Larry Harlow does not go to too many funerals.
The veteran producer-musician gets emotional at funerals. He cries at funerals. But Harlow had been a good friend of Hector Lavoe’s, and so, when asked to be one of those who carried the singer’s coffin to its final resting place in St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the heart of the Bronx on July 2, 1993, he could not refuse.
But by this time, the citywide celebration of Hector Lavoe’s life and death had already been going on for two solid days and nights. Hector’s music could be heard pouring out of the windows and off the stoops of nearly every tenement and apartment building in the Bronx and Queens. People were wandering the streets in a near zombie–like state. Young Latino men, normally full to overflowing with machismo, were dabbing their eyes and trying their hardest to avoid openly weeping. The women were making no pretense of expressing their sadness with wails of despair. Impromptu toasts of cheap beer were made all over the city. Some passed joints around in his memory.
Almost everybody had a story. The night they saw Hector rock the joint at the Corso and at Hunt’s Point. What song was playing when they lost their virginity. The song that had been playing when they got married. The song that had been playing mournfully in the background when someone died.
Following his death on June 29, 1993, Hector Lavoe’s body had been taken to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, situated at the intersection of 81st Street and Madison Avenue. The funeral home was right in the middle of sacred ground. It was the place where salsa was born and where hard-core fans would line up on a nightly basis to listen to the best the music had to offer. It was fitting that one of salsa’s shining lights should be seen on his turf by his fans one last time.
For the next two days, thousands of mourners would file through the funeral home and up to the casket, where they would pay their final respects. The funeral home attendants had done their job well, for Hector, in his death repose, looked like everything he had not been the last few years of his life: healthy and at peace.
The line remained constant around one very large city block, and it snaked and shimmied to the rhythm of Hector Lavoe’s music, seemingly coming from every conceivable direction.
The day of the memorial service for Hector Lavoe was an emotional homage that mourned his passing and celebrated his life. Hundreds packed St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church on 106th Street, the literal heart of the New York Barrio. Inside, Hector was praised as a man of simple passions who had fallen to temptation but who was now with God. People came forward to recall the good times with Hector, his kindness, his generosity. For a few moments, the hard, self-destructive life Hector Lavoe had led was forgotten. He was far from a saint, but in those moments of praise inside the church, he was far from a sinner as well. Outside, seemingly thousands more who could not get in waved Puerto Rican flags, and pictures of Hector, and mourned the singer’s passing.
In Spanish, the crowd shouted, “Hector Lavoe lives! You are eternal!” and other odes to Hector Lavoe the man, the cultural icon, and the flesh-and-blood personification of Puerto Rican identity. Lavoe’s music blared from hundreds of boom boxes and mixed easily with the sea of Puerto Rican flags swaying in the hot New York breezes.
Following the service, Harlow left the church and went to the cemetery, thinking it would not take long for the seemingly endless parade of cars, as well as the sleek hearse carrying Hector’s body, to arrive. Harlow thought wrong. For the celebration of Hector Lavoe’s life and death would play itself out in grand, over-the-top style. Much like a vintage performance of the late singer.
The procession left the church and slowly made its way through his old stomping grounds. To Avenue A, to Alphabet City, then across 10th and 11th streets. Rain began to fall, but that did not stop the endless blaring of Lavoe’s music accompanying the line of cars as it proceeded through the steady downpour to the community of Orchard Beach, where his remains were paraded through an area where he knew both good and bad times.
Five and a half hours later the procession pulled into the cemetery. The sorrow and mania continued through the final interment of Lavoe in a grave next to his son, whose death years earlier was considered the deathblow to Hector, who emotionally gave up a good six years before he died. People swarmed the grave site, turning the final moments of the funeral into a near hysterical outpouring of emotion.
For singer Marc Anthony, the funeral of Hector Lavoe would provide a different kind of emotion . . . fear.
By 1993, Anthony, who bares a striking resemblance to Lavoe, had already become the uncrowned king of Latin popular music, moving from a Lavoelike crooner toward a more mainstream, pop-oriented sound. But as he left the church and encountered waves of screaming by some hysterical mourners, many of the fans recognized him and began yelling at him. “I was walking out of the church and people started yelling at me,” he recalled in a 2006 interview with eTalk. “‘It’s you now! You’re the new Hector!’ It had to be the scariest moment of my life.”
The death of Hector Lavoe, as well as the deaths of musical legends Louie Ramirez and Mario Bauza that same summer, had brought down what many considered the final curtain on salsa. Not that the musical form was showing any signs of going away. Legendary performers like Willie Colón and Johnny Pacheco were continuing to headline shows all over the world. Album sales were consistent, if off from their high-water mark from the mid-sixties to late seventies. But like the traditional music that spawned it, salsa had become a comfortable elder statesman that had been pushed into the background by its musical offspring.
The likes of Marc Anthony and Julio Iglesias had carried on the tradition of the classic Latin crooner but had taken it in a more commercial, pop-oriented direction. Bands like Santana, El Chicano, Malo, and countless others had rocked up the classic salsa style and taken it even further. But few would ever deny that at the beginning of it all was the sound of salsa and, for many, the ghost of Hector Lavoe.
Salsa was not gone. It was just resting.
Thirteen years later, the music would awaken from its long winter’s nap, and those fans who had been screaming at Anthony to take up the mantle of the new Hector Lavoe would get their wish.
The 2006 Toronto International Film Festival was unfolding with all the glitz and paparazzi flash of a Hollywood premiere. Stars from all over the world were in attendance at this up-and-coming showcase of films from literally every corner of the planet. But like festivals such as Sundance and Cannes, the Toronto festivities have quickly evolved into a thinly disguised meat market where the more star-attached, higher-profile independent movies are on display and in search of a distributor.
Such was the case with El Cantante (The Singer), the biography of Hector Lavoe that has been five years in the making and toplines the latest Hollywood power couple, Jennifer Lopez and her husband, Marc Anthony. Reportedly a dozen distributors of various ranking were in town to see the film and make an offer.
Posters picturing Anthony as Lavoe were seen everywhere along the festival route. Film company lackeys who were not even born when Hector Lavoe was in his heyday were walking around wearing El Cantante T-shirts and spouting off about the singer as if they were experts rather than just quick studies. The hype machine was definitely in high gear at this offical resurrection of Hector Lavoe.
And the timing could not have been better. Movies about legendary musical performers were suddenly all the rage in Hollywood. Award-winning films about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles had done well at the box office, and with the rapidly growing infusion of Latino culture in the arts, a film biography of the late salsa legend seemed natural.
For Lopez and Anthony there was a lot on the line. Despite their respective talents, the newly coined power couple has gotten more ink for their relationship problems, public tantrums, and personal proclivities than for anything of a truly artistic-critical nature for a long time. It has been particularly tough on Lopez, whose bad choices in recent years, mindless and superficial comedies, had all but made people forget how good she was in Out of Sight.
But in Toronto they had gone out on a limb as the modern incarnation of Hector and Puchi who were bucking the odds by being married and making a movie together. That the result could be a career comeback or career suicide had the couple working overtime at the festival in making happy talk to the press about El Cantante.
Lopez, who bought the rights to tell the story of Hector Lavoe’s life from his late wife, Nilda “Puchi” Roman, a mere three months before Puchi died and who serves as producer as well as costar, has been diligent and serious in explaining to interviewers the story’s long odyssey to the screen. Advance word of mouth highlighted the fact that on-screen, Anthony is the spitting image of the late singer, and he is content to extol the virtues of his longtime idol and how the film has taken great pains to paint an accurate, truthful, warts-and-all picture of the singer.
And for the most part, the press, and in particular the Latino press, who had not had anything this highbrow to chew on since American Me, Selena and, before that, Zoot Suit, were falling all over themselves to praise the film as the definitive portrayal of the late singer and as a proud reflection of Latino culture.
But the happy talk surrounding the film was not reflected in the early reviews out of Toronto, which were decidedly mixed. The Latin press was enthusiastic in its praise of the film and hinted that anything less than a four-star review was nothing more than a slanted, racist attack by the white media.
A correspondent for The Hollywood Reporter was mixed in his 2006 review, reporting, “Terrific salsa music and a tragic back story add up to a toe-tapping downer of a movie.” Variety in 2006 was even more dismissive of the film, calling it “a virtual template of every imaginable cliche; of the musical biopic. The movie suffers from a lack of narrative and character focus.” None of this stopped the movie from being snatched up by Picturehouse, a major distributor.
Of course, when you’re dealing with an enigmatic personality like Hector Lavoe, the truth of whether the hype will be worth the ride is literally in the eye of the beholder. Which is why Jose Mangual Jr., who worked on the film’s soundtrack and played for Hector Lavoe from 1968 to 1979, holds out little hope that the film will be accurate. “I don’t think the movie will be accurate,” said Mangual in a 2006 interview with the author. “It looks like it’s going to be I Love Lucy in that it will portray Puchi as Lucy, constantly saying, ‘I love you Hector,’ and all that bullshit. They didn’t ask anybody who was around Hector and who really knew Hector for their input into the movie. The real story is the love-hate relationship between Hector and Puchi.”
El Cantante is the latest shot across the bow of chasing down the legend of Hector Lavoe. But it is by no means the first, and it will doubtless not be the last. For Hector Lavoe, in the best possible sense, has been primed for examination almost from the moment he was laid into the ground. But, as with all legends, some time had to pass and the implication of his life and times had to resonate before anybody would risk making sense of it all.
In 1997, Jose Perez, the illegitimate first son of Hector Lavoe, wrote a memoir of his famous father, The Hector Lavoe Story. It would turn out to be a flawed work, adding occasional flourishes of insight that only a son could have of his father. But for the most part, it dissolved into diatribe and agenda as Perez spent much of the book’s length deriding the conspiracy, led by Puchi and others in Hector’s circle, that kept him largely out of his father’s life.
Lavoe’s musical legacy would continue to thrive after his death with an aggressive series of Lavoe releases encompassing repackagings and various greatest-hits albums that included Saxomania: Presencia de Hector Lavoe, Experencia Hector Lavoe, Hector Lavoe Swings, and Tu Bien Lo Sabes. The recent resurrection of Lavoe’s longtime musical home, Fania Records, brought a rush of reissues that included what many historians consider Lavoe’s best work, his collaborations with Willie Colón and such Lavoe classics as La Voz and Comedia.
And even musician Pablo “Chino” Nunez, who played in Hector Lavoe’s band from 1984 to 1987 but never actually played on an album with the singer, acknowledged that a lot of live albums featuring performances Nunez played on are now being released. “So years after I actually played with Hector, I’m finally on some of his albums,” he said laughingly during a 2006 interview with the author.
The advent of new styles of music by performers who had never seen the singer also carried his stamp. The musical torch was being passed as a younger generation of musicians turned to Lavoe for influence and inspiration. And the ghost of Hector Lavoe was also finding new life in other mediums.
In the late nineties Lavoe’s life was taken to the stage when an off Broadway–style musical biography entitled Who Killed Hector Lavoe? (produced by former Lavoe road manager David Maldonado and starring real-life salsa star Domingo Quiniones) opened in New York. The play, which featured the life and times of the singer played out amid expansive musical numbers, found immediate critical favor with the tough-to-please New York critics and, more importantly, with the legions of fans who flocked to the show for months on end. Who Killed Hector Lavoe? went on to runs in several other U.S. cities over the years and has emerged as a solid interpretation of the Hector Lavoe legacy.
Even this attempt at exploring and paying homage to the life of Hector Lavoe was not without its complications. After years of attempting to sort out the mounds of paperwork to determine who really owned the rights to Hector Lavoe’s music and songs—with claimants including Fania Records, Puchi and later her daughter Leslie, and several surviving members of Hector’s family—a court battle erupted over whether the producers of Who Killed Hector Lavoe? had the rights to use the late singer’s songs in the production. A copyright infringement suit was instigated by Latin American Music Inc., which claimed to own the rights to the songs. It has proved impossible to determine how this litigation was resolved, but the play, complete with the songs, continues to be performed in various incarnations.
The continued presence of Lavoe in the life of countless working-class Puerto Ricans also lingered with an increase in nationalism and ethnic pride in their now dead hero. Almost from the moment of his interment, a controversy arose about whether Puerto Rico’s favorite son should find his final resting place in the soil of his birthplace, Ponce. The controversy would rage on for several years, inspiring countless editorials and fierce debates before it was finally agreed that the bodies of Lavoe and his son would be returned to Ponce for burial.
But it would not be salsa or, for that matter, Hector Lavoe, without some small amount of friction. and with the big-budget version of Hector Lavoe’s life poised for release in summer 2007, there is no small measure of controversy, as various factions rush to honor and/or cash in on Hector Lavoe’s life.
Puerto Rican filmmaker Tony Felton, long known in Puerto Rico for such classic films as Correa Cotto and El Rebelde Solitario, reemerged from a decades-long hiatus from the business to announce in 1997 that he had been handpicked by the late singer to tell his life story on film. “Hector told me before he died that he wanted me to make the film,” the director told Hispanic Magazine in a 2006 interview. The filmmaker made good on his promise for in a 2006 New York Times article, it was reported that a Spanish-language version of Lavoe’s life, entitled The Singer, was being filmed in Puerto Rico, starring Raul Carbonell. Felton’s movie was shot in late 2006. The movie went into immediate postproduction.
It was also reported in 2006 that South Florida telenovela producer Harold Rosado was putting his own Lavoe movie into production. Rosado and Felton actually came down on the same side as they waged a bitter war of words with Fania Records’ Maria Lozano, who was handling publishing rights for Lavoe’s work on that label. Rosado and Felton claimed that they each had exclusive rights to the late singer’s music, while Lozano has said that the rights to Lavoe’s music are beyond the reach of most filmmaker’s budgets. The soap opera continued well into 2006, with Rosado and Felton engaging in name-calling.
As if the Hector Lavoe film race could not get any more complicated, Mangual claimed he had been approached by a filmmaker in 2006 who was doing a film on the relationship between Hector Lavoe and the mother of his illegitimate first child, Carmen Castro. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Mangual. “All I could think was that it was going to be a very short film.”
At one point, Hector’s daughter, Leslie Perez, brought her own lawyer into play in an attempt to stop the unauthorized use of her father’s image in books and videos, and on T-shirts, all of which had been an ongoing street-corner cottage industry well before Hector’s death. In a news item that appeared in 2006 on barriomulas.com, attorney Roberto Sueiro stated that Hector’s daughter had hired his LAF Communications to conduct a campaign to create awareness and make people understand that they can no longer profit from her father’s image. Sueiro said that the campaign had two goals, to ensure economic benefits for Hector’s family and to defend Puerto Rican heritage.
One can only speculate that the spirit of Hector Lavoe was looking down on all these high jinks and having a good laugh. But there would no doubt also be a sense of wonderment as to what had inspired Hector to spend nearly fifteen years of his life chasing his legend and trying to make sense of it all.
Juan Flores, a professor of Black and Puerto Rican Studies, likened Hector Lavoe’s popularity to people of the street as a matter of character. “He was really a character and a rebel from the beginning,” he related in an interview with Afropop Worldwide. “Not a political rebel so much as a personal rebel. The gangster and thug image was a self-cultivated thing. He had a charisma about him.”
In a chapter of the book Situating Salsa, writer Wilson A. Valentin Escobar goes on at length about the intellectual significance and impact that Lavoe’s life and passing had on the Puerto Rican community and culture. But he made his most salient point when he stated that “people would remember him as an authentic and true Puerto Rican.”
But the dissection of Hector Lavoe’s impact did not stop at academia. There are those who knew him, and their reasoning comes strictly from the street.
Ruben Blades admittedly kept himself at arm’s length from Lavoe, the singer’s drug lifestyle being the wall that kept them from a close friendship. “I got to [know] him as a professional,” he said in a 1996 Descarga.com interview, “and I always respected him, and as a singer I thought he was just very very special.”
Willie Colón, in a 1993 New York Newsday obituary that was as angry as it was heartfelt, acknowledged Lavoe “as the spirit of Puerto Rico and the poor barrios of Latin America. Pioneer, maestro, companion. Today Latin America cries for you.”
Pablo “Chino” Nunez offered in a 2006 interview that it did not surprise him that Hector was being rediscovered. “People will remember Hector for the rest of their lives. He meant something to a lot of people. A first date, a song you fell in love to, an important moment in a person’s life. In one way or another, people always knew who he was and always will know. People tend to focus on the bad things in his life but I saw a lot of good. He was a kind person, a very giving person. He was a man who was quite passionate about his family, his music, and his life.”
Gilberto Colón, who played in Hector Lavoe’s band from 1975 until two weeks before Lavoe’s death, related the irony of Hector in a 2006 interview. “In death Hector has become a myth. Even years after his death, his music is constantly being played. Hector is a legend and he never got to fucking appreciate it. He was real sad, real tragic. Tragic was like his middle name. It was like there was this shadow following him all the time.”
Marc Anthony did not have the luxury of being an intimate in Hector Lavoe’s world. But as a professional who is, these days, perceived in many corners as the heir apparent, he has a sense of Hector Lavoe’s passion and pain. “He is almost a sacrificial lamb,” he said in a 2006 New York Times interview. “He was the one guy who would represent legions of fans but also lived the most painful life imaginable.”
Bruce Polin, founder of the Latin music Web site Descarga.com, saw Lavoe’s much publicized dark side as the glue that cemented his relationship with his fans. “People relate to iconic figures who are deeply flawed,” said Polin in a 2006 Hispanic News article. “And Hector’s well-documented weaknesses showed he was just like us.”
Perhaps the most telling take on Hector Lavoe’s impact comes from Lavoe himself. He would always, often matter-of-factly, invite friends and confidants to “remember me when I’m gone.” It was a seemingly fatalistic mantra that often found its way into the subjects of his songs.
While the impact of his music was destined to last beyond his years, there was a sense of the here and now, of the moment, of the good time that might not last beyond the rising of the sun. Hector Lavoe was very much aware that his time was limited, that he would make the most of it, and that he hoped that his fans would do likewise. Truth be known, his impact on music and his legions of fans ran no deeper than that.
But as the years go by and various factions battle it out for some kind of hold on the life of Hector Lavoe, mostly for profit but also in a hopefully honest attempt to put the majesty of the singer and his life into perspective, the reality of his impact lies squarely in the streets—where youngsters who weren’t even alive when Hector was at his zenith proudly wear shirts emblazoned with his image; where boom boxes blare out his decades-old music on barrio street corners; and where people celebrate the ability of the man from the town of Ponce who never proclaimed himself to be anything more than a backward hick . . . with something to prove.
Copyright © 2007 by Marc Shapiro. All rights reserved.