celia cruz

For over 40 years Celia Cruz has been the reigning queen of Latin Music and while there are up-and-comers -- such as La India -- vying for her throne, she shows no signs of abdicating just yet. She was born the youngest of four children in Barrio Santra Suarez, a small town near Havana, Cuba, and even as a child was a gifted singer. She grew up in the '30s, when Cuban culture, music and its legendary night life flourished. Even back then, the island recording industry was strong and as a girl the lively music, a blend of native, African, European and American jazz rhythms, inspired her. Though her father wanted her to become a teacher, Cruz was determined to become a singer and enrolled in Cuba's Conservatory of Music in 1947. Afro-Cuban Paulina Alvarez, the first singers she ever saw perform with an orchestra, was Cruz's earliest inspiration. Though she learned a lot about music at the Conservatory, Cruz has had little voice training. She deliberately eschewed it because she believed that she was already so steeped in authentic Cuban music that formal instruction was irrelevant.

Cruz started out singing the rather downbeat protest songs of the African-Cubans, but realizing that the songs didn't sell, she began singing a happier style of music, guaracha. Her first real break came in 1950 when she was hired to sing with one of Cuba's biggest bands, Sonora Matancera. Though still inexperienced, she wowed audiences with her charisma, and strong -- though they would become even more powerful in years to come -- vocals. She made her recording debut with the band in early 1951 and sang such hits as "Caocao Mani Picao" and "Mata Siguaraya." The band developed a tremendous following in Latin America where they were nicknamed "Cafe Con Leche." As the decade progressed, Cuban music became a world-wide phenomenon following thanks to such performers as Tito Puente, Perez Prado, Cachao, and even Desi Arnaz and these opened doors for Cruz and Sonora Matancera. She soon gained an enormous international reputation.

n 1960, as she and the band were touring and recording in Mexico, Fidel Castro rose to power and her country was thrown into chaos. The band decided not to return to the island, and though Cruz never planned on it being a permanent situation, she never was able to go back. Eventually Cruz became a U.S. citizen and signed a contract to work at the Hollywood Palladium. Things didn't work out as there was trouble with her papers so Cruz went to New York to work at the Palladium there. While in the Big Apple she met and married Pedro Knight, a trumpeter who became her full-time manager. She was at the Palladium when mambo music became popular and though she frequently sang with other artists, Tito Puente was one of her favorites. He founded a band for her in 1966 and they began recording with Tico Records. Though she has long since left Puente's band, they still perform together and tour frequently especially in Europe. The two recorded eight albums but they were never big sellers.

During the mid to late '60s, the newly created salsa music was beginning to gather an audience. Cruz signed to Vaya Records, the sister label of Fania, the biggest label in salsa music, and began to sing with many of the early salseros such as Oscar D'Leon, Cheo Feliciano, Hector Rodriguez and more. She made her mark in the genre and in the early '70s had her first gold album, Celia and Johnny, with Fania VP Johnny Pacheco. She then became part of the Fania All-Stars. This band became one of the leaders in salsa music and contained such major stars as Bobby Cruz, Pacheco, Ismael Quintana, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Colon and more. The band debuted at the MIDEM convention in Cannes and were the hit of the gathering. Soon they became popular all over Europe. After their European tour the All-Stars recorded a live album in New York and Puerto Rico. While Cruz and the others were international stars, they had trouble breaking into U.S.markets something she attributes to this country's pop radio station's notorious bias against songs lacking English lyrics. Still she continued a heavy touring schedule abroad through the '80s. Cruz visited Africa many times where Latin music is especially popular in Senegal, Kenya and Zaire. When the film The Mambo Kings came out in the early '90s, it caught the interest of a wider U.S. audience. Around this time, Cruz was given her own star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale.


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