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The Power of Latin Music

From Sinatra to Queen, 10 mainstream artists who added Latin rhythms to their repertoire and recorded in Spanish


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Nat King Cole (top left), Tony Bennett and Juan Luis Guerra (top right), Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim (bottom left), and Eydie Gorme (bottom right).
MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES; LOU ROCCO/AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES VIA GETTY IMAGES; NBCU PHOTO BANK/NBCUNIVERSAL VIA GETTY IMAGES VIA GETTY IMAGES; ABC PHOTO ARCHIVES/DISNEY GENERAL ENTERTAINMENT CONTENT VIA GETTY IMAGES

Long before contemporary artists like Bad Bunny and Peso Pluma turned Latin music into an unstoppable global phenomenon, many legendary musicians were drawn to the idea of recording in Spanish. Some of them adapted gracefully to the language. Others stumbled a bit, but their sincerity won them fans in Latin America. From iconic American singers such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett to rock ’n’ roll titans like The Beatles and Queen, you might be surprised by this list of artists who were seduced by Latin rhythms and added them to their musical repertoire.

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Nat King Cole

The Alabama-born singer and pianist was one of the first jazz geniuses to make a serious foray into the Latin American songbook. In 1958 he released Cole Español, which featured the sophisticated arrangements of Nelson Riddle. Cole sang with a heavy accent in Spanish and Portuguese, but, oddly, this added a tender quality to intimate versions of classics such as “El bodeguero” and “Noche de ronda.” Encouraged by the success of this album, Cole recorded A mis amigos (1959) — in Rio de Janeiro — and More Cole Español (1962). His cover of “Aquellos ojos verdes” (“Green Eyes”) is timeless.

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The Beatles

Perhaps the best ambassadors of British culture in the history of rock, The Beatles crossed paths with Latin music only once in their illustrious career. Before the quartet signed a record deal, Paul McCartney fell in love with The Coasters’ cover of the Mexican bolero “Bésame Mucho,” and added it to The Beatles’ repertoire in 1961. Their version was in English, but McCartney emulated the passion of Latin vocalists when he performed the song live.

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Tony Bennett

In 2012, the prolific Tony Bennett turned his attention to Latin culture with Viva Duets, an enchanting album of English-language classics sung alongside stars from the Spanish-speaking world. A unique feature in this record is that Bennett sings in English, while his guest stars accompany him in Portuguese or Spanish. Noteworthy appearances include Nuyorican salsa singer Marc Anthony, Dominican singer-songwriter Juan Luis Guerra, and Cuban-born singer Gloria Estefan. The surprise of the album: a stirring rendition of “Cold, Cold Heart” alongside Vicentico, leader of the Argentine rock group Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.

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Queen

Known for their epic progressive rock song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the British group Queen had many fans in Argentina and Brazil. When they finally toured those countries in 1981, guitarist Brian May was fascinated by the passion of their South American fans, and he dedicated a song to them that included a few phrases in Spanish. “Las palabras de amor (The Words of Love),” a rock ballad featuring May’s signature style on guitar and an exquisite vocal performance by Freddie Mercury, is a highlight of the 1982 album Hot Space.

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Frank Sinatra

A highly cosmopolitan artist when it came to song selection, Frank Sinatra recorded duets with Luis Miguel, Julio Iglesias and Gloria Estefan. But in 1967, the singer of “Strangers in the Night” dove right into the heart of Latin American music when he met with composer and pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim in Los Angeles to record an album of bossa novas. Sinatra performed English-language covers of Brazilian classics such as “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Dindi” and “Corcovado,” but the presence of Jobim — the architect of bossa nova — ensured a velvety-smooth recording noteworthy for its authenticity.

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Nana Mouskouri

Born on the island of Crete in 1934, Nana Mouskouri was hailed in the 1960s for her remarkable voice and her contemporary look, complete with black-rimmed glasses. Mouskouri also displayed stunning versatility in singing in other languages, such as Hebrew and Mandarin. In 1986 she released Con toda el alma, a double album with ethereal versions of Spanish-language songs like “Amapola” and “De colores.” Her incursion into Latin music has continued throughout the decades, with highly poetic records such as Tierra Viva (1987) and, most recently, Un bolero por favor (2002).

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Sting

When the English singer Sting left the group The Police in the mid-1980s, he expanded his solo career repertoire with jazz and pop ballads. In 1988 he released Nada como el sol, an LP of Spanish and Portuguese versions of his second solo album, ...Nothing Like the Sun. Sting’s accent in Spanish sounds somewhat forced and ultimately unconvincing, but the presence of salsa artist Rubén Blades on the song “Ellas danzan solas” gives a touch of credibility to the album.

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ABBA

In the 1970s, Swedish quartet ABBA dominated radio waves the world over, and Latin America was not unmoved by their polished vocal harmonies and smooth pop melodies. When “Chiquitita” — inspired by the Peruvian folk song “El condor pasa” — became an international hit single, ABBA decided to record it in Spanish as part of the Gracias por la música album aimed at Latin fans. The disco anthem “Dancing Queen” — “La reina del baile” — takes on new life in Spanish.

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Joan Baez

Born in New York City to a Mexican father and Scottish mother, Joan Baez rose to fame as part of the folk music movement popular in the United States in the 1960s. In a nod to her Latin heritage, Baez recorded the album Gracias a la vida in 1974 with stellar versions of the Violeta Parra tune that gives its name to the album, among other gems from maestros such as Víctor Jara and Joan Manuel Serrat, plus some original songs. This profound and elegant album was a stunning success in Latin America.

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Eydie Gormé

Eydie Gormé, born in New York City to Sephardic Jewish parents from Turkey, reached a worldwide audience in 1963 with her single “Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” a rock tune that in fact has little in common with the sounds of Brazil. But Gormé was destined for a collaboration that would be truer to the roots of Latin music. In 1964 she collaborated with the trio Los Panchos on an album — simply titled Amor — of traditional boleros such as “Piel canela,” “Caminito” and “Noche de ronda.” The trio’s warm harmonies combined with Gormé’s wistful vocals forever transformed the bolero. One year later, Cuatro Vidas included what is likely the most moving version of the Cuban bolero “Vereda Tropical.”

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