Jon Secada Pays Homage to Past Influences Through Passion Projects
Singer/songwriter's recent Spanish albums return to his roots, while his AARP playlist is a melting pot
As one of the best-selling Latin music artists, Jon Secada has two Grammy Awards under his belt and has sold 20 million albums. His music is lively, upbeat and his fusion of funk, soul music, pop and Latin percussion have won him fans around the world — in the U.S., he’s best-known for the ’90s hits “Just Another Day” (recorded in Spanish as “Otro Día Más Sin Verte”) and “Angel.”
But before the Afro-Cuban singer and songwriter was ready to celebrate his multiple decades as a recording artist, he first paid homage to his past, saying it was important for him to “go back to my roots musically as a Hispanic and as a Cuban-American.”
As a child growing up in Cuba, he often heard the expressive tenor of Beny Moré (1919-1963), one of Cuba’s most beloved musical icons. So in 2017, Secada released To Beny Moré With Love, with Secada rerecording ten of Moré’s timeless classics. “To this day, Beny Moré is considered one of the icons of tropical music, as a vocalist, as a songwriter as a bandleader,” he says. “It was a bucket list-type of project. Something I wanted to do and then all the pieces came together to make it a reality.”
His passion project garnered the attention of Latin Grammy voters, who named it Best Traditional Tropical Album in 2017. The album combines Secada’s vocals with Moré’s, similar to the way Natalie Cole’s landmark album, Unforgettable With Love combined the singer’s vocals with those of her late father, Nat “King” Cole.
More recently, Secada released Solos, an intimate 2021 set of ballads and boleros, which he says is a musical tip of the hat to some of his other influences. While the Moré tribute was inspired by memories of Secada’s childhood, Solos takes cues from his young adulthood. “It deals really directly with my influences as a jazz vocalist and having studied jazz music at the University of Miami,” Secada explains.
At that time, Secada was enamored with The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, recorded in 1975. “It was a big staple academically and for me it was a big deal back then. I love the record. It’s a record with just piano and vocal, so I wanted to do something like that in Spanish, and I found the right situation with one of the premiere international Latin pianists, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who is a genius. Very few piano players are on par with this guy.”
Secada migrated with his parents from Cuba in 1970, but there were stops along the way. “We went to Spain first. We couldn’t come to the States directly,” he says. “My father got a visa and an opportunity to go to Costa Rica. We did that and then from Costa Rica we finally came [to Miami] and asked for political asylum. So I didn’t get to the States until I was close to 13 years old.”
An only child, Secada was shy and introverted in his youth. “I always thought that music could be something I was interested in, especially when I got to the States, but I never did anything until my second year of high school.” It was then Secada decided to audition for the chorus and pursue theater at Hialeah High School. “Everything snowballed,” he says. “That’s when I really got more confidence and started to realize this is something I really wanted to do.”
Though his parents loved music, they were not musicians, but rather factory workers before they eventually opened their own little Cuban cafeteria in Miami. However, the young Secada did have a familial connection to a performer. One of his aunts was Moraima Secada. “She was really well-known in Cuba and other parts of Latin America, especially Mexico,” he says. “So I guess the musical side of who I am came from my father’s side.”
After high school, Secada enrolled in the University of Miami, initially as a music education major, inspired by his mentor in high school. “She was the first person that kind of gave me encouragement and nourishment,” he says. “That’s the reason I’m a big believer in education and what it represents to young people, especially in the arts.”
Eventually, Secada switched his major to jazz performance, but his musical background wasn’t limited to jazz. “I grew up listening to everything,” he says. “I was going to a jazz school, but it was very vocational oriented. They really wanted to make sure that even though you are getting a jazz degree that you were well-rounded enough to understand and appreciate a fusion of different styles of music.”
That background served Secada well. After graduating from college with a master’s degree, he began landing nightclub gigs, working recording sessions and teaching at Miami Dade College. Eventually, Secada’s band came to the attention of producer-musician Emilio Estefan, the husband of Latin pop sensation Gloria Estefan.
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Secada cowrote a number of songs for Gloria Estefan’s comeback album, Into the Light, including “Coming Out of the Dark,” recorded following a near-fatal tour bus accident in which she broke her back. Estefan invited Secada to be a member of her touring band, and it was on that tour in 1990-’91 that he had his breakout.
“She had a moment in the show where she needed to change and take a break,” Secada recalls. “She allowed me to do a song by myself that was something we had written that never made it to the record, but that was it. That was my spotlight, because then besides being a songwriter, the labels eventually noticed me. ‘Oh, this guy can sing as well.’”
From there, Secada experienced incredible success with his 1992 self-titled debut album, which went on to sell six million copies worldwide and was certified triple platinum in the U.S., for sales of three million copies. “I really appreciated the success because the money was coming in and I was able to buy nicer things, whether it was a car or a house, and I was able to retire my parents,” he says. “I really enjoyed that. That was the sweetest part of my success.”
Through the years, Secada has continued to record in both English and Spanish, picking up several Grammy Awards, as well as honors from performing rights societies ASCAP and BMI.
Though his record sales have leveled off, Secada remains undeterred. He remembers a talk early in his career he had with Emilio Estevez, prior to his breakout success. “We had done all these demos and nothing was working,” he recalls. “I remember Emilio saying maybe you as an artist isn’t going to work out, but you can still work with us as a songwriter and a producer and a musician. And at the end of the day I was fine with that. I was making a living at music.”
Jon Secada’s Musical Melting Pot Playlist
Though he’s best-known for his R&B-influenced early ’90s hits, sung in English and Spanish, Secada’s tastes in music are quite varied. While in college studying jazz, he explains, “My idea of music just became a melting pot of so many different things.”
Read about his picks, then scroll down to listen to the playlist on Spotify.
Someone Saved My Life Tonight performed by Elton John
“One of E.J.’s classics on the first album by Elton John that I ever bought. The melody and lyrics move me and the structure of the songwriting is incredible.”
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant performed by Billy Joel
“A masterpiece. What got to me about the song was the storytelling element. As a songwriter, Billy Joel is the best at that.”
Bohemian Rhapsody performed by Queen
“One of Queen’s biggest hits. Freddie Mercury’s and the rest of the vocals are the things that always amaze me about this song.”
Superstition performed by Stevie Wonder
“This is one of my biggest influences; ‘Superstition’ was one of the first songs that I ever performed in a band of my own.”
September performed by Earth, Wind & Fire
“To this day I perform this song in my show along with another song that I wrote that was directly influenced it.”
Hey Jude performed by The Beatles
“No other band has as many hit songs and was more prolific. My pick could have been ‘Let It Be’ or it could have been ‘Yesterday.’ They had so many tremendous iconic songs.”
Let’s Get It On performed by Marvin Gaye
“I’ve listened to tracks from that session that are floating around the internet and it’s astounding what he would do separating the tracks, the drums and the vocals, and song itself and the message, and it was a hit song. His phrasing was unlike any R&B singer from that time, because it was unique to who he was and his personality.”
Could It Be Magic performed by Barry Manilow
“I fell in love with that song because of the intro, because he used a classical piece by Chopin. That blew my mind. And of course, afterwards, once this all gets going, then it turned into this great, beautiful, massive piece of a song.”
I’ve Got You Under My Skin performed by Frank Sinatra
“I really appreciated Sinatra when I went to college. Among musicians and vocalists, Sinatra is probably one of the most respected. His phrasing, when you analyze and when you break it down musically, it’s amazing. It’s unique. His pocket is impeccable. No other singer could sing with the band and find his pocket within a good big band as well as Sinatra, and a song like ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ is a perfect example of that. He was the best.”
Maybe This Time performed by Tony Bennett
“I did a show called Cabaret and that song was in it. In the show, the song is sung by a girl, by Sally Bowles, the lead part (played by Melina Kanakaredes). For years I grew up listening to and loving how Tony Bennett sings it, because of his breath control in that song.”
Como Fue performed by Beny Moré
“It’s Beny Moré most famous song. It’s a bolero. It’s this iconic song. It was great for me to perform it as a tribute to him on that record. To this day, I sing it all the time. Sometimes, I just do it with a piano and vocal. The fact that I was able to sing that song myself, Benny’s iconic song, means a lot to me.”
Cartas Amarillas performed by Nino Bravo
“When I left Cuba, we went to Spain. I was maybe eight or nine years old. I started to appreciate really good singers and that singer, Nino Bravo, even to this day, is considered one of the most important and prolific pop voices in Hispano-American history. He’s kind of like the equivalent of Tom Jones, but even more refined. That was one of the first songs I fell in love with when I left Cuba.”
She performed by Charles Aznavour
“I first heard him sing it in French and I fell in love with the melody, and that’s when I realized that sometimes language doesn’t matter as long as it connects with people.”
Somewhere performed by Dave Grusin and Jon Secada
“West Side Story is the greatest musical that’s ever been written. [Leonard] Bernstein is just amazing. I had the opportunity to sing that song on a record Dave Grusin did as a tribute to West Side Story. He asked me to be a part of it and do that song. The melody, the lyrics and the message are politically so strong and so powerful. As a vocalist, when I sing it, it’s always an emotional hayride. It’s one of the greatest songs coming from a musical that I’ve ever heard.”
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