Still Dreaming of You: An Oral History of Selena Quintanilla's Final Album 25 Years Later

25 years after the posthumous release of Dreaming of You, Selena Quintanilla's final album, the key players give E! News an inside look at the making of the legendary LP.

By Billy Nilles Jul 18, 2020 7:00 AMTags
Watch: Remembering Selena Quintanilla-Perez: E! News Rewind

25 years ago, Selena Quintanilla was on the precipice of superstardom.

As the Queen of Tejano, a traditionally male-dominated genre of music born in Texas by combining Mexican-Spanish vocal traditions and Czech and German dance, she'd risen to fame over the course of four solo Spanish-language studio albums. The youngest of a musical family—and former frontwoman of family band Selena y Los Dinos—she'd achieved a commercial success with LPs like Entre a Mi Mundo and Amor Prohibido that helped put the genre on the "mainstream" map.

By 1995, she and her label were hungry for more and work began on an English-language crossover album that would no doubt catapult her into the upper echelons of fame. Until, of course, it was all stopped tragically short in the blink of an eye on March 31—weeks shy of her 24th birthday—when friend and former fan club manager Yolanda Saldivar shot and killed her.

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As the music world mourned, Selena's family, producers, and label grappled with what to do with the material she'd been able to record before her life was tragically cut short before a decision was made to release what they had. And on July 18, 1995, Dreaming of You was shared with the world.

The album featured five new English-language songs—including the smash hit title track and the equally iconic "I Could Fall in Love"—while a smattering of previously released tracks, sung mostly in Spanish, were included to help flesh out the track list. It debuted atop the Billboard 200—a first for a Latin artist—and went on to become not only the fastest-selling album of the year, but one of the most enduring releases of a generation.

In honor of Dreaming of You's 25th anniversary, E! News spoke with a handful of key players involved in the album's production—songwriters, producers, collaborators, as well as Selena's husband Chris Pérez—to get the story of how it all came together amidst a backdrop of unspeakable tragedy.

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Part One: Building a Team

While Selena's Spanish-language albums had been all produced by one member of the Quintanilla family or another, Dreaming of You was to be the first that she'd be working with a new roster of writers and producers. Quickly, a list of bold names began to come together to work on the album in some capacity: writer/producer Keith Thomas, who'd helped craft hits for Amy Grant and Vanessa Williams (including the latter's "Save the Best for Last"); producer Guy Roche, who would go on to work with Brandy and Christina Aguilera; and the incomparable songwriter Diane Warren.

Roche, producer on "Dreaming of You" and "Captive Heart": Meeting Selena for the first time was over dinner in Hollywood with Nancy Brennan her A&R rep who kindly hired me to work with Selena. Selena, although she already had major success in the Latin world was very sweet and humble, reserved and unaffected, it felt like I was talking to my little sister. 

Warren, writer of "I'm Getting Used to You": [Brennan] had talked to me about her, and I heard her sing. And I had just written "I'm Getting Used to You." I didn't write it specifically for her, I rarely do. I just try to write a great song, you know? I thought, "This would be such a great song for her." And she loved it…I remember hearing her on it and I was really excited about it. One thing that's a little side note—I tend to swear like a sailor. And everybody kept warning me, "You know, you can't swear around Selena. She's very straight-laced." I remember having dinner with her and, of course, I was myself. And I remember she goes, "Oh, I love you!" She wasn't insulted at all. She was just a lovely, lovely person. 

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Thomas, writer/producer of "I Could Fall in Love": I got a video of her when they submitted to see if I wanted to work with her and, you know, I watched it and there was something compelling about her in this video. And at the time, you know, my schedule was so crazy but I go, "I got to work with this girl."

Initially I was gonna end up doing the whole album, then my schedule got crazy. So we pared down, then I was going to do half the album. But Nancy came in town with Selena and we played a lot, played them several songs and "I Could Fall in Love" was one of them...There's this Spanish speaking part in the middle of the song, and I did the demo. And I don't speak Spanish. So when we get to the middle section, and that came on, she died laughing. You know, because who knows what I was saying. I was like, Oh God, did I say something that's gonna offend her? And so we had belly laughs over that.

AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Dave Einsel, file

Despite the ease with which she and her new collaborators got on, there were nerves on Selena's end.

Pérez: Being the first album in a really long time that the family wasn't producing or involved in, she was nervous about that. And then on top of that, thinking ahead to having to go out and promote it and tour behind it, you know what I mean? Her fear was it was going to take different kinds of musicians to be able to pull off all of the music that we had been hearing, that she was going to go in and start recording. And it was such a leap for her to think wow, maybe when she goes up on stage to perform these songs, it wasn't going to be her family behind her anymore. So she was nervous about that. But excited at the same time because she realized that this was her moment, the dream that she always had.

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Part Two: In the Studio

Despite the pressures and the new faces, a pro's a pro. Selena flies to Nashville to begin working with Thomas first.

Thomas: She was so, so sweet and kind and gracious. The family, A.B. [Quintanilla, her brother] came with her and her husband came with her...She came in and we hit it off actually. I just felt like I had gotten a new friend. It was very comfortable. 

Pérez: The way I remember it is when we would be working on songs before going into the studio during recording, she'd pop in and out. It was rare that she'd stay in the room and listen to us work on it over and over and over and over again...But with what we would call the mainstream record, the English one…she was a little bit more concerned about not whether she could do it or not, but whether the people she was working with were going to like it or not, were going to like what she brought to the table which, of course, they did. They loved it. But in feeling that way, I remember nights just with a Walkman cassette player and the headphones on, in bed, in the dark, just the song on loop. Specifically "I Could Fall in Love" with Keith Thomas producing it. When she got the demo of that song, she just had that thing on loop in her headphones in bed falling asleep with it. The next day, we go to the studio and she had been working things out in her head. She got to try them out and pretty much everything that she tried out made it onto the track. It was an exciting day for her because I think that's when I started sensing her feeling at ease with the process. That it wasn't going to be that difficult, that she was actually going to enjoy it. Now she had one under her belt.

Thomas: When we were recording the record, I left [the Spanish section] up to her. I still, to this day, don't know what she's saying in that section. But I just left it up to her to say whatever felt natural. But even during recording the vocal, I would do my own Spanish, whatever it was I was doing, and she would just get so tickled over that.

After we did the vocal, Selena went to the grocery store and bought food and brought it back to the studio. She said, "I'm gonna cook you guys a Mexican feast." And I said, "Oh my gosh, okay, great." So anyway, I had Wynonna [Judd] working in the other studio. And she saw Selena in the kitchen cooking and she just assumed that she was our chef at the studio. And so she goes, "Hey, would you mind cooking for us too, if I go buy groceries?" And Selena said, "Of course." She said, "I just need to check with Keith to see where he's gonna need me again." [Wynonna] said, "Wait, are you the artist?" And she was like, so embarrassed. We laughed. I'll never let Wynonna live it down. [Laughs]

AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, John Everett

With "I Could Fall in Love" under her belt, she begins work on the rest of the tracks—including one with David Byrne of Talking Heads fame intended for inclusion in the film Don Juan DeMarco, in which she made a cameo—over a busy few weeks in March.

Byrne: I had this song, and I sent her the multitrack tape (this was analog days) and there was a phone conversation. The tape came back with her vocal on it and I was knocked out—it lifted the song to another level. I was thrilled...What she did was brilliant. She essentially answered my lyric phrases with Spanish versions, saying more or less the same thing. So it made the song a conversation—and very seductive when she starts singing "dance with me" in Spanish.

Sadly, the movie decided not to use the song. I was sad, a little pissed off too. I offered it to the movie Blue In The Face later on. The conceit of that soundtrack was that all the music came from Brooklyn—and given that Brooklyn has a huge Latin population, that is somewhat feasible.

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Roche: In the studio, she was rather preoccupied with photo sessions, outfit and merch designs, artist endorsements and fan club. It felt like she was in the thick of it and our recording session was just another event she had to attend and get through this busy day; but after listening to the track she was about to lay her vocals onto, she stepped right up to the microphone and in no time was focused on the thing she does best. She sang beautifully and did the song justice, unaffected by her heritage of a different tongue or working with people she did not know, It was wonderful.

Pérez: I remember "Dreaming of You"—and I've said this story a couple of times in interviews, I think, where that song did mean a lot. I remember she recorded that one in Corpus [Christi, Tx., her hometown]...and I didn't get to be there when she was tracking it because I was doing something, I was working on another project at a time [for] her father...She called, and she...really wanted me to go over and check it out, the song. Looking back on it now, it seems kind of sad, but at the time, you know, we don't know what's going to be happening in the next couple of days or weeks. And so, it's just one of those things. That's what we did. I was in the studio plenty of times with her, her with me. And this was just one of the times where, you know, I just couldn't make it. I was busy doing that thing. And I didn't really think too much about it. And she was like, "Are you sure?" I'm like, yeah, "I'm working on this thing with your dad." And she was like, "Oh, yeah. Okay." Looking back on it now and reliving that, I know that she was calling me because she was really proud of her performance on that song. And I know she did love it, you know, and she did give it her all and I think it comes across when you hear the song, for sure.

Part Three: The Unthinkable

On the morning of March 31, 1995, Selena met with Saldivar in her room at the Days Inn in Corpus Christi regarding discrepancies over the finances of Selena Etc. boutiques, which she'd let Saldivar manage. As Selena demanded to see the documents Saldivar was withholding, Saldivar drew a gun on her and fired as Selena tried to get away, hitting her in the right lower shoulder and severing an artery. Selena made it to the lobby before collapsing. Doctors at the Corpus Christi hospital tried to revive her, but she dead upon arrival. Saldivar was later found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. She is up for parole in 2025.

Roche: This takes me back to the time when I was in the studio working on Selena's vocals, specifically on the line at the end of the "Dreaming of You" where she holds on to the word "tonight" for a note that seems very long and, in hindsight, eternal and looking up at TV screen and learning through the news of her passing. 

Thomas: I was actually in the studio mixing or working on her song when that went down. And I walked out to go get some coffee and there was a middle section in the studio, where my studio manager Matthew said, "Selena's dead." And I literally had a pain in the heart when he said that. I said, "What?!" And he said, "Yeah, Selena's been killed." And so I immediately turned around, went back in the studio turned on the TV and it was already on the news. And I was so upset, I just left and I actually didn't work the rest of that week. I just went out to the farm and just couldn't believe what I was seeing.

Warren: It's always a tragedy, someone dying so young. But someone, with Selena, someone that she trusted. Someone that was the head of her fan club, that professed to be her friend. That's when you go, "God"...It's so disgusting what happened. A terrible tragedy.

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The decision is made, however, to forge ahead and finish what had been recorded for a posthumous release. 

Pérez: I can't speak for anybody else, but for me, it was really difficult to be going in and tracking guitars, rearrangements and things like that on some of the songs. Once you hear a song in the studio, you'll never hear it that good again, you know? Whether it's on a CD in a soundproof room or a dead sound room or anything like that, you're never going to hear like when you're in there recording. It's never going to be that clean and that fresh and that heavy sounding. So to be around the voice at that particular time was f--king—it was really painful. To the point to where I just would ask to not even have that vocal going on, you know, just pop it in here and there so I knew where I was in the song. It wasn't fun.

Thomas: It took me a minute to be able to get back to it just because I'm sitting there listening to her voice and then I'm thinking of all the things that we did and all the belly laughs we had together when she was there. All that just kind of played through my mind as I'm sitting there finishing up the song. That was a tough one. I hope I never have to do that again.

Pérez: We were going through a lot at that time, not only myself but all the other guys in the band. I think at the same time we were talking about going out and doing some kind of tribute tour. And I remember being in the big room at Q Productions with the Dinos and, you know, looking back on it now, it's like we thought, "OK, we're going to try to do this thing" and we all got in the room and as soon as I started playing, it just did not feel right. And that was the last time really that we all played together…I think that was the last time that we all actually played together. And it was sad, you know, but we did not end up going with that and then the record came out and the rest is history. 

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Part Four: The Release

Dreaming of You is released on July 18, 1995. It sold 175,000 copies on the first day alone in the U.S.—a record at the time for a female artist. Its singles are played everywhere.

Pérez: There were all these Selena projects happening and the movie was being made and scripted...Having to go through the meetings and sitting at tables with everybody while stories are being told, trying to find my escape was difficult...Try to imagine if you're having an okay day, you're able to...finally get out of the house for a minute. You know, because at the time is that was the whole other process because the houses were surrounded by people. So you go through that just to get out and you're having an OK day and you end up somewhere and maybe you're sitting down with a couple of friends and having a beer or something to eat. And then all of a sudden, you hear that intro drum riff to "I Could Fall in Love" and the song starts. I mean, to say it would be a bummer would be an understatement. It just takes you out of whatever headspace you were in at that time. 

Roche: I have to say, although I was aware of the success of the album, I felt very disconnected and avoided any news about Selena and the loss. Although we spent little time together, when I left Corpus Christi, I had become friends with Selena and her dad. The feeling of success was more like one of mourning and reflection.

Thomas: I'll go to Kroger or Publix or somewhere and I hear this song playing and it takes me back to that day, every time. Every time. It's a sadness, but then I look back on my career and of all the things I've ever done, you know, this is probably one of the most important and I just feel so blessed. I feel like wow, I was one of the lucky ones that had this opportunity. And I cherish that.

Part Five: The Legacy

The success of Dreaming of You presages the arrival of several mainstream Latinx artists, becoming widely considered the starting point for that particular crossover.

Pérez: It blew up. And that starts a whole other conversation around this quote unquote Latin explosion because after that, and the sales that had, you know, the Ricky Martins and the JLos and Marc Anthonys, they—also the Tejano scene, where she came from—they all enjoyed this huge wave of what became known as Latin explosion. It's my belief that the spotlight that got shone on Selena, and her music and everything, it played a huge part in all that stuff.

Dreaming of You remains the best-selling Latin album in the world. Though Selena's cultural impact continues to be reverberate in powerful ways—with a scripted series about her life, starring The Walking Dead's Christian Serratos as the icon, making its way to Netflix soon—fans are tragically left to only wonder about where her career might be today.

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Pérez: The dream was always to end up making the, quote unquote, English album. So for her, it was just another step up in the direction where she dreamed of going. I don't think she ever thought about leaving the Tejano music behind or Latin music behind. I think that she she would have always been doing it in one form or another. Maybe different genres, but it would still have been Spanish music. I mean, who knows? It's such a crazy thing, all the possibilities that were in front of her... But she wouldn't have abandoned where she came from. It wasn't her style.

I can look back on the 25 years of everything that she still represents, and that she's become an icon and the music [stands] the test of time and etc, etc—'m proud of everything that she's accomplished. And, again, what she stands for. The fact that the music and the story keep getting passed down from generation to generation.

Thomas: There is no question in my mind, she would have been a massive superstar. She would have been an icon. And she still is, I mean, you think 25 years later and people are this fascinated by her and love her so much. I mean, can you imagine? I just feel like I know that she would have she accomplished everything that she wanted to in life because she just had that ability to connect with people and that's what it was about...She was a magnet and you can see that just in the shows that she did and the conversations you would have with her. You go, "I want this girl to win big time."

Warren: I think Selena would've been the biggest Latin female artist of all time. I don't hesitate to say that.