Cruz, Celia (Contemporary Musicians)
Celia Cruz is the undisputed queen of salsa. After more than 40 years of performing professionally, she continues to intrigue Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike around the world with the rhythms of her Cuban homeland. A remarkable performer and person, she loves her fans as much as she loves her music. As she said in Más, "Music is what gave me the courage to fight and get out of poverty and touch the universe.... The only important thing is music." Cruz has indeed brightened the world with her songs, and in so doing she has realized her dreams. She commented in the New York Times, "When people hear me sing, I want them to be happy, happy, happy. I don't want them thinking about when there's not any money, or when there's fighting at home. My message is always felicidad/ happiness."
Cruz was born in Havana, Cuba, to Simon and Catalina (Alfonso) Cruz. Although Simon and Catalina Cruz had only four children of their ownelia the second eldest4 children, including nieces, nephews, and cousins, occupied the Cruz home in a poor part of Havana, the Santa Saurez barrio, or neighborhood.
As a young girl, Cruz loved music. She was responsible for putting the children who lived in her home to sleep with lullabies; but the songs she sang not only kept the children awake, they lured neighbors to the house. It was apparent that she was gifted with a beautiful voice. With her aunt, she listened to the radio and went to ballrooms. She also befriended Cuban musicians. Instead of aspiring to become a singer, however, Cruz prepared herself for a career as a teacher. "I wanted to be a mother, a teacher, and a housewife," she told the New York Times. Her father encouraged her to become a teacher; he wanted the young woman to have a respectable job. Cruz graduated from the República de Mexico public school in Havana and went on to the Escuela Normal para Maestros.
Traded Teaching Aspirations for Singing
Fortunately for salsa fans, Cruz never became a teacher of literature, as she had planned. Despite her father's wishes, she left school and did not return after her singing career began to take off in the late 1940s. Cruz was initially inspired to become a professional singer while still in school, following her victory in a talent show called "La Hora de Té," which aired on the Garcia Serra radio network in 1947. Cruz sang the tango "Nostalgia" in bolero tempo and, in addition to winning a cake, she became a local hit. She appeared in amateur shows and was soon sought as a paid entertainer. One of her first jobs was to sing on Radio Progreso Cubana for one week; she also performed on Radio Unión for some months. At first, Cruz sang because she needed money to buy food and school books. Later, however, a teacher told her that she should forget teaching and concentrate on singing. Cruz remembered the teacher's words in the New York Times: "You're going to sing because you'll earn more money in a day than I will in a month."
At this point Cruz became serious about her musical career. Already noted for her pregón singing vocal style that evolved from the calls, chants, and cries of street vendorsarticularly the songs "Manicero" ("Peanut Vendor") and "El Pregón del Pescador" ("The Fishmonger's Call"), Cruz enrolled at the Conservatory of Music to study voice and theory. Through impeccable behavior and her mother's help, Cruz persuaded her father once and for all that a career as a singer would not disgrace her or the family. She worked hard at her studies and whenever she traveled to performances, a female relative accompanied her as a chaperone. After three years at the conservatory, Cruz was equipped with the skills necessary to succeed as a musician. Her family supported her wholeheartedly.
Starting out, Cruz sang with the dance troupe Las Mulatas de Fuego, keeping the audience entertained while the dancers changed costumes. She also sang with the orchestra Gloria Matancera. In 1949, she was hired to sing traditional Yoruba songsased on religious chants praising West African deitiest a radio station. Finally, in August of 1950, Cruz was chosen to replace Myrta Silva, the lead singer of La Sonora Matancera, Cuba's most popular orchestra. Although fans of Silva wrote angry letters about the replacement, they were soon won over to Cruz's style, and Cruz became a star. In early 1951, she began to release recordings such as "Cao Cao Mani Picao/Mata Siguaraya," "Yerboro," "Burundanga," and "Me Voy al Pinar del Rio."
Golden Era With Sonora Matancera
For 15 years, or Cruz's golden era, as it has been called, Cruz sang with La Sonora Matancera. Headlines at Havana's world-famous Tropicana nightclub and casino, the group became popular enough to work on television and in films as well as on radio. The orchestra appeared in five motion pictures (Una Gallega en Habana, Ole Cuba, Rincón Criollo, Piel Canela, and Amorcito Corazón) and toured the United States and Central and South America. La Sonora Matancera's fame and frequent tours served the individuals in the group well; when Fidel Castro took power after the 1959 revolution, they were able to escape Cuba by pretending they were going on another tour. They were welcomed abroad. From 1960 to late 1961, La Sonora Matancera entertained audiences in Mexico. Then, the orchestra packed up its act and took it north.
Cruz would come to love America but could never forget her homeland. She continues to remember it in song, but she cannot return to Cuba. Castro, angered by the singer's defection, would not even allow her to visit the country when her mother was sick or when her father died. If Cruz continues to be unhappy about her expatriation, she seems to have accepted it, and Hispanics have certainly shown their appreciation of her work in the United States. "If I die now," she once stated in the New York Times, "I want to be buried here."
As the Times reported, Cruz's "early years in the United States were less than memorable; young Latinos were more interested in rock-and-roll than in music from the old country." Cruz had to work very hard to earn her fame stateside. One good thing, however, did occur during those early years in America: On July 14, 1962, Cruz married Pedro Knight, the first trumpeter of La Sonora Matancera; she had known him for over 14 years. Knight has served as Cruz's manager, musical director, and protector ever since. In 1987, Louis Ramirez, an arranger of songs for Cruz, explained Knight's professional role in the New York Times: "When discord arises on how best to sing or play a part, everyone turns to Pedro. Pedro presides quietly in a corner, with his arms crossed. After he hears us argue back and forth, he says 'si' or 'no.'"
Prolific Recording Career
Although Cruz did not sell many records during the 1960s, her production was prolific. She signed with Seeco records and recorded 20 albums of La Sonora Matancera songs in just one year. These albums included Con Amor, La Reina del Ritmo Cubano, Grand Exitos de Celia Cruz, La Incomparable Celia, Mexico qué Grande Eres, Homenaje a los Santos, Sabor y Ritmo de Pueblos, Homenaje a Yemaya de Celia Cruz, Celia Cruz Interpreta El Yerbero y La Sopa en Botella, La Tierna, Conmovedora, Bamboleadora, and her most popular Seeco album, Canciónes Premiadas. After signing with Tico Records in 1966, the woman who would later be crowned "Queen of Salsa" recorded 13 more albums, toured South America and the U.S, and began working with Tito Puente, who would become known as the "King of Latin Swing."
Puente recalled in the New York Times, "I was listening to the radio in Cuba the first time I heard Celia's voice. I couldn't believe the voice. It was so powerful and energetic. I swore it was a man, I'd never heard a woman sing like that." Cruz recorded eight of her 13 Tico albums with Puente, including Cuba y Puerto Rico Son, El Quimbo Quimbunbia, Alma con Alma, and Algo Especial Para Recordar. Cruz and Puente performed more than 500 times together before 1987 and countless times after.
Despite her acclaim, it was not until the early 1970s that Cruz, whom the New York Times would call "salsa's most celebrated singer," began to be appreciated by young Hispanics. She was chosen to sing the role of Gracia Divina in the opera Hommya at Carnegie Hall in early 1973. Her remarkable voice and boundless energy captured the audience, which was only beginning to enjoy the new music called "salsa." And just as Cruz is not a limited performer, neither is salsa a limited music: The word salsa can be used variously to describe guaracha, rhumba, merengue, and guaguanco rhythms. As Time put it, salsa "is a catchall term that became current in the early '70's.... Instrumentation features piano, brass, [and] percussion (like the congas or the timbales).... The rhythm is often complex and layered, but at root there is a steady beat." Time also noted that "real salsa, old-country music [is] preserved in the persons of Cruz and Puente."
Older fans were thrilled to hear the music of their youth as Cruz sang to the salsa beat; younger fans were genuinely enthusiastic about Cruz's fast-paced scatting. And no one could help but be impressed by Cruz's costumes. She was and is a flamboyant dresser. Her usual garb is embellished with feathers, sequins, or lace and yards and yards of brightly colored fabric. Legend has it that Cruz never wears a costume twice, that each of her ensembles costs more than the amount needed to produce one of her albums, and that some of her costumes have taken up a whole stage. Cruz herself acknowledges that on occasion her outfits have prohibited other singers from comfortably moving around the stage. This exotic, outrageously flashy attire reflects the energy Cruz radiates as she performs.
In fact, to fully experience Cruz, one must be able to watch her as she illuminates the stage and fascinates her audience. Her singing is quite powerful and because of this, she usually performs for large audiences in venues that can accommodate significant acoustic amplification. As a reviewer for the New York Times wrote of the singer's onstage energy, Cruz "leaps, dances, flaunts, flirts, and teases to the gyrating beat of salsa." And though Cruz has her serious, passionate moments, she is never predictable; one never knows when she will break into improvisation or joke with the audience and the band. Seemingly tireless, she has been known to perform at her explosive pace for more than three hours.
After Cruz's contract with Tico Records expired, she took advantage of the opportunity to work with Johnny Pacheco, a longtime admirer. Pacheco was a rumba band leader and a flutist of the charanga style. For Vaya Records, they revised Cruz's Sonora Matancera pieces to produce Celia and Johnny, which was released in 1974. This record, not surprisingly, went gold as Híspanles snatched it up throughout the U.S. Tremendo Cache and Recordando El Ayer, Cruz's next collaborative efforts, met with similar success, as did other albums she recorded on the Vaya label. Another album she recorded in 1974, with conga player Ray Barretto, won a Grammy Award.
Cruz's popularity among Hispanics began to grow. During the 1970s, she performed with Pacheco in the U.S. and Puente and members of the Fania All-Stars throughout Africa and France. The New York Daily News named her best female vocalist in 1977 and 1979, and Billboard did the same in 1978; in polls conducted by Latin N.Y., the singer was similarly honored annually from 1975 to 1982.
Honored at the Garden
In 1982, Cruz was reunited with La Sonora Matancera and released Feliz Encuentro. Later that year, she was honored in a concert at New York City's Madison Square Garden. 20,000 people there, as well as television viewers throughout the world, watched and danced as she sang with those who had contributed to her career over the years: La Sonora Matancera, Puente, Cheo Feliciano, Pacheco, Pete Rodríguez, and Willie Colón. In 1983, Cruz was presented with a gold record (along with Barretto and Adalberto Santiago) for their Fania Records release Tremendo Trio.
The latter half of the 1980s found Cruz as busy as ever. In 1985, she sang with various groups and lit up the stage with her special Yoruba music. The following year she was presented with an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, also known as the Mayor's Liberty Award, by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations. In 1987, Vaya Records released Cruz's 53rd album, a collaboration with Willie Colón entitled The Winners. She performed in New York City's Annual Salsa Festival at the Garden and also won a fourth Grammy nomination, a New York Music Award for best Latin artist, and an Obie for her work Off-Broadway that year.
Among her many notable concerts of the decade was a 1988 tribute to Frank Grillo, or Machito, a musician essential to the development of Afro-Cuban jazz who had worked with Cruz for years. According to the New York Times, Cruz's performance was dazzling. Her "voice, piercing and intense, ripped through the glittery band arrangements; as an improviser, Miss Cruz phrases as if she were a drummer." Cruz gave a concert in New York City's Harlem on October 21, 1989, along with Cuban jazz star Mario Bauza, Puente, Chico O'Farill, Marco Rizo, drummer Max Roach, and saxophonist Henry Threadgill. The Times assessed, "Mr. Bauza's band played one of his modernist compositions and Miss Cruz, who was celebrating her birthday, sang a set of her tunes, shouting out phrases with the authority of a trumpeter; she's one of the world's great singers, and she proved it again." Cruz wrapped up the '80s by earning another Grammy Award; in the Latin category, she won for best tropical performance for Ritmo En El Corazón, another album recorded with Ray Barretta.
From Manhattan to Miami, salsa is a prevailing force in Hispanic youth culture, and popular singers like Jon Secada and Gloria Estefan, who says she was inspired by Cruz, base their songs on a salsa beat. Cruz explained the lure of salsa in Time: "We've never had to attract these kids. They come by themselves. Rock is a strong influence on them, but they still want to know about their roots. The Cuban rhythms are so contagious that they end up making room for both kinds of music in their lives." Attested the magazine, "Young Cuban Americans have gathered to see the reigning Reina de la Salsa, Celia Cruz, who was entertaining their parents and their parents' parents in the smoky dens and fancy nightclubs of pre-Castro Cuba long before they were born."
Although Celia Cruz has been exciting audiences since the late 1940s with her unique voice and inexhaustible energy and has recorded more than 70 albums, she refuses to retire or even slow down. She told the New York Times, "I have no choice, really, but to put in as much time and energy as I do. I have a lot more to do." Nonetheless, the Queen of Salsa does ponder a time when she can no longer perform and wishes more women would sing salsa. "Someday, I have to die," she said in the Times. "I want people to say, 'Celia Cruz has died, but here is someone who can take over.'"
(With Johnny Pacheco) Celia and Johnny, Vaya, 1974.
(With La Sonora Matancera) Feliz Encuentro, 1982.
(With Ray Barretto and Adalberto Santiago) Tremendo Trio, Fania, 1983.
(With Willie Colon) The Winners, Vaya, 1987.
(With La Sonora Matancera) Canciónes Premiadas, Seeco-Tropical, reissued, 1992.
(With La Sonora Matancera) Su Favorite, Seeco-Tropical, 1992.
Canta Celia Cruz, Seeco-Tropical, 1992.
(Contributor) 777© Mambo Kings (soundtrack), Elektra, 1992.
Azúcar Negra (Black Sugar), RMM/Sony Discos, 1993.
Celia Cruz Sings, Palladium.
La Dinamica! Celia Cruz, Palladium.
La Reina del Ritmo Cubano, Palladium.
La Incomparable Celia, Palladium.
La Tierna, Conmovedora, Bamboleadora, Palladium.
Con Amor, Seeco.
Grand itos de Celia Cruz, Seeco.
Mexico qué Grande Eres, Seeco.
Homenaje a los Santos, Seeco.
Sabor y Ritmo de Pueblos, Seeco.
Homenaje a Yemaya de Celia Cruz, Seeco.
Celia Cruz Interpreta El Yerbero y La Sopa en Botella, Seeco.
Tremendo Cache, Vaya.
Recordando El Ayer, Vaya.
(With Barretto) Ritmo En El Corazón.
With Tito Puente; on Tico
Cuba y Puerto Rico Son.
El Quimbo Quimbunbia.
Alma con Alma.
Algo Especial Para Recordar.
Boston Globe, March 20, 1988.
Chicago Tribune, October 2, 1988; May 22, 1992.
Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1991.
Más (Spanish-language; translated by Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson), November 1991.
New York Times, August 30, 1987; July 1, 1988; July 4, 1988; October 29, 1989; December 14, 1992.
Nuestro, May 1980.
Rolling Stone, September 21, 1989.
Time, July 11, 1988.
Variety, November 27, 1985; October 25, 1989; November 5, 1990.
Vogue, June 1984.
Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Fall 1990.