Passion and Pain: The Life of Hector Lavoe


Passion and Pain: The Life of Hector Lavoe

Marc Shapiro (2007)

Pub: St. Martin’s Griffin

Written by entertainment book author Marc Shapiro, producer of many popular titles such as those on The Eagles, Carlos Santana, Maria Carey, George Harrison, JK Rowling, The X-Files and, er, Baywatch: The Official Scrapbook, this book has been published unashamedly to coincide with the release of the film El Cantante (and why not, I would). You can read an interview with the author here.

The 202 page book takes you through the life of Hector Lavoe from Puerto Rico to NYC, stardom and beyond – and yes, as well as salsa musical performance it mentions drug use, quite often.

Why you might buy it:
It is a cheap and easy read, the writing is more dynamic and expressive than you will find in straightforward academic texts (i.e. in this book Hector will ‘gaze in awe’ rather than ‘observe’). There are some interesting anecdotes and experiences relayed by band members who worked with Lavoe over the years – Jose Mangual jr, Chino Nunez and Gilberto ‘Pulpo’ Colon in particular give useful insights. The book is not wholly terrible as some have made out and appears to be better than a well known Spanish language text on Lavoe (but that’s not really praise as such). Until something more substantial arrives this is all there is in English. If you have been surfing the wave caused by the current El Cantante film (rather than standing at the side of the water pissing in it) then this book is for you.

Why you might leave it:
When you undertake to write a book on a subject area that is not that familiar to you then three months from start to finish is unlikely to cut it – and sadly that’s the case here. Shapiro is not the first to fall foul of publishers journalistic deadlines but the usual inadequacies of “we need a book on so-and-so, now!” publishing surface here. At times the book seems to be going okay, then –SMACK- something stupid appears like well known salsa act Bobby Valentino or up and coming band helped by Hector; La Sonora Poncena. These errors, and there are quite a few, seriously undermine any good the author does. Someone closer to the music or perhaps who had more time to research the life and times of Lavoe would surely have included some of the many anecdotes about his life – for example, no “drug baron ‘invitational’ gig” mentioned here. His importance for many as an artist is not explored particularly well, more commentary from fans and participants at musical events, those who bought his albums, would have added considerable depth.


Introduction: people who die
1.    Chasing the legend: 1993-2006
2.    Once upon a time: 1946-1963
3.    New York on fire: 1963-1966
4.    Bad boys: 1966-1968
5.    Demons: 1968-1973
6.    Off the hook: 1973-1977
7.    Ripped: 1977-1979
8.    Dazed and confused: 1979-1983
9.    Flying high: 1983-1986
10.    Two years in hell: 1986-1988
11.    Shark attack: 1988-1990
12.    The last dance: 1990-1993
13.    That long good-bye: 1993-2007

Selected extracts (from):

1. Chasing the Legend: 1993–2006

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 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 implications of his life and times had to resonate before anybody would risk making sense of it all.


As if the Hector 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 that it was going to be a very short film”.

2. Once upon a time: 1946-1963

When Hector came of age, his father enrolled him in the prestigious Juan Morel Campos School of Music. The school had a history of molding students into professional-quality performers by way of a curriculum that emphasized time honored techniques of good diction, stage presence and proper manners. As it turned out, this sense of structure suited Hector well. Rather than rebel, he gravitated toward the strict nature of his first formal education. He was diligent in his studies, and according to reports, was a good if not spectacular student. However, away from the halls of academia, Hector, even as a young preteen, was learning his own sense of rebellion.

3. New York on fire: 1963-1966

Hector left the Kako All-Stars in 1966. It was an amicable parting and not all that uncommon a practice. Musicians and singers drifted in and out of groups with regularity on the Latin music scene, literal nomads looking for bigger money and more prestige. It was an unwritten fact of life that band-leaders regularly raided other bands for musicians. There was little animus in the practice, and good musicians were not likely to be blackballed (although the occasional club owner would complain that some bands were playing out too often and at competing clubs). And so it was under those circumstances that Hector became a free agent of sorts.

4. Bad boys: 1966-1968

With the conclusion of the recording of El Malo, Hector had no idea of his status with the band. Had he been only a hired hand? Was he to perform with Colon? Hector did not have a clue.

5. Demons: 1968-1973

The album continued the rush of success being enjoyed by the Willie Colon band. Unfortunately the success was more than offset by Hectors continued spiral down the hole of drug addiction. Making matters worse was the fact that Puchi was continuing to use drugs as well, playing the classic enabler to Hector’s problems while supplying only the occasional screaming admonishments to get himself clean. According to reports, Puchi was making no serious attempts to get Hector help.

6. Off the hook: 1973-1977

Nunez had a chance to see how hard hector was working in early 1976 when a band he was playing with at the legendary Corso Club on 86th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York shared the bill with Hector. It would be the first time Nunez had seen Hector perform live, and despite being aware of his addiction, he was knocked out by what he witnessed on stage that night. “The impression he left me with was that he was a great performer live,” recalled Nunez. “It was intense to see Hector and the band, especially where they were at that point. Hector was on his own and really kicking ass”.

7. Ripped: 1977-1979

While absent from the scene, some of what Hector had been doing with the Fania All Stars prior to his being hospitalized began to come out in vinyl form. Easily the highlight was the album Fania All Stars Live, which featured Hector on the song “Saca Tu Mujer” with a truly all star ensemble…

8. Dazed and confused: 1979-1983

Hector’s disease was now beginning to drive his professional life. A big part of Hectors touring world centred on South America and, particularly, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. But during the eighties, Hector seemed to be finding more and more reasons to tour in that stretch of the world. As Gilberto Colon remembered it, going to those places by 1981 was almost completely driven by Hector’s drug habit. “There was one year when we went to Colombia twenty-seven times. We’d go back to celebrate this and that. We’d go back to Colombia for every stupid reason. And all of those trips were drug driven. We knew when we went back there we would get whatever we wanted to get”. But while his health continued to decline and his addiction seemingly worsened, Hector was still capable of making bold, creative advances.

9. Flying high: 1983-1986

By all accounts the series of concerts in Lima was just what the doctor ordered. “Every night”, recalled Nunez, “there would be 60,000 people in the stadium. As soon as they saw Hector, they began shouting his name and jumping up and down. The whole stadium was shaking. Hector would see this night after night and all he could do was turn to the band and say ‘My God!’ ”.

10. Two years in hell: 1986-1988

Shortly after the completion of Strikes Back, Hector received news from Ponce that his father had died. Hector was inconsolable. To have finally made peace with his father, only to have him taken from him, was too much to bear. The stresses of life returned. If it had been up to Hector, he would have no doubt immediately stepped out of his professional life. Because in the days that followed the death of his father, Hector appeared listless and nonconnecting to the challenges of the day – indications that Hector no longer had the desire to go on. But at a time when he needed to be comforted the most, He was being pushed and pulled from all sides by his record company, managers, agents, club and concert promoters all over the world, and yes, Puchi, to go out and face the world as Hector Lavoe the superstar.

11. Shark attack: 1988-1990

Midway through 1989, Hector began thinking about performing again. Walking with a cane or using a wheelchair because his two badly damaged legs were still in casts was not the image Hector wanted to present to his adoring public. But his desire to be with the people and to once again feel their love was too great. Doctors were dead set against Hector performing, feeling the energy and stress performing would put on his already fragile body would speed up the process by which AIDS was destroying him. But Hector insisted that he could perform again.

12. The last dance: 1990-1993

Colon recalled many nights when he would travel across town to pick up Hector to go to another gig. At this point, the gigs had dropped off dramatically. His embarrassing performances had all but locked him out of the even less prestigious clubs in New York. Hector was now having to travel to seemingly out of the way places like Pennsylvania and Boston, where his declining reputation had not yet impacted his marketability.

13. That long good-bye: 1993-2007

People took to Hector’s death in many different ways. It was almost to be expected that many newborns that year were given the name Hector. People on the streets and in the churches would openly pray for Hector’s soul. To the Latino community, Hector Lavoe’s passing was like the death of a president or the passing of a head of state.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews: by E. Perez (2007)

too many discrepancies. the writer should have done his homework first by researching for the true facts through Hector’s life through credible people that were really close to him. he got Hector’s mother’s name wrong. her name is so not Muere Dona Pachita. i couldn’t believe it. i could go on as the list grows, but i think i got my message through. don’t waste your money on this book. Sound/Word enthusiast (2007)

…I pretty much agree with the other reviewers. This book seems like a real quickie job, with almost no primary sources. Almost all the quotes are taken from other peoples’ research, and there is a lot of conjecture and hearsay — which may work for Lionel Hutz, but really don’t do the legacy of Hector any justice at all.

And, frankly, the book is just poorly written and edited. The same phrases are repeated ad nauseum, italics are missing, and it just seems like a broken record at some points…

I gave it two stars because it’s all we got, and it’s better than nothing, but it’s still far from perfect. The window is wide open for a more riveting, thoroughly researched volume. Let’s hope the movie inspires someone to dig a little deeper. Or a lot deeper. by F. Mizla (2007)

A few aspects of Hector Lavoes life have been greatly illuminated for me. This man was truly a great talent in the world of Salsa. We all lost a giant in latin music when he passed on. He is still listened and danced to Today. I appreciated all that I learned about the man from reading this book, Good Reading !


5 responses

26 09 2007

Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations. Although much more informative and well written than Antonio I. Mejias’ LA HISTORIA DEL CANTANTE, (I give that book one rotten banana as my rating!), it didn’t grab me as much as Jaime Torres Torres’ CADA CABEZA ES UN MUNDO. This book wouldn’t be so banally average had it been released at the same time the first book was written on Hector Lavoe — IMHO, because it reads dated. In addition, Shapiro lacks in achieving to make the reader feel and experience the 1970’s Salsa music scene era. At this point, the book includes nothing new that we don’t already know about Hector Lavoe — esp. now that the movie’s been out — and throughout the book, I found Marc Shapiro’s repeated blurbs about Hector to be very annoying — still, it’s an important book to have around. I give it two nicely rippened bananas. 😉

14 09 2008
Richard Blondet

I often judge a book by what made the author go on to actually write about the subject or topic. Did Marc Shapiro have a passion for Hector Lavoe’s music? Maybe. Who knows? Nowhere is there a foreword that expounds over it. It seems like a publishing house gave him a contractual obligation to write such a book with no more than a 3 month deadline.

It is a well written book. But a well-written book doesn’t make a case for telling a story the way things actually went down. One of the more grey areas of Hector’s life is usually his pre-Willie Colon and early-Colon era experiences. The Author makes it seems as if LaVoe was struggling with the conflict of whether or not he would inevitably be invited to be a full fledged member of Willie’s band. The reality was that Hector wanted no part of the Willie Colon group and was interested moreso in launching his own band. Amongst collectors, there is a tape recorded interview circa the 1980s where Hector describes not wanting to be part of the early Willie Colon band as he did not care for their sound. Had the author been able to interview Willie Colon himself for this book, he’d have learned that despite Hector’s participation in recording with Willie and company, Hector had yet to give a 100% committment to joining the band. Which is why on both Willie’s debut album EL MALO and on the 2nd release THE HUSTLER, the lead vocalist (Hector LaVoe) on that album is nowhere to be found.

Another thing that bites about this book is that the culture itself is being described by someone who know nothing about it. I personally have no issue witth anyone ouside of the latino community writing about our history or people. Ruth Glasser is one example of an “outsider” who I thought did an excellent job in “My Music Is My Flag.” She didn’t presume to know or even attempted to launch assumptions about latinos or the subject matter (Puertorican musicians in New York during a certain time period). She just let the subjects do the talking and managed to raise some well thought out questions for the reader to answer on their own. In this book, Marc Shapiro states: “…To the Latino community, Hector Lavoe’s passing was like the death of a president or the passing of a head of state.”

The death of a President? Head of state? Um….I don’t think so. Maybe to a select segment of the community itself, but to suggest that LaVoe was on everyone’s radar screen akin to someone like a Roberto Clemente, who was killed in a plane crash while attempting to lead a relief effort to Venezuela after that country had suffered tragedy and loss during an earthquake, demonstrates that the author knows as much about the latino community as they’ve managed to read or see about them on print or television. Which is usually 0.1% of what our community is really about. The proof? There is more than one school named after Roberto Clemente. Try searching for one school named after Hector LaVoe. Who then, would you say, is more regarded a “head of state” or whose death was perceived as being akin to that of a President by the latino community?

In the end, only a tell-all memoir coming straight from Hector himself would give a book about his life any justice. Anything else will always be ripped apart by agenda-oriented colleagues or confidantes or be well-written narratives by folks like Marc Shapiro and others who tend to assume entirely too much when it comes to the figures and the communities they hail from.

1 03 2013
El Cantante

I thought personally that this book was well thought out and allows people such as myself more insight in learning all sides of the truth about MI IDOLO Hector LaVoe. And he also does our community a “favor” by delving into a topic that unfortunately our Latin community does not want to bother with. Our culture has a bad way of forgetting its history or throwing away anything that’s old in exchange for the latest. And I have seen how our Puerto Rican people dismiss any big star who made important contributions to music and the arts just because they are not on top any more or if their time was yesteryear. That is a real shame: Puerto Ricans in NYC do not have any historical appreciation, and that makes me sad. Do you ever find any of our Spanish channels showing a retro program from the 70s showcasing the salseros? NEVER! Their archive footage probably got burned or maybe stored in some warehouse out in Joisey! Marc Shapiro, as is the case with Americans like myself (because I am born in the USA of Puerto Rican parents), is historically sensitive and, hey, his purpose may be to make money, but in the process he does our culture a great deal of public service. It’s great that our American culture does archive all its footage and other media for future reference. And that is more than what our people have done to the memory of Hector LaVoe. It’s our people that caused him to go the downward spiral he took, but hey, the downward spiral is what made him my idol. Great job, great book, peace out!

14 09 2008
Richard Blondet

Richard Blondet wrote:
“Had the author been able to interview Willie Colon himself for this book, he’d have learned that despite Hector’s participation in recording with Willie and company, Hector had yet to give a 100% committment to joining the band. Which is why on both Willie’s debut album EL MALO and on the 2nd release THE HUSTLER, the lead vocalist (Hector LaVoe) on that album is nowhere to be found.”

Clarification: In reference to Hector LaVoe’s visual presence on either album cover.

1 04 2015
Rodrick Medlar


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