Juan Gabriel, legendary Mexican singer, dead at 66

Last Updated Aug 28, 2016 7:26 PM EDT

LOS ANGELES -- Famed Mexican vocalist Juan Gabriel has died of apparent natural causes at his Santa Monica, California home, a coroner’s official confirmed to CBS Los Angeles.  

Juan Gabriel, whose real name is Alberto Aguilera Valadez, performed at The Forum in Los Angeles Friday. He was Mexico’s leading singer-songwriter and top-selling artist, with sales of more than 100 million albums.

The coroner’s office said they received a call just after 11:40 a.m. Sunday for a natural death investigation at Valadez’s home in Santa Monica, CBS Los Angeles reported. 

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Juan Gabriel performs onstage at the Billboard Latin Music Awards at Bank United Center on April 28, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 

Rodrigo Varela, Getty Images

Details surrounding his death were not released, though the office said authorities were investigating.

His ballads about love and heartbreak and bouncy mariachi tunes became hymns throughout Latin America and Spain and with Spanish speakers in the United States. He brought many adoring fans to tears as they sang along when he crooned his songs about love and heartbreak

A flamboyant performer, Juan Gabriel liked to wear jackets covered in sequins or dress in shiny silk outfits in hot pink, turquoise blue or canary yellow, and he was known for tossing his head before dancing or jumping around the stage.

News of Juan Gabriel’s death quickly spread on social media, with many, including Mexico’s president, tweeting out condolences:

A six-time Grammy nominee, Juan Gabriel was inducted into the Billboard Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1996 and received countless industry awards, including ASCAP Songwriter of the Year in 1995, Latin Recording Academy’s Person of the Year 2009, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that same year.

The singer, who was born Jan. 7, 1950, wrote his first song at age 13 and went on to compose more than 1,500 songs.

“There are no rules when I compose songs,” he said, according to a biography published by Mexico’s Society of Music Authors and Composers. “There are times when I’m really happy and I write something really sad, and vice versa.”

Artists across Latin America and in the United States covered many of his songs, including Paul Anka and Marc Anthony, who broke into the salsa music world in the U.S. with Juan Gabriel’s “Hasta Que Te Conoci.” Juan Gabriel also wrote and produced albums for artists such as Mexican singer Lucha Villa and Spain’s Rocio Durcal.

The youngest of 10 children, he rose rags to riches. He was born in the western state of Michoacan. His father, Gabriel Aguilera, was a farmer and his mother, Victoria Valadez, a housewife. The family lost contact with his father after he was taken to a psychiatric hospital in Mexico City when Juan Gabriel was still a baby. Unable to support her children, his mother moved the family to the border city of Ciudad Juarez, where he grew up as she worked as a maid.

Juan Gabriel said his mother was one of the people he most loved in his life even though he spent most of his childhood away from her. Unable to care for him, she sent him to an orphanage.

He said he wrote “Eternal Love,” one of his greatest hits, thinking about his mother, who died in 1974.

“Even though I don’t have my mother’s love today, I have the love of millions,” he told the newspaper La Jornada in an interview in 2012. “Her love comes through all the mothers of Mexico.”

He went to school only until fifth grade after he escaped the orphanage, where he met music teacher and mentor Juan Contreras. He said his artistic name came from Contreras and his father.

He traveled to Mexico City as a teenager and slept on the streets and in train stations while trying to break into the music business.

During that time he was accused of robbery and sent to jail. “I was good writing songs, but I was innocent for many other things and when I ended up in jail I didn’t know how to defend myself,” he told La Jornada.

The prison director and his wife helped get Juan Gabriel freed.

He signed his first record contract in 1971 and had his first big hit with “No tengo dinero” (“I don’t have any money”), according to his biography by Mexico’s Society of Music Authors and Composers.

At the height of his fame, he had problems in Mexico and the United States for not paying taxes. He was also linked to the Cali drug cartel when Fernando Rodriguez, son of Colombian drug trafficker Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, wrote in his book “The Son of Chess Player” that Juan Gabriel sang at a party in Colombia for the cartel leaders. The singer denied the claim.

Juan Gabriel rarely gave interviews. When he did, he avoided talking about his private life.

Although his former personal secretary, Joaquin Munoz, described their homosexual relationship in a book, “Juan Gabriel and I,” the singer neither admitted nor denied being gay. His fans were surprised when years later it became known that he had fathered four children with his friend Laura Salas.

“I’m not married; I don’t ever plan to marry. I’m happy single,” Juan Gabriel is quoted as saying in his biography by Mexico’s Society of Music Authors and Composers. “I have many loves but the most important are: my mother, my children, my sister, my brothers, my nieces and nephews and my songs.”