Fania Records co-founder Jerry Masucci had an eye for talent, and at a Fania All-Stars concert in Puerto Rico in 1974, he unveiled the dazzling new jewel he had added his roster. Ursula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso was born in Havana in 1925 in the working class neighborhood of Santos Suárez. She was born to sing.
Blessed with a powerful, clear voice, able to improvise and deliver chants honed in two decades as a consummate performer, Celia seemed to carry Africa in her throat. Salsa was born on the streets of New York, but with her confidence and ease, her striking wigs, sequined gowns, custom-made shoes, and colorful African “batas,” Celia brought some old-school showbiz glitz to Fania. Introduced to a new generation, to new themes and less traditional arrangements, Celia had no difficulty with the nuances of Salsa. “Bemba Colorá,” “Cúcala,” and “Químbara” turned her into an international sensation. She traveled the world fronting The Fania All-Stars under the direction of Johnny Pacheco.
Cruz’s story reached back to the radio stations of 1940s Cuba. After winning a radio contest, eighteen-year-old Celia, a schoolteacher, began to sing professionally and soon became the voice of Cuba’s best-known big band, the Sonora Matancera. Like many prominent 1950s Cuban musicians, Celia and her husband Pedro Knight chose exile from the Castro regime. The Sonora Matancera continued to perform from Mexico, but Celia left the band in 1965 to record with Tito Puente in the United States. The collaboration yielded eight albums. But Jerry Masucci, who’d seen her perform in Cuba, had long had his eye on her. As Salsa went international in the late 1970s, Celia, with her trademark catch-phrase “¡Azúcar!” became Masucci’s biggest international star, recognized the world over as The Queen of Salsa.
Cruz crossed into the mainstream when she appeared in the film The Mambo Kings; she later recorded a duet with David Byrne, “Loco de Amor,” for the film Something Wild. She went on to collaborate with Gloria Estefan, La India, Tito Puente and many more. Keeping up with the times, in 2001 Celia recorded “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” (“The Black Woman Got Style”), produced by Sergio George, featuring Puerto Rican Reggaeton artist Mikey Perfecto. The hit song combines elements of Salsa, Rap, and Hip Hop.
Throughout, she remained faithful to her fan base in the Cuban exile community, vowing never to return to Cuba as long as Castro was alive. She died of cancer in New Jersey in 2003, leaving behind an enormous catalogue of incredible performances and a gaping hole in Latin Music. Her legions of fans are still looking for the next Celia Cruz.
In her career Cruz won 3 Grammys and 4 Latin Grammy Awards, and in 2016 she was honored with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy. But her legacy, deeply embedded in the history of Latin Music and Latin culture in America, surpasses her achievements. It is best captured in her anthem “Yo Viviré,” a riff on Donna Summers’ “I will Survive”:
Oye mi son, mi viejo son
(Listen to my Son, my old Son)
Tiene la clave de cualquier generación
(It has the clave of any generation)
En el alma de mi gente, en el cuero del tambor
(In the soul of my people, in the hide of the drum)
En las manos del conguero, en los pies del bailador
(In the hands of the conguero, in the feet of the dancer)
Yo viviré, allí estaré.
(I will survive)