Héctor Lavoe is one of the key pillars of salsa music and Latino identity in New York, but his life wasn't as glorious as the legacy of the salsa king.
The 1970s were the golden era of salsa, not only in terms of the music, but also the whole culture that surrounded it. Most of these now iconic songs were actually made in New York City by people of Latino heritage who saw turned the genre into a source of pride. Salsa became part of a very strong identity that still connects, speaks to, and embraces Latino heritage. But among the many icons and legends from this time, there’s one that continues to fascinate new generations. Héctor Lavoe is considered one of the pillars of salsa not only because of his extraordinary voice, but also the way he used the hardship in his life to create funny and witty songs filled with emotion and a timeless Latino richness.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to a musical family, Lavoe started learning about music at an early age. Thanks to his grandfather, some of his uncles, and his parents, music (particularly Latin American sounds and rhythms) was an essential part of his upbringing. Seeing that the young Lavoe had inherited the family gift, his father decided to enroll him at the local Juan Morel Campos Public School of Music. There, he learned the basics of professional music and how to play different instruments. Then, as a teenager, he started playing with different bands at festivals and local events, but he wanted something more.
When he was only 17 years old, he decided to try his luck in NYC, where Latino music was having a moment. However, his family, especially his father, wasn't happy about this decision. Lavoe's older brother had died of an overdose a few years earlier, and Lavoe’s father was afraid he would suffer the same fate (which he nearly did). As a result, they didn't speak to each other for many, many years. For Lavoe, Life in New York wasn’t exactly what he had imagined, and reality hit him hard when he saw that things weren’t as glamorous and easy as everyone said. But people don’t make it without struggle and determination, and he had a lot of that to work with.
In the mornings, Lavoe would work at miserable jobs that barely gave him enough to survive, but when night came and he could play whatever he wanted, he transformed into the happiest guy in the world. This is evident in his performances; people felt that joy in his voice and the notes in his music. Soon, he found himself playing at different nightclubs, mainly in what’s known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio in New York. It was then that he was discovered by musician and producer Johnny Pacheco, who invited him to play with the already famous Willie Colón. Lavoe became the band’s vocalist, and they went on to record many hit songs together.
After seven years of making music together and ten successful albums that became anthems for the Latino community in New York and paved the foundations of contemporary modern salsa, Lavoe was ready to play the game by himself. However, success wasn’t as bright and wonderful as it sounded, since he found himself immersed in the world of drugs and excess. Still, while his personal life was going downhill, his charisma and sense of humor won the hearts of his audience every time he got onstage. But this wasn’t going to last forever.
After years touring in the US and around the world, as well as many successful albums, Lavoe’s addictions got a lot worse. By 1979, it was too much for him to handle, and out of despair, he looked for any way to treat himself. He then decided to try something quite unconventional and asked a Santería priest for advice on how to cure himself. As a result, he cut communication with everyone he knew for two months, which seemed to work for him, at least for a while. He reappeared confident and with his characteristic bubbly personality, but life had other plans. His father and mother-in-law died, and not only that, his seventeen-year-old son was killed by a friend. And as if that wasn’t enough, it was at this time that he was diagnosed with HIV, a consequence of his drug addiction and sharing needles.
All of these events were just too much to bear, and he felt that the only way to put an end to his suffering was taking his own life. In 1988, Lavoe had a scheduled show in Puerto Rico that had to be canceled due to his incapability to perform. He had other plans, though. That night, Lavoe jumped from his hotel room, but he actually survived. He remained away from the public eye for some years until 1990, when he decided to perform for a large audience again. This was his last show because in 1993, at the age of 46, the great Héctor Lavoe passed away from complications of his disease.
In this way, his father’s fears became true. However, it’s also true that he had to leave the island so he could shine and share his talent with the world. Héctor Lavoe’s life shouldn’t be measured for his dark moments, but for his contributions to music and his role in shaping and giving a voice to the Latino community in the US and the rest of the continent.
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