Born: Sept. 30, 1946 in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Died: June 29, 1993 in New York City
There are some who say that there is a price to be paid for a gift, the greater the gift, the greater the price. Hector Lavoe’s musical talent was huge. He was called “El Cantante de los Cantantes”, and his talent took him from his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico to the limelight of New York. It brought him the adulation of a Nuyorican public 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.
In equal measure, 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. 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. Lavoe died at the age of 46, penniless, most probably of AIDS.
Hector Lavoe, born 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. His uncle was one of Ponce’s finest tres players while 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 – his brother had died there of an overdose. 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:
Lavoe was one of eight children, so it wasn’t surprising that his sister welcomed him to New York. 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 ‘lesson’ that they offered him his first New York job. Now that he was performing and being heard, offers followed.
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 and it proved to be a hit. Unfortunately, the success of El Malo was something Lavoe was not ready to handle. Lavoe’s ensuing popularity left him barely able to cope and he turned to drugs.
Lavoe’s drug use resulted in missed concerts and some barely functioning performances. 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
“Yo Soy Un Jibaro”:
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. Lavoe was often called a hick, a ‘jibaro’, to which he took no offense, often 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 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?, produced in the late 1990s.
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.
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