Hector-LavoeHéc­tor Juan Pérez Martínez (Sep­tem­ber 30, 1946 – June 29, 1993), bet­ter known as Héc­tor Lavoe, 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 17 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 be late habit­u­al­ly 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 “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 San­tería 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 on June 29, 1993, from a com­pli­ca­tion of AIDS.

Early life

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, as 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 and 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” Román (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 Román, 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.

Hector Lavoe performing in New York City circa 1985.

Hec­tor Lavoe per­form­ing in New York City cir­ca 1985.

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 habit.

Lavoe’s lack of pro­fes­sion­al­ism was often bal­anced 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 province of the Zaïre, 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. Anoth­er major Christ­mas hit on Bill­board Great­est hits for trop­i­cal genre in 1979 includes a song from singer/composer Miguel Poven­tud “Una Pena En La Navi­dad” in the same album titled “Feliz 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. 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.


Last years and death

Fol­low­ing his reha­bil­i­ta­tion, Lavoe’s life was plagued by trag­ic events, emo­tion­al tur­moil, and pain. Both his moth­er-in-law and father died, and his sev­en­teen-year-old son Héc­tor, Jr. was acci­den­tal­ly shot by a friend. Also, Lavoe was diag­nosed with HIV, the virus that caus­es AIDS. These events would push him to the limit.

On the night of Sat­ur­day, June 25, 1988, Héc­tor was sched­uled to per­form at the Rubén Rodríguez Col­i­se­um in Bayamón, 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, Héc­tor gave his last large, pub­lic per­for­mance (with the Fania All Stars) in New Jer­sey. It was meant to be his come­back con­cert, but Héc­tor could not even sing a few notes of his famous song “Mi Gente”. It is believed his final pub­lic per­for­mance was a brief appear­ance at the club S.O.B.‘s in New York City, in April 1992.

Héc­tor died 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 wid­ow Nil­da who died a few weeks before­hand. Lavoe’s remains are at the Cemente­rio Civ­il de Ponce (Ponce Civ­il Ceme­tery), in that city’s Bar­rio Segun­do neighborhood.

Posthumous recognitions

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 dis­tance 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.