He left this world in 1993 at the young age of 46. Still, Héctor Lavoe left behind a phenomenal recorded legacy, both as a solo artist and through his genre-defining partnership with Willie Colón. One of the most mercurial vocalists that Afro-Caribbean music has ever known, El Cantante de los Cantantes ("singer of all singers," as he was known among his fans) added his trademark pathos and wicked sense of humor to every single song he ever committed to tape. Here are 10 essential tracks that sum up the Puerto Rican singer's legacy.
1. El Cantante (from Comedia, 1978)
Fellow Fania legend Rubén Blades wrote "El Cantante" for himself. But Héctor was in need of a hit at the time, and legend has it that Willie Colón convinced Blades to allow Lavoe to record it. The resulting 10-minute long track became a salsa epic, embellished by Colón's visionary idea to combine tropical rhythms with a lush string ensemble. Performed with unparalleled swing by Héctor at the peak of his vocal powers, this is one of the most beautiful songs in the history of Latin music.
2. Che Che Colé (from Cosa Nuestra, 1969)
Still today, it bursts from the speakers like the revolutionary salsa anthem that it was: ragged and funky, its bouncy rhythm colliding with rough layers of trombones - no trumpets or saxes in this band, thank you very much. And when Héctor's voice appears, the voice of a fallen angel, you realize you're in the presence of an extraordinary singer. Inspired by an African kids song, "Che Che Colé" was the first major hit by Lavoe and Colón. An explosion of flavor and joy, it hasn't aged one bit in the 40 years since its release.
3. Mi Gente (from La Voz, 1975)
Strangely enough, Héctor's signature song was written by another salsa star: Dominican bandleader and Fania co-founder Johnny Pacheco. A simple tune with an infectious call-and-response chorus, "Mi Gente" pays tribute to the ongoing love affair that Hctor continues to enjoy with his millions of fans all over the world. It was particularly effective when performed by Lavoe during his appearances with the Fania All Stars. And remember, if you don't sing to this one, Héctor thinks "you have bad breath."
4. Bandolera (from Comedia, 1978)
Ignore the incredibly misogynistic lyrics for a moment and focus instead on the tight instrumental arrangement and Héctor's spot-on delivery. There's also the legendary piano solo, jazzy and majestic, recorded by Gilberto Colón Jr. in one single take. A classic salsa moment.
5. Periódico De Ayer (from De Ti Depende, 1976)
Recorded a couple of years before "El Cantante," this was the first Hctor song to feature the melancholy beauty of a string ensemble colliding with the familiar salsa sonics. According to producer Willie Colón, Fania executives were leery about financing such a revolutionary move. Still, a worthy investment, coupled with the choice of a fantastic composition by Puerto Rican master Tite Curet Alonso. Included in Héctor's second solo album, "Periódico de Ayer" showcased salsa as a genre with unlimited musical potential.
6. La Murga (from Asalto Navideño, 1971)
Through the album Asalto Navideño and its two sequels, Héctor exercised his nostalgia for Christmas in Puerto Rico - memories of Caribbean delicacies and rootsy folk songs. Anchored on the funky trombone riffs of Willie Colón, "La Murga" transcended the parameters of salsa, becoming one of Latin music's bona fide dancefloor scorchers. Héctor's youthful vocalizing is complemented to perfection by the spidery cuatro lines of Puerto Rican master Yomo Toro.
7. El Da de Suerte (from Lo Mato, 1973)
Héctors life was plagued by tragedy: the death of his young son in a horrible accident; ongoing marital problems with his wife Puchi; and the devastating drug addiction that eventually led to his death. There's something eerily prophetic about "El Da de Suerte," a bouncy lament about a young man who clings desperately to his hope for a lucky day. In his music, Héctor always managed to combine feelings of profound sorrow with irrepressible joy.
8. El Todopoderoso & 9. Emborráchame De Amor (both from La Voz, 1975)
The solemn trumpet intro sets the mood for a soulful track that expresses religious fervor to the beat of an expert salsa orchestra. Héctor sings about the suffering of Christ on the cross with empathy and love. This was the opening track off Lavoe's solo debut - proving that he was able to carry on a successful career on his own, even without the constant artistic guidance and support of his lifelong friend Willie Colón. Even though he stopped touring with Héctor, Willie continued lending his assistance to Lavoe's solo recordings. Most people remember Lavoe as a performer of fiery salsa, but El Cantante was also a superb bolero crooner - he even recorded an entire LP dedicated to the bolero artistry of Venezuelan singer Felipe Pirela. "Emborráchame De Amor" borrows both from the bolero aesthetic and the jazzy balladry of the '70s, a la José José. The result is timeless.
10. Juanito Alimaña (from Vigilante, 1983)
A companion piece to both the earlier Lavoe/Colón hit "Calle Luna Calle Sol" and Rubén Blades' smash "Pedro Navaja," "Juanito Alimaña tells the story of a Latino ruffian plying his trade in the seedy corners of New York City. It was included in Vigilante, a tough, ambitious LP that reunited Hctor with his favorite musical partner, Willie Colón. Brimming with Hector's streetwise sense of humor, the song swings with abandon - one of the last few songs recorded during the singer's artistic apex.
Our free download this month is an unusual salsa cover by Héctor Lavoe, from the 1985 album Reventó. Three years earlier, British singer/songwriter Joe Jackson had released the highly successful LP Night And Day - a tribute to his beloved New York, including the salsa tune "Cancer." Showcasing his eclectic musical taste, Héctor re-salsifies the tune, adding Spanish lyrics and a fiery piano solo by guest star Richie Ray. The magic of Afro-Caribbean music knows no cultural boundaries. Click here to download "Cancer" by Héctor Lavoe for free!
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