That voice! The energy infused in Celia Cruz’ voice impacted the world with an infectious sense of joy and celebration. It inspired a new musical genre, stimulating a powerful connection around the globe. Behind that magical voice was a woman of color who conquered the mucho macho male-dominated Latin music industry of the 1950’s. As a true ambassador for Cuban culture, she embodied salsa with a unique sense of style and, in a single word, brought vibrancy to her legendary performances and drew nostalgia for her country. Even today, she still reigns as “The Queen of Salsa.”
She was born Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso on October 21, 1925, in Havana, Cuba. On July 16, 2003, Celia Cruz, the most popular Latin artist of the 20th century died of brain cancer in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Her musical list of accomplishments spans 4 decades and includes 3 Grammy Awards, 4 Latin Grammy Awards, 23 gold records, and matches the span of her talents and prestigious honors like a National Medal of Arts, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Smithsonian Institution. From being honored with a Google doodle to a United States postage stamp her impact and ardent love of music and Cuba never faltered. Celia wrote about music in her autobiography, “I am a fan of all types of Cuban music: Lucumí (Afro-Cuban songs), son, rumba, cha-cha-chá, bolero, mambo, and danzón. I believe that music is Cuba’s greatest gift to the world, and I learned to appreciate it at home since music was very important to our family.”
In 1950’s Cuba the radio was very important for musicians since this is where their fame and popularity came from. There were numerous amateur hour shows and programs highlighting professional performers along with newer singers. As a young girl, Celia sang in the shower until she won a popular talent show contest called “La Hora del Té” for singing a tango, “Nostalgia.” Her prize was just a cake but it marked her as a singer. Ms. Cruz completed a teaching degree yet never taught school. Thankfully, through her love for music and gifted voice, she was able to later teach the world salsa.
At the National Conservatory of Music in Havana Celia studied music theory, voice, and piano. Her big break came when she replaced the female singer of an already well-known band. The group traveled to many Latin American countries performing popular Cuban music styles like bolero, son, cha-cha-chá, danzón, and guaracha. Havana was internationally known for its nightlife at the time when Celia joined La Sonora Matancera and together they played everywhere including the renowned top nightclub, Tropicana. Being part of La Sonora Matancera led Celia to two other names. It was with the band that she became known as “The Guarachera de Cuba” for her interpretation of that style of music. The other name, because of the band, came when she met Pedro Knight, a trumpet player. They fell in love and were married. Later, when they left the band he became her manager. Away from the band Celia performed and recorded with Yoruba singers–Yoruba is a West African religion that is known in Cuba as Santeria. Its music, which praises different deities, is a strong influence in Latin music and common in everyday Cuban culture. “Yemaya” is a popular song she recorded with La Sonora Matancera. Yemaya is the Yoruba Orisha or Goddess of the living sea considered the mother of all in the Yoruba religion.
It was while in Mexico, fulfilling a one-year gig with the band in 1959, when Celia decided not to return to Cuba because of the turmoil in the country. She had plenty of success in Mexico not only as a singer but also as an actress. Celia performed in Mexican films and also on television. Her popularity grew even more when she moved from Mexico to the United States, New York City to be exact. This is where she settled; home to an already active melting pot of Latin sounds and musical legends.
During this time, Salsa music was born blending elements from Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Dominican, and Brazilian styles of music along with jazz, blues, and rock. This new musical genre exploded. During this time Celia Cruz and timbales player Tito Puente, “The King of Latin Music” best known for mambo and Latin jazz, teamed up to perform and record eight salsa albums, further popularizing salsa. As her popularity grew Celia headlined a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. After, Celia and Johnny Pacheco, a musician and the person noted for coining the term “salsa” as a musical genre, recorded a very successful album together (Celia y Johnny, 1974). Soon, Celia was part of The Fania All-Stars and traveled all over Europe, England, and France performing and spreading the salsa sound. The Fania All-Stars were a musical ensemble that showcased its musicians and was the leading salsa record label. Celia also participated in Zaire ’74, a musical festival that was part of the famous heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and was documented in the film, “Soul Power.” This performance was meaningful because of the race issues surrounding the concert.
Celia visited Miami often, where she met and became friends with three Cuban ladies, who would become lifelong friends and her assistants.
We reunited these friends–Zoila Valdes, Elia Perez de Alejo, and Mary Garcia–who shared priceless memories of their sister, Celia Cruz. Each of them remembered taking turns helping Celia get ready for her performances while in Miami, and many times on tour. It was all in the family since one woman applied Celia’s makeup, the other wrangled the wigs, and another managed her wardrobe.
Celia Cruz was known for her electrifying performances and also for her unique styles on stage. Her outfits became more elaborate throughout the years. Perhaps the only thing that would upstage her voice was her look featuring matching colors of dress and wigs, with sequins and/or feathers. Every glitzy look was entirely her own creation. She was the first to wear an adapted version of a traditional Cuban rumba dress known as “bata cubana.” From head to toe, her look was always unique and flamboyant, including her shoes. Designed by a Mexican shoemaker, Mr. Nieto, some of the shoes have been donated for exhibit at The Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. These custom creations included a swan sculpture as a heel, and even a metal circle giving the singer height as well as a statement. Her best friends also shared with us how Celia always had lipstick at hand. She wouldn’t go anywhere without her lipstick. When searching for it in her purse she would turn the large bag upside down and dump all the contents out to locate her lipstick.
Her best friends tell us how thoughtful a person she was. How she went out of her way to make people feel special, from family and friends to fans. Some say that was the secret to her success throughout many decades. Celia was known to go into the back of the restaurant and greet the kitchen staff. She was a staple at the annual fundraiser for “Liga Contra el Cancer,” a non-profit organization that provides free medical treatment to low-income and uninsured Floridians, and stayed until the end of the telethon. Was it a surprise then that this sweet woman’s catchphrase became “azúcar” (sugar)? It has been written that she used the phrase, Azúcar! to inject energy into the crowd at her performances as well as encourage nostalgia for Cuba. In fact, the phrase came from a quick exchange with a waiter. Her best friends reveal a time when they were with Celia at a meal. The waiter asked if she wanted coffee with or without sugar, to which she replied, “I’m Cuban, how could I not want sugar in my coffee? Azúcar!” Later that evening during her performance she retold the story as a joke and once again yelled “Azúcar!” The crowd loved it and the phrase stuck.
Celia Cruz was so beloved, through so many years of performing all over the world, that when she died thousands of fans attended her memorial services in three separate cities: Miami; New York City; and Cali, Colombia. The Cali memorial service lasted for three days. The Colombian city, epicenter of salsa in that country, loved Celia as one of their own.
Today, the Celia Cruz Foundation, a non-for-profit organization dedicated to raising funds for underprivileged Latino students wishing to study music, has the mission of maintaining the legacy of Celia Cruz alive for future generations.