Héctor Lavoe - Biography

It’s actually not as hubristic as it sounds: when everything is taken into account, and all is said and done, salsa singer Hector Lavoe really is the Puerto Rican equivalent of Elvis Presley. Both came from impoverished, rural backgrounds; both possessed vast vocal talents of unfathomable depth and breadth; both were preternaturally gifted showmen who could wrap a crowd around their pinky finger with only the slightest inflection or a mere, impeccably timed wink, nudge, or vaguely lewd pelvic thrust; both stepped from unlikely origins into the annals of pop-culture legend, transforming those around them and delivering previously unimagined genres to immeasurable, ecstatic throngs. Lavoe was easily a Titan in the Elvis mode, and as salsa continues to pour forth from its Cuban roots to become a trans-continental adhesive, it’s worth noting that maybe it does require flawed heroes and transgressive artists to elicit moments of pan-cultural awakening. Hector Lavoe certainly went down like The King: in flames. Awash in substance abuse, amok in sexual license, and adamant about burning out rather than fading away, Hector Lavoe was a shooting star of the first and highest magnitude, but his fantastic talents and aesthetic prowess continue to percolate, and undulate, and inspire. And take this bizarre fact into account: Lavoe once tried to commit suicide by hurling himself from a ninth-story window — and he survived. That is some serious, bulletproof shit that even Elvis would have envied. And, they both knew how to completely rock a jumpsuit.

Lavoe was born Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez, on September 30, 1946, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, one of eight children. His father, Luis Perez, was a musician, who encouraged Lavoe from an early age. Lavoe grew up enamored of the great stars of Latin music, and was deeply influenced by artists such as Chuito El de Bayamon, Odilio Gonzalez, Daniel Santos, Cheo Feliciano, Ismael Rivera, and Ismael Quintana. By the age of 14, he was working professionally as a singer. At 17 he fled for the vibrant Puerto Rican music scene of New York, where he immediately found work with a variety of acts, including Orquesta New York, the Kako All-Stars, the Johnny Pacheco Band, and Roberto García. These, in turn brought him to the attention of famed bandleader Willie Colón, who made Lavoe his vocalist in 1967. The group was wildly popular, and albums like Asalto Navideño Vol. I & 2 (reissued on Fania in 2007) are wonderful examples of the evolving genre, with the playful themes perfectly illustrated by Lavoe’s clear, resonant voice and comedic, improvisatory demeanor. With hits like "El Malo" and "Canto a Borinquen," the stage was set for Lavoe to go solo. He was also heavily into drug abuse. Colón would step aside in 1973, to devote himself to producing, and to distance himself from Lavoe’s increasingly erratic behavior. Still, Lavoe was a star, “El Cantante de los Cantantes,” and he had more success in store.

Lavoe would perform with the Hector Lavoe Orchestra; he would also team with the Fania All-Stars, the salsa supergroup named for the genre’s preeminent label. Lavoe was tremendous, sharing the stage with with giants like Celia Cruz, Justo Betancourt, Ismael Quintana, Bobby Cruz, Pete Rodriguez, Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, and Santos Colón. The group would have outstanding success at home and abroad. In 1974, Lavoe traveled with the band for a massively attended show in Kinshasa, Zaire, held in conjunction with the Ali/Foreman fight (“The Rumble in the Jungle”). The live recordings of their gig Live at Yankee Stadium (1975 Fania) were so culturally significant that they were included in the United States National Recording Registry. Lavoe also appears in the Fania-produced films, Fania All Stars: Our Latin Thing, Fania All Stars: Salsa, and Fania All Stars: Live in Africa. The choicest cuts from this era are compiled as Que Pasa: The Best of the Fania All Stars (2008 Sony). Lavoe’s solo career would be equally impressive, at least until he succumbed to drug use, and eventually, AIDS, in 1993. Still, he cut a huge swath across the world of music, defining salsa for a vast international audience. He’s very well represented by a number of available titles, including El Cantante: The Originals (2007 Fania), A Man and His Music: La Voz, and Greatest Hits (2010 Fania). Each is a rich, organic romp, led by a consummate showman. In the end, it’s completely fair to say, that just like The King, Hector Lavoe did it His Way.


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