Celia Cruz is the undisputed queen of salsa. After more than 40 years of performing professionally, she continues to intrigue Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike around the world with the rhythms of her Cuban homeland. A remarkable performer and person, she loves her fans as much as she loves her music. As she said in Más, “Music is what gave me the courage to fight and get out of poverty and touch the universe.... The only important thing is music.” Cruz has indeed brightened the world with her songs, and in so doing she has realized her dreams. She commented in the New York Times, “When people hear me sing, I want them to be happy, happy, happy. I don’t want them thinking about when there’s not any money, or when there’s fighting at home. My message is always felicidad— happiness.”
Cruz was born in Havana, Cuba, to Simon and Catalina (Alfonso) Cruz. Although Simon and Catalina Cruz had only four children of their own—Celia the second eldest—14 children, including nieces, nephews, and cousins, occupied the Cruz home in a poor part of Havana, the Santa Saurez barrio, or neighborhood.
As a young girl, Cruz loved music. She was responsible for putting the children who lived in her home to sleep with lullabies; but the songs she sang not only kept the children awake, they lured neighbors to the house. It was apparent that she was gifted with a beautiful voice. With her aunt, she listened to the radio and went to ballrooms. She also befriended Cuban musicians. Instead of aspiring to become a singer, however, Cruz prepared herself for a career as a teacher. “I wanted to be a mother, a teacher, and a housewife,” she told the New York Times. Her father encouraged her to become a teacher; he wanted the young woman to have a respectable job. Cruz graduated from the República de Mexico public school in Havana and went on to the Escuela Normal para Maestros.
Fortunately for salsa fans, Cruz never became a teacher of literature, as she had planned. Despite her father’s wishes, she left school and did not return after her singing career began to take off in the late 1940s. Cruz was initially inspired to become a professional singer while still in school, following her victory in a talent show called “La Hora de Té,” which aired on the Garcia Serra radio network in 1947. Cruz sang the tango “Nostalgia” in bolero tempo and, in addition to winning a cake, she became a local hit. She appeared in amateur shows and was soon sought as a paid entertainer. One of her first jobs was to sing on Radio Progreso Cubana for one week; she also performed on Radio Unión for some
For the Record…
Born October 21, c. 1929, in Havana, Cuba; daughter of Simon and Catalina (Alfonso) Cruz; married Pedro Knight (trumpet player and Cruz’s manager and musical director), 1962. Education: Attended Escuela Normal para Maestros-, attended Conservatory of Music.
Won Garcia Serra radio network talent contest, 1947; appeared in amateur shows; appeared on Radio Progreso Cubana and Radio Unión; joined dance troupe Las Mulatas de Fuego; joined orchestra Gloria Matancera; singer with orchestra Sonora Matancera, 1950-1965; with Sonora Matancera, appeared at Tropicana nightclub, Havana, on radio and television, and in films, including Una Gallega en Habana, Ole Cuba, Rincón Criollo, Piel Canela, and Amorcito Corazón, and toured U.S. and Central and South America; made first recordings, 1951; signed with Seeco label, early 1960s; signed with Tico label, 1966; performed with Tito Puente, beginning in late 1960s; appeared in opera Hommy, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1973; appeared with Johnny Pacheco throughout U.S. and Puente and Famia All-Stars in Africa and France, 1970s; reunited with Sonora Matancera, 1982; appeared in concert in her honor, Madison Square Garden, New York City, 1982. Appeared in film The Mambo Kings, 1992.
Awards: Grammy Award (with Ray Barretto), 1974, and (with Barretto) in the Latin category, for best tropical performance, for Ritmo En El Corazón; four Grammy Award nominations, the fourth in 1987; gold records for albums Celia and Johnny (with Johnny Pacheco), 1974, and Tremendo Trio (with Barretto and Adalberto Santiago), 1983; New York Music Award for best Latin artist and Obie award, both 1987; Ellis Island Medal of Honor (Mayor’s Liberty Award) from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, 1986.
months. At first, Cruz sang because she needed money to buy food and school books. Later, however, a teacher told her that she should forget teaching and concentrate on singing. Cruz remembered the teacher’s words in the New York Times: “You’re going to sing because you’ll earn more money in a day than I will in a month.”
At this point Cruz became serious about her musical career. Already noted for her pregón singing—a vocal style that evolved from the calls, chants, and cries of street vendors—particularly the songs “Manicero” (“Peanut Vendor”) and “El Pregón del Pescador” (“The Fishmonger’s Call”), Cruz enrolled at the Conservatory of Music to study voice and theory. Through impeccable behavior and her mother’s help, Cruz persuaded her father once and for all that a career as a singer would not disgrace her or the family. She worked hard at her studies and whenever she traveled to performances, a female relative accompanied her as a chaper-one. After three years at the conservatory, Cruz was equipped with the skills necessary to succeed as a musician. Her family supported her wholeheartedly.
Starting out, Cruz sang with the dance troupe Las Mulatas de Fuego, keeping the audience entertained while the dancers changed costumes. She also sang with the orchestra Gloria Matancera. In 1949, she was hired to sing traditional Yoruba songs—based on religious chants praising West African deities—at a radio station. Finally, in August of 1950, Cruz was chosen to replace Myrta Silva, the lead singer of La Sonora Matancera, Cuba’s most popular orchestra. Although fans of Silva wrote angry letters about the replacement, they were soon won over to Cruz’s style, and Cruz became a star. In early 1951, she began to release recordings such as “Cao Cao Mani Picao/Mata Siguaraya,” “Yerboro,” “Burundanga,” and “Me Voy al Pinar del Rio.”
For 15 years, or Cruz’s golden era, as it has been called, Cruz sang with La Sonora Matancera. Headliners at Havana’s world-famous Tropicana nightclub and casino, the group became popular enough to work on television and in films as well as on radio. The orchestra appeared in five motion pictures (Una Gallega en Habana, Olé Cuba, Rincón Criollo, Piel Canela, and Amorcito Corazón) and toured the United States and Central and South America. La Sonora Matancera’s fame and frequent tours served the individuals in the group well; when Fidel Castro took power after the 1959 revolution, they were able to escape Cuba by pretending they were going on another tour. They were welcomed abroad. From 1960 to late 1961, La Sonora Matancera entertained audiences in Mexico. Then, the orchestra packed up its act and took it north.
Cruz would come to love America but could never forget her homeland. She continues to remember it in song, but she cannot return to Cuba. Castro, angered by the singer’s defection, would not even allow her to visit the country when her mother was sick or when her father died. If Cruz continues to be unhappy about her expatriation, she seems to have accepted it, and Hispanics have certainly shown their appreciation of her work in the United States. “If I die now,” she once stated in the New York Times, “I want to be buried here.”
As the Times reported, Cruz’s “early years in the United States were less than memorable; young Latinos were more interested in rock-and-roll than in music from the old country.” Cruz had to work very hard to earn her fame stateside. One good thing, however, did occur during those early years in America: On July 14, 1962, Cruz married Pedro Knight, the first trumpeter of La Sonora Matancera; she had known him for over 14 years. Knight has served as Cruz’s manager, musical director, and protector ever since. In 1987, Louis Ramirez, an arranger of songs for Cruz, explained Knight’s professional role in the New York Times: “When discord arises on how best to sing or play a part, everyone turns to Pedro. Pedro presides quietly in a corner, with his arms crossed. After he hears us argue back and forth, he says ‘si’ or ‘no.’”
Although Cruz did not sell many records during the 1960s, her production was prolific. She signed with Seeco records and recorded 20 albums of La Sonora Matancera songs in just one year. These albums included Con Amor, La Reina del Ritmo Cubano, Grand Exitos de Celia Cruz, La Incomparable Celia, Mexico qué Grande Eres, Homenaje a los Santos, Sabor y Ritmo de Pueblos, Homenaje a Yemaya de Celia Cruz, Celia Cruz Interpreta El Yerbero y La Sopa en Botella, La Tierna, Conmovedora, Bamboleadora, and her most popular Seeco album, Canciónes Premiadas. After signing with Tico Records in 1966, the woman who would later be crowned “Queen of Salsa” recorded 13 more albums, toured South America and the U.S, and began working with Tito Puente, who would become known as the “King of Latin Swing.”
Puente recalled in the New York Times, “I was listening to the radio in Cuba the first time I heard Celia’s voice. I couldn’t believe the voice. It was so powerful and energetic. I swore it was a man, I’d never heard a woman sing like that.” Cruz recorded eight of her 13 Tico albums with Puente, including Cuba y Puerto Rico Son, El Quimbo Quimbunbia, Alma con Alma, and Algo Especial Para Recordar. Cruz and Puente performed more than 500 times together before 1987 and countless times after.
Despite her acclaim, it was not until the early 1970s that Cruz, whom the New York Times would call “salsa’s most celebrated singer,” began to be appreciated by young Hispanics. She was chosen to sing the role of Gracia Divina in the opera Hommy at Carnegie Hall in early 1973. Her remarkable voice and boundless energy captured the audience, which was only beginning to enjoy the new music called “salsa.” And just as Cruz is not a limited performer, neither is salsa a limited music:
The word salsa can be used variously to describe guaracha, rhumba, merengue, and guaguanco rhythms. As Time put it, salsa “is a catchall term that became current in the early ‘ 70’s. . . . Instrumentation features piano, brass, [and] percussion (like the congas or the timbales).. . . The rhythm is often complex and layered, but at root there is a steady beat.” Time also noted that “real salsa, old-country music [is] preserved in the persons of Cruz and Puente.”
Older fans were thrilled to hear the music of their youth as Cruz sang to the salsa beat; younger fans were genuinely enthusiastic about Cruz’s fast-paced scatting. And no one could help but be impressed by Cruz’s costumes. She was and is a flamboyant dresser. Her usual garb is embellished with feathers, sequins, or lace and yards and yards of brightly colored fabric. Legend has it that Cruz never wears a costume twice, that each of her ensembles costs more than the amount needed to produce one of her albums, and that some of her costumes have taken up a whole stage. Cruz herself acknowledges that on occasion her outfits have prohibited other singers from comfortably moving around the stage. This exotic, outrageously flashy attire reflects the energy Cruz radiates as she performs.
In fact, to fully experience Cruz, one must be able to watch her as she illuminates the stage and fascinates her audience. Her singing is quite powerful and because of this, she usually performs for large audiences in venues that can accommodate significant acoustic amplification. As a reviewer for the New York Times wrote of the singer’s onstage energy, Cruz “leaps, dances, flaunts, flirts, and teases to the gyrating beat of salsa.” And though Cruz has her serious, passionate moments, she is never predictable; one never knows when she will break into improvisation or joke with the audience and the band. Seemingly tireless, she has been known to perform at her explosive pace for more than three hours.
After Cruz’s contract with Tico Records expired, she took advantage of the opportunity to work with Johnny Pacheco, a longtime admirer. Pacheco was a rumba band leader and a flutist of the charanga style. For Vaya Records, they revised Cruz’s Sonora Matancera pieces to produce Celia and Johnny, which was released in 1974. This record, not surprisingly, went gold as His-panics snatched it up throughout the U.S. Tremendo Cache and Recordando El Ayer, Cruz’s next collaborative efforts, met with similar success, as did other albums she recorded on the Vaya label. Another album she recorded in 1974, with conga player Ray Barretto, won a Grammy Award.
Cruz’s popularity among Hispanics began to grow. During the 1970s, she performed with Pacheco in the U.S. and Puente and members of the Fania All-Stars throughout Africa and France. The New York Daily News named her best female vocalist in 1977 and 1979, and Billboard did the same in 1978; in polls conducted by Latin N.Y., the singer was similarly honored annually from 1975 to 1982.
In 1982, Cruz was reunited with La Sonora Matancera and released Feliz Encuentro. Later that year, she was honored in a concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. 20,000 people there, as well as television viewers throughout the world, watched and danced as she sang with those who had contributed to her career over the years: La Sonora Matancera, Puente, Cheo Feliciano, Pacheco, Pete Rodríguez, and Willie Colón. In 1983, Cruz was presented with a gold record (along with Barretto and Adalberto Santiago) for their Fania Records release Tremendo Trio.
The latter half of the 1980s found Cruz as busy as ever. In 1985, she sang with various groups and lit up the stage with her special Yoruba music. The following year she was presented with an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, also known as the Mayor’s Liberty Award, by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations. In 1987, Vaya Records released Cruz’s 53rd album, a collaboration with Willie Colón entitled The Winners. She performed in New York City’s Annual Salsa Festival at the Garden and also won a fourth Grammy nomination, a New York Music Award for best Latin artist, and an Obie for her work Off-Broadway that year.
Among her many notable concerts of the decade was a 1988 tribute to Frank Grillo, or Machito, a musician essential to the development of Afro-Cuban jazz who had worked with Cruz for years. According to the New York Times, Cruz’s performance was dazzling. Her “voice, piercing and intense, ripped through the glittery band arrangements; as an improviser, Miss Cruz phrases as if she were a drummer.” Cruz gave a concert in New York City’s Harlem on October 21, 1989, along with Cuban jazz star Mario Bauza, Puente, Chico O’Farill, Marco Rizo, drummer Max Roach, and saxophonist Henry Threadgill. The Times assessed, “Mr. Bauza’s band played one of his modernist compositions and Miss Cruz, who was celebrating her birthday, sang a set of her tunes, shouting out phrases with the authority of a trumpeter; she’s one of the world’s great singers, and she proved it again.” Cruz wrapped up the ’80s by earning another Grammy Award; in the Latin category, she won for best tropical performance for Ritmo En El Corazon, another album recorded with Ray Barretto.
From Manhattan to Miami, salsa is a prevailing force in Hispanic youth culture, and popular singers like Jon Secada and Gloria Estefan, who says she was inspired by Cruz, base their songs on a salsa beat. Cruz explained the lure of salsa in Time: “We’ve never had to attract these kids. They come by themselves. Rock is a strong influence on them, but they still want to know about their roots. The Cuban rhythms are so contagious that they end up making room for both kinds of music in their lives.” Attested the magazine, “Young Cuban Americans have gathered to see the reigning Reina de la Salsa, Celia Cruz, who was entertaining their parents and their parents’ parents in the smoky dens and fancy nightclubs of pre-Castro Cuba long before they were born.”
Although Celia Cruz has been exciting audiences since the late 1940s with her unique voice and inexhaustible energy and has recorded more than 70 albums, she refuses to retire or even slow down. She told the New York Times, “I have no choice, really, but to put in as much time and energy as I do. I have a lot more to do.” Nonetheless, the Queen of Salsa does ponder a time when she can no longer perform and wishes more women would sing salsa. “Someday, I have to die,” she said in the Times. “I want people to say, ’Celia Cruz has died, but here is someone who can take over.’”
(With Johnny Pacheco) Celia and Johnny, Vaya, 1974.
(With La Sonora Matancera) Feliz Encuentro, 1982.
(With Ray Barretto and Adalberto Santiago) Tremendo Trio, Fania, 1983.
(With Willie Colón) The Winners, Vaya, 1987.
(With La Sonora Matancera) Canciónes Premiadas, Seeco-Tropical, reissued, 1992.
(With La Sonora Matancera) Su Favorite, Seeco-Tropical, 1992.
Canta Celia Cruz, Seeco-Tropical, 1992.
(Contributor) The Mambo Kings (soundtrack), Elektra, 1992.
Azucar Negra (Black Sugar), RMM/Sony Discos, 1993.
Celia Cruz Sings, Palladium.
La Dinamica! Celia Cruz, Palladium.
La Reina del Ritmo Cubano, Palladium.
La Incomparable Celia, Palladium.
La Tierna, Conmovedora, Bamboleadora, Palladium.
Con Amor, Seeco.
Grand Exitos de Celia Cruz, Seeco.
Mexico qué Grande Eres, Seeco.
Homenaje a los Santos, Seeco.
Sabor y Ritmo de Pueblos, Seeco.
Homenaje a Yemaya de Celia Cruz, Seeco.
Celia Cruz Interpreta El Yerbero y La Sopa en Botella, Seeco.
Tremendo Cache, Vaya.
Recordando El Ayer, Vaya.
(With Barretto) Ritmo En El Corazon.
With Tito Puente; on Tico
Cuba y Puerto Rico Son.
El Quimbo Quimbunbia.
Alma con Alma.
Algo Especial Para Recordar.
Boston Globe, March 20, 1988.
Chicago Tribune, October 2, 1988; May 22, 1992.
Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1991.
Más (Spanish-language; translated by Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson), November 1991.
New York Times, August 30, 1987; July 1, 1988; July 4, 1988; October 29, 1989; December 14, 1992.
Nuestro, May 1980.
Rolling Stone, September 21, 1989.
Time, July 11, 1988.
Variety, November 27, 1985; October 25, 1989; November 5, 1990.
Vogue, June 1984.
Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Fall 1990.
The Queen of Salsa, the Queen of Mambo, the Queen of Latin Music—Celia Cruz reigns as supreme diva. During her illustrious career, Cruz has performed across the globe with other top Latin musicians, recorded more than 50 albums—20 of which went gold, and earned over 100 awards from various countries. The legendary singer with the rich, powerful, contralto voice covering several octaves is known for her incredible ability at improvisation, flamboyant costumes and for sprinkling audiences with sugar during live performances. She has opened doors for other women performers during her career spanning almost fifty years, in a formerly male dominated Latin music world. Although some try to compare her style to jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Sara Vaughan because of her quick staccato interjections of jazz-like scat, Cruz has a unique style, unrivaled by another; she has created her own musical niche.
Salsa sound has been described as Cuban music combined with Puerto Rican and other influences, and behind it all, African religious music. Salsa has a wide range of colorful associations, with an up beat tempo,
Born on October 21, 1924; raisedp in the Barrio Santo Suarez, Cuba; came to the United States in 1960, and became a citizen in 1961; married Pedro Knight, trumpeter, 1962; Education: Studied at Havana, Cuba’s National Conservatory of Music, 1947-50.
Began singing on Cuban radio in the late 1940’s; in 1950, became the lead singer of Cuban big band, La Sonora Matancera, recording and touring with them until 1965; joined Tito Puente Orchestra in 1966; recorded eight albums with him; sang the role of Gracia Divina at Carnagie Hall in Larry Harlow’s Hommy-A Latin opera, 1973; during the 1980’s and 1990’s performed with such artists as pop singer David Byrne, Emilio Estefan, and Willie Chirino; cameo roles in The Mambo Kings and The Perez Family; has recorded over 50 albums, 20 of which became gold; performed worldwide.
Awards: Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Album, 1989, awarded medal by President Clinton from the National Endowment of the Arts, 1994.
Addresses: Record Company —OmarPardillo-Cid, RMM Records, 568 Broadway, Suite 806, New York, NY 10012; Agent —Bookings Online Talent Agency, Ltd., 236 West 26th St., Ste. 701, New York, NY 10001. Websites —www.rmmrecords.com.
and includes a wide range of Latin styles and rhythms. Cruz described salsa for World Music: The Rough Guide, “Salsa is Cuban music with another name. It’s mambo, chachacha, rumba, son…. All the Cuban rhythms under one name.” Myth claims that the term “salsa” was created by a Venezuelan radio disc jockey.
Salsa’s roots hail back to the 18th century with the Cuban “son,” a rhythm created by Theodora Ginez. It evolved with the influx of Haitians and French to Cuba, and for a while the government officially forbade its playing, saying its lyrics, which protested slavery, encouraged riots. “Son” combined both the African and Spanish roots of Cuban music, with the African percussion and rhythm, the flavor of Spanish guitar, and the style of call and response between one or two male singers. The unifying theme behind it all are the references to a conglomeration of various religions, including Afro-Catholic, incorporating the inconsistencies among them. Through song, the singers hail deities and invoke various goddesses. Although links to deities, goddesses, and saints may be unspoken, many in the audiences understand the connections through the singer’s actions on stage.
Celia Cruz was born on October 21, 1924, and grew up in the Barrio, Santo Suarez, near Havana, Cuba. She was one of four children. As a child she often sang for her family, many times singing her siblings to sleep at night. Later as a teen, she sang in school programs, and soon began entering and winning local radio talent shows. By 1947 she had won her first prize on a radio program, and enrolled in Havana’s National Conservatory of Music, which she attended until 1950. Encouraged by her father, she first dreamt of becoming a teacher. Then a professor at the Conservatory persuaded her she was destined to be a professional singer, and soon Cruz’s first big opportunity would present itself.
Cruz said one of her first influences was a singer, Paulina Alvarez, who was the first singer she ever saw performing in front of an orchestra. Cruz dreamt of performing as Alvarez did, in spite of her different singing style. It was a dream destined to come true. Her big break came when she was chosen to replace the lead singer for the popular Cuban big band, La Sonora Matancera. Beginning in1950, Cruz recorded and toured extensively with the band throughout Latin America and Mexico for the next fifteen years. She and La Sonora came to be known as “Cafe con Leche” (“coffee with milk”).
Cruz left Cuba with La Sonora Matancera after the revolution when Fidel Castro came to power, arriving in the United States in 1960. The following year, in 1961, Cruz became a U.S. citizen. Also during 1961, she met Pedro Knight, a trumpet player with the orchestra she was contracted to perform with at Hollywood, California’s Palladium. In 1962 she married Knight, who in 1965 put his own career aside to manage his wife’s career. During the 1920s and 1930s the salsa style had regained popularity with various bands continuing innovations to el son. Perez Prado’s 1949 hit, “Mambo #5,” officially kicked off the mambo era.
Tito Puente was among those who adapted Prado’s sound for audiences and the dance crowds of New York during the 1950s. In 1966 Cruz joined Tito Puente’s Orchestra and recorded eight albums with him on Tico Records. Cruz maintained her alliance with Puente into the 1990s, performing in Europe with him. Puente is known as the King of Latin Music.
In 1973 Cruz sang at Carnagie Hall in the role of Gracia Divina in Larry Harlow’s Hommy-A Latin opera, an adaption of the rock opera, Tommy, by the Who. It was during this time that salsa music was revitalized in the United States. Throughout the 1970’s Cruz performed with many others including Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colon, and the Fania All-Stars. The All-Stars included other salsa notables such as Bobby Cruz, Ricardo Ray, Ismael Quintana, Larry Harlow, Ray Barretto, and many more. During this time as a featured singer with the Fania All-Stars she toured worldwide with the group including spots in London, England, Cannes, France, and Zaire, Africa.
Willie Colon, singer and trombonist, was responsible for much innovation in salsa in New York, as was Johnny Pacheco, musician and producer who directed Fania Records. Cruz and Pacheco made the album, Celia and Johnny, which went gold. She and Pacheco would team up and produce two more hit albums. Soon this style was copied in Latin America, and the Caribbean, but New York maintained its position as the creative and evolutionary center of the Latin music world.
During the 1980s and 1990s Cruz performed with a wide range of talent, including David Byrne, Emilio Estefan, and Willie Chirino. She has appeared in cameo roles in The Perez Family and The Mambo Kings; exposure in both films gained herthe attention of a greater non-Latin audience. Although Cruz is one of the few Latin singers with an extensive audience in the U.S., language barriers interfere with breakthrough onto pop charts in the United States. Unlike many European countries where people speak several languages, and American music is played alongside the music of that country, salsa may get limited air time in the United States because it isn’t in English.
Cruz has been recognized in countries worldwide by various institutions, newspapers, and magazines. Some of her awards include an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University, a star on Hollywood Boulevard in California, a Grammy Award in 1989 for Best Tropical Latin Album, plus many Grammy nominations over the years. She received a medal from President Clinton in 1994 from the National Endowment of the Arts. Cruz is included in Walks of Fame in Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Mexico. She has earned many other awards during her career, over 100 total.
She continues recording and performing live, showing no signs of slowing down. Cruz tours about ten months out of each year. “Azúcar” is her calling card, and she is known for her ability at improvisation as well as her talent to bring a sense of euphoria through her music to her audience. Peter Watrous of the New York Times, described her voice during a 1995 performance: “Her voice sounded, as if it were made of cast iron, durable and pure. “Ina later review, of a performance in November 1996 at the Blue Note, Greenwich Village, New York, which Watrous also covered for the New York Times, he noted Cruz’s use of “rich, metaphorical language.” He added, “This was virtuosity that is rarely heard, where a combination of languages, cultures, and epoches all added up to a deep intelligence, a Creole vision of the New World’s promise.”
In spite of her monumental success, reigning as supreme diva over Latin music for over 40 years, one of Cruz’s fondest desires has nothing to do with music. She told Beat interviewer, Derek Rath, she would welcome the opportunity to return to Cuba, to visit her mother’s grave. Cruz’s greatest rewards come from her ability to bring others happiness through her music. She told Rath, “When I sing I put everything I have inside me into it, a lot of love. Music is the only gift I have that was given to me by God…. [it] is my purpose in life…. I want people to feel their hearts sing and their spirits soar.”
The Winners, Vaya, 1987.
Best, Sony/Globo, 1992, originally issued on Fania Records.
Best Vol. 2, Sony Discos/Globo, 1994.
Canciones Premiadas, Palladium, 1994.
Irrepetible, UNI/RMM, 1994.
La Tierna Conmovedora Bambolea, Palladium, 1994.
Homenaje a Los Santos, Polydor, 1994.
Cuba’s Queen of Rhythm, Palladium, 1995.
Canta Celia Cruz, Palladium, 1995.
Irresistible, Sony Discos/Orfeón, 1995.
Azúcar Negra, UNI/RMM, 1998.
Su Favorita Celia Cruz, Secco.
Reflexiones De Celia Cruz, Secco.
Bravo Celia Cruz, Tico.
With Tito Puente
Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son, Tico.
El Quimbo Quimbumbia, Tico.
Alma Con Alma, Tico.
Algo Especial Para Recordar, Tico.
Homenaje A Beny More, Vaya.
With La Sonora Matancera
100% Azúcar: The Best of Celia, Rhino Records, 1997.
Cuba’s Foremost Rhythm Singer with Sonora Matancera, Secco.
Con Amor: Celia Cruz with La Sonora Matancera, Secco.
La Incomparable Celia and Sonora Matancera, Secco.
Feliz Encuentro, Barbaro.
Nostalgia Tropical, Orfeón.
Duets, UNI/RMM, 1997.
Fania All-Stars, Sony Discos, 1997.
Celia and Johnny, Vaya.
Celia and Willie Colon, Vaya.
Broughton, Simon, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman, and Richard Trillo, editors, World Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, 1994.
Erlewine, Michael, Chris Woodstra, and Vladimir Bogdanov, editors, All-Music Guide, Miller Freeman Books, 1994.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer Books, 1992.
Beat, #6, 1995, p. 42-45.
Interview, November 1996.
Metro Times (Detroit, Ml), November 5-11, 1997, p. 50.
Mirabella, June 1994.
New York Times, July 4, 1995, p. 26; November 23, 1996, p. 14; (magazine) November 1, 1992.
Stereo Review, January 1995, p. 8.
Additional information was provided by publicist, Omar Pardillo-Cid of RMM Records.
Cuban-born singing star Celia Cruz (1925–2003) has been hailed as the queen of salsa, the queen of rumba, the queen of Latin music, and an inadvertent symbol of the Cuban American community's exile spirit. Cruz, who fled the Caribbean island nation in 1960, became a world-famous singer with an energetic, flamboyant stage presence that brought audiences to their feet. "Cruz is undisputedly the best-known and most influential female figure in the history of Afro-Cuban music," declared Billboard's Leila Cobo.
Though sometimes evasive about her age, it is believed that Cruz was born on October 21, 1925, in Havana, Cuba. Cruz grew up in the Santo Suárez area of Havana in a household headed by her father, a railroad stoker. The family was of Afro-Cuban heritage, descendants of the Africans who were forcibly brought to the island nation to work in its vast sugar fields in centuries past, and eventually grew to include 14 children, some of them Cruz's cousins. As the second eldest child, she would often have to put the younger ones to bed and would sing them to sleep. The adults in the household, hearing her voice, began to gather outside the door to listen themselves.
In her teens, Cruz entered and won first prize in a radio contest, "La hora del té," by singing a tango song. She began entering other amateur contests, and though her mother was encouraging, her father strongly disapproved of her ambitions to become a singer in Cuba's strong salsa scene. This musical style merged elements from traditional Spanish music with the African rhythms that came from the island's former slave population and exemplified national character traits of both exuberance and a penchant for romantic melancholy. Cruz's father hoped instead that she would become a teacher, and so to placate him Cruz entered the local teachers' college for a time, but quit when her singing career began to take off in earnest. From 1947 to 1950 she studied music theory, voice, and piano at the National Conservatory of Music in Havana, but even a teacher there suggested that she pursue stardom full-time.
Fled Castro Regime
Cruz's break came when La Sonora Matancera, a popular Cuban band, hired her as their lead vocalist in 1950. She had a tough time at first, for female singers were a relative rarity in Cuban music—the stage was considered an unseemly place for a woman—and she replaced a singer with a popular following. Irate fans even wrote to the radio station that broadcast La Sonora Matancera performances, but as Cruz told Cobo in Billboard, she was unfazed. "I could care less. This was my job—the job of my dreams and the job that fed me." Even an American record company executive that signed the band was uneasy with the proposition of a rumba track with a female singer, so the band's leader, Rogelio Martínez, promised to pay Cruz out of his own pocket for the session if the record failed to catch on, but the song was a hit.
Both La Sonora Matancera and Cruz became stars in Cuba. Throughout the 1950s, they played regularly at Havana's famed Tropicana nightclub, appeared in films, and toured extensively throughout Latin America. These heady years ended in 1959 when Communist leader Fidel Castro seized power and Cuba became a socialist state. A year and a half later, Cruz was with La Sonora Matancera on a Mexican tour when they defected en masse on July 15, 1960. The band settled in the United States, and Cruz soon became a naturalized citizen. Castro was irate that one of his country's most popular musical acts had made such a public statement against his regime and vowed that none would ever be granted entry back into Cuba again. Cruz tried to return when her mother died in 1962 but was unable to secure government permission. That same year, she wed Pedro Knight, La Sonora Matancera's trumpet player, who would eventually become her manager and musical director for much of her career.
Teamed with Puente
For much of the decade, Cruz remained relatively unknown in the United States outside of the Cuban exile community, but that changed when she joined the Tito Puente Orchestra in the mid-1960s. The popular percussionist and bandleader from Puerto Rico had a large following across Latin America, and as frontperson Cruz again became a dynamic focus for the act. Puente, who died in 2000, once told New York Times writer Elizabeth Llorente, "She keeps the musicians on their toes.… We'll be huffing, exhausted, and she'll be on a roll, with more Tina Turner energy left in her than all of us together."
Cruz recorded several albums with Puente, including Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son in 1966. But it was her stage presence that made her such a compelling figure in Latin music. She had a strong, husky voice that could hold its own against a hard-working rhythm section and was a tireless dancer, storyteller, and audience-rouser. Fans adored her glitzy stage outfits, often sewn from yards of fabric and embellished with sequins, feathers, or lace. Reportedly she never wore the same one twice. High heels and towering wigs only added to the diminutive singer's allure. Her signature shout, "Azucar!" (Sugar!), came from a dining experience at a Miami restaurant, when her Cuban waiter asked if she took sugar in her coffee. As she recalled in the Billboard interview with Cobo, "I said, 'Chico, you're Cuban. How can you even ask that? With sugar!' And that evening during my show—I always talk during the show so the horn players can rest their mouths—I told the audience the story and they laughed. And one day, instead of telling the story, I simply walked down the stairs and shouted 'Azucar!'"
Latin Music's Own Tina Turner
By the 1970s, the salsa sound had caught on with a new generation of Latin Americans, riding a resurgence of ethnic pride and interest in the music of their parents' era. Cruz even appeared at Carnegie Hall for a 1973 staging of Hommy–A Latin Opera, the Spanish-language adaptation of the hit rock opera from the Who's Tommy. For a number of years, she was signed to the Fania label, a salsa-source powerhouse co-owned by trombonist Willie Colón, with whom she recorded an acclaimed 1974 work, Celia and Johnny. She performed regularly with the Fania All-Stars, including a 1976 concert at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx that was recorded and released as a double album. The singer also appeared annually at a New York City salsa-fest held at Madison Square Garden. "Onstage, she leaps, dances, flaunts, flirts and teases to the gyrating beat of salsa," wrote Llorente in a 1987 New York Times article. "She improvises playfully, trading riffs with the chorus and instruments. And just when she seems deeply lost in a song about a doomed love affair—microphone clutched, eyes closed, tears imminent—she looks out at the audience and tosses them an aside ('The man was a jerk, anyway')."
Cruz lived in the New York City area but was also a star in Miami and performed there often. For Cuban Americans, she seemed to symbolize the trajectory of its large exile community centered in southern Florida—many of whom, like her, had fled the Castro regime and then achieved personal and professional success in their adopted homeland. Most were avowed foes of Castro and asserted, as Cruz had also done, that they would never to return to Cuba unless it became a democracy. One song in her repertoire, "Canto a la Habana" (Song to Havana), featured the line, "Cuba que lindos son tus paisajes" (Cuba, what beautiful vistas you have), which would incite an emotional eruption from her audiences. Cruz even gained a following among the second generation of Cuban Americans, noted New York Times writer Mirta Ojito. To those "who left Cuba as children or were born in the United States," Ojito wrote, "Cruz embodied the Cuba of the 1950's, an era that, through the prism of exile and the passing of decades, has become mythic for them."
Won Several Grammys
Over the years, Cruz worked with a roster of performers that proved her crossover appeal, though she never sang in anything but her native Spanish language. She recorded or collaborated with Brazilian star Caetano Veloso, Patti La-Belle, Wyclef Jean of the Fugees, producer Emilio Estefan, the tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and even former Talking Heads singer David Byrne. With him she sang a duet, "Loco de Amor," that appeared on the soundtrack to the 1986 film Something Wild. In the 1992 film The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, she was cast as a nightclub owner, and she also appeared in 1995's The Perez Family. Her awards included a Grammy for best tropical Latin album of 1989 for Ritmo en el corazón, a collaboration with conga player Ray Barretto, and she took three consecutive Latin Grammy awards when the honors were established in 2000, including best salsa album of 2002 for La Negra Tiene Tumbao, which spawned a hit single of the same name.
Cruz was not slowed by age and still toured heavily and recorded well into her seventies. "My life is singing," she told Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service reporter Mario Tarradell in 2002. "I don't plan on retiring. I plan to die on a stage. I can have a headache. But when it's time to sing and I step on that stage, there's no more headache. As long as I'm doing what I want to do, I feel good." Her final album was Regalo de Alma ("Gift from the Soul"), recorded in early 2003 when she was already suffering from cancer. She died on July 16, 2003, at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She had requested that her funeral include two public viewings—one in New York City and a second in Miami. Thousands turned out for each, including a woman dressed as a patron saint in Roman Catholic iconography who stood outside the Madison Avenue funeral home the entire day holding a Cuban flag and a Colombian man who was a regular performer on New York city subway platforms, dancing to Cruz's repertoire with a foam doll.
In Miami, Cruz's casket stood inside a building known as the Freedom Tower, once an immigration-processing center that was the first stop in the United States for some half a million Cuban exiles in the 1960s and 1970s. "For the almost two million Cubans who live outside the island," noted Ojito in the New York Times, "Cruz was an icon.… She embodied what Cubans view as some of their best qualities, strong family ties, an impeccable work ethic and a joy in living, even in the face of calamity." Many of the fans who stood in line for hours in both cities, however, carried the flags of Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Ecuador, and even Jamaica, a testament to Cruz's immense appeal throughout the Latin and Caribbean world.
Contemporary Hispanic Biography, Volume 1, Gale, 2002.
Billboard, October 28, 2000; July 26, 2003.
Economist, July 26, 2003.
Entertainment Weekly, August 1, 2003.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, September 13, 2002; July 16, 2003; July 19, 2003; July 22, 2003.
New York Times, August 30, 1987; July 17, 2003; July 20, 2003; July 22, 2003.
People, August 4, 2003.
Time, July 11, 1998.
(b. 21 October 1925 in Havana, Cuba; d. 16 July 2003 in Fort Lee, New Jersey), singer and actress known as the Queen of Salsa.
Cruz was born Úrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso in the working-class Santos Súrez neighborhood of Havana to Simón Cruz, a railroad worker from Los Palacios, Cuba, and Catalina (“Ollita”) (Alfonso) Cruz, a homemaker from Pinar del Río, Cuba. Cruz had two sisters and one brother. At the age of six she was enrolled at Santos Súrez Public School No. 6, also called República Mexicana. She attended the Academy of the Oblate Sisters, a Catholic school for black girls, where she studied typing, shorthand, and English. In 1938 Cruz attended the Escuela Normal de Maestras, a teacher’s school, where she entered singing contests to make extra money and to win food prizes.
Many relatives lived in the Cruz home, and Cruz often sang for them and for friends and neighbors who stopped to listen outside the house. Carnival season exposed Cruz to music at an early age. She idolized Paulina Álvarez and emulated her singing style before finding her own signature presence. Although her mother supported her singing, Cruz’s father had reservations because of the machismo and decadence associated with the entertainment scene.
In 1950 Cruz became the lead vocalist for La Sonora Matancera, a popular all-male Cuban dance band. She replaced Myrta Silva, who returned to Puerto Rico. On the first day of rehearsal, Cruz met her future husband, the trumpet player Pedro Knight, who assisted her with musical arrangements. Cruz initially was not accepted by the Cuban public. Some fans of the band objected to Cruz’s dark skin and large nose and mouth, considered the strong contralto of her voice unusual, or resented her for not being Myrta Silva. Not until her first recording with the La Sonora Matancera, “Mata Siguaraya” (1951), was released did audiences accept Cruz. Cruz’s talent, self-confidence, patience, and professionalism won over not only the Cuban public but also her father.
La Sonora Matancera was included in the Guinness Book of World Records as the musical group that had the most radio programs, the largest number of recordings issued, and singers of the most nationalities. Two of the songs Cruz recorded with the group, “El Yerbero Moderno” and “Burundanga” (1957), for which she received her first gold record, are considered standards of the Cuban genre. In the early 1950s Cruz met the band-leader Tito Puente, who became one of Cruz’s most important and frequent collaborators.
On 15 July 1960 Cruz and La Sonora Matancera left Cuba for Mexico to live and perform in exile. In Mexico, Cruz discovered her adaptability and flexibility in working with different bands, different musical styles, and international audiences. She sang afros, rumbas, guarachas, sones, tangos, boleros, mariachis, flamenco, guaguancó, and santeria chants. Cruz spread the Cuban style throughout the world in music and in film. She toured Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize (then British Honduras). In 1961 Cruz became a permanent resident of the United States.
The day after her mother died in 1962, Cruz requested permission to return to Cuba for the funeral. Considered a traitor by the Cuban regime, Cruz was denied entry, an act she never forgave. On 18 June 1962, Cruz became the first Hispanic woman to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City. On 14 July 1962, Cruz married Knight, who later became her agent and musical director. In 1964 Cruz gave a debut stage performance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, a popular center for black American artists and performers. Cruz also gave many performances at the Palladium in New York City, a mecca for Cuban musicians. Cruz joined Puente’s orchestra in January 1966. The release of their first album, Celia Cruz y Tito Puente, Cuba y Puerto Rico Son (1966), was followed by an extensive tour, which separated Cruz and Knight, who was still part of La Sonora Matancera. In 1967 Knight reasoned that he was married to Cruz and not to his band and thereafter devoted his time to Cruz’s career.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Cruz was the only woman member of the Fania All-Stars, a group of Latin musicians drawn from Fania Records artists. In 1974 the bandleader and music producer Johnny Pacheco and his partner, the promoter Jerry Masucci, used the Fania All-Stars and Fania Records to launch salsa, a music-marketing term that united various forms of Latin music: Dominican meringue, Colombian cumbia, Puerto-Rican bomba, and Cuban guaracha or guaguancó. On 29 March 1973, at Carnegie Hall, Cruz performed as Gracia Divina in the salsa opera Hommy (1973), based on the Who’s rock opera, Tommy (1969), further popularizing salsa music. Cruz soon became recognized as the Queen of Salsa and la Guarachera de Cuba. According to her autobiography, Cruz began using her catchphrase “ÙAzúcar!” in the early 1970s. The expression, meaning “sugar,” resulted from a funny story she would tell on stage about ordering coffee in a Cuban restaurant. In 1975, as a prelude to the famous fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Cruz performed with Pacheco and the Fania All-Stars in Zaire (later the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in a series of concerts that also included Motown singers.
Cruz became an American citizen in 1977. She revealed that being a Cuban exile made her love Cuba even more but that being a U.S. citizen allowed her to travel the world without constraint. In the 1980s Cruz worked with various charitable causes, including the Liga Contra el Cáncer and a telethon for the survivors of the earthquake that struck Mexico City on 19 September 1985. She continued to tour the world. In 1987 in the Canary Islands, Cruz performed to an audience of approximately 240,000 persons, a number that made the Guinness Book of World Records. In the 1990s Cruz worked in film and television. She played a nightclub owner, a role created for her, in The Mambo Kings (1992), based on the novel by the Cuban-American author Oscar Hijuelos. In 1995 Cruz starred in another film, The Perez Family (1995), as a Santeria priestess. She also acted in two Mexican telenovelas, or soap operas.
Cruz won her first Grammy Award in 1989 for her album Ritmo en el Corazón (1988). Also that year she sang the Cuban national anthem at the White House, received an honorary doctorate from Yale University for her contributions to music, and reunited with La Sonora Matancera to perform in celebration of the group’s seventy-fifth anniversary. In 1994 Cruz received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton. In 2002 she continued to collaborate with various artists and incorporated rap music into her repertoire, particularly with the song “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” (2001) on the album of the same name, which won a Grammy and a Latin Grammy for Best Salsa Album. In February 2003 Cruz established the Celia Cruz Foundation devoted to the musical education of Hispanic youth. Also that year she recorded the vocals for her last album, Regalo del Alma (2003), for which she won Grammy and Billboard awards.
Cruz’s dedication to her music and her fans often hid the fact that she sometimes performed while injured, during times of tragedy, and during periods of illness. Cruz underwent surgery for breast cancer in August 2002 and for a brain tumor in December 2002. Rumors of her death prompted Cruz to have herself photographed with newspapers and magazines, to establish that she persevered. On 14 July 2003 Cruz and Knight celebrated their forty-first wedding anniversary. Two days later Cruz died of the brain tumor at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey. More than fifteen hundred people viewed Cruz’s body at the Freedom Tower in Miami, Florida. After a funeral Mass on 22 July 2003 at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, Cruz was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York City. She was laid to rest with the first printing of her last album and with a bag of Cuban soil. In 1990, while singing for Cuban refugees at Guantánamo Bay, Cruz had put her hand through the fence to collect soil from the Cuban side.
Cruz shares exhibit space at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History with such music legends as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. She was an international superstar in the male-dominated world of salsa music and had the respect of her peers. Ana Cristina Reymundo, the writer who collaborated with Cruz on her autobiography, described Cruz as flamboyant and colorful but avoiding vulgarity and crudeness. Cruz wore wigs, long nails, false eyelashes, large jewelry, and extravagant makeup as part of her signature entertainment style. Cruz also offered a realistic outlook on her successes in entertainment: “The secret doesn’t lie in being fashionable or in prancing around half-naked.... The most important thing entertainers have to do is show their fans affection and respect.” Cruz was passionate about Cuba as well as her music and used the world stage to express her desire to return to a Cuba free of Communism. This attitude earned her both praise and criticism from her fans and fellow entertainers.
For information about Cruz’s life and career and a list of her awards and honors, see her autobiography, written with Ana Cristina Reymundo, Celia: My Life (2004). Eduardo Marceles, ÙAzúcar! The Biography of Celia Cruz (2004) contains a glossary of Spanish musical terms, an extensive discography, and lists of books, magazines, and newspaper articles. For information about Cruz’s musical legacy, see Lydia Martin, “The Queen of Staying Power,” Hispanic (June 2002): 54–55; and Lydia Martin, “Forever Celia,” Hispanic (September 2003): 20–21. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (both 17 July 2003).
Born October 21, 1925, in Havana, Cuba; died of brain cancer, July 16, 2003, in Fort Lee, NJ. Singer. Cuban–born singing star Celia Cruz has been hailed as the queen of salsa, rumba, and Latin music, and an inadvertent symbol of the Cuban–American community's exile spirit. Cruz, who fled the Caribbean island nation in 1960, became a world–famous singer with an energetic, flamboyant stage presence that brought audiences to their feet. "Cruz is undisputedly the best–known and most influential female figure in the history of Afro–Cuban music," declared Billboard's Leila Cobo.
Though sometimes evasive about her age, news sources reported that Cruz was 77 when she died in 2003, which placed her birth date at October 21, 1925. A native of Havana, Cuba, she grew up in a household headed by her father, a railroad stoker. The family was of Afro–Cuban heritage, descendants of the Africans who were forcibly brought to the island nation to work in its vast sugar fields in centuries past, and eventually grew to include 14 children, some of them Cruz's cousins. As the second eldest child, she would often have to put the younger ones to bed, and would sing them to sleep.
In her teens, Cruz entered and won first prize in a radio contest, "La hora del té," by singing a tango song. She began entering other amateur contests, and though her mother was encouraging, her father strongly disapproved of her ambitions to become a singer in Cuba's strong salsa scene. This musical style merged elements from traditional Spanish music with the African rhythms that came from the island's former slave population, and exemplified national character traits of both exuberance and a penchant for romantic melancholy. Cruz's father hoped instead that she would become a teacher, and so to placate him Cruz entered the local teachers' college for a time, but quit when her singing career began to take off in earnest. From 1947 to 1950 she studied music theory, voice and piano at the National Conservatory of Music in Havana.
Cruz's break came when La Sonora Matancera, a popular Cuban band, hired her as their lead vocalist in 1950. She had a tough time at first, because female singers were a relative rarity in Cuban music and she replaced a singer with a popular following. Irate fans even wrote to the radio station that broadcast La Sonora Matancera performances, but as Cruz told Cobo in Billboard, she was unfazed. "I could [not] care less. This was my job—the job of my dreams and the job that fed me." Even an American record company executive that signed the band was uneasy with the proposition of a rumba track with a female singer, so the band's leader, Rogelio Martínez, promised to pay Cruz out of his own pocket for the session if the record failed to catch on, but the song was a hit.
Both La Sonora Matancera and Cruz became stars in Cuba. Throughout the 1950s, they played regularly at Havana's famed Tropicana nightclub, appeared in films, and toured extensively throughout Latin America. These heady years ended in 1959 when Communist leader Fidel Castro seized power and Cuba became a socialist state. A year and a half later, Cruz was with La Sonora Matancera on a Mexican tour when they defected en masse on July 15, 1960. The band settled in the United States, and Cruz soon became a naturalized citizen. Castro was irate that one of his country's most popular musical acts had made such a public statement against his regime, and vowed that none would ever be granted entry back into Cuba again. Cruz tried to return when her mother died in 1962, but was unable to secure government permission. That same year, she wed Pedro Knight, La Sonora Matancera's trumpet player, who would eventually become her manager and musical director for much of her career.
At first, Cruz remained relatively unknown in the United States outside of the Cuban exile community, but that changed when she joined the Tito Puente Orchestra in the mid–1960s. The popular percussionist and bandleader from Puerto Rico had a large following across Latin America, and as the frontperson, Cruz again became a dynamic focus for the act.
Cruz recorded several albums with Puente, including Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son in 1966. But it was her stage presence that made her such a compelling figure in Latin music. She had a strong, husky voice that could hold its own against a hard–working rhythm section, and was a tireless dancer, storyteller, and audience–rouser. Fans adored her glitzy stage outfits, often sewn from yards of fabric and embellished with sequins, feathers, or lace. Reportedly she never wore the same one twice. High heels and towering wigs only added to the diminutive singer's allure. Her signature shout, "Azucar!" (Sugar!), came from a dining experience at a Miami restaurant, when her Cuban waiter asked if she took sugar in her coffee. As she recalled in the Billboard interview with Cobo, "I said, 'Chico, you're Cuban. How can you even ask that? With sugar!' And that evening during my show—I always talk during the show so the horn players can rest their mouths—I told the audience the story and they laughed. And one day, instead of telling the story, I simply walked down the stairs and shouted 'Azucar!'"
By the 1970s, the salsa sound had caught on with a new generation of Latin Americans, riding a resurgence of ethnic pride and interest in the music of their parents' era. Cruz even appeared at Carnegie Hall for a 1973 staging of Hommy—A Latin Opera, the Spanish–language adaptation of the hit rock opera from the Who, Tommy. For a number of years, she was signed to the Fania label, a salsa–source powerhouse co–owned by trombonist Willie Colón, with whom she recorded an acclaimed 1974 work, Celia and Willie. She performed regularly with the Fania All–Stars, including a 1976 concert at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx that was recorded and released as a double album. The singer also appeared annually at a New York City salsa–fest held at Madison Square Garden.
Cruz lived in the New York City area, but was also a star in Miami and performed there often. For Cuban–Americans, she seemed to symbolize the trajectory of its large exile community centered in southern Florida—many of whom, like her, had fled the Castro regime and then achieved personal and professional success in their adopted homeland. Most were avowed foes of Castro and asserted, as Cruz had also done, that they would never to return to Cuba unless it became a democracy.
Over the years, Cruz worked with a roster of performers that proved her crossover appeal, though she never sang in anything but her native Spanish language. She recorded or collaborated with Brazilian star Caetano Veloso, R&B singer Patti LaBelle, Wyclef Jean of the Fugees, producer Emilio Estefan, the tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and even former Talking Heads singer David Byrne. In the 1992 film The Mambo Kings, she was cast as a nightclub owner, and she also appeared in 1995's The Perez Family. Her awards included a Grammy for best tropical Latin album of 1989 for Ritmo en el corazón, a collaboration with conga player Ray Barretto, and she took three consecutive Latin Grammy awards when the honors were established in 2000, including best salsa album of 2002 for La Negra Tiene Tumbao, which spawned a hit single of the same name.
Cruz was not slowed by age, and still toured heavily and recorded well into her seventies. "My life is singing," she told Knight–Ridder/Tribune News Service reporter Mario Tarradell in 2002. "I don't plan on retiring. I plan to die on a stage. I can have a headache. But when it's time to sing and I step on that stage, there's no more headache. As long as I'm doing what I want to do, I feel good." Her final album was Regalo de Alma ("Gift from the Soul"), recorded in early 2003 when she was already suffering from cancer. She died on July 16, 2003, at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She had requested that her funeral include two public viewings—one in New York City, and a second in Miami; thousands turned out for each.
"For the almost two million Cubans who live outside the island," noted Ojito in the New York Times, "Cruz was an icon.… She embodied what Cubans view as some of their best qualities: strong family ties, an impeccable work ethic and a joy in living, even in the face of calamity."
Billboard, July 26, 2003; Contemporary Hispanic Biography, vol. 1, Gale, 2002; Economist, July 26, 2003; Entertainment Weekly, August 1, 2003; Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 16, 2003; July 19, 2003; July 22, 2003; New York Times, July 17, 2003, p. C13; People, August 4, 2003, pp. 69-70; Time, July 11, 1998.
Genre: Latin, Tropical, Salsa
Best-selling album since 1990: La Negra Tiene Tumbao (2001)
Hit songs since 1990: "La Vida Es un Carnaval," "La Negra Tiene Tumbao"
The undisputed Queen of Salsa entered the twenty-first century still active, exuberant, and on top of the charts. Known for her elaborate costumes, her trademark cry of "Azucar!" (sugar), and her improvisational skills, Celia Cruz influenced three generations of tropical music makers.
Cruz was born in the poor Santa Suarez barrio of Havana, the second oldest of four children. In 1947 Cruz left the teacher's school she was attending to concentrate on her singing career. She studied voice and theory at Cuba's Conservatory of Music from 1947 to 1950.
Her first shot at the big time came in August 1950, when she joined Cuba's legendary Sonora Matancera. Her fifteen-year association with the group would represent the first golden age of her career. The group headlined at the Tropicana nightclub and casino during Havana's final years as a tropical playground for the rich and famous.
Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba's 1959 revolution, and La Sonora Matancera defected to the United States on July 15, 1960, under the pretext of a tour. Cruz settled in New York City for good in 1962. A furious Castro did not let her return to Cuba to visit her ailing mother or attend her father's funeral. Cruz married Matancera trumpeter Pedro Knight on July 15, 1962. In 1965 Knight stepped down from the band to become her personal manager and musical director. Cruz also left La Sonora Matancera that year.
By the early 1970s, young Hispanics looking for identity and roots rediscovered the Afro-Cuban music their
parents listened to. Now dubbed "salsa," the music encompassed rhythms such as mambo, rumba, and guaguanco, and featured piano, a horn section, and a Cuban drum set with congas and timbales. The time was perfect for Cruz to bring her music to a new audience. In 1974 she teamed up with Johnny Pacheco for the landmark Celia and Johnny. The album went gold, and Cruz's second golden age had begun. She teamed up with Sonora Matancera one more time in 1982 for Feliz Encuentro. She was awarded a Grammy Award in 1989 for Con Ritmo En El Corazón, with conga player Ray Barreto. In the 1990s, she ventured into acting, playing nightclub owner Evalina Montoya in the movie The Mambo Kings (1992) and making a cameo in The Perez Family (1995).
Cruz entered the new millennium winning three straight Latin Grammys—2000 Best Salsa Performance for Celia Cruz and Friends: A Night of Salsa, 2001 Traditional Tropical Album for Siempre Viviré, and 2002 Best Salsa Album for La Negra Tiene Tumbao. But her biggest hit of the early 2000s, "La Vida Es un Carnaval," was not from any of those albums. Included on the album Mi Vida es Cantar (1998), it became a hit after being included in the soundtrack of the Mexican movie Amores Perros (2000). In keeping with the "carnaval" title, the song features bouncy samba trumpet blasts as Cruz delivers a message of maintaining defiant optimism in tough times. No one who listened to her weathered but powerful voice could doubt she had experienced, but overcome, her share of heartaches.
In 2001 actress Whoopi Goldberg announced her interest in producing and possibly starring in a Cruz biopic. TV talk show host Cristina Saralegui and husband Marcos Avila were developing the script. Cruz died in her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, on 16 July 2003 from a brain tumor. She remained an innovative force in salsa music more than fifty years after beginning her career.
Cuba y Puerto Rico Son (Tico, 1966); Mi Vida Es Cantar (RMM, 1998); Siempre Viviré (Sony, 2000); La Negra Tiene Tumbao (Sony, 2001). Soundtrack: Amores Perros (Universal Latino, 2000).
The Mambo Kings (1992); The Perez Family (1995).
Cruz, Celia , Cuban salsa singer; b. Havana, Cuba, Oct. 21, 1924. Considered by many to be the “Queen of Salsa,” she is a feminine icon in a notoriously macho field. She has been performing for well over four decades, but her voice transcends matters of age, however, and while not quite as flexible in the 1990s as it was during her artistic heyday in the early 1950s, Cruz has proven that she still carries surprising power in her singing.
In 1950 she became the lead singer for Sonora Matancera, one of the leading Cuban orchestras of the time. This was the start of her “classic” period, when she was cementing her reputation as the most popular female singer in Cuba. Her recordings from the period she spent with Sonora Matancera (until 1965) were originally released through Seeco Records and some have been reissued through Palladium and PolyGram Latino. It was also during this time that Cruz and the band left Cuba for a tour that never made it back to their homeland, applying for residency in the United States when they were able to secure a long-term gig at the Hollywood Palladium. Cruz had a commercial down-turn from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s as the Latin audience turned to newer Latin styles like bugalu.
By the mid-1970s she was making the climb back into popularity with a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and a series of releases with Johnny Pacheco that were big sellers within the Hispanic community. By the late 1980s, her role as “Queen of Salsa” was the real deal. She received an honorary doctorate degree in music from Yale in 1989 and her album with Ray Barretto (Ritmo en el Corazon) won a Grammy Award in 1990, the same year her star appeared on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has also made cinematic appearances in the movies the Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and The Perez Family. Cruz’s later albums on RMM still carry some Latin-jazz punch but, in general, they target salsa fans.
Ritmon en el Corazon (1988); La Dinamica Celia Cruz (1991); Canciones Premiadas (1994); Irrepetible (1994); Homenaje a los Santos (1994); The Best of Celia Cruz (1994); Las Guaracheras de la Guaracha (1994); Mi Llaman la Reina (They Call Me the Queen) (1996).