The Hector Lavoe story contains all the elements of a dramatic motion picture. There is poverty, broken home, limited education, world-wide successful singing career, drug abuse and the tragedies which started with the loss of his mother when he was a young child, and needed her most, followed by his brother's death from a drug overdose on the streets of New York.
Lavoe is one of the most interesting and complex Latin music performers; a man of basically simple values who has lived a roller coaster life of wondrous career highs and devastating personal tragic lows. Lavoe's intense need for recognition and the motivational factors that drove him are clues to the events that determined his life's path.
Lavoe's burning ambition and quest for recognition was so intense that the swore to let nothing stop him from attaining it. "I want to be known all over the world," is something he has often candidly admitted. "Identity to me, is more important than anything else. I have something to prove!
To better understand Lavoe, the artist, the man and his life, we must examine the various aspects of his background (people, things and events) during his early formative years, that influenced his life and helped mold the Hector Lavoe we know today. To do this we have to start at the very beginning.
Hector Lavoe was born on September 30, 1946 to Pachita and Luis Perez in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Hector comes from a musical family that he says were also a bit wacky.
His grandfather Don Juan Martínez sang controversies which often went from vocal conflict to physical confrontations. An uncle that was considered one of Ponce's best Tres players, spent most of his time playing serenatas around town and accumulating enemies. His mother Pachita also sang and according to the family and townspeople, sang beautifully. His father Luis supported his wife and eight children by singing and playing guitar with trios and big bands. It was Mr. Perez's influence that spurred six year old Hector to sit by the radio and shout out jibaro songs along with his then favorite singer, Chuito El De Bayamón. For a few years, Hector was tutored daily by his father until he was enrolled in the Juan Morell Campos School of Music (Two of his classmates also destined for fame were Papo Lucca and Jose Febles). Hector started out playing the saxophone but soon lost interest because he felt he wasn't good enough. He would have taken more of an interest if he could have only played as good as (child prodigy) Papo Lucca played the piano.
Lavoe's father sent him off to school against his will and after six months of playing hookie, he was expelled. One day his father asked him what lesson he was going to and Héctor replied, "the one at 12 noon!" With that reply, as Héctor tells it, "Fuuaaacata! He gave me a tremendous whack and said 'How can you go to a lesson when you were thrown out?' So he forced me to go back to school."
By 1960, at the age of 14, Lavoe was earning $18 a night singing with a ten-piece band. Hector felt he wasn't accomplishing anything and dropped out of school. "I was always getting into trouble, so when I was 17, I decided to go to New York to earn a lot of money.
Having made up his mind, Hector enthusiastically announced his plans to his father, but instead of giving him his blessings, Don Luis strongly objected to Héctor's plans and desperately tried to discourage him. "New York is not for you, remember what happened to your brother. I absolutely forbid you to go." He also presented his argument in such a way as to make it seem that if Hector insisted on leaving, he obviously didn't love his father, family or Puerto Rico. Despite his father's objections, on May 3,1963, Lavoe boarded a plane to New York to pursue his dream of attaining fame and fortune.
On the jet and for many years after, Lavoe was haunted by his father's threatening and hurtful last words, "If you go to New York, forget you have a father!" Héctor realized that he had to prove himself so right then and there, he made himself a promise that became his life's quest and for many years provided him with the motivation needed to succeed. His goal was to earn a lot of money even if it meant working in a factory so that someday he could return to Ponce a rich man. Lavoe's main purpose was to gain his father's respect by becoming a successful person that his father would be proud of.
Awaiting Héctor's arrival in New York was his sister Priscilla. When she saw his 102 pound, 5'8'' scrawny physique, Priscilla's first thought was to feed him but Hector wasn't interested in food. The first thing he wanted to do was see El Barrio, that mecca of New York Puerto Rican culture that he had heard so much about. A look of disappointment soon swept across his face as they drove through the streets of Spanish Harlem. Hector was shocked and greatly disappointed as the reality of garbage strewn streets and six story weather-beaten brick tenement buildings quickly wiped away the preconceived vision she had of fancy Cadillacs, tall marble skyscrapers and tree lined streets. He found his sister's Bryant Avenue apartment in The Bronx to be much better.
A week after arriving in New York, he was visited by Roberto García, a musician and childhood friend who invited him to the rehearsal of a sextet that was being formed. At the rehearsal, the sextet was playing the romantic bolero Tus Ojos, which the vocalist was singing badly. As a good will gesture, Lavoe volunteered to show the vocalist how it was supposed to sound. After hearing Hector sing a few stanzas, the musicians looked at each other realizing that Hector was just what the group needed and they immediately offered him the job as vocalist. The job only paid $20 for three nights' work, but it was a start and the first step that put Lavoe's career in motion.
Once Lavoe was heard, other jobs with better known groups quickly followed. He sang with Orquesta New York, then spent a year as vocalist with Kako and his All-Stars. He also worked for two weeks with Johnny Pacheco before being introduced to Willie Colón in February 1967. This was to become a historical meeting, which would launch the careers of two of Salsa's brightest stars.
Pacheco, co-owner of Fania Records and its recording musical director, arranged for Lavoe to record with Willie Colón on his first album "El Malo." At that time, older musicians regarded Willie's group as a kiddie band with a terrible sound. Héctor shared the same views but after listening to the playback of the tunes "Chonguí," "Quimbombon and "Jazzy," he quickly changed his opinion of the band. According to Héctor, Willie never officially asked him to join the band. After the recording, Willie just said to him, "On Saturday we start at 10 p.m. at El Tropicoro Club.
The unexpected success of that first album radically changed the lives of both Colón and Lavoe. Héctor received instant recognition, steady work and enough money to provide a comfortable life style. But according to Lavoe, it all happened so fast that he didn’t know how to handle or cope with all the sudden success. Consequently, he developed a serious drug problem and began showing up late for gigs. Eventually he didn't even show at all and Willie was forced to fire him. "When Willie learned of my drug problem, he went out of his way to help me overcome it. I love Willie like a brother. He took a lot of crap from me but he never gave up on me. No one had ever taken an interest in me the way Willie did. My friendship with Willie is one that I could never break."
In 1973, to the dismay of their fans, Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe split up. Willie had decided to broaden his musical potential and disbanded the group. He gave Héctor the option of keeping the musicians together by becoming leader of his own band.
It was a turbulent period for Lavoe feeling that Willie had abandoned him. He had to deal with his deep-rooted insecurities and the hurt he felt from being betrayed by Willie, the man he loved like a brother and the person he most depended on. When quizzed on the subject in a 1980 Latin N.Y. magazine interview, he replied, "I was much too dependent on Willie. I guess he was trying to figure out a way of telling me. I waited for Willie for over two months before cutting 'La Voz,' my first solo album. Willie didn't play on my recordings after that, but he did continue with me as producer. After the success of the 'LaVoz' album, Willie told me that I was ready to lead my own band, so I went ahead and did it. At first I was hurt, but I soon realized the split up had its purpose; it was a test! I had to prove that I could go at it alone. Just in case, one day one of us wasn't around. Thank God, we both came out all right. The split actually helped me gain confidence in myself."
After Lavoe formed his own Conjunto, he continued to follow his quest to be known the world over. Since then, he has traveled around the world with his conjunto as well as with the Fania All-Stars. He has performed in some of the most prestigious concert halls featuring Salsa, as well as Jazz events like the Newport Jazz Festival. His recordings have also garnered him many awards and gold albums.
Héctor Lavoe's success is attributed to his unique Jibaro Salsa flavor. Unlike many Puerto Ricans, he does not resent being called a "Hick" and in fact he embraces the term proudly proclaiming, "Soy un Jibaro." His songs reflect that Jibaro pride and love of his birthplace. A perfect example is the tune he wrote Paraiso de la Dulzura from his first solo album. "Que de adónde vengo/ que pa' dónde/ vengo de la tierra de gran Dulzura/ la sabrosura y sandunguera/ que Puerto Rico puede dar lo-le-lo-lei-lo-le-lo-lei/ esa tierra es mi locura/ Puerto Rico te adoro/ tierra Santa, tierra pura." His beautiful lyrics are testimony of his love for the land of his birth and everything connected with it. Lavoe has managed to achieve all of his early ambitious goals of attaining worldwide fame, fortune and recognition. And though he firmly established himself along with a successful singing career within a relative short period of time, it would take many more years for Lavoe to finally achieve his personal goal of a reconciliation with his father. That day finally came on one of his many trips to the Island when he gathered enough courage to visit his father. To Héctor's surprise and delight, Don Luis received him with open arms.
Born with a special talent and driven with a passionate ambition to make something of himself, Héctor has attained the personal and career goals he set for himself on that first plane trip to New York. On a personal emotional level, he was finally able to work out the differences with his father and gained the respect he so desperately sought and needed from him. It was of great importance and satisfaction because it was the very core of his underlying thoughts and motivation, "I have something to prove!" And that Lavoe has more than proven to himself, to his father and to the world as well.
Professionally, Lavoe has surpassed his original quest for the fame, fortune and recognition he so fervently pursued. He has even attained the status of being recognized as a legend in his own time. A status which very few men reach while they are still as young. Lavoe's life is full of great artistic triumphs; a legacy that he leaves the world. For it is his artistry as a singer that the people will listen to, and remember for many years long after he is gone.
If this were someone else's story, it would be a happy ending story. A rags to riches story. A poor Puerto Rican Jibarito boy, born with a unique gift for singing who ends up being loved and recognized by audiences around the globe. Unfortunately, this is the story of Hector Lavoe and not a happy ending fairy tale. His story is that of a man whose life has been plagued by tragic events, a life of emotional turmoil and pain. The Hector Perez Lavoe story is a tragedy.
The loss of his mother when he needed her most. The drug overdose death of his brother on the streets of New York that continued to cause the family many painful years of emotional family conflicts and constant fear. The fear that Hector might also end up dead on a city street is why his father Don Luis tried so desperately to stop Hector from going to New York. Ironically, there were quite a few times when Héctor's drug problem brought him very close to making his father's worst fears become a reality. For example, the time that he was brutality beaten and robbed of his jewelry.
Another tragedy was the fire that destroyed his home in Queens and almost wiped out his entire family. Yet another, was the brutal murder of his mother-in-law. But I imagine that no tragedy could have ever been more difficult or more painful for Hector to endure than the death of his 17-year-old son who was accidentally shot by a friend.
All those tragedies and many others, must have sapped Lavoe's will to live, and may help to explain why he jumped from a hotel window in Puerto Rico, a fall from which he never fully recovered. Looking back at the tragedies in his life, it can be said that some were of his own doing and some might even have been avoided. But for the most part, they were simply the unfortunate cards he was dealt by fate. Can there be any doubt as to the negative impact those cards must have played in influencing Lavoe's acts of self-destruction?
We may not be able to understand why a successful person is self-destructive, but neither can we condemn the actions of a sensitive artist that's unable to cope with forces beyond their control. After all, how much pain can any one of us actually bear, before losing all control?
Because of the musical legacy Héctor Lavoe leaves behind and our understanding of his turmoil and pain, is it any wonder we love him as much as we do?
And though we wish it weren't so, those of us who have known Héctor personally and followed his career, can't help wondering if his greatness hasn't come from his pain.
Héctor died on June 29, 1993 in the city of New York in poverty (just before this article was published in 1993). Ironically, his fame grew even more after a mysterious death that many say was caused by AIDS and others by pain itself. During his last televised interview on "Ocurrio Así," his voice was almost unintelligible, his face was unrecognizable, nostalgia filling his eyes, his smile telling and enclosing a thousand dreams, some fulfilled, others dead in the streets of the Big Apple. The world received the news of his death as if it were from "yesterday's newspaper." We all knew it would happen sooner, rather than later.