Vicente Fernández, the towering icon of Mexican ranchera music whose powerful voice defined the lives of generations of fans throughout Latin America, died Sunday morning in a hospital in Guadalajara, his family confirms.
The cause was complications following surgery for a cervical spine injury after a bad fall last August. Fernández had remained hospitalized since then, in stable but serious condition. Over the last 24 hours, his condition deteriorated, according to official posts from his medical team on his official Instagram account. He was 81 years old.
Immediately recognizable for his elegant charro outfits and hat, his bold mustache and his dazzling smile, Fernández was only 5 feet 7 inches tall but had the stature and bearing of a giant. His concerts were the stuff of legend, extending for hours on end depending on the audiences’ whim. Always accompanied by his mariachi, Fernández was the ultimate musical companion, making grown men cry with his tales of broken hearts, and driving women to throw themselves (or their underwear) at him onstage, even as a septuagenarian.
Fernández’s death is not just a death. It’s also the end of an era of extraordinary Mexican music and legendary performers and composers — Javier Solís, Pedro Infante, Antonio Aguilar, José Alfredo Jiménez, Jorge Negrete — of which Fernández was the youngest.
On the charts, no other voice of traditional Mexican has been as successful or as recognizable. A relentless touring and recording artist, Fernández has an output of over 50 albums and sits at No. 5 on Billboard’s Greatest Latin Artists of All Time chart and placed 15 albums, including six No. 1s, on the top 10 of Billboard’s top Latin Albums chart, more than any other regional Mexican act. He placed 61 songs on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart,
including 20 top 10s.
In the touring arena, Fernández was relentless. As recently as 2014, he landed at No. 2 on Billboard’s weekly touring tally with $7.3 million in sales from 12 sold-out concerts at Mexico City’s Auditorio Nacional. His 2014 run of shows, which included U.S. arenas, was supposed to be his farewell tour. Fernandez would play his last tour show in 2016 at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico.
Fernandez was also an actor who starred in over 30 films, emulating the careers of his hero Pedro Infante.
Beyond the chart success, however, Fernández was Mexican music.
“Mi’ja, I’ve always said it,” he told Billboard in an interview at his fabled ranch in Guadalajara in 2012. “A singer can sing anything. But me, my life is Mexican music. For me, putting on my charro outfit is a matter of pride, and it’s a very big responsibility. The charro outfit goes hand in hand with the personality Vicente Fernández has given it. Without the charro outfit, I don’t feel I’m me.”
Fernández legacy is cemented in the public consciousness of all Latin America, where he was indelibly identified with his hit “El Rey,” written and originally recorded by José Alfredo Jiménez, but forever preserved in Fernández’s voice after he recorded it in 1991.
Beyond the recordings, there is the family. Fernández is the father of Alejandro Fernández, another towering figure of Mexican music who came to be known as the first Mexican music star to also carve out an equally successful career in pop. Alejandro Fernández’s son, in turn, recently launched his own singing career. In one of Fernández’s last public presentations, he sang with his son and grandson at the 2019 Latin Grammy Awards in one of the most spectacular and moving performances in the history of the awards, with all three men wearing their traditional charro outfits and hats and performing classics like “Volver Volver.”
Even though Fernández voice was a prodigious instrument, and even though he could have easily sung pop as well, he never veered from Mexico’s traditional music. That was the case, even when he recorded with other artists, which he did often.
“Everybody who comes sing with me has to sing ranchero,” he told Billboard. “Roberto Carlos had to sing ranchero, Vicki Carr had to record ranchero. Celia Cruz came in with a mariachi. I accept recording with everybody, as long as it’s with a mariachi.”
Vicente “Chente” Fernández was born February 17, 1940 at a ranch in the town of Huentitán El Alto, Jalisco, México. His father, Ramón Fernández, was a rancher and dreamed that his son would follow his footsteps. But Fernández fell in love with music, and after getting his first guitar at 8 years old, never looked back. He went to every Pedro Infante movie when he was a child and, from the moment he was 6 or 7 years old, declared to his mother that he wanted to be like that when he grew up.
Ironically, Fernández would eventually become the rancher his father wanted him to be, buying a plot of land in Guadalajara in 1980 and gradually expanding it to 20,000 hectares, where he lived until his hospitalization. Named Los Tres Potrillos (The Three Colts) after Fernández’s three sons (Vicente, Alejandro and Gerardo), the ranch has cattle, stables and many farm animals, including his favorite, miniature horses, which he bred and raised with such ferocious protectiveness that he built a glass-paned room so he could see when the foals are born, regardless of the time of day or night.
Despite those luxuries, however, Los Tres Potrillos was a working ranch with a rustic feel that jibed with Fernández background as a rancher’s son who rose literally from the ground. Fernández’s family was not wealthy, and he had no industry connections. But his work ethic, which remained intact until he fell, was well-known.
A relentless performer, Fernández honed his skills at bars and cantinas, until in 1966, following the death of Javier Solís, when Discos CBS — the Mexican subsidiary of CBS Records — signed him to his first recording deal. Fernández, who was famously loyal, remained with the label through its transition to become Sony Music. He recorded with them until the day he died. He also remained married to his wife, María del Refugio “Cuca” Abarca Villasenor (whom he called Cuquita), from 1963 until his death.
Despite his stellar career, Fernández, of course, had setbacks and tragedy. Most notably, his son Vicente Fernandez Jr., was kidnapped for ransom in 1998 and two of his fingers were cut during his captivity and mailed to the family.
Fernández is survived by his wife and his four children: Vicente Jr., Alejandro, Gerardo and daughter Alejandra Fernandez.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.