Celia Cruz, the Afro-Cuban singer who rose from a humble Havana home to command half a century of Latin dance music with her sonorous voice and regal yet folksy personality, died Wednesday afternoon at her Fort Lee, N.J., home after a battle with brain cancer. She was 77.
Coming three years after the death of bandleader Tito Puente, one of her longtime collaborators, Cruz's death marks the end of an extraordinary era of salsa superstars who were able to work until the very end of their lives.
"It's really sad, because she represented a unifying factor within the Latino community," said bandleader Willie Colon, who made three albums with Cruz in the 1970s and early '80s.
"She was like royalty, and there's nobody around who's going to step in those shoes. The king and queen are gone."
Fans simply called her Celia. Such was their affection for the performer that premature reports of her death on Miami radio in recent weeks had provoked many to tears.
Cruz had been in poor health since undergoing surgery for a brain tumor in December.
On Wednesday, colleagues remembered her for her unwavering professionalism, old-fashioned grace and seemingly inexhaustible energy.
Just weeks after her operation, Cruz was back in the studio recording a new album with a title that now seems prophetic, "Regalo del Alma" (Gift From the Soul).
Sergio George, her record producer, said Cruz had some difficulty recalling lyrics because of her condition. The ailing singer had to record her vocals in segments short enough for her to remember. But otherwise, her drive was undeterred.
"She's a fighter," said George. "It was as if nothing had ever happened. She was just ready to go. It was an incredible experience to see her drive and her energy and her will to want to do it. Nothing would stop her."
Cruz was born in 1925 in the poor Santos Suarez neighborhood of Havana, the second of four children born to Catalina and Simon Cruz, a railroad stoker. She shared the household with more than a dozen children, including nieces, nephews and cousins.
She started singing around the house and had the duty of singing lullabies for the other children at bedtime.
"I would sit in a chair by their beds and begin singing them to sleep," she once recalled. "But you know, they never went to sleep. And what's more, neighbors would congregate around the doors to the house."
For the rest of her life, people would be awed by the unique, high-pitched timbre of her voice, with its distinctive African inflections.
"That was a voice God gave to nobody else," singer Ruben Blades said Wednesday. "She was our Sarah Vaughan, our Ella Fitzgerald, our Pavarotti."
Cruz did not aspire to be a singer. She planned to be a teacher of literature. But when a cousin entered her name in a radio talent show, her life in show business became inevitable.
Cruz won the competition, and a flurry of amateur appearances followed. Her father considered the music business disreputable but, encouraged by her mother, Cruz started her music studies.