and Vicente Fernandez was about to headline four sold-out shows at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, his annual Memorial Day pilgrimage to the Eastside suburbs of L.A. Now this voice, saying his 33-year-old son, his namesake, was being held for a ransom of millions. What was he supposed to do--about his public, about his child? His wife begged him to stay, afraid he would collapse if he tried to perform. Instead, he boarded his Learjet and headed north, praying, hoping, mourning. "You could just hear the pain," says his U.S. promoter, Ralph Hauser III, who met Fernandez here at a private airport. "I told him, 'Vicente, I don't think this is a good idea. Let's cancel. The fans will understand.' "

Vicente Fernandez is Mexico's greatest living singer. Four decades after his start on the sidewalks of Guadalajara, he inspires the appellations of a Sinatra or an Elvis: El Numero Uno. The People's Son. El Rey, King of the Mexican Song. On stage, he wears an embroidered sombrero, an engraved pistol and a skintight leather cowboy suit. His sideburns are long and his mustache is narrow. His music is called ranchera, the folk anthems of the rural heartland. Backed by a mariachi of violins, trumpets and guitars, he embodies Mexico at its most romanticized--the Mexico of horses and maidens and tequila and cockfights, of honor, love, heartbreak, survival. Since 1966, he has released 54 albums, all in Spanish, and sold more than 43 million copies, nearly half in the United States. Invisible to much of America, even to much of Southern California, he is as revered in this country as in his own, embraced here by a parallel nation of expatriates.

The 20,000 fans who paid $37 each to see Fernandez in Pico Rivera last May surely would have excused him--if they had known about the kidnapping of Vicente Jr. But Fernandez was determined to keep it a secret. His motivation was partly pragmatic. The captors had warned him not to do anything that might alert police. By his own nature, though, Fernandez was not inclined to cancel: He needed to perform, to tap into the mystical bond he shares with his fans, his gift to them and their gift to him, a lifeline that, now more than ever, he could not bear to lose.

"Whoever did this took the most important thing in the world from me," he said at the time. "I'm not going to let them take the second-most important thing." Coming from another singer, that might be dismissed as show-biz bluster. But Fernandez, like his music, operates on an epic plane, without irony or artifice. He speaks with an ear to posterity, taking the bromides of an old-school entertainer and infusing them with the weight of proverbs. "The people," he would explain later, "shouldn't have to suffer for me."

So, on Memorial Day weekend in the equestrian grounds of Pico Rivera--and, later, in Dallas and Miami and Minneapolis and San Diego--Fernandez strode onto the stage like an ageless toreador, pride and poise concealing any twinge of weakness or doubt. He is not a large man, just shy of 5-foot-8 and slim enough to slip into 31-inch jeans. Before each show, hunched in his wool Aquascutum of London trench coat, he looks almost fragile; his eyes are dark and his cheeks sunken, his pallor that of a hotel room. But in his suede traje de charro--the uniform of the singing cowboy--the metamorphosis could not be more sudden or complete. His chest inflates. His shoulders elevate. His jaw snaps to attention. He compares the sensation to being wrapped in a Mexican flag, custom-made and hand-stitched by his personal tailor. Some outfits are spangled in antique coins, others in gold filament. The leather comes from the hide of unborn calves.

As soon as Fernandez opens his mouth to sing, an even more remarkable transformation occurs. His speaking voice, a fixture of dozens of grade-B movies he starred in during the '70s and '80s, resembles a bullfrog's, raspy and tight. But once the horns break into a rollicking two-step or the strings signal a mournful waltz, Fernandez's throat turns into something round and buttery, revealing a baritone of operatic dimension and control. It is instantly recognizable, thick and rich and smooth, embellished with tremors and tears, guffaws and whimpers, bending and cracking, from aching falsettos to swaggering roars. He has never taken a singing lesson and has no patience for warmup routines. He scoffs at lozenges, sprays and teas. His only trick, he likes to say, is that he sings from the heart: In mid-song, he will stop the music and drop his microphone, the purity of his voice--unamplified and a cappella--turning the crudest arena into a cathedral.

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