Celia Cruz (Úrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso)
(October 21, 1925 – July 16, 2003) was a Cuban salsa singer who spent most of her career living in New Jersey, and working in the United States and several Latin American countries. Cruz was one of the most successful Cuban performers of the 20th century, with twenty-three gold albums to her name and has earned the moniker of the "La guarachera de Cuba". Leila Cobo of Billboard Magazine once said "Cruz is indisputably the best-known and most influential female figure in the history of Afro-Cuban music. Celia once said in an interview "If I had a chance I wouldn't have been singing and dancing, I would be a teacher just like my dad wanted me to be".Early Life & Career
Celia Cruz was born as "Úrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso" in the Santos Suárez neighborhood of Havana. Her parents were Catalina Alfonso and Simón Cruz. When she was a teenager, her aunt took her and her cousin to cabarets to sing, but her father encouraged her to keep attending school, in hopes that she would become a Spanish language teacher. However, one of her teachers told her that as an entertainer she could earn in one day what most Cuban teachers earned in a year. Cruz began singing in talent contests, often winning cakes and also opportunities to participate in more contests. Her first recordings were made in 1948 in Venezuela. Before that, Celia had recorded for radio stations. In 1950, she made her first major breakthrough, after the lead singer of the Sonora Matancera, a renowned Cuban orquesta, left the group and Cruz was called to fill in. Hired permanently by the orchestra, she wasn't well accepted by the public at first. However, the orchestra stood by their decision, and soon Cruz became famous throughout Cuba. During the 15 years she was a member, the band travelled all over Latin America, becoming known as "Café Con Leche" (coffee with milk). Cruz became known for her shout "¡Azúcar!", which means "Sugar!" in the Spanish language. The catch phrase started as the punch line for a joke Cruz used to tell frequently at her concerts. After having told the joke so many times, Cruz eventually dropped the joke and greeted her audience at the start of her appearances with the punch line alone.Career in the United States
In 1960, in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, Cruz fled Cuba and, in exile, moved to the United States. In 1961, she and her orchestra began performing at the Palladium Ballroom in New York City. The next year, she married her lead trumpeter, Pedro Knight. In 1965, Cruz and her husband left the orchestra. Her solo career advanced, while Knight's career languished, and eventually, he became her manager. She was by then a US citizen and was never given permission to return to Cuba (she did play Guantanamo Bay Naval Base once).
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, and later, Cruz joined the Vaya Records label. There, she joined accomplished pianist Larry Harlow and was soon headlining a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Her 1974 album, with Johnny Pacheco, Celia y Johnny, went rich, 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). With the Fania All Stars, Celia had the opportunity of visiting England, France, Zaire, and to return to tour Latin America. In the late 1970s, she participated in an Eastern Air Lines commercial in Puerto Rico, singing the catchy phrase ¡Esto sí es volar! (This really is flying!!!).
During the 1980s, Cruz made many tours in Latin America, doing multiple concert 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 Hollywood production of Salsa, alongside Draco Cornelio Rosa.
In 1990, Cruz won a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance - Ray Barretto & Celia Cruz - Ritmo en el Corazon. She later recorded an anniversary album with la Sonora Matancera. In 1992, she starred with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas in the film The Mambo Kings. In 2001, she recorded a new album, on which Johnny Pacheco was one of the producers.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Cruz the National Medal of Arts.
In early 2003, she had surgery to correct knee problems that she had for a few years, and she intended to continue working indefinitely. However, in July of that year, she died of a cancerous brain tumor at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She was survived by her widower; they had no children. After her death, her body was taken on a tour of US cities with large Cuban populations so that her many fans could pay their final respects. She was buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx; an epilogue in her autobiography notes that, in accordance with her wishes, Cuban soil that she had saved from a visit to Guantánamo Bay was used in her burial.Posthumous Career Achievements & Tributes
In February 2004, her latest album Regalo del Alma, released after her death, won a posthumous award at the Premios Lo Nuestro as best Salsa release of the year. It was announced in December 2005 that a musical called "Assuca" would open in Tenerife before touring the world. The name comes from Cruz's well-known catch phrase of "¡Azúcar!".
On June 4, 2003, the town of Union City, New Jersey, which lies not far from Cruz's Fort Lee home (and which once boasted the second-highest Cuban population after Miami), heralded its annual Cuban Day Parade by dedicating its new Celia Cruz Park at 31st Street and Bergenline Avenue, with Cruz's widower, Pedro Knight, present. The park featured a sidewalk star in Cruz's honor, and an 8' x 10' mural by Union City's Edgardo Davila, a collage of Cruz's career throughout the decades. There are four other similar dedications to Cruz around the world. Stars were later added to the park in honor of Tito Puente, Spanish language television news anchor Rafael Pineda, salsa pioneer Johnny Pacheco, and Benny More. The park was again refurbished by the Latin American Kiwanis Club in early June 2006. The mural was replaced with a backlit photograph of Cruz, and four more stars were added in honor of merengue singer Joseíto Mateo, salsa singer La India, Cuban musician Israel "Cachao" Lopez, and Cuban tenor Beny Moré.
On May 18, 2005, the National Museum of American History, administered by the Smithsonian Institution and located in Washington, D.C., opened "¡Azúcar!", an exhibit celebrating the life and music of Celia Cruz. The exhibit highlights important moments in Cruz's life and career through photographs, personal documents, costumes, videos, and musicSelected Discography
Note: Since Cruz's albums spanned many decades, a plethora of labels, and even different countries, this discography includes only her most recent albums.
- ¡Azúcar! (1993)
- The Best (1995)
- Duets (1997)
- Mi Vida Es Cantar (1998)
- Siempre Viviré (2000)
- La Negra Tiene Tumbao (2001)
- Regalo Del Alma (2003)