Triumph and Tragedy of Hector Lavoe
Compiled by: Eileen Torres
courtesy of: Mr.
Izzy Sanabria from the Latin NY Magazine archives.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Hector Lavoe Orchestra
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.
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.
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
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
Cantante, and announced he had written it for Hector.This tune would
later become one of Lavoe's signature songs.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
courtesy of: Mr.
Sanabria from the Latin NY Magazine archives.