Celia Cruz, the flamboyant “Queen of Salsa,” died on Wednesday at her home in New Jersey after a battle with brain cancer.
One of the seminal figures in Cuban music history, with a career that spanned five decades, the 77-year-old
Cruz was celebrated for her high energy, colorful sartorial style and wigs, as well as her efforts to modernize salsa music and bring it to a wider world audience.
With more than 70 albums to her credit, Cruz continued to be an innovator and to search for fresh avenues to explore salsa late into her career. She collaborated with everyone from Wyclef Jean, Gloria Estefan, Patti LaBelle and
Dionne Warwick to Talking Heads leader David Byrne, as well as befriending such modern Latin stars as Marc Anthony and Paulina Rubio, with the latter currently co-starring with Cruz in a Dr. Pepper commercial. Cruz also sang alongside Anthony at the 2002 VH1 Divas tribute to Aretha Franklin.
Born in Santo Suarez in Havana as one of 14 children, Cruz studied to be a teacher, but got her break in music when a relative entered her into a radio talent contest, in which she won first prize, a cake. She later enrolled in the National Conservatory of Cuba and became a national star as part of the group La Sonora Matancera. When that group defected following the rise of Fidel Castro in 1959, Cruz moved to New York in 1960 and began touring and recording with the late “Mambo King,” Tito Puente. She eventually went solo and recorded albums with a string of salsa legends such as Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco. Among her most popular songs were such hits as “Yerberito Moreno,” “Que le Den Candela” and “Quimbara.”
A flashy, vibrant performer, Cruz was legendary for her onstage energy, as well as her shouted trademark catchphrase, “Azucar!” the Spanish word for “sugar.”
Frequent collaborator and friend Marc Anthony issued a statement that read, “We are witnessing the end of an era. She is simply irreplaceable and it’s just an honor to know that she was a part of my life.” The Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences said of Cruz, “One of Latin music’s most respected and most revered vocalists, Celia Cruz was an icon of salsa, tropical and Latin jazz music. The legendary Queen of Salsa brought the world to its dancing feet with her visceral vocals, infectious energy, and vibrant smile.”
Ricky Martin also expressed his grief at Cruz’s passing, saying in a statement, “Her music not only touched my soul, but it influenced generations of singers and songwriters. Her vibrant sprit and positive energy can never be duplicated. We will always miss her.”
Cruz was celebrated often during her career, earning an honorary degree from Yale University, a lifetime achievement award from the Smithsonian
Institution, as well as the highest honor bestowed by the United States on an artist, the National Medal of Arts, presented to her by President Clinton in 1994.
Streets across the world, from New York to Miami, Mexico and Costa Rica, were named for her and she was nominated for more than a dozen Grammys, winning five.
Sadly, despite being an international star and ambassador for Cuban music, Cruz’s albums were banned by Castro in her native country due to lingering bitterness over her defection.
Though she underwent brain surgery in December, Cruz — who frequently toured 11 months of the year — continued to work until recently and completed an album, Regalo De Alma, that is slated for release in August. Her most recent album, La Negra Tiene Tumbao, won a 2002 Latin Grammy for Best Salsa Album.