The Singer of Singers: The Legacy of Héctor Lavoe and Latin Music

Latin America and the Caribbean is mostly known for the rich culture of its music, particularly the genre of Salsa. But this famous genre came to be during the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s thanks to many artists from many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Ironically, the boom of Salsa did not happen in any of these countries. It was a music created in New York City, where artists like Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Willie Colón, Ismael Rivera, Rubén Blades, and José “Cheo” Feliciano helped revolutionize this world-famous genre. But Salsa would not have gained the popularity it has today without the contributions of an artist that lived a tragic life and found an escape by reaching musical fame, and his name is Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez, better known as Héctor Lavoe.

Héctor Lavoe is The Singer of Singers (El Cantante de los Cantantes) and The Voice (La Voz). In fact, his stage name Lavoe comes from “La Voz.” Nonetheless, before he became know in the world of Latin music, he had to make a decision that would decide the fate of his early music career. Héctor was born into a poor, well-known family of musicians in the southern town of Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1946.1 His grandfather was a singer and composer, his uncle was a famous tres player, and his mother was a singer. Since Lavoe grew up in a big family, his father used to play in local orchestras and bands night in and night out in order to support his wife and eight children.2

It is safe to say that Lavoe grew up surrounded by a lot of musical talent. Lavoe’s father wanted him to become a famous saxophone player, which is why his father enrolled him at the School of Music Juan Morel Campos.  Héctor rapidly knew that playing the saxophone was not for him. Rather, he wanted to follow his passion to sing. At just fourteen years old, Lavoe became a member of a small band, giving him an opportunity to show his talents. When he turned seventeen, Héctor decided to take the next big step in his life. In 1963, against his father’s will, Héctor moved to New York City in search of what every immigrant aspires to achieve when moving to The Big Apple, which is a chance for greater opportunities.

Lavoe in concert at Madison Square Garden | Courtesy of Getty Images

The decade of the 1950’s in Puerto Rico really set the tone for islanders to migrate to the mainland in search of better opportunities and a good economic standing. Just two years after Lavoe was born, Luis Muñoz Marín was elected the first governor of the island in 1948. And on July 25, 1952 the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established by Governor Marín, creating therefore a bitter-sweet relationship with the United States. Before this decade what kept the economy of the island going was the agricultural and farming industry. Then Operation Bootstrap (Operación Manos a la Obra) was established. The purpose of this program, according to the governor, was to allow the Puerto Rican people to lift their own economy. It forced people to move from the countryside to the city, since the island began a process of industrialization.3 Operation Bootstrap had two stages of development that proposed to increase the island’s economy. Stage one attempted to attract companies to Puerto Rico to take advantage of its labor force willing to work for much lower wages compared to that of the United States. Textile, clothe and leather goods companies were sectors that saw the most success during this first stage lasting from 1947-1965. The second stage was a new strategy based on highly intensive capital companies that would provide higher salaries and stimulate the creation of secondary industries. Although Operation Bootstrap had a positive outcome in developing economic growth in manufacturing, financial, and governmental sectors, it nevertheless had a strong and negative social effect on the labor force, decreasing it from 53.1% to 45.4% in a ten-year span from 1950-1960 while remaining the same throughout the 1970’s in the labor force. Jobs created in the manufacturing sectors were not able to compensate for the jobs lost in the agricultural sectors, particularly those in coffee, sugar, and tobacco production. The gap was so large that over one million Puerto Ricans immigrated to New York in this decade, looking for jobs.4  Once Puerto Ricans arrived in New York, they established themselves in The Bronx, Brooklyn, and East Harlem in Manhattan, well known as “Spanish Harlem” or “El Barrio.”

When one thinks of Puerto Ricans in New York during the 1960’s, the first image that might come to mind is the famous Broadway musical West Side Story, an adaptation of the play Romeo and Juliet, released in 1961. The musical highlights two New York City gangs from the west side, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks who are fighting over territorial rights. This musical illustrates how immigrants, specifically Puerto Ricans, have pride in being an immigrant and are embracing life in New York after not finding opportunities back at the island. Nevertheless, these immigrant Puerto Ricans are still proud of their Puerto Rican ethnicity. Their conflicted senses of identity are best seen in the scene where the song “America” is sung.5 The song “America” illustrates the American way of life in New York City, and how Puerto Ricans and other immigrants try to find their sense of identity while establishing themselves in the United States.

“Life is all right in America if you’re white in America”- Bernardo from West Side Story 6

Two years after this famous musical was released, Lavoe moved to New York City to try to kick off his music career. One of the first things immigrants think of New York before moving there is of having a luxurious life and no poverty at all. That was not the case for Lavoe when he arrived in East Harlem in 1963. Later he decided to live with his sister in The Bronx. Life for Lavoe when he first arrived was difficult, as he started working hard, low paying jobs as a painter, a bell hop and a waiter.7 In New York, Lavoe was reunited with a life-long friend named Roberto Garcia. Garcia took Lavoe to dance halls and night clubs where he wasted no time in showing people his talents in music. He began to play for the Orchestra of Francisco “Kako” Bastar, the New Yorker Band, and with sextets at local night clubs to try to make himself known.8  And little did he know, he was going to be a part of a generation that helped shape the genre we know today as Salsa.

Members of Fania All Stars in concert in Yankee Stadium in 1973 | Courtesy of The New York Times

The roots of Salsa music go back to the African slave era in the Caribbean, specifically on the island of Cuba. These African slaves brought their different rhythms to create what is known as an Afro-Cuban style of music. By the 1880’s, a style of music called Bolero was developing in Cuba and spread all over Latin America. During the 1930’s Rhumba, which has three different styles of dance known as Guaguancó, Yambú and Columbia, became the popular rhythm. And by the 1940’s and 50’s Mambo and Cha-cha-cha were developed by Cuban orchestras like those featured in the Buena Vista Social Club. Although these rhythms are part of the style of Salsa, the roots of this genre come from the son, which is a combination of southern Spanish and Western African forms of music. The son, although beginning in Cuba, turned out to be a mixture of different cultures and it acquired other elements from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panamá. Salsa is actually a combination of the rhythms from Mambo, Cha-cha-cha, and Rhumba, and the musical instruments used like the tres (guitar), bongos, maracas, timbal, and conga. Salsa was first recognized as its own genre in New York City in the 1960s, the very time that the young Lavoe was flexing his musical muscles. New York was the music capital of the world in this era, and it was here that artists like Lavoe immigrated from various countries and started to evolve this popular genre in its New York Latino communities.9 

The 1960’s was also the decade of the “British Invasion,” with bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles playing a very popular style of music.10. But at the very moment that The Beatles were making their first American tour, in 1964, Dominican singer Johnny Pacheco and promoter Jerry Masucci partnered together to promote and market Latin music in New York to compete with other popular genres by founding the label Fania All Stars.11 This label brought together the current Latin musical talent of the late 1960’s and early 70’s with artists like Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz, Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, José “Cheo” Feliciano, Rubén Blades, Héctor Lavoe and many others.12

“Whites have their record companies, blacks have Motown and with Fania Latinos finally have our own record company.”- Johnny Pacheco 13

Lavoe’s life was about to change very rapidly some years after arriving in New York, and he took a step closer to making his mark in the world of Salsa and Latin music. Late in the year 1966, Johnny Pacheco, the co-founder of Fania All Stars, heard Lavoe sing at the Havana San Juan night club on Broadway. Pacheco was impressed by his talents, as he was looking for young musical talent for his record label, and he found the right singer in Lavoe. In 1967, Pacheco later introduced him to probably the best trombone player at the time, Willie Colón. Colón was looking for a lead singer for his band. And it was in this same year that Lavoe and Colón began to work together to place once again Latin music on the map. They released their first album as a duo called El Malo (The Bad Guy). What made this duo successful was Lavoe’s “straight from Puerto Rico” style and his jíbaro (Puerto Rico countrymen) and street-like mentality, while Colón was a Nuyorican (Puerto Rican New Yorker) raised in The Bronx of Puerto Rican decent.14 Their songs brought to life what it was like to be a Nuyorican, and their love for the island they called home, revolutionizing the genre for seven years from 1967 to 1974. During this time period, they released their albums: La Gran Fuga (The Big Break), Cosa Nuestra (Our Thing), Lo Mato (They Killed Him) and two volumes of Asalto Navideño (Christmas album) to name some, where songs like  “Che-Che-Colé” that resonates the African roots of a festive and religious tradition and rhythms of Latin America from their African ancestors, “Canto A Borinquén,” “Calle Luna Calle Sol,” “La Murga,” “El Día de mi Suerte,” “Aires de Navidad,” and the list keeps going on and on, are still heard and recognized in the world of Salsa.15

Cover of Lavoe’s solo album Comedia | Courtesy of AllMusic.com

Their glorious run as a duo came to an end in 1974, when Colón decided it was the right time to go on as solo artists. At this time, Lavoe was experiencing drug issues and other personal problems that Colón could not help him with. But life as a solo artist for Héctor was not bad. After separating from Willie Colón, Lavoe was part of the group from Fania All Stars that went on a world tour that included performing in Africa in 1974, and a year later in 1975 at Yankee Stadium, and eventually in Japan. Lavoe released many albums as a solo artist, like: La Voz, De Ti Depende, and Comedia to name some where songs like “El Cantante,” “Periódico de Ayer” and “Todo Tiene su Final” are some well known songs from these albums.16

After the success Lavoe had with Fania All Stars, he continued to record as a solo artist, but it all went downhill for Lavoe in the late 1980’s. Lavoe was dealing with drug addiction and other personal issues, and in 1988 the end of his musical career started coming to an end. He attempted suicide by jumping from the tenth floor of a hotel in Puerto Rico. He survived the accident but it left him incapable of singing. Moving back to New York for one more shot at the stage, it was obvious that his career was officially over, as he was unable to perform in concerts. Héctor died on June 29, 1993.17 After the death of Lavoe, his contributions to the world of Latin music have been kept alive by fans and by a new generation of Salsa artists. His songs are still being heard and movies have been made about his life. The legacy left by Héctor Lavoe will forever be remembered by current and future Latin American artists.

  1. Fundacion Nacional para la Cultura Popular, June 2014, “Hector Lavoe,” by Edgardo Soto Torres.
  2. Joe Conzo, “Hector Lavoe- El Cantante de los Cantantes,” Times Herald Record, August 28, 2004.
  3.  Economia de Puerto Rico, “A New Economic Strategy Emerges in 1948,” by Edwin Irizarry Mora.
  4. Economia de Puerto Rico, “Social Aspects of Operation Bootstrap,” “The Beginning of Operation Bootstrap,” “Industrialization and Growth,” by Maria Elena Carrion.
  5. Lauren Davine, “Could we not Dye it Red at least?: Color and Race in West Side Story”, (2016), 142.
  6. Lauren Davine, “Could we not Dye it Red at least?: Color and Race in West Side Story”,(2016), 142
  7. Juan Conzo, “Hector Lavoe- El Cantante de los Cantantes,” Times Herald Record, August 28, 2004.
  8. Andres Felipe, “Biografia de Hector Lavoe”, February 13, 2017, https://historia-biografia.com/hector-lavoe/
  9. Raul A. Fernandez, From Afro-Cuban Rythms to Latin Jazz (University of California Berkeley, 2006), 13-16.
  10. Eilen Torres, “Salsa: A Brief History,” Cuba Journal, August 22, 2015. Accessed April 4, 2018
  11. Marisol Negron, “Fania Records and its Nuyorican Imagery: Representing Salsa as Commodity and Cultural Sign in Our Latin Thing,” Journal of Popular Music Studies vol. 27, no. 3 (2015): 276-277.
  12. “Fania All Stars and Johnny Pacheco,” Latin Music USA, PBS.org
  13. “Fania All Stars and Johnny Pacheco”, Latin Music USA, PBS.org
  14. David Rolland, “Willie Colon Pays Tribute to Hector Lavoe at the Arsht Center,” Miami New Times, October 6, 2015, Accessed April 4, 2018.
  15. Fundacion Nacional para la Cultura Popular, June 2014, “Hector Lavoe,” by Edgardo Soto Torres.
  16. Fundacion Nacional para la Cultura Popular, June 2014, “Hector Lavoe,” by Edgardo Soto Torres.
  17. Fundacion Nacional para la Cultura Popular, June 2014, “Hector Lavoe,” by Edgardo Soto Torres.
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60 Comments

  • This article for me was a classic example of a 3+2 explainer style of narrative, almost line by line. As I understand it, structuring a story in this way begins by using the introductory paragraph to introduce the lead of a story while posing a question, both of which were done here. Per the example, the digression which follows begins a second introduction of background information similar to how this piece did the discussion on Hector Lavoe himself. Moving forward, the second narrative continued Lavoe’s introduction while progressing into the prime of his career. A second digression here now complete the explanation of the foundational parts of Latin music, concluding with the lasting impact Lavoe’s had through to the end of his life.

  • I enjoyed reading this article. I like how you used Lavoe as a way to discuss the history of Puerto Ricans and their experiences in New York City. You mention many touchstones, such as West Side Story to demonstrate just how much of an impact the nuyorican future had on the city and on the country as a whole. I didn’t realize Salsa originated in NYC.

  • I never knew there was such a rich history of Salsa music here in the United States. I always inferred that salsa came from Latin America and in a way it did. The flow of your article of funneling it from small to bigger picture made it easy to read. I understood what you were talking about and how you decided to organize your paragraphs was nicely done. I wish I knew more about Hector Lovoes’ personal struggles in the end. It did jump about thirty years in the end so in the height of his career I wish I could have known more.

  • This a great article about Lavoe. I come from a Puerto Rican background and ever since I was a child I always adored salsa. I love that this music can come from so many different cultures and bloom in an entirely different space. I did not know if this history of Lavoe is this detail so thanking for sharing all of these details. The quote from West Side Story intrigues because I feel that it resonates so much with a lot of people of color, especially Puertorequeños (ya know because the play). But thank you again for sharing this. I do have to mention one thing, PR is a “territory” of the U.S. and not its own country

  • Very informative article about one of the pioneers of salsa music. You also did a wonderful job expanding on the roots of Salsa music and the motivations for migrating to the United States from Puerto Rico. It is very sad that Héctor Lavoe’s battle with drug addiction eventually led to his attempted suicide, as is the case with so many young, popular artists. Thank you for introducing me to this very talented Latin American singer.

  • Good job on the article! Instead of only focusing on Hector Lavoe’s life, I really liked how you went into the economic background of Puerto Rico and into the origins of Salsa among African slaves in the Caribbean. With such an impact Hector has had on Latin American artists, it is a shame to see him succumb to drug addiction and depression. Nice job on incorporating one of his songs into your article.

  • This was a very good read about an important time for Puerto Rico’s cultural identity. I like how the story was structured and the introduction gave some good background information to set up the story. It does a great job of covering a piece of music history that many people may not be familiar. On a historical note, Puerto Ricans moving to New York are migrating, not immigrating. People living in Puerto Rico have been American citizens since the passing of the Jones Act in 1917.

  • I have always thought of music as a way of bringing people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds together because everyone loves music. Hector seemed to me to be one of those early pioneers who said hey my music is different but its enjoyable for anyone and doing something like that was very risky back in the day. I admire what Hector was trying to do because it was very brave of him.

  • People like this need to be made more public to broader audiences. Music in particular is incredibly important to the representation of a culture! I think you did a great job delivering the artist’s story and demonstrating their importance.

  • In a country where white people have had domination for a great portion of history, the opportunity for growth of latino and hispanic cultural influences seemed very risky. Although, the people like Hector make these changes into society and allow people to grow past the hardships of history and to then grow together through music and culture from varieties of races.

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