El Cantante: What You Need to Know About the Real Hector Lavoe

With his charisma and penchant for self-destruction, Hctor Lavo was as much of a rock star as Afro-Caribbean music has ever known. He was also one of the most intensely emotional vocalists in the history of Latin American culture–a man whose passion and swing transcended his Puerto Rican origins, resonating with music lovers throughout the world.

We listen to Hctor's pungent salsa anthems is enough to get you hooked on his inimitable style and endearing persona. Ironically, only hardcore salseros are aware of Lavo's importance. Casual Latin music lovers are more familiar with the work of his producer and songwriting partner, trombonist Willie Coln, whom Lavo met after moving to New York from his native Puerto Rico in 1963.

Young, streetwise and eager to impress, the duo was exactly what the recently established Fania label (think the Motown of salsa) was looking for when it released Coln's appropriately titled debut, El Malo (The Mean One). Between 1967 and 1974, Lavo recorded a string of hits as the featured singer in Coln's orchestra, his thickly textured vocals gracing cuts such as the gritty cautionary tale “Calle Luna Calle Sol” and “La Murga,” a bouncy carnival anthem marked by the roaring riffs of Colon's trombone and a near psychedelic cuatro solo by Yomo Toro.

There's warmth to spare and an effortless kind of danceability in these recordings–more than three decades later, they still sound fresh and exciting. Besides being an integral part of the phenomenon known as the New York Salsa Explosion of the 1970s, the early Lavo songs reveal the man's irresistible sense of humor. Hctor twists his voice into a pitiful whine on “Que Bien Te Ves” and remembers his grandmother's hilarious proverbs with nostalgic glee on “Abuelita.”

Lavo's joyful presence also added an extra bit of spark to the Fania All-Stars, a conglomerate of the label's finest that included legends such as Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto, Rubn Blades and Celia Cruz. Never one to take his status as salsa royalty too seriously, he was always happy to tour with the All-Stars, performing a couple of songs as lead vocalist and doing backup choruses on the remaining portion of the concerts.

In 1975, Lavo decided to follow a solo career. With Coln's blessing and artistic guidance, he recorded La Voz, an excellent debut crackling with his newly acquired creative freedom. Tunes like the euphoric “Mi Gente” (a concert favorite) and the darkly morbid Christian tale “El Todopoderoso” showcased the Lavo aesthetic in full blossom: the music overflows with flavor and swing, while the lyrics betray Lavo's deep knowledge of Puerto Rican slang, as well as his deliciously cynical view on life and the vicissitudes of love.

Whereas his career was blessed with success, Lavo's personal life was a horrible succession of tragedies, including the death of his son at age 17, the brutal murder of his mother-in-law and a heroin addiction that eventually resulted in his infection with the HIV virus and his death of complications from AIDS at age 46.

Lavo's persona as the famous salsa singer, happy on the outside but psychologically bankrupt on the inside, was perfectly encapsulated on “El Cantante,” a song written by Rubn Blades, which Coln convinced him to give to Lavo. When it came time for Lavo to record it, Coln did the unthinkable, enlisting a string section for a memorable instrumental passage that adds a majestic, mournful atmosphere to the song. To this day, “El Cantante” is considered by many to be the greatest anthem in all of salsa, regardless of country of origin.

Other standards from Lavo's peak years include “Juanito Alimaa,” a companion piece to Blades' mega-hit “Pedro Navaja”; an openly misogynistic but reckless dance jam by the name of “Bandolera” (check out Gilberto Coln Jr.'s work on that tune–one of the most devastating piano solos ever committed to record); and “Peridico de Ayer,” a smoldering composition by Tite Curet Alonso embellished by Coln's lushly orchestral touches. The epitome of Lavo's artistry, these classic recordings deliver a perfect cross between streetwise roughness and sophisticated musicianship.

This delicate balance applies to Hctor himself: his voice distills the very essence of the working class experience in Latin American barrios. A man not to be messed with, he was always ready to unleash a barrage of insults on any unruly concertgoers that may come his way.

At the same time, his songwriting was effortless and elegant. His phrasing (even at his worst moments, as evidenced by many a bootleg recording that circulate widely among collectors) was invariably tasteful and intelligent. Torrid love ballads (the lesser known “Un Amor De La Calle” being a perfect example) always found him in a gentlemanly mode.

From his youthful years with Coln to the stylistic maturity of his solo output, Lavo faced some formidable artistic competition from the other stars in the Fania roster: from Eddie Palmieri and Larry Harlow to Celia Cruz and Ray Barretto. And yet, Lavo's discography represents the epitome of the Fania sound–its highest artistic achievement.

The only other collaboration that reached the Lavo output in sheer vision was the pairing up of Coln and the socio-politically aware songwriting of Rubn Blades. Which explains why these three artists are regarded to this day as a Holy Trinity of sorts in the Afro-Caribbean landscape. Hctor was the voice. Rubn was the poet. And Willie was the architect of the beautiful sonic universe they created together.

Since Lavo's death in 1993, countless salsa acts have covered his songs, making it painfully obvious how difficult it is to emulate his one-of-a-kind, guttural delivery. Of the many post-mortem tributes out there, none can match the emotion in Coln's “Homenaje a Hctor Lavo,” the best cut of the failed 1995 reunion album with Blades Tras La Tormenta.

To this day, Coln's voice breaks whenever he remembers the lifelong friend with whom he changed the course of salsa forever.

Hector Lavoe Discography

As Singer with Willie Colon Orquestra
El Malo (The Bad Guy) (1967)
The Hustler (1968)
Guisanda Doing a Job (1968)
Cosa Nuestra (1969)
La Gran Fuga (The Big Break) (1970)
Alsato Navideo (1971)
El Juicio (1972)
Alsato Navideo Vol. 2 (1972)
Lo Mato (Si No Compra Este LP) (1973)
Willie (1974)
As Solo Artist (including posthumous releases)
La Voz (1975)
De Ti Depende Its Up to You (1976)
Comedia (1978)
Feliz Navidad (with Daniel Santos and Yomo Toro) (1979)
Homenaje a Felipe Pirela (1979)
El Sabio (1980)
Que Sentimiento (1981)
Revento (1985)
Strikes Back (1987)
The Master and the Protg with Van Lester (1993)
Live! (1997)
Tu Bien Lo Sabes (2001, with never-before-released title song, recorded 1981)
Mi Regreso: Hctor Lavoe Live at Club Borinquen (2006)
As Guest or Collaborator
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly (with Willie Colon and Yomo Toro, 1975)
Dj Vu (Willie Colon, 1978)
Vigilante (Willie Colon, 1983) With The Fania All-Stars
Live at the Red Garter Vol. 1 (1968)
Live at the Red Garter Vol.2 (1969) song: “Noche” with Pete “El Conde”
Rodrguez, Ismael Miranda and Adalberto Santiago
Live At The Cheetah Vol. 1 (1972) song: “Qutate Tu” with: Adalberto Santiago,
Ismael Miranda, Pete “El Conde” Rodrguez, Santos Colon and Johnny Pacheco
Live At The Cheetah Vol. 2 (1972) song: Que Barbaridad with Ismael Miranda
Fania All Stars: Our Latin Thing (soundtrack, 1972) song: Qutate Tu with
Adalberto Santiago, Ismael Miranda, Pete “El Conde” Rodrguez, Santos Colon
and Johnny Pacheco
Fania All Stars Live at Yankee Stadium Vol. 1 (1975) song: Mi Gente
Fania All Stars Live at Yankee Stadium Vol. 2 (1975) song: Congo Bongo with
Cheo Feliciano
Salsa, Original Motion Picture Sound Track Recording (1976) song: Mi Gente
recorded live at the inauguration concert of Roberto Clemente Coliseum,
San Juan Puerto Rico 1974
Tribute To Tito Rodrguez (1976) songs: Cuando, Cuando, Cuando and Vuela
La Paloma with Santos Colon, Ismael Quintana, Ismael Miranda, Justo
Betancourt, Bobby Cruz, Pete “El Conde” Rodrguez and Cheo Feliciano
Fania All Stars Live (1978) song: Saca Tu Mujer with Ismael Quintana, Santos
Colon, Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, Celia Cruz and Justo Betancourt
Habana Jam (1979) song: Mi Gente / Barbarazo with Wilfrido Vargas
Commitment (1980) song: Ublabadu”
Latin Connection (1981) song: Semilla de Amor”
Lo Que Pide La Gente (1984) songs: “El Rey De La Puntualidad”, Por Eso Yo
Canto Salsa and Usando El Coco with Cali Aleman, Ismael Quintana, Ismael
Miranda, Adalberto Santiago, Pete “El Conde” Rodrguez and Celia Cruz.
Viva La Charanga (1986) songs: Me Voy Pa Morn, Isla Del Encanto &
Guajira Con Tumbao with Ismael Miranda, Pete “El Conde” Rodrguez and
Cali Aleman
Bamboleo (1988) song: Siento”.
With Tito Puente
Homenaje a Beny Mor Vol. 2 (1979) song: “Donde Estabas Tu”
Homenaje a Beny Mor Vol. 3 (1985) song: “Tumba Tumbador”