MIAMI (Billboard) - When Marc Anthony was a young, up-and-coming singer with long, flowing hair, his friend DJ/producer “Little” Louie Vega took him to meet Hector Lavoe, the legendary salsa singer. As Anthony recalls the meeting, Lavoe took one look at him and said, in jest, “Ave Maria, what an ugly chick!”
Lavoe and Anthony’s paths would cross again, when Anthony attended a Lavoe show at New York’s Orchard Beach. Now, in the feature film “El Cantante,” Anthony, considered the most accomplished vocalist in modern salsa music, pays homage by portraying Lavoe, who died in 1993.
Directed by Leon Ichaso, the Picturehouse release opens August 1 in more than 1,000 theaters nationwide and also stars Anthony’s wife, Jennifer Lopez, who plays the role of Lavoe’s wife, Nilda. The film’s soundtrack, to be released July 24, is Anthony’s ninth studio album and the first from his new venture with Sony BMG.
During a recent sit-down with Billboard, Anthony spoke about “El Cantante,” the changing face of salsa and his partnership with Lopez.
Q: You seem very dedicated to salsa lately.
A: Absolutely. It’s what I do, what I breathe, what I live. I‘m really inspired to do another Spanish ballad album, because (2004‘s) “Amar Sin Mentiras” was really groundbreaking for me personally. It’s another way for me to express myself. I think I’ll be ready in a couple of months to press the button on a Spanish pop album. As far as (an) English (album) is concerned, I‘m not that enthused right now, although I have a couple of tracks I‘m into.
Q: On the “El Cantante” soundtrack, your interpretation is different from your past salsa albums. Did you try to sound like Lavoe? How do you approach something that daunting?
A: The answer to that is twofold. The first (thing) is, what do you want to accomplish in the studio before you start recording? I settled on celebrating his approach to music. I was going to try to learn his phrasing, and try to stay true to what he offered as a singer. That was No. 1. Once I made that decision, I realized that I was in deep s--t, because the hardest part of this whole project was the music -- singing like him, understanding his phrasing. That’s when I realized his true genius. That’s why they called him “el Cantante de los Cantantes” (Singer of Singers).
Q: What is so distinctive in his phrasing?
A: He speaks in clave (the traditional, syncopated salsa beat). He couldn’t do anything off his metronome. So the first thing was to understand his metronome, his clock. It’s so unique, and it was in every line.
Q: Lavoe was a Latin icon, but he’s certainly not well known in the mainstream. What kind of impact can you have with someone like this?
A: That’s like saying, “Who was Sid Vicious and was he worthy of a movie?” No one knew and they made “Sid and Nancy.” Hector Lavoe has this intangible thing. If I were to introduce you to just his music, you would want to know the man. If I were to tell you this amazingly crazy story, you should want to hear his music. And when you have both, it’s a story that needs to be told. No one can sit there and tell me his music is less important than Ray Charles’ or Johnny Cash‘s.
Q: So you don’t think this is just for Latin fans?
A: No. This is a human story. Any artist who is significant for 20-30 years is still viable. His music, if you released it today, would still be viable. When you have somebody like Daddy Yankee saying his only regret was he didn’t get to perform with Hector Lavoe ... My God, it’s a whole generation removed, and it’s still important. This is not small. This is not a local story.
Q: This is a hard-hitting salsa album, coming at a time when salsa is nowhere near what it was in Lavoe’s time. Do you hope to respark an interest?
A: We (recently) had a whole trend of salsa artists coming out of nowhere because they were young and pretty. But what was behind the music? Where is their point of view? We need to create an atmosphere, especially within the record companies, where each album (is seen) as a steppingstone. It should be something you can be proud of 20 years from now -- and not just think, “Oh, I’ll put out this album, and I’ll hybrid it with reggaeton, and a little bit of R&B,” and it’s not even salsa anymore. Record companies should concentrate on signing and nurturing. Nurturing would be the word.
Q: Well, labels don’t have as much money now to be patient.
A: Record companies are looking for a quick fix, and that’s what brought on this s--t. There wasn’t any A&R. They didn’t nurture the stars; they nurtured the producers so they could sell the singles. And then you had these fragmented albums.
Q: Are you planning on having your own label?
A: Yes, yes, yes. The Hector Lavoe soundtrack is the first album on it. It’s just me in partnership with Sony BMG. We’re in the midst of doing some interesting stuff.
Q: You and Jennifer Lopez have your own separate, successful careers, and yet you seem to be doing a lot together. How do you balance that?
A: Actually, what you’ve witnessed is literally only 1 percent of the stuff that has been made available to us. A big part of mine and Jennifer’s connection is the understanding that we have a passion for what we do. So, it’s just a natural progression to be involved. Me, I cannot sit down and have a conversation about image. That’s her strong suit. And she’s been doing a lot of shows lately and that’s something I understand. I love when she tells me, “Look, I have this show coming up, I want you to produce it, get the band, this and that.” She picks me up where I‘m weak and I elevate her where she’s weak. That’s where the true partnership comes in.
Q: Is it true that the two of you might tour together?
A: Well, Jennifer has never toured. I’ve toured all my life. This is where I can step in and say, “Oh, my God, this could be fun,” and introduce her to that world. It is something she’s always wanted to do, but she’s never had the time. And I was offered many more films I never took advantage of because I was always on tour. So, yes, we’re seriously talking about going out this year, putting together an amazing show with just her and myself.
Q: Lopez has been a pioneer in creating that paradigm of the 360-degree artist who has many sources of revenue and many endorsement deals. You, however, have yet to enter into such business deals. Why?
A: It’s not for lack of interest or offers. I just have to see it first. I have to see myself in that position. But that exclusivity has served me well. The fact that I haven’t said “yes” means that when I do say “yes,” it will mean something. But Jennifer definitely softened that target for me. There could be a definite opportunity coming up.