30 Years Ago: David Lee Roth Goes Spanish With ‘Sonrisa Salvaje’
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According to Roth lore, the decision to track new Spanish vocals over the songs was inspired by bassist Billy Sheehan, who reportedly pitched Roth with the idea that half the Mexican population was in their 18-27-year-old record-buying demographic, and would be the perfect audience for the record — if they could only understand what Roth was saying.
Fortunately, Roth didn’t need much language coaching. “I went to junior high and high schools that were 95 percent black and Spanish-speaking,” Roth told the A.V. Club in 2002. “I can gang-sign the whole alphabet, I speak fluent Spanish and Portuguese. I have a fascination for south of the border, anything rhythmic.”
That didn’t mean that putting together the Spanish version of Eat ‘Em and Smile was as simple as getting Roth back in the booth and hitting “record.” The arrangements didn’t always jibe with the new lyrics, and at least one critic complained that the re-recorded vocals sat somewhat awkwardly on top of the existing tracks.
It was those lyrics, though, that proved most problematic. After the new version of the LP, titled Sonrisa Salvaje (“wild smile”), arrived in stores, Spanish-speaking audiences were reportedly less than impressed with some of the liberties Roth took with the language — “gringo Spanish,” as Rhino put it — and the album tanked, falling out of print for years before recently getting the reissue treatment.
But even if his Spanish rock-star gambit didn’t exactly pan out, Roth didn’t stop straying from his native tongue in performance. In fact, as he told one reporter after reuniting with Van Halen, he sees his appeal as transcending language — heck, even sound itself.
“You don’t need to speak English to understand what I’m singing about,” he boasted during an interview with the Toronto Sun. “You don’t need to be a rock ’n’ roll fan to love and appreciate the show. You don’t even need to have hearing. Our deaf section is routinely filled. [But] we’re also the ones who sold you Ricky Ricardo rumba for ‘Jamie’s Cryin’’ and ‘Dance the Night Away.’ That’s pure Carlos Santana. … I speak fluent Spanish. I can get us totally in trouble now in Spanish and Portuguese.”
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