The Triumph and Tragedy of Hector Lavoe

September 30,1946-June 29,1993

Compiled by: Eileen Torres 

Pictures courtesy of: Mr. Izzy Sanabria from the Latin NY Magazine archives.
http://www.salsamagazine.com

Hector Juan Perez was born September 30, 1946 in Ponce, Puerto Rico, one of eight children. Luis Perez who played guitar with local trios and orchestras gave musical instruction to son Hector. Luis later enrolled Hector in the Juan Morel Campos Music School. His father had dreams of Hector becoming a great saxophonist. Although Hector learned the fundamentals of Spanish music, he soon lost interest in the instrument. He felt he did not play well.

As a youngster, Hector spent much of his time at the radio listening to and singing along to jibaro (Puerto Rican folk style or country) music. Hector dreamed of becoming a singer. As a youngster, Hector's favorite singers were Chuito El de Bayamon. Odilio Gonzalez, and Daniel Santos whose voices and styles he imitated. Other singers that greatly influenced Hector were fellow Poncenos, Cheo Feliciano and Ismael Rivera, and the clear voiced Ismael Quintana.

 

Unknown to his father, Hector would hang out with local musicians.  By the age of 14, Hector was earning money as a singer in a 10-piece band in Puerto Rico.  Eighteen dollars a night was good pay in 1960 for a fourteen-year-old to earn doing something he loved.

Hector dreamed of singing in New York and gaining fame and fortune. His father was totally against the idea because Hector's older brother had gone to New York and died of a drug overdose. His father questioned Hector's love for him and his beloved Puerto Rico and made it clear that he would no longer consider Hector his son, if he left. Against his father's wishes Hector arrived in New York on May 3, 1963 at the age of 17. He moved in with his sister Priscilla.  The first order of business was to see Latin New York.  He had an image of the 'big apple' as a splendid spot on the earth. He was disappointed to see the real New York with its run down buildings and garbage-strewn streets.  

Shortly after his arrival, his boyhood friend, Roberto Garcia now living in New York, invited him to attend a rehearsal of a sextet that was forming. The vocalist was singing Tus Ojos.  He wasn't doing a very good job so Hector suggested he try it another way. He sang the tune so the singer could make the necessary adjustments. The band immediately made Hector their lead singer.

A local promoter took Hector Perez under his wing. He wanted Hector to become a star. Hector admired Felipe Rodriguez a famous singer of romantic ballads. Rodriguez was nicknamed La Voz (the voice). In that vein, the promoter christened Hector with the stage name Lavoe, a derivative of La Voz.

In the 60s, Hector spent much of his time touring the Latin music scene. He was able to meet, mingle with, and befriend those in the business like musicians, singers, composers, arrangers, promoters, club owners, etc. Hector began playing with bands in New York like Kako and his All Stars.  He later met and worked for two weeks with the great Dominican bandleader, Johnny Pacheco. Pacheco introduced Hector to a young, up-and-coming bandleader named Willie Colon.  Willie was playing Latin jazz and boogaloo. The established musicians of the time considered Willie a kid with a bad sound. Pacheco was getting ready to have Colon record his first albumn for the Fania label. Willie who was looking for a lead singer liked Hector's clear voice, impeccable enunciation and stylistic abilities. In addition, Hector had an enormous talent for improvisation. That introduction led to a very successful musical union--one that was nearly instantaneous. 

Willie Colon left-Hector right

Pacheco created an image for Willie that was one of a bad boy, gangsterish, thug. The image caught on and was embraced by the public. In 1967 Hector and Willie recorded their first album for Fania, El Malo. Willie's band was young; mostly teenagers. They had a new sound and Hector in addition to being a great talent, was very charismatic.  Audiences loved him. Hector was comical in his repartee with the audience and within his improvisations.

In addition, Hector would mingle with the audience during breaks. He never had a big ego and considered himself just like everyone else. He was entirely approachable and happy to sign autographs. He managed to maintain a connection to his audience and fans at all times. He considered himself a simple jibaro and was proud of that.

Ray Sepulveda, a well respected singer currently with RMM (Ralph Mercado Management) recalls an experience to dramatize this point. Ray as a teenager idolized Lavoe. He remembers an outdoor festival in Puerto Rico, (fiesta patronal) at which Lavoe performed. During a break, he noticed Lavoe casually chatting with friends and well wishers. Gathering his courage, he approached Lavoe to express his great admiration for him. He also confided his fondest dream was to become a singer. Lavoe in a very warm and friendly manner encouraged him to not only pursue his dream but to let nothing stop him in his quest. Sepulveda will never forget that encounter.

In 1967, Hector met Carmen Castro. By the next year, Carmen was pregnant. He proposed to Carmen and asked her to move to a house in Puerto Rico. She refused. Carmen considered Lavoe a womanizer. On Oct 30, 1968, Jose Alberto Perez was born. On the night of his son's baptism celebration, Nilda Rosado called Lavoe to say she was also pregnant. On Sept. 25, 1969 Hector Jr. was born. Hector eventually married Nilda. Although Carmen projected no malice towards Nilda and her son, the same could not be said of Nilda. She preferred that Hector maintain minimal contact with Carmen and their son. 

Hector was introduced to drugs at a party. According to his own account there was a bowl of drugs on the table and he indulged along with others at the party. He became enamoured with the drugs (heroine) and was soon addicted. His drug abuse began seeping into his professional career. Hector began demonstrating irresponsible behavior. He would arrive to performances late. His adoring fans were happy so long as he arrived. They adored him and forgave him always. At his worst, he might not show at all. At other times, he might insult his band members or the audience.

By 1974, Hector's usage was out of control. The drugs caused his erratic behavior. The Willie Colon/Hector Lavoe orchestra was receiving bad publicity. The integrity of the band was being compromised. Willie tried to help Hector. Hector was weak for drugs and all of Colon's help and support could not produce the desired results or rendering Lavoe drug free. Willie felt he had no alternative and made the heart wrenching decision to disband his orchestra. Hector was crushed. He felt Willie had abandoned him.

The public was sorely disappointed to learn of the break up. Promoters around the world were clamoring to book Hector for appearances guaranteed to draw huge audiences. After all, Lavoe was to Salsa what Sinatra was to pop music. He may in fact be better compared to Tony Bennett known as the "singer's singer".  The title "El Cantante de los Cantantes" was truly befitting Lavoe.

Colon gave Hector the option of keeping the musicians together. With a commitment from Jose Mangual Jr., a percussionist with the band, to keep the orchestra in tact, Hector launched his solo career.  Willie Colon who dearly loved Hector despite his shortcomings would produce Hector's first album as a solo artist and many others. Their friendship and love never wavered.

Hector's public continued to adore him and forgave his weaknesses. They still wanted to hear Lavoe sing.  Hector possessed a talent comprised of many elements including, great voice, clear enunciation, marvelous phrasing, and lyrical interpretation. His quick whit and great sense of humor is evident in his tremendous ability to improvise or sonear. During live performances, he never sang a song the same way twice.  One of his signature songs "Mi Gente" has been recorded a number of times.  When one listens carefully, they discover lyrics in the soneo are fitting for each occasion.

Lavoe was on a constant quest to rid himself of drug usage. In preparation for the Fania All Stars concert in Africa, he quit drugs cold turkey. Africa is one of the roots of Salsa along with Cuba. In Africa, he connected with the religious practice of Santeria. Santeria is the Latin version of the African religion brought by the slaves to their new homes. Their gave their gods direct correlation to the Catholic saints in order make their religion more acceptable. The gods and the corresponding saints are different manifestations of the same spiritual entity.

Hector Lavoe

Hector Lavoe Orchestra

 

After the Africa experience, Hector took sometime off and returned to Puerto Rico. While there, he began to use drugs again.By 1975, Hector had 21 recordings under his belt. The same year, his band left him. They were weary of his antics.  Once again, Jose Mangual Jr. came to his rescue. He assembled an orchestra in New York.  

In 1976, Hector accomplished with both Felipe Pirela and Cheo Feliciano did not. He made a hit of a song both men had recorded; De Ti Depende. The album of the same name was a tremendous success. Three other tunes became big hits--Hacha Y Machete, Vamos Reir Un Poco, and Periodico De Ayer. Lavoe was a superstar. He was in demand and was packing the largest soccer stadiums in Latin America.

Lavoe always demonstrated a generous spirit. One night after appearing at a concert in Madison Square Garden he was due to perform at the Corso nightclub. On the same bill was Joe Cuba and his band. Cuba's lead singer was nowhere to be found. Hector learned of the situation and told Joe he would sing for him. A similar situation occurred with the lead singer for Bobby Rodriguez y La Compania. Hector responded in the same way. He never felt he was too good to lend a hand and sing someone else's music.

Hector-Alfredo de la Fe

Three significant events occurred in 1977.  In February, Hector called Ruben Blades (now with former partner, Willie Colon) to the stage at the Corso. Ruben accompanying himself on guitar, sang the song El Cantante, and announced he had written it for Hector.This tune would later become one of Lavoe's signature songs.

In April, Hector suffered a debilitating nervous breakdown rendering him unable to walk. A number of factors contributed to his infirmity. He lived under a great deal of stress. He was working seven days a week with at least three shows daily. He was experiencing conflict with the record companies that were not compensating him adequately. He had ongoing marital problems and was estranged from his oldest son, Jose. His problems with substance abuse exacerbated the situation. It took Hector five months to recover. He vowed to rebound and delighted the audience at Madison Square Garden in September.

In December of that year, Hector released a new album entitled Comedia, on whose cover he appeared dressed like Charlie Chaplin. The ten-minute version of El Cantante with its symphonic arrangement propelled the popularity of the album, which soon went platinum.

Hector continued his yo-yo relationship to drugs; kicking the habit only to become re-addicted. He would announce he was going on vacation and disappear. In reality, he was checking himself into drug rehabilitation centers.

In 1978, consumed by depression, he began speaking of suicide. He turned to a powerful babalao (high priest of Santeria) for assistance to rid himself of the addiction. The babalao prescribed total isolation. For two months, Lavoe cut all ties to family and friends. He emerged strong, confident, and drug free. Some of Lavoe's music reflects his ties to Santeria, particularly the titles Rompey Saraguey and El Todopoderoso. For a period, he wore only white clothing indicative of his dedication to the religion.

Hector's life continued on its roller coaster-like journey of tremendous successes and rock bottom lows. He continued to arrive late. In 1981, Johnny Pacheco wrote a song that spoofed Hector's habit. He titled the song El Rey de la Puntualidad, (the king of punctuality). Hector took it in stride and had fun with the lyrics poking fun at himself during the improvisation portions. This was another big hit for Hector.

Hector had more than his share of bad experiences at the hands of unscrupulous promoters and others in the business. Treating musicians badly was commonplace.He could recount numerous examples including not being paid for performances, being held a gunpoint, being given inferior accommodations, being transported in unsafe vehicles and more.

Lavoe also contended with a series of personal tragedies. 1987 was a particularly trying year. A fire completely destroyed his home forcing him and his wife to jump to safety. Shortly thereafter, his mother was brutally murdered outside her home in Puerto Rico. On May 7th, Hector Jr, was accidentally shot to death by his friend. The series of events nearly destroyed Lavoe.

In 1988, Hector reemerged with the albumn titled Hector Strikes Back, which would be nominated for a Grammy Award. That same year, as a result of intravenous drug use, Hector was diagnosed with AIDS.

On June 28, 1988 Lavoe was contracted to appear in Puerto Rico at an outdoor concert. Nearby, a fiesta patronal was being held. Thus, the paid concert had poor attendance. The promoters cancelled the concert immediately. The audience that had paid to see Hector began chanting his name. Hector escorted his orchestra to the stage saying he came to sing for his people and sing for them he would. As the concert began, the promoters disconnected power to the stage.

This action humiliated Hector. It may have served as the straw that broke the camel's back.  That night Hector was overcome by a surge of emotions. Later that night Hector went over the balcony of his ninth floor hotel balcony. Controversy surrounds the night; some insisting he was pushed and others claiming he jumped. He landed on an air conditioning unit, severley mangled. He would never be the same after this incident.

The adoring fans still insisted on him performing. In the summer of 1989, he appeared at a concert. His mere presence would evoke a standing ovation. This was the audience's way of transmitting their undying love and devotion to him. He was in a wheel chair but in good spirits as he sang another of his signature songs Mi Gente.

At the Meadowlands in September of 1990 the Fania All Stars performed. The last number of the performance was to come from Lavoe. Hector, brought to stage in a wheel chair managed to walk to center stage with the aid of his fellow artists. None of the musicians had realized in what a weak condition he was. The band began the introduction to Mi Gente. Hector did not come in on cue. When he did manage to begin, it was with an incredibly weak voice and lacking in the style for which he had become famous. His fellow cantantes tried to carry the tune for him to get him on the right track. The attempt was futile. He did not have the strength to perform. The musicians on stage were overcome with grief to witness their stricken comrade in such a sad state. The audience was in a state of shock and saddened beyond belief at what they had witnessed. The euphoria during the concert had degenerated into pain and sorrow. The concert came to an abrupt end.

Hector's las hurrah came in 1992 at a New York club called Las Vegas. There were throngs of people on the street waiting to get in. Radio personality, Polito Vega made the introductions to the beyond capacity crowd. The audience went wild. Hector delivered the goods.

In April of 93, while in the hospital for treatment of AIDS, Jose Mangual Jr. would visit bearing exciting news. He had intended to speak of a wonderful proposal by a South American promoter that wanted to contract Hector with his original band for a number of performances. It was a generous offer. Upon seeing Hector, Mangual put that idea out of his mind. He realized Hector was dying.

 On June 29, 1993, Hector Lavoe, El Cantante de los Cantantes lost his battle with AIDS. The Salsa world mourned his death.  Outside Saint Cecilia's church on East 106 Street, thousands of fans gathered and serenaded Lavoe's spirit with some of his most memorable hits. A multitude of people walked in procession to the cemetery only to be greeted by hundreds already there.

Hector Lavoe was truly a legend in his own time. He has been a great inspiration to many of today's young singers. To this day, there are still very few who can match his ability as a sonero. He set a standard to which others may aspire.

Hector's music is timeless and classic. It lives on and continues to gain popularity. His spirit lives within each of us whom he touched through his great talent and art. His spirit is as alive today as he was when he inhabited the earth. Thank you Hector, for the joy you brought and continue to bring to us. Our love for you has not diminished. You are as real to us in death as you were in life.

 

Pictures courtesy of: Mr. Izzy Sanabria from the Latin NY Magazine archives.
http://www.salsamagazine.com

 

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