The Number Ones

September 16, 1989

The Number Ones: Gloria Estefan’s “Don’t Wanna Lose You”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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As a teenager, Gloria García got up to sing a couple of songs with her cousin at a wedding in Miami. That’s how she met Emilio Estefan, the guy who would convince her to join his band the Miami Latin Boys and who would later marry her. The Miami Latin Boys became the Miami Sound Machine, and Gloria Estefan became a revered pop-establishment figure. Once you understand this whole origin story, it tracks super-hard. When Gloria Estefan got famous, she really just became America’s most successful wedding singer.

Obviously, Gloria Estefan could always sing. She’s got a huge voice that can convey yearning or melancholy or excitement or some combination of those things. She’s a writer, too, and she’s responsible for most of her own biggest hits. But during her big pop-chart run, Estefan always made the sorts of stylistic choices that have propped up the wedding-band industry since time immemorial.

On her albums, Estefan goes back and forth between anodyne floor-fillers and mawkishly sentimental ballads. In both modes, Estefan is an absolute square. Her uptempo tracks can be a lot of fun, but they don’t have the sense of dramatic, horny desperation or physical abandon that can make for a truly great dance song. I can’t imagine that any of Estefan’s fast songs have ever made anyone’s grandma uncomfortable. Her ballads, meanwhile, are utilitarian romantic slow-dance music, and they have a way of fading into the ether. Estefan’s dance songs tend to be a whole lot more memorable than her ballads, and I generally like those dance songs much better, but the ballads were always what truly paid the bills in the Estefan household.

In 1988, Gloria Estefan reached #1 for the first time with the truly wretched gloop-fest “Anything For You.” At the time, Estefan was still the nominal leader of the Miami Sound Machine. Shortly thereafter, drummer Kiki Garcia, who’d been with the Miami Sound Machine since their wedding-band days and who’d co-written some of Estefan’s dance hits, left the Miami Sound Machine. The Estefan couple looked around and realized that there were no original members left, so they dissolved the Miami Sound Machine. The creative team behind the singer was the same, but she was now Gloria Estefan, solo artist. The first single that Estefan released without the Miami Sound Machine’s name on the cover was another gooey ballad, and it became her second #1 hit.

The liner-note credits of Gloria Estefan’s 1989 album Cuts Both Ways still list the Miami Sound Machine as her backing band, so the change was really more technical than anything else. (Emilio Estefan wanted his wife to get Grammy nominations, and the Machine kept her out of the solo categories.) But Gloria had always been the focus of the group, and she still worked closely with her bandmates on Cuts Both Ways. Emilio co-produced the album with bassist Jorge Casas and keyboardist Clay Oswalt, and most of the musicians on the album, including backup singer Jon Secada, had come from Miami’s Cuban music scene. (Jon Secada released his first solo album in 1989, and his highest-charting single, 1992’s “Just Another Day,” peaked at #5. It’s a 6. As a songwriter, Secada will eventually appear in this column.)

Gloria Estefan wrote and arranged “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” her second #1 single, by herself. Where “Anything For You” is a heartbreak ballad, “Don’t Wanna Lose You” is more of a love song, but it’s not exactly overflowing with happiness. “Don’t Wanna Lose You” reached #1 two weeks after Gloria and Emilio Estefan celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary, and the song itself is an adult kind of love song, one that’s about the work of staying with someone for the rest of your life.

I’ve seen articles claiming that Gloria wrote “Don’t Wanna Lose You” for Emilio, but I’ve never found any record of Gloria herself affirming that. Estefan often wrote songs from other people’s perspectives, so maybe “Don’t Wanna Lose You” is a work of imagination. But if it really is Gloria singing to her husband and producer, then “Don’t Wanna Lose You” works as both a pledge of eternal fidelity and a sort of warning. Estefan’s narrator demands that her lover “see who I am and not who you want for me to be.” She sings that she has finally found the courage to stand her ground. She promises that she won’t be the one to walk away.

“Don’t Wanna Lose You” is a song about a sort of dogged romantic determination. The drama really hits on the chorus: “Don’t wanna lose you now/ We’re gonna get through somehow/ I don’t wanna lose you now forever.” That sort of grown-up romantic situation is relatively rare on the pop charts, where teenage lust and frustration and heartbreak tend to dominate. But the maturity of “Don’t Wanna Lose You” doesn’t make it inherently interesting. If anything, Estefan’s adult composure renders the song feel a little more remote, a little less urgent. Whether or not Estefan is singing about herself, you know that she’ll figure things out. She’s not a mess.

Still, Estefan sells the stakes of “Don’t Wanna Lose You” on the chorus. The song’s verses are a total drag. Estefan delivers them in a sleepy lower register, like a piano-bar singer doing her best Streisand. But on the chorus, when Estafan’s voice surges upwards, she lets fear and doubt and need creep in, and she hits those big notes in ways that remind me of Steve Perry. It’s a convincing lighters-up moment for a singer who’s never been especially interested in histrionics.

Just like “Anything For You” before it, “Don’t Wanna Lose You” is a thoroughly generic production, a song fully tied to the MOR studio trends of its era. But in the year and a half between “Anything For You” and “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” those generic studio sounds became marginally less terrible. “Don’t Wanna Lose You” is flavorless aural soup, but little things stand out within it. I like the richness of some of those keyboard tones, and I’m not mad at the way the guitars go heavy on the sustain, like a Big Lots version of what the Edge had done on The Joshua Tree. That production is a long, long way away from good, but it doesn’t make me want to smash a plate-glass window with my face, so it’s a marked improvement over “Anything For You.”

“Don’t Wanna Lose You” served as the first single from Cuts Both Ways, Estefan’s official solo debut. She helped push the song to global audiences by recording versions in both Spanish and Portuguese. The track also topped Billboard‘s Hot Latin Songs chart, and it went #2 on Adult Contemporary. Estefan followed “Don’t Wanna Lose You” with the smiley dance track “Get On Your Feet,” which is one of her best songs and which is now a whole lot better-remembered than “Don’t Wanna Lose You.” At the time, though, “Get On Your Feet” just missed the top 10, peaking at #11 in November of 1989. A few months later, Estefan made it to #6 with the sleepy ballad “Here We Are.” (It’s a 3.) On the pop charts, Gloria Estefan’s ballads always steamrolled her fast songs. It’s like she was a glam metal band.

Cuts Both Ways went platinum shortly after “Don’t Wanna Lose You” reached #1, and the album eventually sold three million. By March of 1990, Estefan had become a fully established figure in the whole celebrity-industrial complex. That month, Estefan co-hosted the American Music Awards and then, a few months later, met with George H.W. Bush at the White House for an anti-drug photo op. (In an era where everything has become politicized, we’ve lost a whole lot of things, but I don’t think anyone misses the whole ritual of celebrities visiting the White House to spout vague platitudes about how drugs are bad. That shit was stupid.)

The day after that White House visit, Estefan and her family were on their way to play a show in Syracuse when their tour bus crashed in a snowstorm outside Scranton. (I went to college in Syracuse, and I can affirm that the stretch of 81 near Scranton just sucks, especially during winter, which lasts for like five and a half months up there.) One truck had jackknifed in the middle of a highway, and when Estefan’s driver stopped the bus, another truck came up behind, smashed into the bus, and drove it straight into that first truck. Emilio cut his hand, and the Estefans’ 10-year-old son Nayib broke his collarbone. Gloria had a fractured spine, and a helicopter airlifted her to New York City. There, doctors put two titanium rods in her back.

Estefan’s recovery from that bus crash wasn’t easy, and she had to step away from music for almost year to recuperate. But she pulled through, and she’ll be in this column again before long.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: I tend to think of Glee as a severely wack and embarrassing show, and I don’t like to post its videos in this section. In the case of “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” though, I don’t really have a lot of options, unless you want to hear the fucking Il Divo cover. So here’s the scene from a 2012 episode where Amber Riley sings “Don’t Wanna Lose You” in both English and Spanish:

(The highest-charting single from the Glee cast is their 2009 version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)

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