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In 1967, Lavoe joined Willie Colón’s band and performed as the band vocalist. With the Willie Colón band, Lavoe recorded several hit songs, including “El Malo” and “Canto a Borinquen”. While working with the Willie Colón band, Lavoe became addicted to drugs and began to be late habitually when scheduled to perform with the band. Colón eventually decided to not work with Hector on stage but they still remained good friends and made music in the studio together. Lavoe moved on to become a soloist and formed his own band, where he performed as lead vocalist. As a soloist Lavoe recorded several hits including “El cantante”, “Bandolera” and “Periódico de ayer” (“El Cantante” was composed by Ruben Blades, “Bandolera” by Colón and “Periódico” by Tite Curet Alonso.) During this period he was frequently featured as an invited vocalist in the Fania All Stars, and recorded numerous tracks with the band.
In 1979, Lavoe underwent a deep depression and sought the help of a high priest of the Santería faith to attend to his drug addiction. After a short rehabilitation, he relapsed following the deaths of his father, son and mother in law. These events, along with being diagnosed with HIV, affected Lavoe to the point of attempting suicide by jumping off the balcony of a hotel room. Lavoe survived and recorded an album before his health began failing. Lavoe died on June 29, 1993, from a complication of AIDS.
Héctor was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to Pachita and Luis Pérez, and raised in the Machuelito barrio of the city. He was inspired early in life by his musically-talented family. His grandfather Don Juan Martínez was a singer of controversial songs, which often went from vocal conflict to physical confrontations. His uncle was a well-known tres player in Ponce. His mother Pachita was well known among her family and townspeople for her beautiful singing voice. His father Luis supported his wife and eight children by singing and playing guitar with trios and big bands. Héctor would also be influenced by Puerto Rican singers such as Jesus Sanchez Erazo also known as “Chuíto el de Bayamón”- one of the island’s most successful folk singers, and Daniel Santos. Later in his life, he would have the honor of recording songs with both artists.
Héctor attended the local Juan Morel Campos Public School of Music where the saxophone was the first instrument he learned to play. Among his classmates were Jose Febles and multi-instrumentalist Papo Lucca. One of his teachers would strictly demand good diction, stage presence and manners from him claiming that as a bolero singer, Héctor would become a superstar. By the age of 17, Lavoe abandoned school and sang with a ten-piece band. He moved permanently to New York on May 3, 1963, against his father’s wishes, as an older brother had moved to the city and later died of a drug overdose. It would take many more years before Héctor was able to reconcile with his father.
Arrival in New York City
He was met by his sister Priscilla upon arrival in New York. The first thing he did in New York was visit El Barrio, New York’s “Spanish Harlem.” Héctor was disappointed in the condition of El Barrio which contrasted with his vision of “fancy Cadillacs, tall marble skyscrapers and tree-lined streets.” Hector stayed at his sister’s apartment in The Bronx, instead.
The first week in New York, Héctor was invited by his friend Roberto García, a fellow musician and childhood friend, to a rehearsal of a newly formed sextet. When he arrived they were rehearsing the romantic bolero Tus Ojos. The lead vocalist was singing off key, and as a gesture of goodwill, Lavoe showed the vocalist how it was supposed to sound. Following this event, the group offered him the spot of lead vocalist, which he subsequently accepted.
Later in his career, he joined other groups in the genre, including Orquesta New York, Kako All-Stars, and Johnny Pacheco. To distinguish Héctor from other Latino singers, a former manager made him adopt Felipe Rodriguez’s moniker “La Voz” (“The Voice”) and turned it into a stage name, Lavoe.
In 1967, he met Salsa musician and bandleader Willie Colón. Pacheco, co-owner of Fania Records and its recording musical director, suggested that Colón record Lavoe on a track of Colón’s first album El Malo. Given the good results, Colón had Lavoe record the rest of the album’s vocal tracks. Willie never officially asked Lavoe to join his band, but after the recording, Willie said to him, “On Saturday we start at 10 p.m. at El Tropicoro Club.”
The album’s success significantly transformed both Colón’s and Lavoe’s lives. Colón’s band featured a raw, aggressive all-trombone sound that was well received by salsa fans, and Lavoe complemented the style with his articulate voice, talent for improvisation, and sense of humor. Héctor received instant recognition, steady work, and enough money to provide him with a comfortable lifestyle. According to Lavoe, it happened so fast he did not know how to cope with the sudden success.
During that year Lavoe started a romantic relationship with Carmen Castro. Castro became pregnant but refused to marry him because she considered him a “womanizer.” Lavoe’s first son, José Alberto Pérez was born on October 30, 1968. On the night when José was baptized, Héctor received a call informing him that Nilda “Puchi” Román (with whom he also had a relationship during the same period he was with Castro) was pregnant. Héctor’s second son, Héctor Jr. was born on September 25, 1969. Following this event, the couple married, and following a request by Román, Lavoe kept the amount of contact with Castro and José Alberto to a minimum during their marriage.
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The Willie Colón years
In late 1970, Colón and Lavoe recorded the first of two “Asalto Navideño” albums, featuring Puerto Rican folk songs such as Ramito’s jibaro song “Patria y Amor” (renamed “Canto a Borinquen”) and original compositions.