The reactivated Fania Records continues its A Man and His Music highlights series by turning its attention to the infamous singer Hector Lavoe. Recognition of one of salsa’s pioneers and signature voices seems overdue; the two-disc compilation La Voz follows similar (but no less estimable) collections of Ray Barretto’s and Johnny Pacheco’s works. This second-chair status is hardly surprising considering the constant derailment of his personal and professional life. The man blessed with a nimble voice and mischievous wit yet cursed with insecurities and personal tragedies (drug abuse, the lumped deaths of three family members, diagnosis with HIV), quickly rose and faded from fame between the late ’60s and mid-’80s before passing away in 1993 at age forty-six. Fortunately, a focused campaign — highlighted by Jennifer Lopez’s biopic El Cantante, starring Marc Anthony in the title role, and this first-time effort to comprehensively collect Lavoe’s works — promises to polish his tarnished legacy.
For La Voz, Fania tapped Masters at Work cofounder, dance-music-producer extraordinaire and — guess what? — Lavoe’s nephew “Lil” Louis Vega to compile the tracks. The first disc collects mostly Lavoe’s collaborative work with Willie Colon from the late ’60s to the mid-’70s, before he turned solo. Signature tunes like “La Murga,” “Aguanile,” Che Che Colé,” and “Mi Gente” are easy choices, but devastating dance-floor burners like “La Banda” and the sweetly, sentimental “Abuelita” make the disc more of a personalized affair. The remaining material focuses on Lavoe’s mid- to late-’70s solo output, particularly his smash albums La Voz (“Mi Gente,” “El Todopoderoso”) and De Ti Depende (“Periódico de Ayer,” “El Cantante”), and his contributions to the Fania All-Stars. As a whole, La Voz admirably demonstrates the breadth of Lavoe’s works (the heavy sequencing of Colon-collaborations should remind even die-hard listeners of just how technically adept Lavoe was, in addition to being a compelling presence) and argues convincingly for the reevaluation of “El Cantante.”
Of course, in keeping with the apparent curse, La Voz is not without its flaws. The packaging does not do complete justice: “Lil” Louis Vega’s liner notes are more sincere than informative, while Jaime Torres Torres’s essays offer perfunctory context. The tastefully spare design accommodates for the underwhelming text and allows several never-before-publicized pictures of Lavoe in his prime to breathe freely. Unfortunately, the digital remastering does not improve the sound quality consistently. “Periódico de Ayer,” for example, sounds like it was taken straight off of cassette, with a notable hiss running through most of the track and low highs keeping the song muted. The latter point is noticeably annoying, but the collection nevertheless provides a welcome reminder of just why this seemingly unassuming singer earned the bombastic nickname “La Voz.”