A Look at the Glorious Life & Musical Career of the Queen of Salsa
BY IZZY SANABRIA
The electrifying Celia Cruz is an idolized name among Latinos of all ages who know her as “la Guarachera del Mundo” a title she’s held since she began singing on radio in her native Cuba during the 1940’s.
Anyone vaguely familiar with Celia knows that she is the number one “Superstar” of Latin music. Celia Cruz is unquestionably the first lady of Afro-Cuban music (origins of what we now call Salsa).
ON STAGE SUPER STAR
“Azucar” is her calling card and sugar is what she sprinkles to audiences wherever she performs. Celia enchants audiences with a mesmerizing stage presence enhanced by dazzling clothes, elaborate wigs, perpetual motion and the great power of her voice.
Dancing, swaying and adding fire to the rhythms with each movement of her body, Celia is the embodiment of joyous energy.
An energy she has also applied to her work in theater, film and television.
The magic created by this extraordinary performer has won her global recognition. She’s been awarded various honorary degrees, a Grammy, a stature in Hollywood’s famous wax museum, the prestigious star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and the key to numerous cities around the world. In October 1994, President Clinton personally presented Celia with the greatest honor an American artist can receive - the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest music award.
Celia Cruz celebrates her birthday on October 21, but never reveals her year of birth. The second eldest of four children, Celia grew up in what she describes as ‘the poor part’ of the Santa Saurez barrio of Havana, in a household of fourteen children, including nieces, nephews, and cousins. Others in her family, especially her mother and brother were good singers, but Celia was the only one to make it professionally. Celia’s singing began as part of her daily chores—putting the younger kids to sleep. She would sit by their beds and sing to them, but they never went to sleep. What’s more, neighbors would gather around the house to listen to her sing which often annoyed her. “I was so involved with the children, I never realized it was my singing that was attracting the neighbors. ”But her family knew and an older cousin entered Celia’s name as a contestant on “La Hora de Te”- a radio program which featured a monthly amateur hour for children. A young girl at the time, Celia entered that segment of the program and sang “Nostalgia” a popular romantic tango. She won first prize and was asked to return the following month as the star of the show. Celia then began performing in all the city’s amateur shows impressing listeners wherever she sang.
TEACHER OR SINGER?
Celia’s first aspiration was to be a teacher of literature and in fact, she graduated from the Escuela Normal para Maestros. However one fateful day, a greatly admired teacher, advised Celia that although her goal of becoming an instructor was admirable, her real talent was in performing. The teacher convinced the young Celia that she could make more money in a day singing, than her teachers would in several months of work.
Celia was hooked. Now firmly intent on a singing career, she studied voice and theory for three years at the Conservatory of Music in Havana.
In her first professional jobs, Celia sang for Radio Progreso Cubana and then for Union Radio, one of the island’s most powerful transmitters. At that time her specially was the pregon (a native Cuban genre based on the chants of street vendors) which included songs such as ‘Manicero’ (‘Peanut Vendor”) and ‘El Pregon del Pescador’ (“The Fisher-man’s Cry”). The first groups Celia was associated with were Orquesta Gloria Matancera and the female dancing troupe Las Mulatas de Fuego. With the latter, she sang in theatrical revues and entertained during costume changes.
LA MATANCERA - CELIA’S BIG BREAK
Celia’s big break came in August of 1950, when Puerto Rican born Myrta Silva, Sonora Matancera’s longtime singer decided to return home. Being Cuba’s most popular orchestra, the group needed a special person and a special voice to replace Myrta who had been such an integral part of Matancera’s sound. Radio Progreso invited Celia to audition and she was immediately signed to join the group on its weekly radio show. At first, outraged Myrta fans inundated the radio station with letters objecting to an unknown vocalist performing with Cuba’s most popular orchestra. Undaunted, Celia rode out the storm and entered what many now consider to be her “Golden Era.”
Celia recalls, “The band liked me and the station manager assured me that he would not go back on the contract. I have always felt that if you persevere, you will succeed. So I stayed.” In fact, she stayed for 15 years.
Celia’s first recording was with La Sonora Matancera: a “78 rpm” single, ‘Cao Cao Mani Picao’/’Mata Siguaraya,” which was released in January 1951. Then began tours throughout the Caribbean, México and the USA.
During the 15 years she worked with la Sonora Matancera, Celia recorded numerous albums and performed in five Mexican motion pictures. She also appeared on one of the first international television broadcasts originating from Cuba (also viewed throughout the United States).
Because so many people regarded a show business career as disreputable (especially for a single woman), Celia was always chaperoned by a female relative in her travels with La Sonora Matancera. In Latin NY Magazine’s (October 1982) issue, Rogelio Martinez, Matancera’s director, stated that, “There are always people who have bad impressions of a single woman traveling with an all-male band. Celia was and remains a true lady. If anyone (especially a man) was in any way disrespectful to Celia, the entire band would be up in arms ready to fight in defense of her honor.” Chief among Celia’s protectors was the group’s first trumpet, Pedro Knight, who later became her husband, manager, musical director and guiding light.
EXODUS FROM CUBA
In 1959, as Fidel Castro’s revolution drove out the Mafia gangsters from Havana’s night life, it unfortunately also threw Cuba’s show business into temporary disarray. As a consequence, many musicians left Cuba. Though the Castro regime wanted (and urged) them to stay, in July 1960, Celia and La Sonora Matancera joined the exodus. They got out by creating the impression they were just going on another temporary tour abroad. However, like a scorned lover, Castro’s government never forgot her defection. Years later Celia was denied entry into Cuba to attend her father’s funeral.
After working in Mexico for a year and a half, Celia and the orchestra came to the United States in November of 1961. But for more than a decade, her most appreciative audiences continued to be in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America, until the 1970’s, when she, Fania Records and Salsa came together.
Celia signed her first US recording contract in 1965 with Seeco Records. Disappointed with the lack of promotion, she left when her contract was up in January 1966. That same month, Celia signed with Tico Records and remained with the company until 1973. During this time she recorded eight albums with Tito Puente. With mutual admiration for each other, Celia and Tito began working with tremendous creative enthusiasm but never produced big sales. Again, lack of promotion killed many great tunes they created. Even such promising collaborations as “Bemba Colora” (later a smash hit on the Fania label) gathered dust at Tico Records.
During the years 1965-1973, Celia’s career seemed to be in a slump. However, Celia points out, that the 1960’s were indeed years of slump--for the (her) music, but not for her. Celia continued performing across the United States for the ‘Mambo-Niks’ audiences (survivors of the 1950’s New York Palladium scene) and tirelessly toured South America giving as many as six performances a day. However, the airwaves still paid little attention to her music. Her recordings did not sell well and Celia was not in public demand (at least stateside).
Meanwhile, the social and political profile of New York was being changed by a massive infusion of a Latino youth culture spearheaded by young Puerto Ricans. By the early 1970’s, New York’s Latino culture was a major fact of life, and the music of that culture was Salsa. Whites had Rock, Blacks had Soul, and now Latinos had Salsa.
RESURGENCE WITH FANIA
On Thursday, March 29, 1973, Larry Harlow presented his Latin opera “Hommy” at Carnegie Hall. Celia walked out on stage, sang the part of Gracia Divina moving the young audience to its feet. It signaled the imminent resurgence of her popularity.
That resurgence came a year later, after Jerry Masucci’s relentless 2-year campaign to sign Celia finally happened. Pacheco had long wanted to record with Celia and they began recording her on Vaya Records (a Fania label). Their first collaboration, “Celia and Johnny” released in the summer of 1974, went gold and Celia’s career skyrocketed. Maintaining the pace of her new-found popularity, the two subsequent albums, “Tremendo Cache” and “Recordando El Ayer” (with Pacheco, Papo Lucca and Justo Betancourt) were also big sellers. In later Vaya releases, Celia was also teamed with La Sonora Ponceña, Pete “Conde” Rodriguez, and Willie Colon. To date, Celia has recorded over fifty albums of which almost half are gold, and, her earliest recordings have become greatly prized by music collectors.
SOARS WITH FANIA ALL-STARS
Now in great demand, Celia was featured with the Fania All-Stars in Fanias second film “Salsa” and then she traveled with them to Africa (1974), Japan (1976) and later Europe. Wherever she performed the crowds went wild. Celia also captured the attention of the American press who compared her to the jazz great Ella Fitzgerald since her soneos seemed reminiscent of jazz’s scat singing. However, Celia’s uncanny talent of rapid-fire invention of rhymed and timed phrases is much more intricate than jazz’s scats.
By 1977, Celia reigned supreme. The public voted her “Best Female Latin Music Vocalist” in music polls conducted by the New York Daily News in 1977 and 1979, and by Billboard Magazine in 1978. In Latin NY Magazines Music Awards’ polls, Celia Cruz was the only artist that won in their category every single year from the inception of the awards in 1974 to 1982.
On October 23,1982 Celia was honored with a tribute concert at Madison Square Garden. That night, Celia was reunited with La Sonora Matancera, Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colon, Cheo Feliciano, Pete “Conde” Rodriguez (and others) to chronologically trace her musical history. The sold-out concert was also televised via satellite to South America, Europe and the USA.
A DREAM COMES TRUE IN 1984
Would you believe that despite all her worldwide success, Celia had never appeared on American television? In an interview in Houston, Texas, Celia revealed that her biggest (secret) dream was to sing on an English language television channel. As fate would have it, the interview was picked up by the producers of “Bravisimo” (a series of hi-tech Specials focused on highlighting Latino talent on network television). They immediately called me at Latin NY magazine to help them contact the Queen of Salsa for a special performance. Bravisimo’s premiere show (aired Sunday, August 19, 1984) on ABC, featured Celia Cruz in her American television debut.
As Celia’s popularity continued to grow, doors to other entertainment media began opening for her. In 1987 she performed in a special segment of the Grammy Awards with Tito Puente. Her television work includes a role in the novela (soap opera) “Valentina.” Celia also had roles in Hollywood films such as “Salsa,” “The Mambo Kings” and most recently “The Perez Family.” And, her great voice has enhanced the sound tracks of the films “Something Wild” and “Invasion U.S.A.”
From her home base in New York, Celia still tours constantly. She performs twice a year in Europe and more often, throughout Central and South America.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON CELIA: SANTERIA
Contrary to a widespread belief that she’s a Santera, Celia is a devout Roman Catholic. The misconception is mostly based on the fact that two of her best selling Seeco LPs contained songs of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria. And though she sings in Lucumi (the African based language of Santeria), Celia says she does it phonetically without knowing the actual meaning of the words.
“I’m a religious person and I respect Santeria, but I have never been a Santera. Those Seeco albums were compiled from songs I had recorded on various LPs. I don’t know the meaning of all the Lucumi words, but since I am familiar with the pronunciation I am able to sing those songs well.”
Celia belongs to no political party, and unlike most Cuban exiles, does not engage in anti- Castro diatribes, because “When you start talking politics, art goes out the window.”
PERSONAL INSIGHT INTO CELIA
Celia’s stage presence, and the adulation it evokes, does not prepare you for the simple unpretentious manner or the sincere human warmth that she radiates in private. The smile is the same which is luminous from ear to ear and usually followed by hearty laughter.
In a business that is often cutthroat, she has a unique reputation for thoughtfulness and old-fashioned courtesy. I have never heard Celia criticize a fellow artist. She does not put on airs, act distant or snobbish and never denies an autograph to a fan.
Celia Cruz is also the only artist I know who never forgets a person once they have been introduced. She never forgets the birthday, anniversary or other personal event of a person she considers a friend. For example: when my daughter was born, Celia not only sent me a congratulatory note, but has continued sending birthday cards every year.
As a consequence, Celia enjoys the kind of respect, love and admiration from peers, friends and fans, that few artists ever attain. Despite all her success and global recognition, Celia considers herself a humble servant of God. “Music is the only gift God gave to me. Unless it’s taken away, I will continue sharing it with the world. It’s what satisfies and brings me joy. In a sense I’ve also fulfilled my father’s wish for me to become a teacher because through my music I can teach generations of people a little about our culture and its joys.”
Although Celia feels caged when kept away from the concert stage (as she was during an illness some years ago), Celia’s greatest pleasures come from being home doing housework, reading, doing crossword puzzles and watching television. But most
of all, she enjoys spending time with her sister Gladys, her brother in-law Orlando and their three children, Linda and the twins, Celia Maria and Jean-Paul.
According to her husband Pedro, “Celia’s one indulgence is her clothes...she never wears the same fancy gown twice.”
In a field so long and powerfully dominated by men, Celia is not only Salsa’s brightest shining star...she is a priceless jewel of our music and culture.
So what more could this extraordinary lady possibly want or desire out of life? When asked, Celia answered: “I don’t need a mansion or a jet plane. My only wish is to go to Cuba to visit my parent’s gravesites.”