This essay is one in a series celebrating deserving artists or albums not included on NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums By Women.
In 1985, the Miami Sound Machine exploded onto the popular music scene with the Latin crossover hit "Conga," introducing many English-speaking listeners to salsa and Latin rhythms. Sung in English but maintaining all the musical elements of salsa — complete with multiple percussion breaks — "Conga" changed the game for U.S.-based Latin music.
The song was featured on the album Primitive Love. Despite being the Miami Sound Machine's ninth studio album, it was only its second English-language album — and it became the group's first crossover hit. Cuban-born Emilio Estefan had formed the band in 1975, with the original name Miami Latin Boys, and Gloria Fajardo (also born in Cuba) joined in 1977 as a vocalist. The two married in 1978 and became one of the most influential power couples in the entertainment industry; the Estefans are the Jay and Bey of Latin music.
"Conga" transformed Gloria Estefan into an international superstar, and the billing on Miami Sound Machine's next album reflected this change: 1987's Let It Loose was billed as "Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine," clearly designating her as the main event. In retrospect, it was this album's success that proved both that Gloria Estefan could make it as a solo artist, and that Latin pop could cross over to a mainstream American audience. At its peak, the album rose to No. 6 on the Billboard 200 chart. Four songs — "Anything for You," "1-2-3," "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" and "Can't Stay Away from You" — reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100.
Despite the unique Latin elements of Let It Loose, the more standard pop ballads on the album were the most commercially successful. "Anything for You" reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in May 1988, and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group with Vocals. (Nonetheless, I'm partial to the ballad "Can't Stay Away from You:" the sparse keyboard chords that accompany the verses and its use of Gloria's throaty contralto make it more interesting musically.) These two ballads were particularly important for Gloria's career following Let It Loose; they established her as a vocal powerhouse who could hold her own with the other divas of the 1980s, and paved the way for her to launch a solo career.
While still backed by the Miami Sound Machine musicians, Estefan's next album, Cuts Both Ways, was billed with only her name. And although she continued to release dance songs like "Oye Mi Canto" and "Get on Your Feet," her ballads — including "Don't Wanna Lose You Now" and "Here We Are" — continued to be the chart-toppers.
Although she is widely thought of as a solo artist, we shouldn't overlook the importance of Gloria Estefan's time with the Miami Sound Machine. The crossover success of Let It Loose helped launch Gloria Estefan's career and secured the Estefans' success, cementing them as symbols of Cuban-American upward mobility. Emilio also went on to build a veritable Latin music empire, producing albums for Latin music's biggest pop stars — including Celia Cruz, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Jon Secada — and helping to create the Latin Grammys. Let It Loose also paved the way for greater visibility for Latin music artists beyond Latino communities and secured Miami's place as the center of the Latin music industry.
Gloria Estefan has had one of the longest and most successful careers of any contemporary pop star, and she has done it in two languages, recording numerous Spanish-language albums, such as Mi Tierra (1993), Abriendo Puertas (1995) and Alma Caribeña (2000), all of which won Grammys for Best Tropical Latin Album. In 2015, President Barack Obama presented Gloria and Emilio with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and it was recently announced that Gloria is one of the 2017 recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. Let It Loose foreshadowed and helped create this success; its unique fusion of salsa with '80s pop aesthetics allowed the group to cross over in a way that no Latin group had previously done and launched Gloria Estefan's career. If it weren't for that album, she might never have made it.