Celia Cruz

The Undisputed Queen of Salsa

Celia Cruz
Celia Cruz. Courtesy Fania Records

Born October 21, 1925 (or 1924) in Santos Suarez, Havana, Cuba, Celia Cruz went on to become the undisputed Queen of Salsa before her death on July 16, 2003, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Interestingly, the reason the date of her birth is listed as both 1924 and 1925 is that Cruz was very secretive about her age and there's some controversy as to the exact date.

Celia Cruz' trademark cry of "Azucar!" — which means sugar — is the punchline of a joke she often told at her performances; after several years, she could merely walk on stage and shout the word and the audience would burst into applause.

Watching Celia Cruz perform leaves no doubt that this is a woman in her natural element. Weren't rumba and mambo made for Cruz to sing? To realize how extraordinary Celia Cruz was, though, you need to take a step back and think about how few women there are in salsa — bet you only need one hand to count them!

Cruz was the first female salsa mega-star. To this day she remains the most important and influential woman of not just salsa, but of Afro-Cuban music in general.

Early Days and La Sonora Matancera

Celia Cruz was born Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso in Havana, the second of 4 children, but grew up with 14 other children in the household. She started singing at an early age, winning musical contests and small prizes where she often told the story about her first pair of shoes, purchased for her by a tourist for whom she sang.

Her big break came when she became the lead vocalist for Sonora Matancera, the prominent tropical band of its day. She was not a hit, but the band's leader, Rogelio Martinez, remained firm in his belief in Cruz even after record executives complained that a woman singing that style of music was not going to sell.

Over time, Cruz and the subsequent CD became a big success and she toured with the band through the 1950s before she immigrated to the United States sometime around the end of the 1950s.

Life in the United States and The Fania Years

In 1959, Sonora Matancera, along with Cruz, went on tour to Mexico. Castro was then in power following the Cuban revolution and the musicians, rather than returning to Havana, went to the U.S. after their tour. Cruz became a U.S. citizen in 1961 and married Pedro Knight, a trumpeter in the band, the following year.

In 1965, both Cruz and Knight left the band to branch out on their own. However, since Cruz' solo career was blossoming while Knight's was languishing, he stopped performing to become her manager. In 1966, Cruz and Tito Puente began performing together for Tico records, recording eight albums for the label, including "Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son" with Willie Colon and "Serenata Guajira." A few years later, Cruz performed in "Hommy," the Hispanic version of the Who's rock opera "Tommy."

During that time, with the rapid expansion of her fame within the music community, Cruz signed with Fania, a new label that was destined to become the most famous salsa label of all time. Unfortunately, during the 1980s, the public's appetite for salsa started to die down, but Cruz kept busy with tours of Latin America, television appearances and some cameo roles in cinema, and in 1987 she received her own star on Hollywood's "Walk of Fame."

Resurgence in the 1990s

By the 1990s, Cruz was in her late 60s and 70s, but rather than starting to wind down her career, this was the decade that the ever-energetic Cruz reaped some of the most satisfying rewards of a brilliant musical life.

These accolades included lifetime achievement awards from both the Smithsonian and the Hispanic Heritage Organization, a street named after her in Miami's Calle Ocho district as well as the distinction of San Francisco declaring October 25th, 1997 as Celia Cruz Day. She went to the White House and received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton.

Celia Cruz was full of life and music, achieving far more than she ever dreamed of as a young girl in Santos Suarez. In fact, the only big dream she was not able to achieve was a return to her native Cuba, and best yet, despite all the fame and accolades, she remained warm, friendly and down-to-earth.