Johnny Laboriel dies at 71; Mexican rock ‘n’ roll star

Johnny Laboriel performs during a concert in Mexico City.
(Edgar Negrete, Images)

MEXICO CITY — Johnny Laboriel, a legendary Mexican rock ‘n’ roll singer and icon for the Afro-Mexicano community, has died in Mexico City, a representative said. He was 71.

He died early Wednesday at his home after an extended stay in the hospital for treatment of prostate cancer, the Rev. Jose de Jesus Aguilar, who administered the last rites, said via his Twitter account.

Laboriel’s specialty was to reinterpret American hits of the 1960s, classics like “Poison Ivy” and “Yakety Yak,” translated into Spanish and sung with buoyant enthusiasm and an infectious smile. Launching his career in the late 1950s and ‘60s, he was a pioneer for Mexico.


“He brought a different Latin flavor to rock music,” critic Jaime Almeida said in a radio interview. “When Johnny Laboriel appeared, the entire atmosphere changed. He infected the original versions [of English-language hits] with a tropical rhythm they didn’t have. You never knew what he would come out with, but you always ended up remembering it.”

From the age of 19, Laboriel starred with his group Los Rebeldes del Rock (The Rebels of Rock). They recorded dozens of albums and toured Latin America with live shows for decades.

Laboriel had been scheduled to headline a tribute to his 55 years in the business last month, but the show was postponed because of his failing health.

“He leaves an enormous void,” said his sister, Ella Laboriel, speaking outside the funeral home where the late “rocanrolero” was memorialized. She, like almost everyone in the family, is also a musician. “Johnny has gone on a very, very long tour,” she added.

“He died very, very happy,” his brother, Abraham Laboriel, a bass guitarist with the American band Open Hands, said from Los Angeles. “He was able to speak to everybody. He was his jovial, joking self. He left everyone with a positive feeling of strength. He was at peace.”

Abraham Laboriel had been able to travel to Mexico City to visit Johnny the weekend before his death. Abraham’s son, Abe Jr., also of Los Angeles, performed for years with Paul McCartney and other A-list musical stars.

Juan Jose Laboriel was born July 9, 1942, in Mexico to Honduran parents from the Garifuna coast. His father, also named Juan Jose, was a trailblazer in Mexico’s music and film industry starting in the 1920s.

Johnny Laboriel, in addition to his musical career, also appeared in a handful of movies, television programs and numerous festivals. He was a rare black man to achieve such success in the world of Mexican show business.

But being black in Mexico was not something that held them back, brother Abraham said, thanks largely to their father’s reputation.

“We were such an integral part of the entertainment business in Mexico that racial questions were never an issue,” Abraham Laboriel said.

Johnny Laboriel did speak out in 2005 during a controversy over a postage stamp the Mexican government had issued, which portrayed a black child (and former comic book character) with exaggerated lips. It was seen by many as offensive.

“Of course people are going to be offended by the caricature,” Laboriel said at the time. “The idea to put out this postage stamp is the biggest stupidity. They do this without thinking of the consequences.”

His survivors, in addition to his siblings, include his wife, Viviane Thirion, and sons Juan Francisco and Emmanuel, all of Mexico City.