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Rocio Durcal, 61; revered Spanish actress, singer

LOS ANGELES -- Rocio Durcal, the Spanish actress and singer who evolved from a spunky teen idol in the 1960s to become one of Latin music's most sophisticated and distinctive song stylists in a recording career that spanned four decades, died Saturday at her home outside Madrid. She was 61.

Ms. Durcal, whose real name was Maria de los Angeles de las Heras Ortiz, had been battling cancer for the past four years. At a Sunday service in Spain, a mariachi performed in tribute to her work as a unique interpreter of Mexico's traditional music, in particular songs written by composer Juan Gabriel.

News of her death brought an outpouring of public condolences from artists and celebrities across the Spanish-speaking world, where she was respected like royalty.

''She suffered very much and for a long, long time with that illness, but without bothering anybody and without calling attention to herself," Spanish actress and singer Sara Montiel told a Spanish news agency. ''She died with a lot of dignity. This is a great, great loss."

Ms. Durcal was born the eldest of six siblings in a family of modest means. Since childhood, her prodigious voice won admirers, among them an uncle who encouraged her to compete in amateur shows on radio. She started singing flamenco, a difficult and deeply passionate style that left its unmistakable inflection on her later work.

While still in her teens, she became a finalist on an amateur television show, a sort of ''American Idol" of its day, where she was spotted by film producer Luis Sanz. Her first movie, 1961's ''Cancion de Juventud" (''Song of Youth"), made her an instant star. She went on to make a series of comedies as an irrepressible character, a sort of Spanish Gidget, who loved to sing and dance but who also captured the restless energy of a generation still bristling under the repression of Franco's Spain.

In 1965, during the making of the movie ''Mas Bonita Que Ninguna" (''The Fairest of All"), she met the man who would become her husband until her death, Antonio Morales, a musician also known as Junior from the pop group Los Brincos. They married five years later.

Ms. Durcal shattered her wholesome, girl-next-door image by appearing nude in an extended lesbian scene in her 1977 film ''Me Siento Extrana" (''I Feel Strange"), a box-office hit. The role won praise from those who welcomed her maturity as an actress, but it also caused a scandal that cost her many fans.

It would be the last film she made before turning full time to recording. That same year, she was introduced to Juan Gabriel in Mexico, leading to one of the most fruitful collaborations in Latin pop music. Over the next decade, she recorded more than a dozen albums of Gabriel tunes, yielding an endless stream of hits, including ''Tarde" (''Late"), ''Fue Un Placer Conocerte" (''It Was a Pleasure Meeting You"), and the yearning ''Amor Eterno" (''Eternal Love"), a graceful and ultimately uplifting expression of heart-wrenching loss that became a signature song for Ms. Durcal.

Although she also sang in several other styles -- pasodobles, cumbias, tangos, and rock -- rancheras were the heart and soul of her repertoire.

''Durcal was able to find a line within Mexican country music that had not been discovered before: its relationship with Spanish song," commentator Genaro Saul Reyes wrote in Sunday's Reforma, a Mexico City daily.

In recent years, Ms. Durcal and Gabriel had a falling out. But a tribute to the Spanish songstress was quickly posted on Gabriel's website in which the composer thanks her for ''having sung and recorded so, so many songs which I wrote for you with a lot of love."

Despite her success, friends say, Durcal wasn't spoiled by fame.

''She would become a huge persona on stage, but when the show was over, she was just 'Marieta' to her friends," recalled friend and veteran Los Angeles radio personality Martha Shalhoub.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Durcal leaves three children.

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