Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez (September 30, 1946 – June 29, 1993) was a Puerto Rican salsa singer. Lavoe was born and raised in the Machuelito sector of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Early in his life, he attended a local music school and developed an interest inspired by Jesús Sánchez Erazo. He moved to New York City when he was seventeen years old. On his first week living in the city, he worked as the vocalist of a sextet formed by Roberto García. During this period, he performed with several other groups, including Orquesta New York, Kako All-Stars, and the Johnny Pacheco band.
In 1967, Lavoe joined Willie Colón’s band and performed as the band vocalist. With the Willie Colón band, Lavoe recorded several hit songs, including El malo and Canto a Borinquen. While working with the Willie Colón band, Lavoe became addicted to drugs and began to habitually be late when scheduled to perform with the band. Colón eventually decided to not work with Hector on stage but they still remained good friends and made music in the studio together. Lavoe moved on to become a soloist and formed his own band, where he performed as lead vocalist. As a soloist Lavoe recorded several hits including El cantante, Bandolera and El periódico de ayer (‘El Cantante’ was composed by Ruben Blades, ‘Bandolera’ by Colón and ‘Periódico’ by Tite Curet Alonso.) During this period he was frequently featured as an invited vocalist in the Fania All Stars, and recorded numerous tracks with the band.
In 1979, Lavoe underwent a deep depression and sought the help of a high priest (of the Santeria faith) to attend to his drug addiction. After a short rehabilitation, he relapsed following the deaths of his father, son and mother in law. These events, along with being diagnosed with HIV, affected Lavoe to the point of attempting suicide by jumping off the balcony of a hotel room. Lavoe survived and recorded an album before his health began failing. Lavoe died in June 29, 1993, from a complication of AIDS.
Héctor was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico to Pachita and Luis Pérez, and raised in the Machuelito barrio of the city. He was inspired early in life by his musically-talented family. His grandfather Don Juan Martínez was a singer of controversial songs, which often went from vocal conflict to physical confrontations. His uncle was a well-known tres player in Ponce. His mother Pachita was well known among her family and townspeople for her beautiful singing voice. His father Luis supported his wife and eight children by singing and playing guitar with trios and big bands. Héctor would also be influenced by Puerto Rican singers such as Jesus Sanchez Erazo also known as “Chuíto el de Bayamón”- one of the island’s most successful folk singers, and Daniel Santos. Later in his life, he would have the honor of recording songs with both artists.
Héctor attended the local Juan Morel Campos Public School of Music where the saxophone was the first instrument he learned to play. Among his classmates were Jose Febles and multi-instrumentalist Papo Lucca. One of his teachers would strictly demand good diction, stage presence and manners from him claiming that as a bolero singer, Héctor would become a superstar. By the age of 17, Lavoe abandoned school and sang with a ten-piece band. He moved permanently to New York on May 3, 1963, against his father’s wishes, since an older brother had moved to the city and later died of a drug overdose. It would take many more years before Héctor was able to reconcile with his father.
Arrival in New York City
He was met by his sister Priscilla upon arrival in New York. The first thing he did in New York was visit El Barrio, New York’s “Spanish Harlem.” Héctor was disappointed in the condition of El Barrio which contrasted with his vision of “fancy Cadillacs, tall marble skyscrapers and tree-lined streets.” Hector stayed at his sister’s apartment in The Bronx, instead.
The first week in New York, Héctor was invited by his friend Roberto García, a fellow musician and childhood friend, to a rehearsal of a newly formed sextet. When he arrived they were rehearsing the romantic bolero Tus Ojos. The lead vocalist was singing off key, and as a gesture of goodwill, Lavoe showed the vocalist how it was supposed to sound. Following this event, the group offered him the spot of lead vocalist, which he subsequently accepted.
Later in his career, he joined other groups in the genre, including Orquesta New York, Kako All-Stars, and Johnny Pacheco. To distinguish Héctor from other Latino singers, a former manager made him adopt Felipe Rodriguez’s moniker “La Voz” (“The Voice”) and turned it into a stage name, Lavoe.
In 1967, he met Salsa musician & bandleader Willie Colón. Pacheco, co-owner of Fania Records and its recording musical director, suggested that Colón record Lavoe on a track of Colón’s first album El Malo. Given the good results, Colón had Lavoe record the rest of the album’s vocal tracks. Willie never officially asked Lavoe to join his band, but after the recording, Willie said to him, “On Saturday we start at 10 p.m. at El Tropicoro Club.”
The album’s success significantly transformed both Colón’s and Lavoe’s lives. Colón’s band featured a raw, aggressive all-trombone sound that was well received by salsa fans, and Lavoe complemented the style with his articulate voice, talent for improvisation, and sense of humor. Héctor received instant recognition, steady work, and enough money to provide him with a comfortable lifestyle. According to Lavoe, it happened so fast he did not know how to cope with the sudden success.
During that year Lavoe started a romantic relationship with Carmen Castro. Castro became pregnant but refused to marry him because she considered him a “womanizer.” Lavoe’s first son, José Alberto Pérez was born on October 30, 1968. On the night when José was baptized, Héctor received a call informing him that Nilda “Puchi” Roman (with whom he also had a relationship during the same period he was with Castro) was pregnant. Héctor’s second son, Héctor Jr. was born on September 25, 1969. Following this event, the couple married, and following a request by Roman, Lavoe kept the amount of contact with Castro and José Alberto to a minimum during their marriage.
The Willie Colón years
In late 1970, Colón and Lavoe recorded the first of two “Asalto Navideño” albums, featuring Puerto Rican folk songs such as Ramito’s jibaro song “Patria y Amor” (renamed “Canto a Borinquen”) and original compositions. The album, which also featured Puerto Rican cuatro player Yomo Toro, is regarded as an all-time salsa classic, still selling strong more than 35 years after its recording. It also gave the Colón band its signature song, “La Murga”, an ode to Panama’s musical festivals that transposed a rather simple bass guitar line to trombone, producing a by-now classic salsa riff as a result.
While enjoying his newly found success, Héctor became severely addicted to narcotics, namely heroin, and prescription drugs. His addiction resulted in him showing up late for gigs, and he eventually did not show up to some scheduled performances at all. Although Colón would eventually cut ties with him, he tried to help Lavoe seek assistance to try to quit his drug habits.
Lavoe’s lack of professionalism was often neutralized by an affable onstage presence, very much resembling that of a stand-up comedian. Another famous incident has a middle-aged audience member at a dance request a Puerto Rican danza from Colón’s band, to which Lavoe responded with an insult. The requester then gave Lavoe such a beating that he almost ended up in the hospital. The request was finally honored in a later Colón record, “El Juicio” (The Trial), when he added a danza section to the Rafael Muñoz song “Soñando despierto”, which Lavoe introduces with a deadpanned: “¡Para tí, Motherflower!” (a euphemism for “This one’s for you, motherfucker!”)
The Colón band had other major hits, such as “Calle Luna, Calle Sol”, and the santería influenced “Aguanilé”; a Pacheco song recorded in the studio by the band, “Mi Gente”, was better known in a live version Lavoe later recorded with the Fania All Stars.
Lavoe goes solo
In 1973, Willie Colón stopped touring to dedicate himself to record production and other business enterprises. Lavoe was given the opportunity of becoming bandleader to his own orchestra; he and his band traveled the world on their own, and he would also be a guest singer for the Fania All-Stars. As part of these invitations, Lavoe was present at several shows with the group. One of the group’s notable presentations took place in the Kinshasa providence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the group performed as part of the activities promoting The Rumble in the Jungle, a boxing fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman for the heavyweight championships of the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association.
The Fania All Stars recorded several of their tracks in live concerts. Lavoe was part of the group when the All-Stars returned to Yankee Stadium in 1975, where the band recorded a two volume production entitled Live at Yankee Stadium. The event featured the top vocalists in Fania and Vaya records, Lavoe was included in the group along with Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, Justo Betancourt, Ismael Quintana, Bobby Cruz, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, Santos Colón, and Celia Cruz. Lavoe recorded songs in fifteen different productions with the band serving as vocalist in twenty-three songs. Besides recording songs with the band, Lavoe was also present in three movies filmed and produced by Fania Records; these were: Fania All Stars: Our Latin Thing, Fania All Stars: Salsa, and Celia Cruz with the Fania All Stars: Live in Africa. His Colón-produced albums would be best sellers; cuts from these albums were hits in Puerto Rico and the rest of Latin America:
* Lavoe’s recording of Tite Curet Alonso’s “El Periódico de Ayer” was a number one hit in Mexican charts for four straight months. It was also a strong hit in several countries of the Caribbean and South America.
* As a producer, Willie Colón had Lavoe record what would become his signature song, the Ruben Blades-authored song “El Cantante” against Blades’ protests (Blades wanted to record the song on his own.). Blades has repeatedly acknowledged since then that, Lavoe raised his song to classic status and that Lavoe’s performance was much better than what he would accomplish with it.
* The Lavoe song “Bandolera” was a strong seller in Puerto Rico, despite strong protests from Puerto Rican feminists about its lyrics and soneos (Lavoe twice offers the song’s subject a beating).
* Lavoe’s recording of the Nicolás Guillén poem “Sóngoro Cosongo”, set to salsa music, was another major hit.
* The controversial jíbaro song, “Joven contra viejo”, featured Lavoe and Daniel Santos settling their age-based differences on-stage not without a heavy dose of humor and (yet again) Yomo Toro’s cuatro music as a backdrop. It was a major Christmas hit in Puerto Rico in 1979 which included a song from singer/composer Miguel Poventud/Pier Music/ “Una Pena En La Navidad”.
* Lavoe’s final hit, “El Rey de la Puntualidad” (The King of Punctuality), is a humorous takeoff on Lavoe’s constant tardiness and occasional absenteeism from shows.
Last years and Posthumous Homages
In 1978, Lavoe was being consumed by deep depression and was contemplating suicide. Looking for a way to rehabilitate himself, Héctor consulted a Babalao (high priest in the Santeria religion) who recommended complete isolation. Lavoe followed the Santeria priest’s advice and cut all communication with his family and friends for a period of two months. Following this event Héctor, reappeared confident and apparently free of his drug addiction. Rehabilitation is different for everyone but there is a young adult rehab program in Austin which has been shown to help their patients with drug and alcohol addiction.
Following his rehabilitation, Lavoe’s life was plagued by tragic events, emotional turmoil, and pain. His mother-in-law and father died, and his seventeen year old son Hector, Jr. was accidentally shot by a friend. Also, Lavoe was diagnosed with HIV, the virus that progresses to AIDS, and these events were enough to push him to his limit.
On the night of Saturday, June 25, 1988, Héctor was scheduled to perform at the Rubén Rodríguez Coliseum in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. Sales for the concert were low, and Ralph Mercado who was the promoter of the event decided to cancel the concert. Héctor, defiant to the end and knowing that it would be one of the last times he would perform in Puerto Rico, decided, against the promoter’s wishes, to perform in front of the public who had paid to see the now canceled concert.
The next day, on June 26, 1988, Héctor attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the ninth floor of the Regency Hotel Condado in Puerto Rico. No reason for this was ever determined. He survived the attempt, but from that day forward, he would never completely recover as AIDS began to ravage his body due to the use of intravenous drugs and shared needles.
In 1990, Hector performed for the last time (and with the Fania All Stars) in New Jersey. It was to be a comeback concert, but Hector could not even sing a few notes of his famous song “Mi Gente”. This was his last public performance.
Héctor died in poverty on June 29, 1993, at a hospital in New York City. The cause of death was diagnosed as “a complication caused by AIDS.” He was initially buried in a plot in Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. In June 2002, the bodies of both Lavoe and his son (who died in 1987) were exhumed per his family’s request. They were reburied in his native Ponce, along with his wife Nilda who had passed away a few weeks before.
Lavoe’s life has served as inspiration for two Biographical films. The first, El Cantante, is produced by two of the most prominent celebrities in the musical genre: salsa artist Marc Anthony, stars as Lavoe, and Jennifer Lopez as Hector’s wife, Nilda (known as “Puchi” by close friends). Salsa singer La India was also producing her own biopic of Lavoe’s life, entitled The Singer, with actor Raul Carbonell in the lead role. This movie’s production was suspended in August 2008, after the director, Anthony Felton, reported that the budget destined for the project had reached its limit. In response, Carbonell noted that he would reconsider his involvement in the production if the work is resumed.
Besides these films, an off-Broadway production of his life titled ¿Quién mató a Héctor Lavoe? (Who Killed Hector Lavoe?) was a success in the late 1990s. It starred singer Domingo Quiñones in the lead role. Carbonell’s decision to distantiate himself from the film was directly influenced by his involvement in a tour of Quien Mato a Héctor Lavoe? in Puerto Rico, which was undergoing negotiations to be presented in Peru and Colombia. An urban tribute album was released in late 2007 and was performed by several reggaeton artists such as Don Omar while resampling Lavoe’s voice.