Celia Cruz was the most influential female singer in Latin music in the 20th century. Though known for her contributions to salsa during the genre’s boom in the 1970s, Celia explored a variety of Afro-Cuban music genres during her long career of collaboration with Latin music’s best artists and groups.
Born Úrsula Hilaria Celia Cruz Alfonso in Havana Cuba on October 21, 1925, the Cuban was raised in a poor working-class neighborhood. Her father wanted her to become a Spanish language teacher to ensure financial security, but Celia’s passion and talent for singing was apparent at a young age. She started singing in cabarets as a teenager and was soon competing for cakes on a Havana radio station.
Celia’s big break came when she was asked to fill in for the lead singer of Sonora Matancera, Cuba’s most popular orchestra in the 1950s. Despite being told that Celia’s style would turn off fans, the group stuck by their new lead singer’s untraditional voice and unique style. She would sing with the group for fifteen years, traveling throughout Latin America. It was during this time that she became known for her trademark of shouting out Azúcar, originally the punchline for one of her jokes, during her performances.
After the rise of dictator Fidel Castro to power and the suppression of Cuban artists, Celia and Sonora Matancera defected to the United States during a tour in Mexico in 1959. Celia became a U.S. citizen in 1961, and the following year she married Pedro Knight, one of Sonora Matancera’s trumpeters. The two would break from the orchestra soon after – Celia as a solo artist and Pedro as her manager.
From the very beginning, Celia’s solo career was marked by collaboration with a variety of well known and up and coming Latin music stars. Starting in 1966, she partnered with Tito Puente and recorded eight albums with him with moderate success. Celia then switched labels as the salsa boom of the 1970s approached. That decade was the height of salsa’s, and Celia’s, popularity. During this time, she collaborated with such salsa greats as Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, Ray Barretto, Sonora Ponceña, and the Fania All Stars.
Though salsa’s popularity waned after its golden decade, Celia continued to collaborate and perform at a furious pace into the 80s and 90s. In addition to worldwide tours, she also made guest appearances on television shows and starred in ten movies, including The Mambo Kings with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas. She also worked with American singers Dionne Warwick, Patti Labelle, Gloria Estefan, and Wyclef Jean.
Despite being in her 70s, Celia continued to receive recognition for her lifelong contribution to Latin music well into the 1990s. In 1994 President Clinton honored her with the National Medal of Arts. And in 1997 San Francisco declared October 25 Celia Cruz Day. The Cuban singer also received three honorary doctorates from Yale, Florida International University, and Miami University. Throughout the years, she never stopped making music and performing. Over the course of her career she would release 23 gold albums.
In early 2003, Celia underwent knee surgery and then returned to her music. But in July of that year she succumbed to a cancerous brain tumor at her New Jersey home at the age of 77. Her body was taken to Miami and then returned to New York City where she was buried; almost half a million people attended the two ceremonies to pay their respects. At Celia had requested, Cuban soil from her visit to Guantá, Cuba, was used in her burial.
Celia Cruz is still recognized as the most defining female voice in Cuban music over the past century. In an industry dominated by men, Celia brought her unique voice and passion for Cuban music to millions of people over the span of six decades. Her autobiography, Celia Cruz: My Life, based on a series of interviews with Ana Cristina Reymundo, was published in 2004.