Pope to pop 

At a mere 22 years of age, Latin-pop singer Luis Fonsi has sold hundreds of thousands of records, played for the pope and recorded a soon-to-be-released duet with superstar Christina Aguilera. It's a lot of good fortune, but it all actually seems to be part of a well-executed plan. And Orlando had a big role in bringing everything together for him.

This young star hails from a new Orlando, a city that's become a point where the American South fades away and a Latin American feel begins, while entertainment conglomerates salivate. Born Luis Alfonso Rodriguez in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Fonsi became a member of the prestigious Coro De Ninos de San Juan (San Juan Children's Choir) at age 4. From that point, Fonsi began absorbing strong Latin musical influences that have remained to this day.

At age 10 he moved to Orlando with his family. In a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Puerto Rico, he spoke about what the city provided him.

"It started with a good education. Things that people take for granted or forget about. My high school years ... were pretty much the preparation for me. I still have a really good relationship with my teachers."

Fonsi attended Dr. Phillips High School, where he graduated from the visual and performing-arts program. He also was a member of a four-man singing group called The Big Guys, which included his good friend and fellow Dr. Phillips alumnus Joey Fatone of 'N Sync.

"I was doing plays and singing everywhere. It definitely prepared me a lot. I sang for the Orlando Magic -- the National Anthem. I worked for the parks, for Disney and for Universal, doing all kinds of entertainment things. So `living in Orlando` really did play a big part `in my success`."

At Florida State University Fonsi received classical training for voice. He also minored in marketing to enhance his business sense. As he was graduating, the head of Universal Music Latino discovered Fonsi cutting demos in Miami.

Fonsi soon finished the CD "Comenzare" (which means "I will begin" ), released in fall 1998. Well-known producer Alejandro Zepeda helmed the project, bringing a strong romantic-ballad sensibility to the table. With Fonsi's good looks and powerful voice, this direction seemed a logical first step for a Latin market always hungry for a new poster boy.

Although determined to begin his career as a Latin singer honoring his life-long love of artists such as Jose Feliciano and Luis Miguel, Fonsi's "Anglo influences" fell into the R&B vein of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. "Comenzare" shows some tentative steps toward melding those disparate styles.

"The Latin community doesn't really understand R&B yet," says Fonsi. "It's just getting in with artists like Christina `Aguilera` -- with the style and inflections of the voice. Nowadays everybody has the inflections, just that feeling, that soul and the riffs. I think that's really coming across now in the Latin market.

"That's what I really wanted to plant, and they're really starting to accept it. Most artists are doing it because they're influenced by American artists. Because I've lived 12 years in the States, that's just what I listened to every day. Even though I never got away from Latin music, I just mixed it. In my car I would have a Boys II Men CD, and right next to it would be a Luis Miguel CD."

"Comenzare's" huge success began to open doors. Interestingly, Fonsi's first step outside the Latin market was in the equally strong submarket of contemporary Christian music. Christian singer Jaci Velasquez asked him to record a duet on her new album that will be released in September. This move reflects Velasquez's desire to play off her Hispanic heritage in hopes of finding a larger fan base, something she's counting on Fonsi's name to deliver.

Once in Nashville -- the home of the contemporary Christian format -- Fonsi met Cindy Morgan, one of the genre's biggest stars. She tapped him to sing a duet that appears on "One," the official album of the pope's annual World Youth Day. This event invites young people to come to Rome for a musical celebration of the Christian faith. Thanks to this, Fonsi went from Nashville neophyte to performing at the World Youth Day event in August in front of the pope and 2.5 million people.

During all this, Fonsi found time to complete his second CD, "Eterno," released in June. One look at the album, with its focus on his stylish appearance, will tell you that it represents a significant step toward his goal of becoming a mainstream pop star.

"Eterno" still offers a large helping of ballads to keep Fonsi's female fans swooning. However, the record represents a transition. Zepeda was replaced by hot Latin producer Rudy Perez, who employs a stronger pop and R&B sense. Orlando-based producer Veit Renn (Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Britney Spears) lent a hand, adding his familiar touch to some uptempo dance songs.

"Eterno" went gold in only a few months, and Fonsi's concerts have been wowing Latin audiences everywhere, especially in Puerto Rico, where he had an unprecedented five-night stand.

With the inclusion of two songs done in English, the CD plants the seeds for Fonsi's step beyond the Latin market. At this point, though, these songs are unlikely to be his vehicle for mainstream crossover because Universal's Latin division has few marketing resources outside of a Spanish-speaking audience.

Instead, these two songs are probably a way of preparing Fonsi's Latin fans for the day when he records albums in English. Adding fuel to the crossover momentum is his duet with Christina Aguilera on her upcoming Spanish record (also produced by Perez). As platinum pup Aguilera dips her precious piggies into Latin music's shimmering waters, both she and Fonsi are looking for a sort of a crisscross crossover, where each benefits from the other's popularity with their respective audiences.

Even with such head-turning success, Fonsi maintains strong ties with his Orlando-based family, who provide him with a support structure, a creative foundation ("We were brought up with music around us" ) and sound business advice.

As his star rises, his desire to branch out into all areas of the music business increases. He might well become the first brick in the foundation of a vibrant Latin music scene in his adopted hometown.

"The Latin community in Orlando is growing by the second," says Fonsi. "I don't think the people realize what the population there is. ... Huge megaconcerts with Latin artists now include Orlando as a stop in their tour. Latin artists that don't speak a word of English who usually went to Miami, to New York, to L.A., maybe to Texas -- now suddenly Orlando is becoming a stop, and I'm very proud of that, you know. Orlando is my second home."

At 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, Luis Fonsi will autograph copies of his new CD, "Eterno," at Virgin Megastore Downtown Disney.

More by Jim Markel


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