To the cool streetwise Newyorican salseros of the 1970s, Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez, better known as Héctor Lavoe, born and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, was a “jibarito,” a “hick.” But to the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who had arrived in the city in the 1950s and 60s, he sounded just like home.
Héctor Lavoe moved to New York City in 1963 at the age of sixteen and soon began singing with various groups, including Orquesta New York, Kako All-Stars, and in the Johnny Pacheco Band.
Pacheco and Jerry Masucci, co-founders of Fania Records, paired Lavoe with trombonist Willie Colón, beginning one of the most productive and lasting collaborations in Salsa. The pair would produce 14 albums. Lavoe’s articulate voice, talent for improvisation, and humor complemented Colón's raw, aggressive, New York City trombone-driven sound. Together they sounded like El Barrio.
Following his partnership with Colón, Lavoe's solo efforts cemented his standing as a superstar. Heading the Colón orchestra, he traveled the world over and was a frequent guest singer with the Fania All-Stars. One notable performance took place in Kinshasa, Zaire, where Lavoe performed in “The Rumble in the Jungle,” the legendary fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
“Todo Tiene Su Final” (“Everything Comes to an End”), “El Día de Mi Suerte “ (“The Day My Luck Changes”) and “Periódico de Ayer” (“Yesterdays’ News”) captured the urban experience in El Barrio, full of intrigue, angst, and heartache, with its joyous musical counterpoint that was made for dancing. They survive today as some of the most successful and lasting musical creations of Latino culture in the United States.
From humble beginnings, he had come to the United States hoping to find fancy Cadillacs, tall skyscrapers and tree-lined streets - a far cry from what he found in El Barrio. With stardom came fame and fortune and many excesses, a personal trajectory that came to symbolize the lives of Salsa stars in the 1970s. More than others, Lavoe had a difficult time handling his success and suffered a number of personal setbacks. He struggled with drugs and alcohol through the 1970s, and in 1979, following a stint at rehab, the consecutive deaths of his father, son, and mother-in-law drove him back to drugs and an attempted suicide at the Hotel Normandy in Puerto Rico. He survived and continued to sing, recording an album before his health began failing after being diagnosed with AIDS. But through it all his public - su gente - forgave “El Cantante” as he came back, always giving his all in every performance. In 1987, his final album, Strikes Back, was nominated for a Grammy. Lavoe died on June 29, 1993 in New York City, from complications of AIDS. He was only 46.
Héctor Lavoe lived and died like the protagonist of one of his many Salsa hits about heartaches and broken dreams. His biography was brought to the screen in El Cantante, a 2006 film directed by León Ichaso, starring Marc Anthony as Lavoe, and Jennifer López as his wife, Puchi.
Credit: Joe Conzo, Jr.