Celia Cruz - Biography

An unlikely candidate for international stardom, Celia Cruz overcame her humble origins, a tumultuous revolution, and the color barrier to become the most popular female singer ever to emerge from the Caribbean. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1924 and raised in a large family of 14 children, legend has it that as a child she got her first pair of shoes as a gift from a tourist charmed by her singing. Around her home and with extended family her vocal gift was already apparent as a child when she sang lullabies to her younger siblings. Her father however wanted her to be a teacher and frowned upon the notion of singing as a career, thinking it to be a disreputable vocation. Encouraged by her mother, in 1947 she won a singing contest and studied briefly at the National Conservatory of Music in Havana. Her first professional gigs were singing on the radio on several popular programs. Blessed with a strong set of pipes, boundless enthusiasm and an operatic flair, her raw talent made an immediate impression on the music community and she was recruited to sing with Gloria Matancera and Las Mulatas del Sabor.


Her big break came in 1960 when the prestigious Cuban musical institution La Sonora Matancera needed to replace singer Mirtha Silva. A large group with a conjunto configuration (a standard rhythm section augmented by four trumpet harmony), they featured multiple male and female singers and played a diverse songbook drawn from traditional Cuban son and bolero. They invited Cruz to fill in and although she was not an immediate hit with the Cuban audience, the band was supportive, indeed, inspired to feature her unique voice. Her temporary status was changed to permanent and the first 78 single she recorded with them was “Cao Cao Mani Picao,” which would later appear on a popular LP of her early recordings, Canciones Premiadas (1961 Seeco). Although she sang to a variety of rhythms and recorded numerous standards of Cuban music, she excelled at the fast tempo “guaracha” rhythm from the countryside. Her animated mastery of that song form gave rise to her first celebrity nickname- “la guarachera de Cuba.” She also sang many songs based on Afro-Cuban folklore and Santería themes, in which her singing is looser and undeniably inspired.


With La Sonora Matancera she faced a demanding performance schedule and toured extensively throughout Latin America. Surrounded by top-notch musicians and a host of legendary singers who sang with the group (either as members or invited artists) such as Daniel Santos, Bienvenido Granda, Miguelito Valdés, Puntillita, Bobby Capo, Mirtha Silva, and Carlos Argentino, what she must have learned is beyond measure. Her first collection of recordings with La Sonora Matancera on LP was Canta Celia Cruz (1956 Seeco) or, Celia Cruz Sings and included a merengue, a cha cha cha and songs such as “Yerbero Moderno,” “Nuevo Ritmo Omelenko,” and “Burundanga.” Another excellent collection from the prolific fifties, La Incomparable Celia Cruz (1958 Seeco) features a stunning picture of Cruz in an incomparably elegant white dress-- helping to establish a diva image. The album begins with a powerful rendition of “Changó Ta Veni,” a paean to the Afro-Cuban/Yoruban deity Changó, the macho god of lightning and drums, and also contains the beautiful “Bajo La Luna” (“Under the Moon”).


Havana in the fifties had one of the most dynamic music scenes in the world, with dozens of top-notch orchestras performing daily in the thriving clubs, hotels and casinos. Rivaled only by New York City as a hub for Latin music, Havana had the tropical ambiance and decadent reputation that made it a favorite of tourists. The departure of Cuban president (dictator) Batista on New Year’s Day 1959 signaled the triumph of the Cuban revolution and everything changed in Cuba. Musicians continued to perform and tourists continued to visit, but by the time Cruz recorded the album La Dinamica! (1960 Seeco) with La Sonora Matancera many were fearful of the future. Cruz sounded stronger than ever when she sang “Para tu Altar,” an homage to the “Santos” of Santería, and the melodic “Lalle, Lalle.” The melody for the latter would appear in the song “Independence Cha Cha,” a celebration of African colonies gaining independence from their colonial masters by Congolese legend Joseph Kabasele a.k.a. “El Grand Kalle.” Meanwhile, back in Cuba opportunities were becoming limited for musicians and La Sonora Matancera, with Celia Cruz in tow, took a contract in Mexico City, departing Havana in July 1960. Little did they know then that none of them would ever return again to their homeland.


After more than a year in Mexico the band booked an extended gig in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Palladium in 1961. By 1962 Cruz was a U.S. citizen and La Sonora Matancera had relocated to New York City. That same year she married the trumpet player of the band, Pedro Knight. With a sizable Cuban-American population, the New York/New Jersey area was a good base for La Sonora Matancera and they continued to perform (with inevitable personnel changes) with Cruz front and center. Two collections of Santería-themed material, Homenaje a Los Santos (1964 Seeco) and Homenaje a Los Santos Vol. 2 (1965 Seeco), were released, cementing Cruz’s Afro-Cuban identity. By 1965 she was ready for a change and left the band, with her husband as manager, and began a long association with the legendary New York bandleader Tito Puente. She signed a contract with the Tico label, owned by Morris Levy of Roulette Records, and recorded a dozen albums from 1966-1972 including seven with Puente and four recorded in Mexico with the orchestra of Memo Salamanca. Her first record with Puente, Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son (1966 Tico) explored a more diverse musical landscape, including Puerto Rican rhythms and a hint of rock/pop and contained a tune that became one of her signatures, “La Guarachera.” Their collaboration Son con Guaguanco (1967 Tico) contained the song “Bemba Colorá” (“Thick Red Lips”), which became intimately identified with Cruz, as she would stretch out during its extended call and response chorus; it would remain on her set list, often as a closer, during the decades that followed, always eliciting an enthusiastic audience response as captured on Central Park Summerstage: Live from the Heart of the City (2005 Circular Moves). Although it was not a period of great commercial or critical success, she remained active.


A new generation had taken center stage in Latin New York City, playing a hybrid of Cuban and Puerto Rican elements with a brash urban feel-- the style is called salsa. No doubt that Cruz and her music were an influence on this new style but it wasn’t until she was invited to play the role of Graciana in Larry Harlow’s Hommy, A Latin Opera (1973 Fania), inspired by the Who’s Tommy, that she was embraced by younger admirers. She teamed up with Fania musical director, producer, and flautist Johnny Pacheco in 1974, releasing Celia & Johnny (Fania), which garnered both commercial and critical success. Backed by the stars of the Fania-controlled salsa scene, Cruz gives a rousing improvisational performance on “Quimbara,” a song that became a standard of hers, and “Toro Mata.” She toured Africa with the Fania All Stars, participating in Live in Africa (1974 Fania) and in the landmark concert at Yankee Stadium at which she enticed the audience to sing along on a twelve minute version of “Bemba Colorá” that can be heard on Live at Yankee Stadium, Volume 2 (1975 Fania). Reincarnated now as a salsa godmother figure, she hit the charts again with the now classic song “Cucala,” the first track on Tremendo Caché (1975 Fania) by Celia & Johnny (their fame surpassed the need for surname usage). Moving on to collaborate with Fania stable-mate and bad boy singer/trombonist Willie Colón, they added another standard to the great salsa songbook: “Usted Abusó.”


She continued to record prodigiously into the ‘80s with Pacheco and Colón and also with other salsa stars such as Ray Barretto, La Sonora Ponceña, Pete “Conde” Rodriguez, and the Fania All Stars, relishing her role as the “La Reina de la Salsa” (“Queen of Salsa”). Dressed flamboyantly and interjecting her shouted catchphrase “Azucar!” (“Sugar!”), Cruz was immediately recognizable (and truly unforgettable) within the Latin community at large and beyond. She wasn’t concerned with crossing over to an English speaking audience and never became fluent in the language of her adopted home; one of her more charming quotes is: “My English is not very good looking.” Looking back to the classic Cuban song book, she reunited with Tito Puente, singing along with others on a an excellent tribute to the iconic Cuban singer Beny More, entitled Homenaje a Beny More Vol. 3 (1985 Vaya). She also reunited with La Sonora Matancera to record Feliz Encuentro (1982 Bárbara) and joined them for their 65th anniversary concerts along with a dozen other former singers in 1989. She appeared regularly on Latin television programs and played ever more high profile concerts in Europe. In 1988 she was the subject of a BBC documentary and their Rhythms of the World series, which presented live concert footage of her performing with Tito Puente’s band at the hallowed Apollo Theatre. She was also awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an honorary doctorate of music from Yale University. Closing out the decade, she won a Grammy for her collaboration Ritmo En El Corazón (1988 Fania).


As the Fania salsa empire began to crumble, Cruz signed with producer (and protégée of Fania founder Jerry Masucci) Ralph Mercado’s rising RMM record label. She also appeared along with Antonio Banderas in the 1992 film The Mambo Kings. Azúcar Negra (1993 RMM) enjoyed success in Spain, earning Cruz her first Gold record there and the following year’s Irrepetible (1994 RMM) featured a set of up-tempo contemporary salsa including “Que Le Den Candela.” In 1994 President Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts and in 1995 she received the Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award. With Latin music enjoying more crossover appeal, Mercado produced Duets (1997 RMM), an album that reprised some of her classics with Willie Colon and Tito Puente but also paired her with Venezuelan salsero Oscar D’Leon, Miami’s Willie Chirino, Brazil’s Caetano Veloso, Argentinean rockers Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and Nuyorican female singer, India. On Mi Vida es Cantar (1998 RMM), Celia teamed up with producer and arranger Isidro Infante on an effort that would several years later yield the monster hit “La Vida es un Carnaval” (Life Is a Carnival). With the demise of Mercado’s empire, Cruz signed with Sony in 2000 and released Siempre Viviré, which contains a version of “Oyé Como Va” and also sports a salsa version of the disco classic “I Will Survive” as the title cut.


Aging, but indeed, surviving, Cruz released two more recordings for Sony, La Negra Tiene Tumbao (2001 Sony), whose title cut and various mixes were very popular, and Regalo del Alma (2003 Sony), her last studio recording. The two won both Grammies and Latin Grammies for best album in their respective years. Hooking up with ace producer Sergio George, who brought in some of the best talent from a new generation of Cuban musicians, her final record was fresh and energetic. Diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor while undergoing knee surgery, she managed to complete Regalo del Alma (or her “gift from the soul”) before passing away on July 16, 2003, but did not live to see its release a month later. Her funeral ceremony at the famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City was broadcast live on television, with Ruben Blades and Victor Manuelle, among others, as pall-bearers. Manuelle delivered an emotionally charged a Capella version of “La Vida es un Carnaval,” singing (in translation) “you don’t have to cry…life is a carnival… it’s more beautiful to live life singing.” In a funeral fit for a queen, her casket was placed in a horse drawn carriage that passed slowly through streets lined with mourners and on to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where she was buried along with some Cuban soil she had saved for the moment.


Her life was lived fully through a recording and performing career that spanned six decades. Quintessentially Cuban, Cruz never lost her “Cubanidad” (Cuban-ness), even after years of exile. With great joy and tremendous flamboyance she raised her voice in song, asserting pride in her African roots and celebrating the musical fusion that gave rise to a new genre of music-- salsa. Gathering 23 Gold Records and 7 Grammies along the way, she remained humble even while dressing in outlandishly gaudy outfits. Her trademark shout of ecstasy, “Azucar!,” echoes eternally in the huge volume of recordings she made. She succeeded as a woman in a male dominated business and helped open the door for countless others. As a testament to her place in history, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History hosted an exhibition entitled “Azucar-- The Life and Music of Celia Cruz.” Her influence and audience stretches far beyond the Americas and into Europe, Africa, and Asia and extends across a multi-generational fan base. Que Viva Celia!


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