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Before Clearwater concert, Luis Fonsi talks Florida roots, 'Despacito'

It's possible, just maybe, that without the spark of young love in Tampa, the world might not have Despacito.

"I had a girlfriend that lived in Tampa during my Orlando high school days, so I visited Tampa quite a bit," Luis Fonsi said in a recent email to the Tampa Bay Times. "My parents also had a small beach apartment in St. Pete, so I definitely know my way around the Tampa/St. Pete area. Great memories!"

It has been some 20 years since Fonsi, 39, knocked around Tampa Bay as a teenager, an experience that may or may not have helped inspire his steamy, record-breaking, song-of-summer smash. But any city's claim to a piece of Despacito, however minimal, is worth embracing.

Though Fonsi has been a major Latin pop star for years, Despacito is the reason that much of the world learned his name in 2017. The single with Daddy Yankee, and particularly its remix with Justin Bieber, became the most-streamed song and most-viewed YouTube video of all time, and tied the Billboard record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1, with 16.

When Fonsi performs at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Wednesday, it'll feel like something of a homecoming — a chance to relive his little-discussed formative years in Florida.

At 10, Fonsi moved to Orlando from Puerto Rico, where he was part of a children's chorus in San Juan.

"I am a shy person, believe it or not, and music was the only way I felt truly comfortable," he said. "I learned from an early age that I could use it as an instrument to build my confidence."

After a successful high school choral career, he got a scholarship to Florida State, which he calls "one of the best music schools in the country." He sang with the London Symphony Orchestra on a school trip in 1997, skipping one of his last rehearsals to see Michael Jackson at Wembley Stadium. ("I almost got kicked out of concert choir. It was worth it!")

Not long after Florida State, Fonsi released his debut album, Comenzaré, which catapulted him to fame around the Caribbean and Latin America. He wrote hit songs for other artists, toured with Britney Spears and performed at the White House. In 2008, he charted for the first time on Billboard's English-language Hot 100 with No Me Doy por Vencido, and won the Latin Grammy for Song of the Year for Aquí Estoy Yo.

But none of it prepared him for Despacito.

"I knew we had a special song in our hands, but we never, in our wildest dreams, thought it would go as far as it's gone," he said. "Despacito has opened the door to so many different countries that I hadn't had a chance yet to share or perform my music. Luckily the attention has been very positive. Feeling the support we've received from so many people around the world, it's just so incredible."

Why did Despacito resonate like it did?

"I wish I had the formula to tell you why it has worked so well, but I don't," he said. "We are living in challenging times now, and I think the song, the melody, the 'feel-good' vibe, just resonated with people. It gave them an excuse to dance and sing along regardless of the language. ... People needed a little breather from all the problems the world is facing, a distraction from the chaos, and Despacito provided exactly that."

The thing that has helped Fonsi keep his head on straight as the typhoon that is Despacito swirls all around him is that he has been doing this for so long. He has always wanted a No. 1 pop hit. When he finally got it, he was ready.

"All artists work hard all of their lives to achieve some level of success," he said. "Once you achieve it, you can do two things: Get a big head, think that you are better than anyone and spend everything you earn. Or, you use it as motivation to continue working hard in what you love, always trying to do and give your best, appreciate what has been given to you and be grateful for the support you have received.

"By now I know this career has highs and lows, so it's better to always keep yourself grounded and never lose respect for the profession."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.


>>If you go

Luis Fonsi

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. $53.25 and up. (727) 791-7400. rutheckerdhall.com.

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