Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, or for short Celia Cruz, was one of the most accomplished singers of the 20th century. Hailing from humble beginnings in the poor neighborhood of Santos Suarez in Havana, Cuba, her mother knew immediately that she was destined to be a singer.
It was on the radio in diverse Santos Suarez where Cruz would grow up listening to all types of music. Rumba, mambo, guaracha, bolero, cha-cha, salsa and son cubano was apart of her musical education. As a youth Cruz and her sister were taken to cabarets to sing by their aunt. At radio stations, Cruz sang tango “Nostalgias” (unrequited love songs) to win cakes during the “Hora del Te” broadcast, often coming first place.
Her piercing and powerful voice carried a great warmth. At a music conservatory, her own professor took notice of it and told her to drop out and let her talent shine as she was already gaining momentum on the radio for her recorded and live performances in the late 1940s.
Her vocal style was distinctive because it incorporated pregon, the wails of street vendors (usually fishmongers and peanut vendors). As an Afro-Cubana, her early music was influenced by santeria (Cuban blend of Christian and traditional African religious music) songs which used the religious African dialect of Lucumi.
After leaving school she was the singer for a dance group, Las Mulatas del Fuego. In 1950 she was the lead singer of Sonora Matancera, one of the most prominent Cuban orchestras. But that didn’t come easy, because when she joined Sonora, she was replacing a previous singer and she had to gain the public’s support. By her bandmates sticking up for her, Cruz eventually became well love not only in Cuba, but throughout all of Latin America. Slowly, she was becoming the leading female voice of modern salsa at a time when the music was dominated by men.
Soon, Cruz’s life will change forever, for better and for worst in the early 1960s. While travelling with Matancera in Mexico, Fidel Castro came to power turning Cuba into a communist country. With all but one bandmember refusing to go back under such a regime, Castro issued them a lifetime ban. Over a year later she would take up residency in New Jersey and marry Matancera trumpet player Pedro Knight.
In the mid 1960s, she followed the New York music scene which had musicians from all over Latin America and the Caribbean. Outside of salsa, she also sang guaracha and all the other types of Latin music she grew up listening to. This was a time of experimentation when many artists would blend and mix many different musical styles and perform with musicians from different styles of music.
By the 1970s, Cruz made music with Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, and the Fania AllStars. She had a catch phrase, Azucar, which she used to energize her audience and band. Also, she became a fashion icon because of her bold, daring, and wild costumes and wigs.
In the 1980s and 1990s, she performed and was featured on songs with Wyclef Jean, Dionne Warwick, Patti Labelle, and David Byrne. By the early 2000s, The Celia Cruz Foundation was created in order to help impoverished students that wanted to study music.
Celia Cruz made music until her death from brain cancer in 2003. Within the 55 years that she made music, she released 75 albums, 23 of which went gold. Throughout her career, Cruz was honored as the Queen of Salsa, La Guarachera de Cuba, and the Queen of Latin Music.
- She was awarded an American National Medal of the Arts
- For the 2015-2016 TV lineup, Telemundo will have a musical drama about The Queen of Salsa
- While with La Sonora Matancera, Cruz and the group appeared in five motion pictures
- She sang the spot for WQBA in Miami
- There is an exhibit in Washinton D.C. dedicated to her