Telegram from Celia Cruz’s cousin Evangelina (Nenita) informing her of her mother’s death in Cuba on April 7, 1962.
Celia Cruz in a musical review in Cuba, early 1950s, Photograph courtesy of Omer Pardillo-Cid. For many musicians in Cuba of the 1940s and 1950s, radio was the main avenue to a successful musical career. Cadena Mil Diez, CMQ, Radio Cadena Suaritos, Radio Progreso, Radio Cadena Azul, and other stations promoted Cuban music and musicians. These stations had contests and live shows for aspiring as well as professional talent. Celia Cruz won her first contest
singing the tango “Nostalgia” at Radio García Serra in the amateur show The Tea Hour, accompanied by a pair of claves — a percussion instrument consisting of two wooden sticks struck against each other. It was a tribute to the great Cuban singer she admired, Paulina Alvarez. People heard Cruz’s powerful voice before they ever saw her. That signature voice would propel her into an explosive musical career.
Celia Cruz at the Tropicana, January 1957, Photograph courtesy of Omer Pardillo-Cid.For Cuban performers, the Tropicana was an important venue for showcasing one's talent. Celia Cruz was invited to perform there several times during the 1950s, participating in such great musicals as Mayombe, Tambó, Carnaval carioca, and Canto a Oriente. This was the perfect place for Cruz to develop her “bigger-than-life” sense of style and aesthetics. It was also another site where she launched herself as an independent singer, away from the Sonora Matancera.
Celia Cruz with the Sonora Matancera and musician Chino Hazan (in shirtsleeves), Photograph courtesy of Omer Pardillo-Cid.The 1950s were a time of great turmoil in Cuba. The political landscape had changed dramatically with the imminent revolution, and musicians faced constant changes that affected various aspects of their lives. Many had established themselves in New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico City, contributing to the exciting and complex musical tapestry developing there.Celia Cruz had traveled to the United States and Latin America often during the 1940s and 1950s with different bands and musical reviews. At the end of 1959, Rogelio Martínez, manager of the Sonora Matancera, secured a one-year contract to perform in Mexico. Cruz decided to go with the band; they left on July 15, 1960, six months after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, and never returned.
Celia Cruz in the unforgettable performance of Cúcala with Ismael Rivera and the Fania All Stars at Madison Square Garden in 1978. Known as El sonero mayor, Rivera was one of the most important and accomplished salsa singers,
especially in his talent for improvisation. He came from a plena and bomba tradition in Puerto Rico. Photograph Charlie González.
Shoes worn by Celia Cruz while performing.
Celia Cruz performing in Havana in the 1950s.
Bass Museum of Art
2121 Park Avenue
Gertrude Silverstone Muss Gallery
The Life and Music of Celia Cruz
May 17-August 19, 2007
¡Azúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz explores the life of legendary Cuban-born singer Celia Cruz (1925-2003) and her world-wide influence on music and culture.
Over the course of a career that spanned six decades and took her from humble beginnings in Havana, Cuba, to a world-renowned artist, Cruz became the undisputed “Queen of Latin Music.” Combining a piercing and powerful voice with a larger-than-life personality and stage costumes, she was one of the few women to succeed in the male-dominated world of Salsa music. Salsa is music born in New York City of Cuban and other Afro-Caribbean mixed musical genres. In her personification of Salsa, Cruz came to represent all Latinos and the Hispanic diaspora.
The exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, made its debut in Washington, D.C. ¡Azúcar! highlights important moments in Cruz’s life and career through photographs, personal documents, costumes, rare footage, and music. The show will include items from her childhood and early appearances with the band, La Sonora Matancera, in Cuba. Among the featured costumes will be a dress from a 1950s performance in Cuba and the dress she wore at her last public appearance, designed by Narciso Rodríguez.
Celia Cruz (October 21, 1925-July 16, 2003) was a three-time Grammy Award and four-time Latin Grammy winning Cuban-American 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 "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".
Celia Cruz was born Úrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso in the Santos Suárez neighborhood of Havana, Cuba. 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 month. Cruz began singing in talent contests (in her first one, at the Havana radio station Radio Garcia-Serra's popular Hora del Te daily broadcast, she sang the tango Nostalgias, and won a cake as first place) 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 orchestra, 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 trademark shout "¡Azúcar!", ("Sugar!" in Spanish). 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. In her later years, she would use the punch line a few times, to later say: "No les digo más 'Azúcar', pa' que no les dé diabetes!" ("I won't say 'Sugar' anymore, so that you don't end up with diabetes!")
In 1960, in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, Cruz 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 at 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 Cruz later 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, was very successful, 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 and Europe, doing multiple concerts 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 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Cruz the National Medal of Arts. In 2001, she recorded a new album, on which Johnny Pacheco was one of the producers.
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 husband; they had no children. After her death in New Jersey, her body was taken to Miami so that her many Florida fans could pay their final respects. Her body was returned to New York City where tens of thousands fans paid tribute to her at the Funeral Home. A service was held for her in St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. 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.
In February 2004, her latest album Regalo del Alma, won a posthumous award at the Premios Lo Nuestro for 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.
Shortly after her death, the Bronx High School of Music was renamed the Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music just weeks before its September 2003 opening
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 music.
Oye, Celia!: A Song for Celia Cruz is a children's picture book tribute to Cruz, written by Katie Sciurba and illustrated by Edel Rodriguez. This book, published by Henry Holt & Company, will be released on April 17, 2007.
Celia Cruz performing in Madison Square Garden, New York City.