Celia Cruz Biography

Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alonso, 21 October 1924, Santa Suarez district, Havana, Cuba, d. 16 July 2003, New Jersey, USA. Described as the ‘Queen of Salsa’ - just one of her several superlative epithets - Cruz will be remembered as the most influential female in the history of Afro-Cuban music. Her family and neighbours became aware of the young Celia’s singing ability from listening to her croon lullabies to her younger relatives. While she was training to become a literature teacher, an older cousin entered her in a competition on the talent show La Hora Del Té on Radio García Serrá, in which she won first prize. Her 1983 biography refers to 1947 as the year when this contest occurred, but the sleeve notes to two of her early albums, Canta Celia Cruz (Celia Cruz Sings) and Cuba’s Queen Of Rhythm, mention 1935. Celia’s father, Simón Cruz, viewed music a dishonourable career for a woman, but he was overridden by his wife, Catalina Alfonso. Professional radio work followed. Celia concluded her teacher training and did some classes at Havana’s National Conservatory of Music. She eventually switched to singing full-time when a trusted teacher advised her that she would be foolish to do otherwise.

Cruz first appeared on Santero, an album of Afro-Cuban cult music on the Panart label. (Two of her later bestselling albums on Seeco, Homenaje A Los Santos and Homenaje A Los Santos Vol. 2, contained recordings of sacred songs, and her association with Santeria or Yoruba was highlighted in UK media coverage though she always claimed to be a practising Roman Catholic). In addition to radio, Cruz worked with the group Gloria Matancera and in small theatres and cabaret. She befriended Roderico ‘Rodney’ Neyra, later choreographer at the famous Tropicana nightclub in Havana, who helped her get work there as a singer during the club’s winter seasons. She toured Mexico and Venezuela with him and his dance troupe, Las Mulatas De Fuego (The Fiery Mulattas). Neyra introduced Cruz to Rogelio Martínez, the director of the popular band Sonora Matancera. On 3 August 1950, Cruz replaced Myrta Silva, who had returned to her native Puerto Rico, as lead vocalist of Sonora Matancera on their weekly show on Radio Progreso. Cruz made her recording debut with Sonora Matancera on a 78 rpm single released in January 1951 entitled ‘Cao Cao Mani Picao’ (later included on Canciones Premiadas De Celia Cruz, her biggest hit album on Seeco), with the flip-side ‘Mata Siguaraya’ (later contained on Homenaje A Los Santos Vol. 2). She made a long list of records during her 15-year tenure with the band. During the 50s, Cruz and the band appeared on television, topped the bill at the Tropicana and toured the Caribbean, South and Central America and the USA. She made her first appearance in New York at the old St. Nicholas Arena in 1957.

Cruz and Sonora Matancera left post-revolutionary Cuba permanently in July 1960. ‘We gave them the impression we were just going on another temporary tour abroad. That’s how we got out’ (quoted in her 1983 biography). They worked in Mexico for one-and-a-half years, during which time they made their fifth Mexican movie appearance. ‘Castro never forgave me’, she said in a 1987 interview. The Cuban government refused her permission to return home to attend her father’s funeral. A lengthy commitment at the Hollywood Palladium, Los Angeles, in 1961 enabled Cruz and Sonora Matancera to apply for US residency. In July 1962 she was able to dispense with her chaperone (a female relative), when she married the band’s first trumpeter, Pedro Knight (b. 30 September 1921, Cuba, d. 3 February 2007, Los Angeles, California, USA), who became her manager and on-stage musical director.

After finishing with Sonora Matancera in 1965, Cruz switched to Tico Records - then a division of Morris Levy’s Roulette Records - and released a series of 12 albums (excluding compilations) between 1966 and 1972, including seven in partnership with Tito Puente and four recorded in Mexico with the band of Memo Salamanca (issued by Tico in the USA under license from the Mexican Orfeon label). A combination of poor promotion and a young Latino audience more interested in other music styles than music from the old country, meant that her Tico releases clocked up poor sales. However, by the early 70s, young Latinos ‘in New York, New Jersey and Miami began to take a new pride in their roots, and salsa became the musical symbol of that rediscovered identity’ (quote from Elizabeth Llorente, 1987). Jerry Masucci, who co-ran the successful salsa labels, Fania and Vaya, with band leader Johnny Pacheco, had his eye on the Tico catalogue and was especially interested in developing Cruz’s talents. He struck a contract with Levy, and Tico became part of the Fania fold.

Cruz was touring in Mexico in 1973 when it was decided that she would sing the part of Gracia Divina on Larry Harlow’s Latin opera album Hommy on Fania, a version of the Who’s Tommy. Cruz’s outstanding performance at the all-star Carnegie Hall presentation of Hommy on 29 March 1973 served to relaunch her career and connect her with a new, younger audience. Her new-found popularity was consolidated the following year. The summer of 1974 witnessed the release of Celia & Johnny, the first of a series of six successful collaborations with Pacheco on Vaya, which went gold. Masucci thought of alternating Cruz with other top leaders on his roster, such as Willie Colón, Papo Lucca and Ray Barretto, whose bands each had their own trademark sound. Cruz made her album debut with the Fania All Stars in 1975 on the two-volume Live At Yankee Stadium. Bobby Valentín’s re-arrangement of her 60s track ‘Bemba Colora’ (‘Red Lips’, originally from Son Con Guaguanco produced by Al Santiago) on volume two was a show stopper with the hypnotized audience chanting the single word chorus ‘colora’ and calling Cruz back for an encore. Film footage of this performance was featured in Masucci’s movie Salsa. She continued to use Valentín’s chart of ‘Bemba Colora’ to close her live shows. Cruz toured Africa and Europe with Fania All Stars and recorded with them up until 1988.

After a gap of about 17 years, Cruz reunited on record with Sonora Matancera on 1982’s Feliz Encuentro. She was the subject of BBC television’s Arena film profile My Name Is Celia Cruz broadcast in 1988, a year after she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. Later that year, a programme in the BBC’s Rhythms Of The World series was devoted to concert footage of Cruz teamed up with Puente’s big band (with special guest Pacheco) recorded at the Apollo theatre, New York in 1987. She joined a reunion of 13 former lead singers of Sonora Matancera for a series of three concerts by the band in June 1989 in celebration of their 65th anniversary and was commemorated by a double album release. In 1989, Cruz was awarded an honorary doctorate of music by Yale University. Her second collaboration with Ray Barretto, 1988’s Ritmo En El Corazón, won a Grammy Award in 1990. In 1992, Celia appeared in the Hollywood movie The Mambo Kings as nightclub owner Evalina Montoya, and three years later played a cameo role in The Perez Family.

Cruz signed to the RMM label in 1989, and the following year licensed her product for release in Spain on the newly formed BAT label. Azucar Negra gave Cruz her first gold record on the Spanish charts, and she spent the rest of the 90s establishing her presence in an important market. During a decade which witnessed the assimilation of Latin music into the US mainstream, Cruz was garlanded with several important titles, not least of which was 1995’s Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award. At the end of the decade she signed to Sony, debuting for the label in 2000 with Siempre Viviré. The ‘Queen of Salsa’ died three years later at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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