“The Queen of Salsa”: Remembering Celia Cruz, 10 Years After Her Death

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(Facebook/Celia Cruz)

Cuban singer Celia Cruz passed away 10 years ago today. (Facebook/Celia Cruz)

The date July 16, 2003 holds bittersweet memories for me, for it was the day that “The Cuban Music Died” to borrow a similar line from the famous song by Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

That day the “Queen of Salsa”, “La Guarachera de Cuba” died! Needless to say that the world lost one of the greatest entertainers of all time in the body of the Afro-Cuban artist named Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso de la Santísima Trinidad born on October 21, 1925 who was known worldwide as Celia Cruz.

Celia Cruz was born in the modest neighborhood of Santos Suárez in Havana, Cuba, the second of four children of a railroad worker Simon Cruz and homemaker Calatina Alfonso. Encouraged by one of her aunts, Celia began singing in cabarets as a teenager and later appeared in Havana’s Radio Garcia-Serra’s popular “Hora del Té” program, where she won first place in a singing contest and a cake! The beginning of “AZUCAAA(sugar in Spanish)!!!!!!!!!!!”?? Which was Cruz trademark shout.

Her first recording was done in Venezuela in 1948 and she later joined the famous Cuban orchestra Sonora Matancera in 1950 as its lead singer which brought her not only recognition in the island, but also allowed her to travel abroad. While touring with the Sonora in Mexico she appeared in several Mexican films, including Salon México (1950) and Una gallega en La Habana (1952). But it would be the events of 1959 Cuba that would change forever the career of our Celia in a drastic but important way.

With the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro subsequently consolidated power and established total control over Cuban society including the type of music that was “allowed” to be played. On July 15, 1960 Celia along with the entire Sonora Matancera decide to remain in Mexico, never to return. Shortly after that, she would marry the Sonora Matancera’s trumpet player Pedro Knight and move to New York, where she would cement her international career with the likes of Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barreto, Willie Colon as part of the legendary Fania All-Stars ensemble as it’s only female member.

The beginning of the salsa movement, a term used to identify the Cuban Son music genre as it was modified, added to and re-packaged in New York City for the world to consume can be traced back to 1968. It was then when Dominican musician and bandleader Johnny Pacheco put together an ensemble of top notch, mostly Latin musicians including Celia Cruz as The Fania All-Stars under the Fania label started by Jerry Masucci and Pacheco himself.

With the Fania All-Stars, Celia Cruz was able to reach an international audience due to their tours of Europe, Latin America, Asia and the mother country of Africa, where so much of the influence of Cuban music comes from.

In 1974, the All-Stars performed along with James Brown as part of the Muhammed Ali/George Foreman heavyweight title fight in Zaire, Africa, at the 80,000-seat Stadu du Hai in Kinshasa, which was captured in the documentaries Live In Africa (1974) and later in Soul Power (2008).

Celia was not just the only female artist with The Fania All-Stars, but one of it’s most seasoned member and she is credited as being its heart and soul. The 1970′s were period of great creativity for salsa music and Celia’s performances with this group are legendary in the world of music.

After the Fania years, Celia continued to record and appeared in films with great success. In 1990, she won her first Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance for the album with Ray Barreto, Ritmo en el Corazon, which was one of a total of 7 Grammy/Latin Grammy’s she would win among other numerous awards and a star in the Hollywood Walk of fame on September 17, 1987.

She appeared in the films The Mambo Kings (1992) with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, The Perez Family (1995), among others and received The National Medal of Arts by then President Bill Clinton in 1994.

I had the privilege of seeing Celia Cruz many times since arriving from Cuba in 1969, including The House of Blues, The Conga Room (on Wilshire), The Cuban-American Festival in Hawthorne, Calif., but enjoyed her the most at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the RMM Salsa Festival produced by Ralph Mercado (September 29, 1941 – March 10, 2009) an artist manager who founded RMM Records in 1987.

Ralph picked up Celia for his record label, as well as many of the Fania artists, while fostering new talent such as India and Marc Anthony. He then would showcase them on the yearly festival during the mid to late 1990′s to the delight of many Angelenos at the Hollywood Bowl.

For a $1 ticket back then, you could move down behind the end of the box seats against the bench seat section, see and listen to Celia and the others as you danced your feet off as long as you did it against the wall as to allow circulation on the opposite end of the walkway.

Celia would come out in the most outrageous costumes including an all white outfit with a long cape and red heart-shaped head dress or my favorite, the “smurf” look that included a huge blue and white wig and matching blue dress! She was not just one of the greatest singers out of Cuba and Latin America, but a great human being, consummate artist and a heck of a lot of fun on stage.

Toward the end of her career, Cruz enjoyed a lot of popularity, including from a younger audience. Her reggaeton-influenced hit “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” also the name of her 59th album was released on October 2, 2001 and won her Best Salsa Album at the third Latin Grammy awards. It was also nominated for Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Music Video.

Celia Cruz died of brain cancer at age 77 in her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey with her husband Pedro Night by her side while in the middle of her cancer treatments. More than 250,000 people turned out for Cruz’s funeral in Miami and in New York thousands put up with pouring rain of a colossal summer thunderstorm in order to pay their respect to the “Queen of Salsa”. Patti Labelle sang ‘Ave Maria’ at Cruz’s service in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Celia’s life was bittersweet! While having great success out of Cuba, she was refused travel to the island by the Castro government after the death of her mother in 1962 and her music is still not allowed to be played in the island’s radio stations which are controlled by the Communist Party.CELIA CRUZ BOX SET 2013

As part of the 10th anniversary of her death, Sony Music Latin will release a box set of Celia Cruz’ recording titled Celia Cruz: The Absolute Collection on July 30, 2013. The deluxe set will include a 60-page booklet of rare photographs and memorabilia, a total of 30 tracks from several of her record labels and a special DVD with comments by Whoopi Goldberg, Pati Labelle, Gloria Estefan, Quincy Jones, Rita Marley, Andy Garcia, Beyonce and Marc Anthony.

Long Live Celia Cruz “The Queen of Salsa” in our hearts!! Someday, very soon, I will put on one of her tracks, my dancing shoes and will shout AZUCAAAA!!!!!!!!! to the four winds in a FREE, DEMOCRATIC CUBA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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1 Comment

  1. Rafael Orellana

    July 16, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Great Article

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