Throw the Switch on the Miami Sound Machine, and Pop Go the Hit Singles

updated 10/27/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/27/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

For much of the last decade they've been a hit in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama and points south. For years they've been hot in their hometown, Miami, and in 1984 they sold one million albums in Europe. But for all their success the Miami Sound Machine couldn't crack the American pop charts—until last year. On a flight between Amsterdam and London, songwriter Enrique "KiKi" Garcia penned the magic words, "C'mon, shake your body, baby, do the conga/ I know you can't control yourself any longa." The resulting song, Conga, became a Top 10 pop hit in the U.S., as did two follow-up singles, Bad Boy and Words Get in the Way, from the same LP, Primitive Love. Not since Whaml's memorable "Wake me up before you go-go/ Don't leave me hanging on like a yo-yo" have so few benefited so much from such immortal rhymes.

Or so appreciated their success. The four founding members of the nine-member Sound Machine—Garcia, Juan Marcos Avila, Emilio Estefan Jr. and his wife, Gloria—were born in Cuba, but they eventually moved with their families to Miami. Before Primitive Love, the band was, paradoxically, an American success story that hadn't succeeded in America. Purveyors of bright, salsafied pop, they had become rich and toured extensively in Latin America and Europe. The success of Primitive Love caused a Dade County street to be renamed Miami Sound Machine Boulevard in their honor. "The city council voted to change it, and our neighbors were happy about it," says Gloria, who lives on the boulevard. "Miami Vice has conjured up images of drugs and violence. We're goodwill ambassadors for the city."

In June they received the ultimate accolade when 11,142 people in Burlington, Iowa formed the (unofficial) World's Longest Conga Line—and snaked to the Sound Machine's beat. Says Garcia, "We finally have the response from America that we have wanted all these years." The key to that success, says Gloria, is "our ability to actually write—not translate—our original music and lyrics. Wording in Spanish may not click in English and it sounds tacky to translate. It's best to be able to write songs in English and rewrite them in Spanish."

The Sound Machine's families emigrated to the U.S. at various times from the late '50s through the '60s. Perhaps Gloria—who as the lead singer is probably the group's most visible and audible member—had the toughest time building a life in the States. Her father, a onetime bodyguard in Cuba for the wife of former President Fulgencio Batista, joined the U.S. Army shortly after his arrival. During a two-year tour in Vietnam, he began to show the first signs of multiple sclerosis. "We nursed him for 14 years until his death in 1980," says Gloria. Her mother had revalidated her Cuban teaching credentials and begun teaching school, leaving Gloria in charge of the house. That limited her socializing but gave her time to learn music. "I would sit in my room and sing Top 40 songs and teach myself how to play guitar enough to accompany them," she says. "I had no formal training, but my mother was musical. She won an international talent contest in Cuba to play a Spanish Shirley Temple, but her father wouldn't let her leave Havana for Hollywood." Gloria attended a Catholic girls high school and had graduated from the University of Miami with a B.A. in psychology and communications, intent on becoming a translator, when she was invited to join Emilio, KiKi and Juan's group, then called the Miami Latin Boys, in 1975. Three years later Emilio asked her to marry him. "I was a virgin when I met him," says Gloria, who tends to speak in punch lines. "Not like Madonna!" They have a son, Nayib, 6. Garcia, 28, is divorced. Avila, 27, and his wife, Cristina Saralegui, met when she interviewed him for Spanish Cosmopolitan in 1982. They have three children. "The four of us are very close," says Gloria of the group. "We get along fine." And when they don't? "We talk out our differences in Spanish."

For now, they've agreed that it's time for a rest. They've just finished a nine-month world tour, won the grand prize ($16,666) representing the United States at the Tokyo Music Festival, had songs released on the Top Gun and Cobra sound tracks and signed a seven-figure deal to plug Pepsi worldwide in English and Spanish. "We need to stay home awhile," says Gloria. "We need time to write and record. Besides," she adds, "I've never met Don Johnson."

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