Birth: October 21, 1924? in Havana, Cuba
Death: July 16, 2003 in Fort Lee, New Jersey, United States
Although the Cuban-born music known as salsa, like other forms of Latin jazz and dance music, has been primarily male-dominated, its biggest vocal star is female. Celia Cruz has a powerful voice that transfers the rhythmic energy of salsa into the vocal medium, and she has been a prominent figure in the music since the beginnings of her career in Cuba in the 1950s. Leaving Cuba for the United States after the Castro takeover in 1959, Cruz has become a true legend of Latin American music and something of an emblem of Latin American identity.
The early facts of Cruz's life are somewhat obscure. Always reluctant to discuss her age, Cruz--according to some accounts--was born in Havana, Cuba, on October 21, 1924. Growing up in the city's poor Santo Suárez neighborhood in a household of 14 children (some were her cousins), she stood out because of her singing ability. Cruz won a singing contest called "La hora del té" and with her mother's encouragement began to enter other contests in various parts of Cuba.
Sometimes Cruz would travel to the contests with a cousin named Nenita. "I was very skinny and tiny," she told Billboard. "And since the tram cost five cents each way and we didn't have enough money, I'd sit on Nenita's lap, because she was bigger. The drivers knew us and, sometimes, they'd let me sit on the seat beside her, if it was empty. One time, we had no money to return and we walked back. We arrived at 2 a.m."
Cruz's father, however, believed that she should become a teacher, an altogether more common profession for a Cuban woman at the time. She enrolled at the national teachers' college, but dropped out after finding more and more success with her music in live and radio performances. Something of a compromise was reached when she enrolled at Havana's National Conservatory of Music--but there a professor encouraged her to consider a full-time singing career.
Her breakthrough came in 1950 when she became the lead vocalist for a big band called La Sonora Matancera. Bandleader Rogelio Martínez showed faith in Cruz when he continued to feature her despite the protests of fans of the band's previous vocalist, and once again when an American record executive resisted the idea of making a Sonora Matancera disc that featured Cruz, believing the a rumba record with a female vocalist would not sell well. Martínez promised to pay Cruz himself if the recording flopped. It did well in both Cuba and the United States, and Cruz toured widely through Central and North America with La Sonora Matancera in the 1950s.
At the time of the Communist takeover of Cuba in 1959, the group was slated to tour Mexico; from Mexico, rather than returning to Cuba, they entered the United States and remained there. Cruz herself became a U.S. citizen in 1961. Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro was furious and barred Cruz from returning to Cuba, enforcing the ban even after Cruz's parents' deaths. Cruz for her part has vowed not to return to Cuba until such time as the Castro regime is deposed. In 1962 she married La Sonora Matancera trumpet player Pedro Knight.
Although Cruz had made numerous recordings with La Sonora Matancera, she experienced little success in the United States in the 1960s. Although she spoke English well she refused to record in the language. Younger Hispanic Americans at the time were gravitating away from big-band dance music and toward rock-and-roll, in both Latin and non-Latin inflections. Cruz's fortunes began to improve when she meshed her talents with those of the musicians and bandleaders who were creating the new music called salsa--chief among them Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, and Willie Colón.
Salsa was firmly rooted in Cuban dance traditions, but it was a high-energy new hybrid that incorporated elements of jazz, traditional Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and other forms. It was an ideal medium for the showcasing of Cruz's vocals, for she was both an exciting improviser (she is known for her vocal imitations of instruments in the manner known as "scat" singing in the jazz world), and a singer with the power to stand up to an intense rhythm section. Cruz on stage was a commanding figure whose control over audiences resulted not only from her flamboyant, stage-filling attire, but also from her ability to engage them in call-and-response patterns that spring from salsa's Afro-Cuban roots.
In 1973 Cruz appeared in Hommy, a Spanish-language adaptation of the Who's rock opera Tommy. Her reputation spread both within and beyond the Hispanic community in the 1970s after she signed with the new salsa label Fania and recorded with a cream-of-the-crop lineup, the Fania All-Stars, drawn from its stable of artists. The Fania All-Stars album Live at Yankee Stadium (two vols., 1976) documented the power of her performances. Cruz has appeared in several films, including The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1992) and The Perez Family (1995).
One of Cruz's performance trademarks is a full-throated shout of "Azucar!" (Sugar!); she explained its 1970s origins in a 2000 Billboard interview. "I was having dinner at a restaurant in Miami, and when the waiter offered me coffee, he asked me if I took it with or without sugar. I said, 'Chico, you're Cuban. How can you even ask that? With sugar!' And that evening during my show ... I told the audience the story and they laughed. And one day, instead of telling the story, I simply walked down the stairs and shouted 'Azucar!'"
Cruz might be compared with U.S. jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan in her ability to bring vocal techniques to a primarily instrumental music, but she has a more essentially popular appeal than any jazz singer. Seemingly indestructible vocally, Cruz continued a full schedule of concerts and recordings throughout the 1980s and beyond. She received a Grammy award for the album Ritmo en el corazón, recorded with conga player Ray Barretto, in 1990, as well as an honorary doctorate from Yale University.
Still a major star in her own right, Cruz became an inspiration for numerous younger performers (such as Gloria Estefan) in the 1990s; her audience hardly aged along with her. "We've never had to attract these kids," she told Time. "They come by themselves. Rock is a strong influence on them, but they still want to know about their roots." For most Hispanic Americans, indeed, Celia Cruz has been and remains a much-loved figure, an icon of Latin culture.
Born on October 21, 1924; died on July 16, 2003, in Fort Lee, New Jersey; raised in the Santo Suarez neighborhood, Havana, Cuba; came to the United States in 1960, and became a citizen in 1961; married Pedro Knight, trumpeter, 1962 Education: Studied at National Conservatory of Music, Havana, Cuba, 1947-50. Addresses: Record Company--Omar Pardillo-Cid, RMM Records, 568 Broadway, Suite 806, New York, NY 10012; Agent--Bookings Online Talent Agency, Ltd., 236 West 26th St., Ste. 701, New York, NY 10001.
Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Album, 1989, awarded medal by President Bill Clinton from the National Endowment of the Arts, 1994.
Began singing on Cuban radio in the late 1940s; became lead singer of Cuban big band, La Sonora Matancera, 1950, recording and touring with them until 1965; joined Tito Puente Orchestra, 1966; recorded eight albums with Puente; sang the role of Gracia Divina at Carnegie Hall in Hommy--A Latin Opera (adaptation of Tommy), 1973; signed to Fania label and performed with Fania All-Stars group, 1970s; appeared in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and The Perez Family; has recorded over 50 albums, 20 of which became gold; performed worldwide.
Contemporary Hispanic Biography. Vol. 1. Gale, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.