Hector Lavoe: "El Cantante"

Hector Lavoe
Hector Lavoe El Cantante - The Originals. Courtesy Fania

There are some who say that there is a price to be paid for a gift — the greater the gift, the greater the price. In terms of musicians emerging from Puerto Rico in the 1960s, Héctor "El Cantante de Los Cantantes" Lavoe was among the greatest salsa vocal talents and the most tragic losses of the AIDS endemic of the 1990s.

Hector Lavoe's talent took him from his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico to the limelight of New York, where it brought him the adulation of the Nuyorican community that found in Lavoe a voice that clarified and celebrated their bicultural identity as well as legendary status in the eyes of the salsa-loving public of the United States.

In equal measure to his talent, the price Lavoe paid was huge. A lifetime struggle with insecurity led to a parallel struggle with drugs, even after bearing the death of his brother by overdose. On top of that, a fire destroyed his home, his mother-in-law was murdered; he was brutally beaten during a robbery, suffered a nervous breakdown, jumped off a balcony but lived, though physically mangled. His son was killed at 17, accidentally shot by a friend.

Perhaps because of the drug addiction, or more likely because of exposure to the AIDS virus outbreak in New York City in the 1980s and 90s, Lavoe died penniless at the age of 46 on June 29, 1993, through his music and legacy still live on.

Childhood in Puerto Rico

Hector Lavoe, born September 30, 1946, as Hector Juan Perez Martinez, came from a family of musicians. His father earned a living playing the guitar in local groups; his mother sang constantly around the house — even his uncle was one of Ponce’s finest tres players and his grandfather sang “controversies”.

By the time Lavoe was 14, he was earning his own money singing with bands in local venues. With his earning potential putting stars in his eyes, he dropped out of school and decided he was ready for New York City.

The family was not pleased because his brother had died there of an overdose, and they feared the same would happen to him if he moved to New York; as a result, Lavoe felt he had to prove himself to his family and that desire plus the insecurity that he was not good enough, followed him throughout his life.

New York, New York

Despite this ongoing battle with anxiety and his family's protest, Lavoe moved to New York, where one of his older sisters welcomed him to the city. A week later, a friend took him to see a newly formed sextet perform.

Lavoe listened for a while, then got up to show the vocalist what he was doing wrong. The band was so impressed with his impromptu lesson that they offered him his first New York job working with the group. Now that he was performing and being heard, industry executives began to take notice, offering record deals to the young Lavoe soon after.

In 1967, Lavoe was introduced to Willie Colon in a meeting that was the start of a collaboration that produced some of the best music to come out of the Fania label. The duos' first album was "El Malo," which proved to be a commercial success.

Unfortunately, this success was something Lavoe was not ready to handle. Lavoe’s ensuing popularity left him barely able to cope and he turned to drugs, completely missing some concerts while barely functioning at others.

A Split with Colon and Solo Album

In 1973, the world was shocked when the announcement was made that Colon and Lavoe were splitting. But the bigger shock was Lavoe’s – he had considered Colon his best friend and was bereft at the split. He felt abandoned, and the insecurities that had plagued him for years now entered center stage. Without Willie and Fania, was he a failure?

He waited for Colon to change his mind for two months and then he cut his first solo album, "La Voz("The Voice"). Surprised at the success of the album, Lavoe came to realize that the split with Colon had served a purpose — he was now the leader of his own band and a star in his own right. Colon continued to produce his albums. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Despite the constant battle with drugs and depression, Hector Lavoe had achieved all his ambitions. A legend in his own time, he had the fame and recognition that he had sought when he left Puerto Rico, even the embrace of his father upon his return to Ponce.

"Yo Soy un Jibaro" — "I Am a Hick"

Throughout his career, Lavoe was often called a hick, a "jibaro," to which he said he took no offense, instead proudly proclaiming, “Yes, I am a jibaro of Puerto Rico!" This lack of pretension only enhanced his already burgeoning reputation.

But Lavoe was also paying the price. The series of disasters, culminating in his 17-year-old son's death, was perhaps the reason he jumped off his hotel's balcony. Was it a suicide attempt? Was he pushed? Did he see his son in a vision? These conjectures made their appearance in the Broadway show, "Who Killed Hector Lavoe?" which was produced in the late 1990s.

Still, Hector Lavoe never lost the love and support of his friends and public. He died young, but his music still enjoys vast popularity and even today is the subject of the movie "El Cantante" starring Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez.