Rudy Perez arrived to Miami, Florida from Pinar del Rio, Cuba, when he was 10, with only his family and the clothes he had on. He was one of the estimated 300,000 refugees on the “Freedom Flights,” sponsored by the U.S. government from 1965 to 1973, which transported Cubans to the U.S. when Fidel Castro came to power on the island.
Little did Perez know then that he would live out his “American dream” in the U.S. Throughout his career, which now spans four decades, he has written more than 300 Top-10 songs, won five Grammy Awards, and even co-founded the Latin Grammys. He describes his life’s journey in his memoir, “The Latin Hit Maker,” which hits shelves this week.
Now 61, Perez remembers when he was 12 or 13, and his neighbors would tell him not to dream too big, because his future was working at the local gas station.
“I told the guys one day that I was going to produce that guy over there, and do this and that, and they laughed at me. They told me to get back to reality,” he says. “But that kind of stuff kind of gave me the drive. Even the bad things lead you to something good in life. A lot of people in the neighborhood saw that I was talented, but they were resigned to their lives and not fighting for their dreams. They saw me full of passion and wanting to go out and touch people’s hearts. They would tell me don’t even go there.”
Perez decided to follow the strong urging in his heart, above the naysayers, and that enabled him to become one of the most influential artists in Latin music history. Many, however, don’t recognize his name, because he works mainly behind the scenes as a songwriter and producer.
He’s produced hits such as, Luis Fonsi’s 2000 album, “Eterno,” composing seven of its 13 tracks. In 2007, he produced Beyonce’s Spanish album, “Irreemplazable,” which was nominated for a Grammy, and in 2013 he produced Natalie Cole’s “En Español” album. He was even responsible for discovering boxer Oscar de la Hoya’s singing talent, and inadvertently also his wife – which he details in his book.
Perez, who is happily married for 36 years, with five grown children, credits his closeness to God to his success in career and family. However, his life wasn’t always on a high note.
At the beginning of high school, he says the pressures from gangs were inescapable, and that he had no choice in joining one in order to stay alive. At 15, he was arrested and sent to a juvenile jail for six months.
He writes in his memoir, “While lying in that bunk behind bars night after night, I prayed and promised God that when I got out, I was going to let Him have my life and my future…I knew that I needed to go in the direction that He wanted, not the way I had taken on my own that landed me in jail.”
Perez kept his promise, and started listening to a persistent voice within him that always guided him towards music. He started taking guitar lessons from a local teacher, learned piano at his family’s church, and then joined a Miami-based band called Pearly Queen.
“I always, always prayed about everything,” he says. “I always asked, and I always did it with gratefulness in my heart and humility. Then I would say, ‘I need this,’ and God’s always blessed me.”
Although he’s always been talented musically, and is able to play multiple instruments such as, guitar, piano and drums, he says often he doesn’t know how he gets the ideas for songs.
“I almost feel like I’m being used by some sort of a force that funnels that information to me, because I didn’t live that story, but a lot of people take it to heart, says Perez. “We all have different talents. I’ve always taken it very serious. I want to work harder than I did yesterday.”
“You have to go follow your dreams,” he says is what he tells a lot of kids who ask him how to break into the music scene.
“I never asked myself that question,” says Perez, who always just took a leap of faith. “You have to believe in yourself and put effort in. Anybody can do what I’ve done. Anybody. If you know you have that ability in music, the only thing stopping you from being successful is yourself. No matter how many times they tell you, ‘You suck.’ Sooner or later, your dream will come true if you work hard.”
He remembers almost giving up himself, however.
“I found myself on Miami Beach after a major panic attack, and going behind a restaurant and kneeling on my knees and asking God when I was going to get a chance, and God spoke to me. He said, ‘Look, it’s up to you. How badly do you want it? If you give up, then you lost. If you continue, there is a big reward at the end.”
Since then, Perez learned anytime he got a rejection, it didn’t mean “no” forever, it was just “no” for right now. He just continued.
“Prepare yourself like an athlete,” says Perez, who is now working on producing a gospel album with Grammy-winning soul singer Sam Moore. “That’s the same demeanor anybody should have for their career.”