Vicente ‘Chente’ Fernandez, the King of Mexican song who saluted working-class heroes,

Vicente Fernández, the debonair Mexican crooner with the buttery baritone whose romantic rancheras and timeless folk anthems defined the grit and romance of his turbulent homeland and elevated him to a cultural icon for generations of fans throughout Latin America and beyond, has died. The announcement was made on his Instagram page. A cause of death was not made available. He was 81 years old.

Fernández, who performed his final live show at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium in 2016, had a variety of health ailments in recent years, including cancer of the liver and prostate. In 2013, he was forced to cut short his farewell tour after being hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. On numerous occasions, fictional reports of his death surfaced on the internet, leading the singer at one point to release a video in which he humorously declared, “When I die, I’ll let you know.”

But time finally caught up to a performer who seemed eternal.

A fall at his ranch in August led to emergency spinal surgery at a hospital in Guadalajara, followed by a months-long stay in the intensive care unit that required periods on a ventilator. His condition improved and Fernández was transferred to a regular hospital ward by mid-November. But, by the end of the month, he was back in the ICU with respiratory inflammation, according to a statement issued by the singer’s medical team and posted to his official Instagram account.

During a career that began on the street corners of Guadalajara, the self-taught troubadour recorded more than 50 albums, all in Spanish, and sold tens of millions of copies, nearly half in the United States. He toured relentlessly, created the themes for wildly popular telenovelas and starred in more than two dozen movies throughout the ’70s and ’80s — often depicted in his iconic traje de charro, the ensemble typical of the Mexican gentleman rancher, featuring ornate sombreros, embroidered jackets and slim trousers.

In 1998, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — his greatest prize, he once said, because he considered it a gift from his fans. But as late as 2016, the inveterate performer was still drawing accolades: Fernández took home the Grammy Award for regional Mexican album for the live recording of his final show, titled “Un Azteca en el Azteca” (An Aztec at the Aztec).

Blessed with an operatic voice and a stately sense of showmanship, Fernández was renowned for blending musical virtuosity with heartthrob theatrics, folkloric traditions with mass-market appeal. He was widely viewed as the last of a breed, the final entry in Mexico’s pantheon of crooning matinee idols. His nicknames were appropriately epic: El Número Uno, the People’s Son, the King of Mexican Song. But to his legions of fans, he was “Chente” — short for Vicente — a presence so ubiquitous and long-running, he could, like a member of the family, be invoked with a simple nickname.

In fact, Fernández, decked out in his embroidered ensembles, complete with engraved, gold-plated pistol, served as the embodiment of Mexico itself — at least an older, idealized Mexico. Backed by a full mariachi band, he sang of love and heartbreak, ranches and cantinas, honor and patriotism, saluting working-class heroes who were penniless but happy, heartbroken yet proud.

As Fernández approached his prime, however, the Mexico he represented began to unravel. The 1990s brought the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Zapatistas and a parade of horrors beginning with the narco wars. Globalization was reshaping the music industry; Mexican radio came to feature more American top 40 than ranchera, the rural ballads that were Fernández’s bread and butter.

Rather than embrace contemporary styles, Fernández dug in his heels.

“When you’re a ranchera singer, you represent your country,” he once told The Times. “It’s a God-given gift.”

Vicente Fernández holds up a Grammy.

Vicente Fernández, holding a Latin Grammy for best ranchero album.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Fernández’s most significant feat may be that he managed to stay relevant, preserving a vernacular genre without being reduced to a novelty act. He seemed to reintroduce himself to a new generation every decade while never straying from the fans who made him a titan.

“The way people look at Vicente, he’s part of their identity: As long as he’s OK, they’re OK,” his record promoter, Sony Discos Vice President Jose Rosario, said at the time.

That role would get its greatest test in 1998, when kidnappers ambushed Fernández’s eldest son and namesake, 33-year-old Vicente Jr., as he left his father’s ranch on the outskirts of Guadalajara. For nearly four months, they held him hostage. Their demands spiraled into the millions. To pressure Fernández, they chopped off two of Vicente Jr.’s fingers.

Although he was distraught, Fernández kept the ordeal secret. He refused to file a police report or cancel any concerts. In part, it was a pragmatic move; the kidnappers had warned him not to make trouble. But Fernández had his own reasons for wanting the show to go on. He was the quintessential old-school performer, an entertainer who lived to sing and sang to live.

Only after Vicente Jr. was freed — unharmed but for his fingers — did Fernández publicly reveal what had happened. Despite the tragedy, he remained fiercely devoted to his native land. “I will not leave Mexico,” he told the Televisa network at the time. “From my country, they will only take me out feet first.”

The story propelled Fernández into U.S. headlines, marking his introduction to many in the English-speaking world. But for millions of Latin Americans — including those living in the United States — Fernández was already a legend on par with the likes of those other mononymous crooners Elvis and Sinatra.

A vintage photo of Vicente Fernandez circa 1970.

Vicente Fernández circa 1970.

(Los Angeles Times)

Born Feb. 14, 1940, Vicente Fernández Gomez spent his earliest years in Huentitán El Alto, a rural settlement on the fringes of Guadalajara, where his parents raised cattle. A fifth-grade dropout, the young singer grew up milking cows and birthing calves; as a teenager in Tijuana, he washed dishes, shined shoes, tended bar and laid bricks.

Although he would later become a multimillionaire — with his own Learjet and a swimming pool in the shape of a guitar — Fernández clung to his salt-of-the-earth bona fides. “There are two kinds of people in the world,” he would tell audiences, “the poor rich ones and the rich poor ones.”

The song he considered his most autobiographical — “El Hijo Del Pueblo” (The People’s Son), written by legendary singer-songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez — echoed those themes:

It is my pride to have been born in the most humble of neighborhoods,
Far from the bustle and false society.…
I go through life very happy with my poverty
Because I don’t have money, I have a lot of heart.

Fernández’s musical career began just as humbly, without the benefit of voice lessons or star-making machinery. At 21, he returned to Guadalajara and joined the throng of mariachis in the plaza at San Juan de Dios Church, where he spent two years singing for tips. Later, he graduated to the restaurant circuit, then a slot on a live Opry-like radio show. But when he auditioned for his first record contract, the big Mexico City labels treated him like a rube. “They told me that I should go sell peanuts,” Fernández recalled.

Mexican music, up to that point, had been dominated by a succession of mustachioed cowboys, their roguish charms and silken voices marketed as symbols of national identity: Jiménez, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, Javier Solis. Each died at the height of their careers, and before hitting middle age. It was the loss of Solis — during gallbladder surgery, in 1966 — that opened the door for Fernández; within a week, he got a call from CBS Records. Fernández signed with the label, which later became Sony, the company he remained with his entire career.

He soon gained fame for his dexterous baritone, as thick and pliable as putty. He could wail and whimper, chortle and coo, often dropping his microphone midsong and finishing the verse in a naked roar. Whether performing in a Mexican cockfighting pit or a pricey Vegas lounge, he always began with the same promise: to keep singing as long as his audience kept applauding. Frequently, that would mean a marathon of three or four hours, leaving him bathed in sweat, soaked by kisses and showered with booze.

It was the romantic “Volver, Volver” (Return, Return), which he first released in 1972, that launched him to international stardom — a searing ballad of a man who longs to returns to the arms of the woman he loves. The song is now a staple of Latin American song (and drunken…

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