“Elvis Presley in his peak years had seven Cadillacs — I want to have seven Bentleys. I have four right now,” says Lupillo Rivera.
Having a top-selling Latin album, a signature Tejana (cowboy hat) line and his own action figure keeps him in car money, but El Toro del Corrido came from humble beginnings. Born in La Barca, Jalisco, México, he moved at 4 to Long Beach, to “a hardcore barrio.” He avoided the gangs by breakdancing to Electric Kingdom, then got into skateboarding — “empty swimming pools and big hills.” At Long Beach Polytechnic High School, alma mater of Billie Jean King, Tony Gwynn and Cameron Diaz, Rivera often encountered Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound — “They were cool. They would stand around the hallways and rap.”
Lupillo’s father, Pedro Rivera, started a small record company called Cintas Acuario, adding Lupillo as manager and talent scout. The label signed Chalino Sánchez, who became a legendary singer-songwriter after his 1992 murder. The Riveras discovered other successful artists, including Graciela Beltran (found singing at a Southeast L.A. church) and the duo Voces del Rancho (who showed up looking for office work). Lupillo’s own big break came when one of the singers didn’t arrive for a session, so he jumped in: “I started yelling and singing — that’s how I recorded my first album, in 1992.” Lupillo also has a famous sister, Jenni, and three brothers, Gustavo, Pedro Jr. and Juan, all of whom sing.
To train his voice, Rivera would walk into Southeast L.A. seafood restaurants with a guitarist and an accordionist and charge $3 a tune, attempting to yell out the songs before he’d be kicked out. “I didn’t know how to sing. I was trying to pay bills.”
Fast-forward to the green room of the TV show Mex 2 the Max, 2004. Rivera is here for a rare extended two-hour event, half interview and half live concert. Host Patricia Lopez enters and presents Rivera with a bottle of Don Julio tequila (not realizing he prefers cognac). Known for his drunken shtick on albums, Rivera is drinking for real tonight. He has a full-on banda and a packed studio; onstage on a lone stool, he downs shots live, on the air, while singing selections from his new Con Mis Propias Manos (With My Own Hands). The real show starts when he breaks into unrehearsed numbers — “El Borracho,” Ramón Ayala’s “Tragos Amargos” and, finally, Chalino Sánchez’s “Nieves de Enero.” The Sánchez homage (to Chalino and his recently deceased son, Adan Sánchez) becomes emotional. Rivera wipes his face and bald head with his silk tie, tosses it into the crowd, throws his felt Tejana after it and walks off.
“I get emotional with my public, because I feel like I’m with my family,” he explains backstage. “That’s why when I’m onstage, I drink —
I feel comfortable with them.”
Rivera promises that this was only a teaser for his upcoming Universal Amphitheater show. “Last year,” he says, “I sang three and a half hours and paid the fine” — the Universal charges thousands of dollars for going over its 11:30 p.m. limit. “The public deserves it. I got to give it to them.”
He keeps giving on his new ranchero and banda collection, which he considers his best. It includes the killer “Pero Que Tal si Te Compro” and “Los Chismes,” plus “Navegando sin Tu Amor” (written by José Alfredo Jiménez) and “Lo Que Sobran Son Mujeres” (by his father). Like his idol, ranchero legend Vicente Fernández, Rivera belts out his songs of hard drinking, love and commonality with real emotion.
Last December, Rivera was driving through Chihuahua on tour when he fell asleep at the wheel and flipped his SUV, breaking his ribs and ankle. His good friend Adan Sánchez, who suffered a similar accident this March, was less fortunate. “I didn’t want to accept it till I saw him in the coffin. I told him a lot of secrets I didn’t tell any other singer.” He sang at another recent funeral, that of a Mexican-American Marine who died in Iraq. Rivera cut his vacation short after hearing that the Marine was a fan: “He was defending this nation.”
Reflecting on his career, Rivera thinks most fondly of the simple times, like going to the movies with his four daughters. “I want to live happily ever after,” he laughs. “Like Shrek.”
Lupillo Rivera performs at the Universal Amphitheater on Saturday, July 31.