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Celia Cruz
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Celia Cruz

Vocalist Celia Cruz (October 21, 1925 – July 16, 2003) was the most intensely, and extensively, loved artist in Afro-Cuban music. She was one of the most successful Mambo and Salsa performers of the 20th century, with twenty-three gold albums to her name. Known as the Queen of Salsa and La Guarachera de Cuba, she came to represent the emerging identity of hispanic America, struggling to keep up without losing its original cultural orientation. Her performances were celebrations of this Latino identity.

Born in the Santa Suarez neighborhood of Havana, she began singing at home to younger siblings and cousins. Singing classes at the Cuban national conservatory soon led to performances on Havana's radio station Radio Garcia-Serra's popular Hora del Té daily broadcast. During the late 1940s, Celia sang with the group Gloria Matancera, toured the Caribbean with the dance troupe Las Mulatas de Fuego (The Mulattas of Fire) and recorded and sang Afro-Cuban Yoruba religious music.

In August 1950, Celia replaced the lead singer of the orchestra La Sonora Matancera. They had the top-rating weekly show on Radio Progreso, and after some initial disgruntlement with the change, listeners were won over by the new star. During the 15 years she was a member, the band made many recordings and traveled all over Latin America, with a debut New York performance at The St. Nicholas Arena in 1957. The band became known as Café Con Leche (coffee with milk), and Cruz became known for her trademark shout ¡Azúcar!, (Sugar! in Spanish). The catch phrase started as the punch line for a joke Cruz used to tell frequently at her concerts, about ordering a Cuban coffee in a restaurant in Miami. After telling told the joke many times, Cruz eventually dropped the joke and greeted her audiences with the punch line alone. After the Cuban revolution of 1959, the band escaped to Mexico, their biggest market. According to Celia, Fidel Castro never forgave her, refusing permission for her to return home even for her father's funeral. In 1962, she married the band's trumpeter Pedro Knight, who remained her devoted husband, manager and musical director for the rest of her life. In 1966, Cruz and Tito Puente began an association that would lead to eight albums for Tico Records.

It was in1973 that Celia emerged as an international star. She was cast as Gracia Divina in Hommy, Larry Harlow's Latin version of the rock opera Tommy. Her performance at Carnegie Hall stole the show, and launched her career to a new generation of Latinos in the New York Latin music now called Salsa. Professionally, this was the start of a dizzyingly successful period. She began collaborating with the younger bandleaders who were modernizing the genre. She released the album Celia y Johnny in 1974 with Johnny Pacheco to great success, then joined The Fania All- Stars. She toured with them in England, France, Zaire, and throughout Latin America. During the 1980s, Cruz toured Latin America and Europe many times, doing multiple concerts and television shows wherever she went, and singing both with younger stars and stars of her own era.

In 1989, Cruz won a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance with Ray Barretto for Ritmo en el Corazon. She recorded an anniversary album with La Sonora Matancera later that year. In 1992, she starred with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas in the film THE MAMBO KINGS.

President Bill Clinton awarded Cruz the National Medal of Arts in 1994. Among her many other honors were a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999 and an honorary doctorate of music from Yale in 1998.

Cruz went on to win four Latin Grammy Awards, and 2 more Grammy awards, for Best Salsa Album La Negra Tiene Tumbao in 2002, and Best Salsa/Merengue Album Regalo del Alma in 2003. Of the more than 70 albums she recorded, over 50 are available today.

Cruz died of a cancerous brain tumor at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey on July 16, 2003.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2009.

Celia Cruz Facts

Birth Name Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso
BirthdayOctober 21, 1925
BirthplaceHavana, Cuba
Date of deathJuly 16, 2003 (Fort Lee, New Jersey, USA, age 77)

Selected Filmography

Not available.