(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on November 12, 2001)
When I first met him many years ago in a Latin club in Manhattan, the best salsa singer on the planet came over to introduce himself.
“You are Perez, right?” he asked. “You write for the Daily News.”
I was standing at the bar at the old Casablanca, when suddenly I was confronted by one of the idols of my youth. I had spotted him earlier, felt like talking to him, but I'm not the type who likes to intrude on celebrities.
Yet this time, the tables were turned. It was the celebrity – a superstar, my singing idol – who was approaching me.
“I read your stuff all the time,” he said, stretching out his arm and shaking my hand. “And by the way, my name is Perez, too.”
I was stunned. I thought he was pulling my leg.
“C'mon, I know who you are,” I said. “You are Hector Lavoe.”
That moment has been safely stored in my brain for all these years, with Perez explaining that Lavoe was only his stage name. But it came rushing back Saturday night as I watched the late Hector Lavoe come back to life on the stage of an Off-Off-Broadway theater.
“Quien Mato a Hector Lavoe? (Who Killed Hector Lavoe?)” at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater is a Spanish-language musical based on the turbulent life of the legendary Puerto Rican salsa singer, who died in 1993 at the age of 46 – after a long battle with drug addiction.
Although the show's main appeal is Lavoe's music – including 15 numbers performed by a salsa crooner, a quintet, and three backup singers – it takes a much deeper journey through a life marred by tragedy.
While the audience gets a seductive taste of the sounds, color, and energy of a Latin nightclub, it also traces the self-destructive life of the beloved "cantante de los cantantes" (singer of singers) – who died young, a victim of his own stubborn pride and insecurities.
The musical documents how Lavoe defied his father by leaving Ponce and coming to New York in search of a singing career. It illustrates how he rapidly gained fame in the city's salsa clubs and recording studios, how he got hooked on drugs, and how his unapologetic womanizing and constant bickering with his wife may have contributed to his son's suicide.
It shows how a self-recriminating Lavoe failed to take his own life, even after jumping from a ninth-floor hotel room in San Juan, and how he came back to perform one swan song – at the Meadowlands Arena – before he died. The musical makes no mention of accounts that Lavoe may have died of AIDS, contracted through his addiction to heroin.
Nevertheless, while the play leaves you with many possible answers to its provocative title – drugs, depression, blind ambition, fame – it also gives you a taste for the flamboyant and captivating personality of Lavoe, who fought his personal demons without losing his sarcastic, biting sense of humor.
His unique voice and charming qualities are brought to life by salsa crooner Domingo Quinones and his understudy, Carlos Fonseca, whom I saw perform – impressively – Saturday night. They have also replicated Lavoe's physical appearance: the tinted aviator glasses covering his drug-haggard eyes, the many rings on his fingers, his laid-back style, the protruding lower jaw, the commanding stage presence that made him a salsa icon in the 1970s.
I was sitting in a theater, but for a moment I felt I was back with Lavoe at the old Casablanca.
“So if your name is Perez,” I asked my idol on the night that I met him, “where does Lavoe come from?”
He looked as stunned as I did when I found out his name was Perez.
“It comes from ‘La Voz’ [the voice] because Lavoe sounds almost the same as ‘La Voz,’” he told me. “People say I have a good voice.”