Celia Cruz, 77; Queen of Salsa’s Passing Marks the End of a Musical Era

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Times Staff Writer

The Queen of Salsa is dead.

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.

Her death came two days after her 41st wedding anniversary. At her side was her husband, Pedro Knight, the tall, lean, white-haired trumpeter who helped guide her career from the early years and who always appeared with her on stage.

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.

In 1950, she joined the legendary La Sonora Matancera after the band’s lead singer, Myrta Silva, returned to Puerto Rico.

Cruz later recalled that the public didn’t take well to her as a replacement, though they warmed to her voice eventually.

With the Matancera, Cruz recorded a number of songs that have become standards of the genre, such as “El Yerberito Moderno” and “Burundanga.”

The talent to turn songs into memorable hits would remain a gift throughout her career.

It was at that time that Cruz met her future husband, a trumpeter with the band. Their long marriage and mutual loyalty would remain a model of stability and teamwork in the tumultuous world of show business.


Cruz left Cuba on July 15, 1960, the year after Fidel Castro took power. Her exile would remain a deep wound throughout her life. In interviews, she expressed uncharacteristic bitterness that she was not allowed to return to the island to bury her mother, since the regime at the time considered her a traitor.

Her career didn’t miss a beat. In New York, she teamed with Puente for a series of albums. But by the end of the ‘60s, her career had started to cool and she eventually moved to Mexico and lived in semiretirement. She could not have imagined that the hottest portion of her career was still ahead of her.

In the early ‘70s, Cruz was brought back to New York by the fledgling Fania Records, the label that sparked the era’s salsa boom. She recorded an album with Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco, the label co-founder, and “Celia & Johnny” became one of the big hits of that fiery decade.

The Cruz-Pacheco duo yielded hits that again became standards, including “Quimbara,” “Cucala,” and “Bemba Colora.” In a show of her artistic adaptability, Cruz also recorded albums with distinctive bandleaders such as Colon and Ray Barretto.

The leading figures of the time formed a superstar group called the Fania All Stars, mostly young, aggressive and male. Still, Cruz would always steal the show with her electrifying presence, her sequined gowns, her extravagant wigs and her trademark, throaty call, “Azucar!” (sugar).

“I was having dinner at a restaurant in Miami, and when the waiter offered me coffee, he asked me if I took it with or without sugar,” she said in a 2000 interview. “I said, ‘Chico, you’re Cuban. How can you even ask that? With sugar!’ ”


Cruz recorded more than 70 albums and had more than a dozen Grammy nominations. She won two Grammys and three Latin Grammys. Her latest album, the George-produced “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” won one of each as best salsa album. Those were among a host o f honors and awards during her career, including the National Medal of Arts, the United States’ highest official honor in the arts, bestowed by President Clinton in 1994.

Despite the fame and the tributes, Cruz always kept the common touch, even off stage.

“I’ve known Celia for over 20 years,” recalled George, her producer, on Wednesday. “Back then, I was just a sideman in the bands that backed her on tours through Europe and Latin America. I was a regular, humble piano player, and she treated me just the way she treated Tito Puente. Everyone was the same to her. She just loved people.”

Cruz is survived by her husband and two sisters, Gladys Becquer and Dolores Cruz.