We’ve all heard his story many times over. Different versions, some so different you don’t know who or what to believe. His life was turned into an off-Broadway play and even a major production on the big screen, portrayed by an international superstar. Having said that, I think I’ll spare you the life story. Hector Lavoe, to a salsero is like Babe Ruth to even the most lukewarm of baseball fans. We know his life story, his trials, tribulations and the uneventful and tragic end to what was a legendary career. He was known as “The Voice”, “King of Punctuality” (a jab at his habit of arriving to most of his gigs up to an hour late), and “The Singer”, which also happened to be the title to the song in which he is most recognized for as well as this week’s focus on Flashback Fridays.
In 1978, fellow Salsero and Fania label mate, Ruben Blades had just written the soon-to-be classic when Willie Colon convinced him to give it to Hector since his nickname was already “El Cantante de Los Cantantes” (The Singer of Singers). Hector recorded it that same year and it immediately became a huge hit as well as his signature song. Ruben Blades has stated that even though he didn’t want to give Lavoe the song, the classic status to which Lavoe took it was far beyond what Blades himself would have taken it and he is now glad he gave the song up to Hector.
In “El Cantante”, the singer is telling the listener that people may pay to see him perform, but he is actually just like everyone else, living a life of laughter and pain, bitterness, and good times. A part of the song that stands out to me is where he mentions when people stop him in the street and say “You must be living the good life, always with women and at parties,” but that no one asks him if he’s suffering and crying, if he has a pain that runs deep. He may not have written this song, but it’s almost as if it was written with his personal life’s experiences in mind. A singer with a comedian’s wit when on stage, but behind the scenes, faced many struggles from drug addiction, the death of his son, to a failed suicide attempt. The song is a classic at parties which is ironic, because it tells the story of a singer forced to crack a smile and entertain the masses while dealing with personal demons in his own life. Truly one of the most bittersweet of songs and yet, a favorite of many.