Celia Cruz

“When opportunity presents itself, grab it. Hold on tight and don’t let it go.”

Celia Cruz, Cuban-American singer, 1925-2003

Remembered as the “Queen of Salsa,” Celia Cruz released an astounding 37 albums (23 of them gold) over her long career, winning three Grammy Awards and four Latin Grammy Awards. She is credited with introducing Afro-Cuban music and dance to the New York nightlife scene in the 1970s, at a time when salsa was male dominated. With her spectacular costumes and multi-colored wigs, and her signature catchphrase “Azúcar!” (Sugar!) she was exuberant, charismatic, and glamourous. Born in the outskirts of Havana to an extended family of 14, her mother encouraged her to sing lullabies to her younger siblings.

She trained to be a teacher, but after winning a talent search it became clear that her career would be in music. She headlined Havana’s famed Tropicana nightclub in the 1950s and became the first Black frontperson for the acclaimed Cuban orchestra, La Sonora Matancera, which toured Mexico in the 1960s. After the Cuban Revolution, members of the orchestra were exiled, and Cruz took up residence in the United States, performing at Hollywood’s Palladium and marrying her trumpet player, Pedro Night. In the early 70s she became associated with salsa, emerging as a central figure for a new generation of fans.

She stood out with her operatic voice and ability to improvise lyrics as much as for her sky-high heels and Cuban rumba dresses, one of which is preserved in the Smithsonian museum. She appeared in The Mambo Kings at age 67 and continued to release music right up to her death at age 77. Half a million people are said to have paid their respects to her in Miami and New York.  


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