We Said Goodbye to ‘El Cantante’ Héctor Lavoe 30 Years Ago, but His Music Is As Alive as Ever
“Risas y Penas” — that is the essence of the hard life of salsa icon Héctor Lavoe. Puerto Rico’s “El Jibarito” died 30 years ago in a hospital in Manhattan.
Lavoe, one of the most gifted singers of the 1970s salsa boom, died of a heart attack due to complications from AIDS on June 29, 1993. He was only 46.
Nicknamed “El Cantante de Los Cantantes” and “La Voz,” Lavoe was more than a singer. He was a storyteller with the voice of an angel.
Six days after his death, thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets chanting “Qué bonita bandera.” Meanwhile, the hearse carrying Lavoe’s casket slowly arrived at the singer’s initial resting place at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. He is now buried in Puerto Rico.
The voice of a people and many generations
For two solid days after Lavoe’s death, his hits like “El Cantante,” “Mi Gente,” and “Todo Tiene Su Final” streamed from tenement buildings, stoops, street corners, and bodegas of the Bronx and Queens.
His people — the ones he sang for — were saying goodbye to the man behind the soundtrack of their life.
Lavoe’s songs perfumed the first time they fell in love, celebrated a win, or cried a defeat.
As author Marc Shapiro wrote in his book, “Passion and Pain: The Life of Hector Lavoe,” Lavoe is the “flesh and blood personification” of Puerto Rican identity.
Hector Lavoe’s rise to stardom
Lavoe was born Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez in the barrio Machuelo Abajo in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He moved to New York City when he was 17.
Shortly after his arrival, he began working as a singer and performing with bands, including that of Dominican salsero Johnny Pacheco.
In 1967, Lavoe joined Puerto Rican musician Willie Colon’s band. He was the vocalist on ten iconic studio albums with the Willie Colón Orchestra — among which are El Malo (1967), Cosa Nuestra (1970), Asalto Navideño (1971), and Lo Mato (1973).
Lavoe also did solo recordings (El Cantante, Periodico de Ayer, Bandolera) and, together with Pacheco, created (and was a long-time member of) Fania All Stars, the sound of Latin New York.
Lavoe and Colon were their headlining stars.
“El Cantante,” one of Lavoe’s greatest hits, was written for him by Panamanian salsa singer Ruben Blades. Without knowing it, Blades wrote what Lavoe was experiencing in his life.
There were two Héctor Lavoe’s: the superstar and the man
The superstar shone like an uncut diamond. However, the man suffered addictions — heroin and alcohol. He also carried the burden of grief after the accidental death of his 17-year-old son, Héctor Lavoe Jr., his home burning down, a violent marriage, and an industry that used him up.
After his son died, Lavoe attempted suicide by jumping off a Condado hotel balcony in Puerto Rico.
He was often a no-show or late at sold-out concerts, arriving worse for wear. His addictions and the tragedies of his life had gotten the better of him.
He had one comeback after another, including “Comedia” in 1978, an album rated one of his best.
Throughout the 1980s, he kept on recording. In 1988, he was nominated for a Grammy for “Lavoe Strikes Back.”
An immortal voice
Héctor Lavoe famously sang “Todo tiene su final,” but, in his case, the music of “el cantante de la tarima” has never stopped.
In 1995, two years after his passing, Colon, and Blades released “Homenaje a Hector Lavoe.”
At the beginning of this year, Rolling Stone Magazine put out a list of the “200 Best Singers of All Time.” Lavoe ranked #73.
“Blessed with a wicked sense of humor and a chocolaty voice able to manipulate at will the clave dynamics that make Afro-Caribbean music swing with reckless abandon, Lavoe was salsa’s own rock star,” Rolling Stone wrote.
And this month, his solo debut album, La Voz, was returned to vinyl by Craft Latino. It features “Paraíso de Dulzura,” a love song Lavoe wrote for Puerto Rico.
“He is almost a sacrificial lamb, that one guy who would represent legions of fans but lived the most painful life imaginable,” said the singer Marc Anthony, who portrayed Lavoe in the film El Cantante, in an interview with the New York Times.
“That’s just what he was born to be.”
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