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.”