One of the most celebrated bandleader-singer combinations in Latin music history, Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe represented uniquely complementary halves of a partnership that revolutionized the salsa movement. Born and raised in the Bronx and nicknamed “El Malo” (“The Bad Guy”), Colón was the barrio-savvy Nuyorican with the raw trombone tone to match; the Puerto Rico-born Lavoe (whose adopted stage surname translated to “The Voice”) embodied the essence of jibaro, the rural populace synonymous with the heart of the island, through his soulful, spirited phrasing, improvisational wit, and humor. Together, through a series of impeccable late ’60s/early ’70s albums, they merged mastery of traditional Afro-Cuban styles with a shrewdly marketed bad boy image (posing as Wild West bank robbers, Godfather gangsters, and FBI “Wanted” outlaws on their iconic, Izzy Sanabria-designed LP covers) that visually captured their shared charisma and helped catapult them to stardom.
By 1973, however, the duo’s relationship had deteriorated under the weight of success’s trappings – specifically Lavoe’s hard-partying lifestyle and slide into heroin addiction, resulting in his habitual lateness (or flat-out absence) for performances. So if the undercurrent of Lo Mato (Si No Compra Este LP) (“I’ll kill him if you don’t buy this LP”) is understandably brooding (from the gallows humor of its title and cover artwork to the sobering tone of its centerpiece compositions) the quality sustained by all is all the more impressive.
Written by Colón with unmistakably cautionary subtext, fueled by a profoundly hook-y Joe Torres piano line, and delivered by Lavoe with all of his expected sway, “Calle Luna Calle Sol” literally and metaphorically describes the imminent threat of treading down a dangerous street infamous for sparing no victim. “Todo Tiene Su Final” sees Colón’s lyrics lamenting life’s impermanence (“Todo tiene su final/ Nada dura para siempre/ Tenemos que recordar/ Que no existe eternidad”: “Everything has its end/ Nothing lasts forever/ We have to remember/ That eternity doesn’t exist”) while Torres unleashes an inspired solo and Lavoe’s always compelling adlibs bite with true life edge (“Haz como yo nunca eche pa tras”: “Do as I do and never look back”). Even more personal is the Lavoe co-composed “El Dia de Mi Suerte” (“The Day of My Fate”). Over a bomba rhythm, with Colon’s trombone mournfully inversing the signature riff of the group’s classic “La Murga,” Hector recalls the deaths of his parents, his struggle to maintain optimism, and contemplates when his luck will change.
Balancing the prevailing heaviness is the fact that Colón’s band is still as musically daring, dance floor friendly, and creatively potent as ever. “Junio 73” showcases Colón and Eric Matos’s ecstatic dueling trombones, “Guajira Ven” finds the ensemble blissfully extolling Puerto Rico’s natural beauty, and “La Maria” adds an infectious Brazilian samba to their bag of musical tricks. Upon its release, Lo Mato was embraced as yet another classic. But its progressions foretold Colón’s subsequent direction: riskier, more substantial, and topical in theme, and inevitably requiring a partner equally focused and committed to this growth. Within a year, he would announce the disbandment of this longtime group (though he and Lavoe would continue to collaborate as producer and artist). Lo Mato is that rare swan song: an acknowledgment of impending dissolution still abundant with vitality and life.