Best Of '99: Latin Singer Ricky Martin's Star Rises In U.S.

Ex-Menudo singer's Grammy, hit single, set groundwork for first English-language release, Ricky Martin.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Thursday, May 13.]

Even top-selling rapper Jay-Z seemed bewildered, if not intrigued, by the

attention lavished upon rising Latin pop star Ricky Martin these days.

And he had good reason.

"What I'm really surprised at is that everyone is rushing from this

monumental hip-hop tour to go see Ricky Martin," joked Jay-Z Tuesday at

a press conference marking the end of the successful Hard Knock Life tour.

Frankly, it's getting harder to overlook the 27-year-old rising star, whose

first English-language CD, Ricky Martin, hit stores Tuesday. The

former soap opera actor and singer from the '80s Latino teen group Menudo

has catapulted to a new level of fame. He's had a chart-topping U.S. single,

"Livin' la Vida Loca" (RealAudio

excerpt).

In February he won a Grammy award and performed his hit for an international

audience during the ceremonies in L.A. Even Madonna has gone out of her

way to sidle up to Martin in front of the press, and she performs a duet

with him on his new album.

Articles on Martin in Entertainment Weekly and newspapers such as

the New York Daily News have caught the attention of a music

industry that wonders whether Martin is paving the way for a new wave of

Latin music stars.

But it's not just his rediscovered fame and new album that have people

talking. It's his character and ambition, colleagues and friends say.

To a pair of songwriters who've worked with Martin, the ex-Menudo singer's

rocketing success doesn't come as a surprise. They see it as the natural

ascension for a born star.

If you ask collaborator Desmond Child, he'll tell you it couldn't happen

to a nicer guy.

"He's one of the ... warmest, funniest, most thoughtful artists I've ever

worked with," said Child, 46, who teamed with writer Robi Draco Rosa on

seven of the 14 songs on the singer's debut LP. "And he makes you want

to work harder, to work more. He's a fantastic motivator."

Thanks to his appearance at the Grammys and to the rise of "Livin' la Vida

Loca" to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, Martin has

benefited from an anticipatory buzz over his new album and has become the

subject of extensive media fanfare.

"Everything started out as a friendship and it's turned into this, you

know?" said Rosa, 29, who performed a decade ago with Martin as part of

the hugely successful Latino teen group Menudo. "I've known Ricky for so

long. So I've never really looked at him any other way except like you

would at a buddy across the street. But he was made for this sort of thing."

Martin, born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, became widely known to

U.S. audiences as an actor on the soap opera "General Hospital" and as

a castmember of the 1996 Broadway revival of "Les Miserables." He released

four Spanish-language albums before Ricky Martin, including 1998's

Vuelve, which currently is at #41 on the Billboard 200

albums chart and was certified gold last July.

Child and Rosa co-wrote the single "Livin' la Vida Loca" ("Living the

Crazy Life") and the international hit "La Copa de la Vida" ("Cup of Life").

A Spanglish remix of the latter is included on the album. Child produced

several other songs.

A duet with Madonna, the spacey "Cuidado con Mi Corazón" ("Be Careful

with My Heart") (RealAudio

excerpt), is also on the album, as are two songs by prolific

songwriter Diane Warren: "You Stay With Me" and "I Count the Minutes."

Some industry insiders think the album could be a crossover blockbuster

in both the mainstream pop and Latino music markets.

"To have a #1 single this early in the game and then to have a top-selling

album, this will be a real big deal," said Geoff Mayfield, who oversees

the charts for Billboard. Mayfield did say that Martin's U.S.

success would not be a first for Latino artists — Los Del Rio's

"Macarena" hit #1 in 1996 — but would still mark a significant

milestone.

Child said that Martin's Latin background — he won a Grammy this

year for "Best Latin Pop Performance" — should not get in the way

of mainstream success.

"This is not style-driven. This is about a star," Child said. "There was

Bon Jovi and there [were] legions of hair bands. And now they're all gone,

and there's still — Jon Bon Jovi. I can see there being a female

Ricky Martin — [or] a guy group with five Ricky Martins — there'll

be every permutation."

Still, Child said he and Rosa couldn't resist the challenge of crafting

the lofty horn- and percussion-driven tones of "Livin' la Vida Loca" with

Martin.

"One day, Angelo Medina, Ricky's manager, calls and says, 'We need a song

that has a Spanglish title, something that can really speak to everybody,

something easy, that everybody can understand,' " Child said. "Rob and

I went into my office and we sat there for days until we came up with it.

That's just how it worked."

Latin music offers a flavor the U.S. is searching for, Rosa said. "We

all are looking for a new sensation. It always seems like we're walking

on a dime — when something fresh comes along, that's great. Latin

music is life. It represents sunshine. It's just uplifting music in general."