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Hector Lavoe was loved by Salsa music fans probably more than any other artist, and his legacy lives strong. This is amazing considering he lived a life that was way far from exemplary and full of disgraces.
Despite that, people loved Hector, and Hector loved them right back. He never pretended to be more than what he was; a famous Salsa singer. Ruben Blades’ song “El Cantante” fit him so well, that his peers nicknamed him “El Cantante de los Cantantes”.
In this 3-part series, I’ll share with you my memories of my favorite Salsa singer through 3 stages of his career.
- The Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe years
- Hector Lavoe early in his solo career
- Hector Lavoe late in his solo career
The Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe Years: The Best Duo in Salsa Music
My very first Salsa music LP was “El Juicio”. I loved that LP so much that I memorized every song in that LP, and still remember them to this day, I can sing you the LP from beginning to end. Perhaps that is why they were my favorite Salsa duo of all time.
When we look back at when Willie Colon did his 1st recording at the age of 17 (“El Malo” – 1967), his band sounded terrible. Rumor has it that his nickname of “El Malo” was given because of how bad he played. Of course, Fania took a spin on it and made Willie Colon a gangster type of “malo” (bad guy). This was a very successful marketing strategy and one Willie adopted wholeheartedly.
Despite his sound, Willie Colon sold 300,000 copies of “El Malo”. Willie always had a commercial mind that would tell him what would sit well with the public. The sound of his band got better and better, and Hector Lavoe blossomed into a wonderful singer, with a unique style, and beautiful voice.
Perhaps part of what made Hector Lavoe such a special Salsa singer, apart from his voice, was that he carried “el jibarito” (Puerto Rico’s countryman) and “El Barrio” in his heart. Hector could identify with both and had the improvisational ability to be able to transmit these feelings in the most unique ways during his performances and recordings.
The Growing Years for Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon
Having gone through the boogaloo craze of the late ‘60s with the releases of “The Hustler” and “Guisando”, Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe really knocked it out of the park with their release of “Cosa Nuestra” in 1970. The album contained super-hit songs like “Che-Che-Colé” and “Juana Peña”. Also, the band began to sound more solid in the rhythm and percussion sections. However, the trombones were still improving.
In 1971 they followed this album with a Christmas Salsa music album that would make history; “Asalto Navideño Vol. 1”. Hector wrote a couple of songs for this album and demonstrated his versatility by singing Salsa, “plena”, and “aguinaldo” music. The “jibarito” in Hector Lavoe came out fully, and if someone had doubts if these guys were for real, those doubts were gone with this album.
The song “La Murga” contained in this “Asalto Navideño” album became a Willie Colon standard throughout the rest of his career, and the album itself became synonymous with the arrival of Christmas in New York, Puerto Rico, and other countries.
The climb to the very top of Salsa music continued for Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe still in 1971 with the release of “La Gran Fuga” (The Big Break). The album cover was a mock of an FBI Most Wanted poster. Fania placed some of these mock posters throughout New York to promote the album, not knowing that the FBI would get a bunch of calls of people who had spotted Willie. The album was strong thanks to super hits like “Abuelita” and “Barrunto”.
Then came my beloved “El Juicio” in 1972, when Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe became my favorite band. And yet Willie and Hector had not reached their peak as performers yet.
Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon Reach Musical Maturity
In my opinion, Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe reached their peak later in 1972 with the release of “Asalto Navideño Vol. 2”. The sound of the band in this album is just fantastic, and Hector Lavoe’s singing is as good as it gets. He shows a clear voice and great “soneos”, with his “jibarito” heart out again. “Vol. 2” is the album I use to start listening to Christmas music during the holidays since 1973. Hector comes out here with his yells of “ataca Wiwi” and “el diablo”.
Then came another Salsa music classic in “La Mato” (1973). Hector continues his super singing performance and continues to co-write a few of the hits with Willie Colon. At this point, this duo is so together performing and composing, that they remind me of John and Paul from the Beatles. Ok, ok, those guys are in a different league, but you get the point. “Lo Mato” contains classics like “Todo Tiene Su Final” which partially describes Hector’s life, “Señora Lola”, “Calle Luna, Calle Sol”, and “Voso” among others. Hector continues to be at his best in the recording. Unfortunately, things in Hector Lavoe’s life were spiraling out of control and the partnerships began to show signs of problems.
The huge success of “Lo Mato” could have been a double-edged sword for Hector Lavoe. His lifestyle went crazy with drugs and started to miss or be late to gigs. Because of this, Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe would only record one more LP in this era together (years later they would do a reunion album).
The last album together in this period was the 1976 “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”, in which Hector sang a couple of songs, Willie sang others, and Ruben Blades sang “El Cazanguero”. This served to clearly mark the end of one era, and the start to three others; the Willie Colon and Ruben Blades era, the Hector Lavoe solo career, and Willie Colon’s eventual jump into solo singing.
Coming Next: Hector Lavoe Solo Singer with his Band
I enjoyed Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon’s collaboration more than any other, and in this period of the 1970s, there were many good band-singer collaborations.
Joe Cuba with Cheo Feliciano, Ismael Miranda and Larry Harlow, Ismael Quintana and Eddie Palmieri, Andy Montañez and Pellín Rodriguez with El Gran Combo, Adalberto Santiago with Ray Barretto, Pete “El Conde” and Johnny Pacheco, Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, etc., etc. Of all those, and some that I missed, Hector and Willie were my favorites.
The friendship of Hector and Willie continued despite their split as performers. Willie Colon went on to produce Hector’s 1st album as a solo singer. I’ll take it from there in “Part 2; Early Solo Career”, which you can read HERE!