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Profile of the salsa legend, the Queen, Celia Cruz.

by John Child (

Forever Celia

A number of the excellent obituaries that appeared in the days immediately following Celia Cruz's passing on July 16th, 2003, highlighted her role as a cultural, political and gender symbol, as doubtless she was. However, those familiar with my work for will not be surprised that I offer a piece spotlighting her incredible body of recorded work, which spanned over five decades. What follows is a revised version of a discographic profile I originally wrote in 1990, including an updated selection of many, but by no means all, of her albums. Although "she was Afro-Cuban music," as Rubén Blades put it, her recording career was characterised by a willingness to modernise the form, as evidenced by her collaborations with Willie Colón, Papo Lucca and Sonora Ponceña, Willy Chirino and Sergio George. In addition, she managed to transcend the Latin music industry's ingrained preoccupation with youth and image, and was having hits and garnering awards right up to the end. In a 1999 interview in Interview magazine, Whoopi Goldberg said: "If I were going to do a biography movie, that's who I'd want to play. Because she doesn't fit any description. She's not traditionally a Latin beauty, she doesn't sound like anybody else."

Celia was a self confessed stage-aholic, and vowed that she wanted to expire on stage like Miguelito Valdés. While I can forgive her for not realising this ambition, it was unquestionably the sheer joy and strength of her live performances that made the deepest impact on me. I attended virtually all of Celia's UK gigs since her first visit with Tito's Puente's ensemble in 1984, and saw her perform at the 1990 New York Salsa Festival in Madison Square Garden. One memory that indelibly sticks in my mind is of her last UK performance at the Salsa 2000 festival. I was backstage when Celia, physically supported by her husband and musical director Pedro Knight, emerged from her dressing room cabin. I witnessed this apparently frail elderly woman hobbling across uneven terrain and up the steep stairway to the outdoor stage in those improbable high heels she used to wear. I remember thinking to myself: "I wouldn't want my mum subjected to these conditions." I watched as Celia and Pedro passively waited behind the backdrop for the MC to announce her. Then, in the split second it took for her name to be called, she crossed herself and began striding purposefully onto the stage. In that instant, her years fell away and the little old lady before me became utterly transformed and animated into CELIA CRUZ, THE ETERNAL QUEEN OF SALSA. Ironically, the same year she told The Miami Herald : "I love living on that stage. Without that, I'd die."

Her passing closes a major chapter in Latin music history.

Cruz, Celia

b. Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, 21 October 1924 or 1925? (reports vary), Santos Suárez district, Havana, Cuba; d. 16 July 2003, Fort Lee, New Jersey, USA

Described as the "Queen of Salsa" - just one of her several superlative epithets. Ms. Cruz, who steadfastly refused to divulge her age, performed for over five decades. Her family and neighbours became aware of the young Celia's singing ability from listening to her croon lullabies to her younger relatives. While she was training to become a literature teacher, an older cousin entered her in a competition on the talent show "La Hora del Té" on Radio García Serrá, in which she won first prize. Her 1983 biography stated that this contest occurred in 1947, but the sleeve notes to two of her early albums, Canta Celia Cruz (Celia Cruz Sings) and Cuba's Queen of Rhythm, mention 1935. Interestingly, the biography posted on Celia's official website says she "began singing in amateur contests at the age of 14." So, go figure! But however you square the arithmetic, Cuban-American Ralph De La Cruz comments that Celia was there for the generation of his grandparents, parents and his own, but "didn't belong to any one generation." Adding: "All I know is that my 99-year-old grandmother thought Celia was old." (Quotes from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel , 17 July 2003.)

"After I won my first contest, I got signed up for all the others I could," explained Celia. "But even with all that exposure I still didn't intend to sing for a living" (quoted by Carol Cooper in Village Voice , 1990). Her father, Simon Cruz, viewed music a dishonourable career for a woman, but was overridden by his wife, Catalina Alfonso. Professional radio work followed. Celia concluded her teacher training and did some classes at Havana's National Conservatory of Music. She eventually switched to singing full-time when a trusted teacher advised her that she would be foolish to do otherwise.

She appeared on Santero , an album of Afro Cuban cult music on the Panart label. Two of her later best selling albums on Seeco, Homenaje A Los Santos and Homenaje A Los Santos Vol. 2, contained recordings of sacred songs. Her association with Santería or Yoruba was highlighted in UK media coverage during the '80s, but she claimed to be a practising Roman Catholic and told Carol Cooper in 1990: "I've sung Yoruba religious music, and, yes, I like it, but I stopped singing it because it wasn't commercial."

In addition to radio, Cruz worked with the group Gloria Matancera and in small theatres and cabaret. She befriended Roderico "Rodney" Neyra, later choreographer at the famous Tropicana nightclub in Havana, who helped her get work there as a singer during the club's winter seasons. She toured Mexico and Venezuela with him and his dance troupe, Las Mulatas de Fuego (The Fiery Mulattas). Rodney introduced Celia to Rogelio Martínez (b. 1898, Matanzas, Cuba; d. 13 May 2001, NYC), the director of the popular band La Sonora Matancera. On 3 August 1950, Celia replaced Myrta Silva (b.11 September 1923, Arecibo, Puerto Rico; d. 2 December 1987, San Juan, Puerto Rico), who had returned to her native Puerto Rico, as lead vocalist of La Sonora Matancera on their weekly show on Radio Progreso. Recordings from these broadcasts between 1953 and 1955 collected on Celia Cruz con La Sonora Matancera En Vivo Radio Progreso (Vol 1) (Vols. 2-5 also available) on Barbaro (1995) demonstrate her unstoppable power.

Celia made her recording debut with La Sonora Matancera on a 78 single released in January 1951 entitled "Cao Cao Mani Picao" (later included on Canciones Premiadas de Celia Cruz, her biggest hit album on Seeco), with the flip-side "Mata Siguaraya" (later contained on Homenaje A Los Santos Vol. 2 ). She made a long list of records during her 15 year tenure with the band. During the '50s, Cruz and the band appeared on television, topped the bill at the Tropicana and toured the Caribbean, South and Central America, and the USA. She made her first appearance in New York at the old St. Nicholas Arena in 1957. Celia and La Sonora Matancera left post-revolutionary Cuba for good in July 1960. "We gave them the impression we were just going on another temporary tour abroad. That's how we got out" (quoted in her 1983 biography). They worked in Mexico for one and half years, during which time they made their fifth Mexican movie appearance. "Castro never forgave me," she said in a 1987 interview. Her music was banned in Cuba and the island's government refused her permission to return home to attend her father's funeral.

A lengthy commitment at the Hollywood Palladium, Los Angeles, in 1961 enabled Celia and La Sonora Matancera to apply for US residency. On 14 July 1962 she was able to dispense with her chaperone (a female relative), when she married the band's first trumpeter, Pedro Knight, who became her manager and on-stage musical director.

Cruz switched to Tico Records - then a division of Morris Levy's Roulette Records - and released a series of 12 albums (excluding compilations) between 1966 and 1972, including seven in partnership with Tito Puente (1923 - 2000) and four recorded in Mexico with the band of Memo Salamanca (issued by Tico in the US under license from the Mexican Orfeón label). A combination of poor promotion and a young Latino audience more interested in styles other than music from the old country, meant that her Tico releases clocked up poor sales. However, by the early '70s, young Latinos "in New York, New Jersey and Miami began to take a new pride in their roots, and salsa became the musical symbol of that rediscovered identity" (quote from Elizabeth Llorente, 1987). Jerry Masucci, who co-ran the successful salsa labels, Fania and Vaya, with bandleader Johnny Pacheco, had his eye on the Tico catalogue and was especially interested in developing Celia's talents. He struck a deal with Levy and Tico became part of the Fania fold.

Cruz was touring in Mexico in 1973 when it was decided that she would sing the part of Gracia Divina on Larry Harlow's Latin opera album Hommy on Fania, a version of The Who's Tommy. Celia's outstanding performance at the all-star Carnegie Hall presentation of Hommy on 29 March 1973 served to relaunch her career and connect her with a new younger audience. Her new found popularity was consolidated the following year. The summer of 1974 saw the release of Celia & Johnny , the first of a series of six successful collaborations with Johnny Pacheco on Vaya, which went gold. Masucci thought of alternating Celia with other top leaders on his roster, like Willie Colón, Papo Lucca and Ray Barretto, whose bands each had their own trademark sound. He later said, "Celia was always my special project. Everything we cut with her for years, I oversaw completely. Everything was always very carefully and selectively done" (quoted by Carol Cooper in Village Voice, 1990).

Celia made her album debut with Fania All Stars in 1975 on the two-volume Live at Yankee Stadium (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) . Bobby Valentín's rearrangement of her '60s track "Bemba Colora" ("Red Lips", originally from the essential Son Con Guaguancó on Tico produced by Al Santiago: 1932 - 1996) on volume two was a show stopper with the hypnotised audience chanting the single word chorus "colora" and calling Celia back for an encore. Film footage of this performance was featured in Masucci's movie Salsa (1976). She continued to use Valentín's chart of "Bemba Colora" to close her live shows. Cruz recorded with the Fania All Stars up to 1997 and toured Africa and Europe with them, including her UK debut in 1976. She made many subsequent UK appearances between 1984 and 2000 with the bands of Tito Puente (beginning in 1984) and José Alberto (initially in 1988).

After a gap of about 17 years, Celia reunited on record with La Sonora Matancera on Feliz Encuentro on Barbaro (Happy Encounter, 1982). She was the subject of BBC2's Arena film profile My Name Is Celia Cruz broadcast on 12 February 1988. During October 1988 a programme in BBC2's Rhythms of the World series was devoted to concert footage of Cruz teamed up with Tito Puente's big band (with special guest Johnny Pacheco) recorded at New York's Apollo Theater in 1987.

She joined a reunion of 13 former lead singers of La Sonora Matancera for a series of three concerts by the band in June 1989 in celebration of their 65th anniversary and appeared on the double album, Live! From Carnegie Hall: 65th Anniversary Celebration , a recording of the 1 June 1989 concert. In 1989 Celia was awarded an honorary doctorate of music by Yale University. Her second collaboration with Ray Barretto, Ritmo En El Corazón (1988), won a Grammy Award. 1990 saw Cruz get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the main street in Miami's Little Havana, Calle Ocho, added the name Celia Cruz Way.

In 1991, Celia appeared in the Hollywood movie The Mambo Kings. The same year, she joined an all-star line-up of vocalists from Ralph Mercado's RMM Records roster, including Oscar D'León, José Alberto, Tony Vega, Tito Nieves and Ismael Miranda, on Puente's The Mambo King: 100th LP. She went on to make four albums for Mercado between 1993 and 2000. "I never had a contract with Ralph," explained Celia to Nestor Louis in 2000. "With him it was always a verbal agreement, because we are great friends."

Celia's solo debut on RMM, Azucar Negra (1993), covered a spectrum of Latin styles from salsa to Juan Luís Guerra-esque tropical pop. On the 1993 gathering of RMM's leading artists: Combinación Perfecta, she was paired with Oscar D'León on the hit track "El Son de Celia y Oscar". Her much stronger RMM follow-up Irrepetible / Unrepeatable (1994) was produced in Miami by Willy Chirino (b. 5 April early 50s, Pinar del Río, Cuba; producer / singer / composer since 1973), the creator of the so-called "Sound of Miami", described as "a combination of his Cuban roots, American rock and a touch of Brazil". He joined Celia to provide the lead vocals to the cut "Caballero y Dama". Four years later, Celia reunited with Chirino for another duet, the delightful "Cuba Que Lindos Son Tus Paisajes" from his wonderful Cuba Libre on Sony.

Celia took a four year break from recording another solo project because of her involvement with a soap opera. However, she participated in the all-star RMM sets Familia RMM en Vivo (1994), RMM's European Salsa Explosion (1995) and RMM Tropical Tribute to the Beatles (1996). Mercado also came up with the idea of issuing the compilation Celia's Duets (1997), featuring collaborations from the previous 20 years with the likes of Willie Colón, Cheo Feliciano, Angela Carrasco, Willy Chirino, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Caetano Veloso.

RMM's recently appointed A&R Director, the prolific arranger, producer, musical director and keyboardist Isidro Infante, handled the musical production of her Grammy nominated Mi Vida Es Cantar (1998). The cut "La Vida Es Un Carnaval", composed by Victor Daniel and arranged by Infante, became a UK club favourite. Her RMM parting shot was the live set Celia Cruz & Friends: A Night Of Salsa (2000) with special guests Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco and Cruz disciple, La India. Infante played piano and directed the swinging accompanying band. The album won a Latin Grammy for Salsa Performance at the first annual Latin Grammy Awards ceremony in 2000.

The accolades continued to come thick and fast during the '90s, including Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Smithsonian Institution and Hispanic Heritage Awards; the Presidential Medal in Arts awarded by the Republic of Colombia, and the declaration of 25 October 1997 as "Celia Cruz's Day" by the City of San Francisco. However, one of the most memorable moments in her life must have been when President Clinton bestowed the National Medal of Arts, the USA's highest honour in the arts, in the White House in 1994.

Seeking better promotion for her recordings, Celia signed with Sony Discos. Her first outing for the label, Siempre Viviré (2000), was produced in Miami by Emilio Estefan's Crescent Moon, Inc. and Oscar Gómez's Crab productions, and featured a melange of tropical Latin rhythms. In 2001 she performed in VH1 Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin . Unfortunately, the version of the show aired on the UK's Channel 4 over Christmas 2001 deleted Celia's input. The only clue she was in the show was her presence in the finale line-up alongside the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mary J Blige, Jimmy Bosch and, of course, Aretha, performing "Ridin' On The Freeway".

Her much more impressive Sony follow-up, La Negra Tiene Tumbao (2002), was co-produced in New Jersey by Pacheco, Infante and the groundbreaking Sergio George. The title track, arranged by George and featuring rapper Mikey Perfecto, and "Hay Que Empezar Otra Vez", co-arranged by Infante and its composer Victor Daniel, are particularly outstanding. The CD achieved the double of a Latin Grammy Award in 2002 and Grammy in 2003.

On 13 March 2003, the Telemundo network broadcast Celia Cruz: Azúcar! , a live concert tribute to her at the Jackie Gleason Theatre in Miami, Florida, in which she performed alongside Marc Anthony and other Latin luminaries, to raise money for the Celia Cruz Foundation. The organisation was established in the summer of 2002 by Pedro Knight and her manager Omer Pardillo, to assist low income Hispanic students to study music and help cancer sufferers. The first five grants are scheduled to be awarded on her 2003 birthday.

Celia suffered a stroke in December 2002 and later told People en Español that she had a brain tumour. After surgery to remove it at Presbyterian Hospital in New York, she spent most of the following months convalescing at home. However, she found the time and strength to return to the studio in February 2003 to record her final CD for Sony Discos, the prophetically named Regalo Del Alma (Gift From The Soul), co-produced by Sergio George and Oscar Gómez. George said her vocals had to be recorded in short segments because she had some trouble remembering lyrics due to her condition. "She's a fighter," George told Augustin Gurza of the Los Angeles Times . "It was as if nothing had ever happened. She was just ready to go. It was an incredible experience to see her drive and her energy and her will to want to do it. Nothing would stop her."

On Wednesday 16 July 2003, Ms Cruz died at her home in New Jersey from ongoing complications resulting from the surgery. Pedro Knight, family and friends were at her side, said her publicist, Blanca Lasalle. Her death came two days after her 41st wedding anniversary. In addition to Pedro, she is survived by two sisters, Dolores, in Cuba, and Gladys in New Jersey; and two nieces.

The single "Rie y Llora" from Regalo Del Alma had already been released prior to her death.

Selected albums:

with various artists Santero

with La Sonora Matancera:
Canta Celia Cruz (Celia Cruz Sings)
Cuba's Queen of Rhythm
Grandes Exitos de Celia Cruz
La Incomparable Celia
Su Favorita Celia Cruz
La Dinamica
Reflexiones de Celia Cruz
Canciones Premiadas de Celia Cruz
Mexico Que Grande Eres
La Tierna, Conmovedora, Bamboleadora
Homenaje A Los Santos (1965)
Sabor y Ritmo de Pueblos (1965)
Homenaje A Los Santos Vol. 2
produced by Vicentico Valdés:
El Nuevo Estilo De La Guarachera
with La Sonora Matancera:
Homenaje A Yemaya Vol. 3
Cuba's Foremost Rhythm Singer
Con Amor

with Tito Puente Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son... (1966)
with "The Alegre All-Stars" featuring Puente Son Con Guaguancó (1966)
with Memo Salamanca and Juan Bruno Tarraza Bravo (1967)
with Salamanca A Ti Mexico (c. 1968)
Serenata Guajira (c.1968)
La Exitante Celia Cruz! (c.1968)
with Puente Quimbo Quimbumbia (1969)
produced by Puente Etc. Etc. Etc. (1970)
with Puente Alma Con Alma / The Heart & Soul of Celia Cruz (c. 197l)
Celia Cruz y Tito Puente en España (c. 197l)
with Salamanca Nuevos Exitos de Celia Cruz (c.1971)
with Puente Algo Especial Para Recordar / Something Special To Remember (1972)

Fania stable (including Vaya, Tico & Barbaro)
with Larry Harlow Hommy, a Latin Opera (1973)
with Johnny Pacheco Celia & Johnny (1974)
with Pacheco Tremendo Caché (1975)
with Pacheco, Justo Betancourt and Papo Lucca Recordando El Ayer (1976)
with Willie Colón Only They Could Have Made This Album (1977)
with Pacheco Eternos (1978; nominated for a Grammy Award)
with Puente Homenaje A Beny (1978; Puente's first Grammy Award winner) and Homenaje A Beny Vol. 2 (1979), Celia performed on three tracks on the first album and two on the second
with Papo Lucca and Sonora Ponceña La Ceiba (1979)
with Pacheco and Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez Celia, Johnny and Pete (1980) with Colón Celia y Willie (1981)
with La Sonora Matancera Feliz Encuentro (1982)
with Ray Barretto and Adalberto Santiago Tremendo Trio! (1983; nominated for a Grammy Award)
with Pacheco De Nuevo (1985; nominated for a Grammy Award)
with Puente Homenaje A Beny Moré Vol. III (1985; nominated for a Grammy Award), Cruz performed on six tracks
with Colón The Winners (1987, released in the UK in 1988 on Caliente; nominated for a Grammy Award)
with Barretto Ritmo En El Corazón (1988, issued in the UK on Caliente in 1989; Grammy Award winner)
Tributo A Ismael Rivera (1992; nominated for a Grammy Award)
live Cuban radio broadcasts 1951-1956 Celia Cruz con La Sonora Matancera En Vivo Radio Progreso (Vols. 1-5) (1995) (Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5)
live '50s Cuban radio broadcasts Celia Cruz con las Orquestas de Ernesto Duarte, Senén Suárez, Carlos Ansa & Riverside Vol. 4 (1995)

Azucar Negra (1993)
with Familia RMM Combinación Perfecta (1993)
Irrepetible / Unrepeatable (1994; nominated for a Grammy Award)
Mi Vida Es Cantar (1998; nominated for a Grammy Award)
Celia Cruz & Friends: A Night Of Salsa (2000; nominated for a Grammy Award; Latin Grammy Award winner for Salsa Performance 2000)

live material from the '50s Las Muchas Celias (1998)

La Guarachera De Cuba: Celia Cruz Con La Sonora Matancera En Los Estudios CMQ, 1950-1953 (1998)

Siempre Viviré (2000; Latin Grammy Award winner for Traditional Tropical Album 2001)
La Negra Tiene Tumbao (2002; Latin Grammy Award winner for Best Salsa Album 2002 and Grammy Award winner 2003)
Hits Mix (2002)
Regalo Del Alma (2003)

Selected compilations
anthology of Seeco recordings 100% Azucar! The Best Of Celia Cruz Y La Sonora Matancera (1997) on Rhino
two collections of material from her Tico period Lo Mejor de Celia Cruz (1974) and A Todos Mis Amigos (1978)
collection of hits from her Vaya albums between 1974 and 1977 The "Brillante" Best (1978)
Celia Cruz: The Fania Legends Of Salsa, 2-CD Set Plus 24 Page Book (2001)
RMM collection of collaborations with other artists Celia's Duets (1997)
anthology of RMM material Serie 32: 2-CD Set (2002) on Universal

John Child
Co-host of the totallyradio show Viva Latina (
Contributor to the Descarga Latin music website (, MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music ( and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music

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