Written by Sasa Bella from Soneo Latino
Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez also known as Héctor Lavoe (El Cantante de los Cantantes) is considered by some, to be one of the greatest salsa singers to ever live. He was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico on September 30, 1946. If he were alive today, I would like to imagine he would be celebrating his 64th birthday, at a star-studded event in his honor, celebrating his musical achievements with his colleagues in the Salsa music industry.
Lavoe came from a musical family; so logically music was in his blood from childhood.” His father earned a living playing the guitar in local groups; his mother sang constantly around the house. His uncle was one of Ponce’s finest tres guitar players, while his grandfather sang “controversies.”
He began earning his own money playing in local clubs by the time he was a teenager, because of his constant insecurities he wanted to prove himself and decided to move to New York City (NYC) to fulfill his dreams. He father was against this idea, since his older brother died of a drug overdose in NYC, and did not want the same fate for Héctor.
Without his father’s blessing, Lavoe left Ponce, arriving in NYC on May 3, 1963 at the age of 17, and went to live with his sister Priscilla. This move would be the start of his musical career in city of dreams. He soon met up with a childhood friend from Puerto Rico, who invited him to a rehearsal of a local band where the lead singer was rehearsing a bolero. After giving the singer a few tips on how he could make the song better; Lavoe was given the singers’ job on the spot.
Shortly after arriving in the Big Apple he was on his way to stardom. “A local promoter took Héctor under his wing; he wanted Héctor to become a star. Héctor admired Felipe Rodriguez a famous singer of romantic ballads; Rodriguez was nicknamed La Voz (the voice). In that vein, the promoter christened Héctor Pérez with the stage name Héctor (Lavoe), a derivative of La Voz.”
Lavoe’s popularity was equal or better than those of the salsa singers/performers of his time like Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, and Johnny Pacheco, as well as many others which he also worked and collaborated with. However, his personal life was plagued with drugs, women, suicide attempts, the death of a son, and an abusive relationship with his wife; he eventually died penniless from complications of AIDS in 1993.
Through it all, Lavoe was loved by many not only for his music, but also for his generosity and humble spirit. He considered himself a jibaro (hick) from Puerto Rico until the end, even at the height of his fame. His harmonious voice, powerful performances, sold-out concerts, and his bestselling albums are what fans remember the most about him—the rest doesn’t matter. Those personal demons he battled with all of his life, in private and in public are what made him more human to his fans, as opposed to an inaccessible entertainer who sits on a pedestal without ever connecting to their public. His music has brought and brings, joy and memories to all– young and old, Latino and non-Latino who still consider him the best of the best, El Cantante de los Cantantes. Happy Birthday Héctor!
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