Celia Cruz

Energetic singer known as the 'Queen of Salsa'

Celia Cruz, singer: born Havana 21 October 1924; married 1962 Pedro Knight; died Fort Lee, New Jersey 16 July 2003.

Celia Cruz was the "Queen of Salsa", the dominant personality in a musical style that evolved from the Cuban-inflected Latin jazz of New York City to become an internationally popular dance form.

She was the possessor of a large, raw and sexy contralto voice that invested her music with a unique fire. Her shows became legendary affairs: exhilarating celebrations of music and dance that frequently ran to over three hours. Whilst on stage she maintained an extraordinary energy level as she showed off a succession of extravagant gowns (and even more extravagant wigs) and periodically punctuated the music with her trademark cry of "Azucar!" ("Sugar!").

Over the course of a 60-year career, Cruz recorded more than 70 albums and performed alongside a veritable Who's Who of Latin music, including Tito Puente, Oscar D'Leon, Johnny Pacheco, Caetano Veloso and Marc Anthony. That she was able to succeed in a Latin music industry dominated by men is testament both to her natural talent and to her sheer determination to succeed. It is a reflection, too, of her uncanny ability to adapt her music to reflect changes in both popular taste and modern recording technology.

Despite salsa's current universality, she never, however, lost sight of its origins, commenting:

Afro-Cuban music is the root of today's Salsa. It is steeped in cultural identity and embraces the folklore of every town and province of the tropics. It is a source of pride, of happiness, of being alive. It is what I bring to the people.

Celia Cruz was born in the Santra Suarez neighbourhood of Havana in 1924. Her father had aspirations for her to become a teacher, but she was drawn increasingly to music. Legend has it that she was given her first pair of shoes by a tourist who had been impressed by her singing and as a youngster she accompanied an aunt to many of Havana's top night clubs, gaining a unique exposure to the cream of the island's musical talent.

In 1947 she enrolled at the Havana Conservatory of Music where she studied voice, theory and piano and was drawn to the work of the Afro-Cuban singer Paulina Alvarez. In 1949 she travelled to Mexico and Venezuela with the dance troupe Las Mulatas de Fuego and a year later joined the leading dance orchestra La Sonora Matancera, starting a professional association that would last for some 15 years and see her become the most popular female artist in Cuba.

They became mainstays of Havana's legendary Tropicana club, appeared on radio and television and regularly entered the recording studio. The discs they cut not only reflected their repertoire of mambos, merengues and rumbas, but also, in their obvious debt to Yoruban rhythms, looked forward to much of Cruz's later work. She toured with them across the Americas and appeared in a handful of films including Una Gallega en Habana (1955) and Olé Cuba (1957).

Shortly after Castro's Cuban revolution, Cruz and others in La Sonora Matancera used the pretext of a tour to flee to the United States. She initially struggled to establish herself in her new home, discovering that its young people were more interested in rock 'n' roll than the music of a now "hostile" neighbour. She nevertheless began to record prolifically, joining the Seeco label and at one point cutting 20 albums in the space of just a year.

In 1966 she signed with Tico records, for which she cut 14 albums, including eight with the great Latin jazz pioneer Tito Puente. Puente later recalled the first time he encountered Cruz:

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.

They continued to work together on a regular basis until Puente's death in 2000.

In 1973 Cruz landed the role of Gracia Divinia in Larry Harlow's Hommy - A Latin Opera. Staged at Carnegie Hall and inspired by the Who's rock opera, Tommy, the production gained immediate acclaim and propelled both Cruz and her co-star Cheo Feliciano to the forefront of the burgeoning fashion for salsa music.

The Dominican flautist and bandleader Johnny Pacheco had done much to develop the style through his label Fania and, as a longtime admirer of Cruz's work, he persuade her to join Vaya, a Fania subsidiary. Her first project for the label was a collaboration with Pacheco, Celia and Johnny (1974) on which she reworked some of her old Sonora Matancera material and its success led to a pair of subsequent bestsellers for the duo: Tremendo Cache (1975) and Recordando El Ayer (1976).

In the years that followed she cemented her status as a Hispanic superstar and turned out a series of popular albums including an award-winning reunion with La Sonora Matancera, entitled Feliz Encuentro (1982), Tremendo Trio (1983), on which she was joined by Ray Barretto and Adalberto Santiago, and a fine collaboration with the Bronx-born trombonist Willie Colón, The Winners (1987).

In 1989 she received an Honorary Doctorate from Yale University and, a year later, was fêted by the many Cuban exiles in Miami, for whom she had become a symbol of opposition to the Castro regime, when they renamed a street in the Little Havana district of the city Celia Cruz Way.

In 1990 Cruz's collaboration with Barretto, Ritmo en el Corazón, won the Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance. She followed it with a clutch of Latin Grammys and, earlier this year, saw her La Negra Tiene Tumbao named Salsa Album of the Year at the most recent Grammy ceremony. In 1994 she received the National Medal of Arts.

In 1997 Cruz reflected, characteristically, upon her work:

In a sense, I have fulfilled my father's wish to be a teacher as, through my music I teach generations of people about my culture and the happiness that can be found in just living life. As a performer, I want people to feel their hearts sing and their spirits soar.

Paul Wadey

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