Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, born October 21, 1925, was a Cuban-American singer and the most popular Latin artist of the 20th century, gaining twenty-three gold albums during her career. U.S. President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 1994. She was renowned internationally as the “Queen of Salsa”, “La Guarachera de Cuba”, as well as “The Queen of Latin Music”.
She spent much of her career working in the United States and several Latin American countries. She was an ambassador for the variety and vitality of the music of her native Havana, and after the Cuban revolution she became a symbol of artistic freedom for Cuban American exiles.
Cruz’s big break came in 1950 when Myrta Silva, the singer with Cuba’s Sonora Matancera, returned to her native Puerto Rico. Since they were in need of a new singer, the band decided to give the young Celia Cruz a chance. Here, she won the support of Sonora’s band leader, Rogelio Martinez, and went on to record hits such as “Yembe Laroco” and “Caramelo”. Soon her name was bigger than the band’s. During her 15 years with Sonora Matancera, she appeared in cameos in some Mexican films such as Rincón Criollo (1950), Una gallega en La Habana (1955) and Amorcito Corazón (1961), toured all over Latin America, and became a regular at Havana’s famous Tropicana nightspot.
After Fidel Castro assumed control of Cuba in 1959, when the Sonora Matancera left Cuba to perform in Mexico in June 1960, they did not return. Cruz and her husband, Pedro Knight, were prohibited from returning to their homeland and became citizens of the United States. In 1965, Cruz left the group and in 1966, Cruz and Tito Puente began an association that would lead to eight albums for Tico Records. The albums were not as successful as expected. However, Puente and Cruz later joined the Vaya Records label. There, she joined accomplished pianist Larry Harlow and was soon headlining a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Cruz’s 1974 album with Johnny Pacheco, Celia y Johnny, was very successful, and Cruz soon found herself in a group named the Fania All-Stars, which was an ensemble of salsa musicians from every orchestra signed by the Fania label (owner of Vaya Records). In Celia y Johnny, “Quimbará” became one of her signature songs. With the Fania All-Stars, Cruz had the opportunity to visit England, France, Zaire (today’s DR Congo), and to return to tour Latin America; her performance in Zaire is included in the film Soul Power. In the late 1970s, she participated in an Eastern Air Lines commercial in Puerto Rico, singing the catchy phrase ¡Esto sí es volar! (This is to truly fly!).
In 1976, she participated in a documentary film Salsa about the Latin culture, along with figures like Dolores del Río and Willie Colón. She also made three albums with Willie Colon (1977, 1981, 1987). With a voice described as operatic, Cruz moved through high and low pitches with an ease that belied her age, and her style improvising rhymed lyrics added a distinctive flavor to salsa. Her flamboyant costume, which included: various colored wigs, tight sequined dresses, and very high heels, became so famous that one of them was acquired by the Smithsonian institution.
Celia Cruz used to sing the identifying spot for WQBA radio station in Miami, formerly known as “La Cubanísima”: “I am the voice of Cuba, from this land, far away…I am liberty, I am WQBA, the most Cuban! (Yo soy de Cuba, la voz, desde esta tierra lejana…soy libertad, soy WQBA, Cubanísima!) During the 1980s, Cruz began to garner the international recognition that was her due, she made many tours in Latin America and Europe, doing multiple concerts and television shows wherever she went, and singing both with younger stars and stars of her own era. She began a crossover of sorts, when she participated in the 1988 feature film Salsa alongside Robby Draco Rosa.
In 1990, Cruz won a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance – Ray Barretto & Celia Cruz – Ritmo en el Corazón. She later recorded an anniversary album with Sonora Matancera. In 1992, she starred with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas in the film The Mambo Kings. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Cruz the National Medal of Arts. In the same year, she was inducted into Billboards Latin Music Hall of Fame along with fellow Cuban musician Cachao López. In 1999, Cruz was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame. In 2001, she recorded a new album, on which Johnny Pacheco was one of the producers.
On July 16, 2002, Cruz performed to a full house at the free outdoor performing arts festival Central Park SummerStage in New York City. During the performance she sang “Bemba Colora’.” A live recording of this song was subsequently made available in 2005 on a commemorative CD honoring the festival’s then 20-year history entitled, “Central Park SummerStage: Live from the Heart of the City”. Cruz appeared on the Dionne Warwick albums 1998 Dionne Sings Dionne & 2006 My Friends & Me with their Latin Duet version of (Do You Know The Way To) San Jose.
In March 2003, the Spanish-language television network Telemundo produced and aired a tribute special honoring Cruz, ¡Celia Cruz: Azúcar!. It was hosted by Puerto Rican singer Marc Anthony and Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan. It featured musical performances by various Latin music and Anglo performers including Victor Manuelle, Paulina Rubio, José Feliciano, Milly Quezada, Los Tri-O, Estefan, Patti Labelle, Arturo Sandoval, Ana Gabriel, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Tito Nieves, Albita, Johnny Pacheco, Alicia Villareal, Olga Tañón, Mikey Perfecto, José Alberto “El Canario”, Rosario, Luis Enrique, Anthony and Gloria Gaynor.
She died in 2003.