Héctor Lavoe was born Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez in Ponce, Puerto Rico on September 30, 1946. He was one of the most revered singers in Salsa history, affectionately referred to as “”El Cantante de los Cantantes” (The Singer of Singers).
Lavoe came from a musical family. His father would teach him about music and enrolled him into music school. He started with saxophone and learned the basics, but he would soon drop it to focus on singing. His early vocal influences included Chuíto el de Bayamón, Daniel Santos, Odilio Gonzalez, Cheo Feliciano, Ismael Rivera, and Ismael Quintana. By the age of 14, Héctor was already earning money singing around town in local bands.
In 1963, at just 17 years old and against his father’s wishes, Lavoe dropped out of school and left Puerto Rico lured by the bright lights of New York City. Héctor had already lost a brother to a drug overdose in the Big City. But, Héctor was determined to become a famous singer. He arrived and settled in with his sister, Priscilla.
Shortly after arriving, a childhood friend now living in New York invited Héctor to see a new sextet that was starting up. The band’s singer was a little off that night, and so Héctor took the mic and showed him how it was done. The band leader was so impressed that he offered Héctor the job on the spot.
In those first few years, Héctor enjoyed local success in the local New York music scene performing with several bands including Orquesta New York and the Kako All-Stars. He was given the nickname he adopted as his stage name Lavoe, which was a variation of “La Voz” (The Voice). Then in 1967, Johnny Pacheco of the famed Fania record label introduced Héctor to a young bandleader named Willie Colón. This meeting would prove to change Héctor’s life and the course of Salsa music.
Together, Willie and Héctor took the Salsa community by storm, recording 10 albums and numerous hits. They were at the very forefront of the emerging modern Salsa scene. They made some of the best music to come out of the Fania label, and they became best friends.
It was also during this time however, that Héctor was introduced to drugs at a party. He would struggle the rest of his life with drug addiction, abusing cocaine, heroin, and prescription drugs. He continuously showed up late for gigs. After about 7 years of playing together, it put a strain on Willie and Héctor ’s professional relationship.
Although they would maintain their personal friendship, Willie couldn’t put up with it any longer and decided not to publicly play with Héctor any more. Héctor moved on and formed his own band and continued his success releasing his first solo album in 1975.
Héctor was adored by his fans regardless of his personal problems. Despite his great success, Héctor was always in touch with his fans. He was approachable, never too big to chat with his fans and sign autographs. He sometimes boasted, “Yo Soy Un Jibaro de Puerto Rico” (roughly translated as, “I just a hick from Puerto Rico”).
Lavoe continued to have success throughout the 70’s and 80’s with many more hits, but he constantly battled depression and suffered numerous tragedies. 1987 marked a turning point in his life. He lost his home to a fire, his mother was murdered, and on May 7th the biggest blow came when his son was accidentally shot by a friend and died. Soon afterward he was also diagnosed with HIV as the result of sharing needles.
He tried to bounce back but his experiences proved to be too much. He put out his final album in 1988 entitled Lavoe Strikes Back, which was again produced by Willie Colón. It was nominated for a Grammy. In June of that year however, Héctor survived a fall from the 9th story of his hotel room in an apparent suicide attempt. He managed to hit an air conditioning unit on the way down which broke his fall. He would never be the same.
Despite being mangled from the fall, Héctor would perform several more times over the coming years. His health steadily deteriorated and on June 29th, 1993, he died of AIDS at the age of 46.
Héctor Lavoe is now remembered as a Salsa legend and his music continues to be discovered by new generations of Salsa lovers. His voice was silky smooth and he displayed such a unique style. He was known for his sense of humor and improvisation. He had an amazing stage presence and a swagger. It is impossible to discuss the history of Salsa and not mention El Cantante de los Cantantes.
I encourage you to learn more about him and check out his music. His life is chronicled in the 2006 movie El Cantante featuring Marc Antony as Héctor Lavoe and Jennifer Lopez as his wife.
For a good introduction to his music, listen to the songs: El Día de Suerte, Mi Gente, El Cantante, Todo Tiene Su Final, and Calle Luna Calle Sol.