A Year: Day to Day Men: 21st of October, Solar Year 2018

The Art and the Man

October 21, 1925 was the birthdate of Cuban singer Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso.

Celia Cruz was born in the diverse, working-class neighborhood of Santos Suárez in Havana, Cuba. While growing up in Cuba’s 1930s musical climate, Cruz listened to many musicians who influenced her adult career; Fernando Collazo, Pablo Quevedo and Arsenio Rodriguez among others. As a child, despite her father’s objections, she learned Santeria songs from a neighbor who practiced Santeria; she also studied Yoruba songs and made various recordings of this religious genre.

From 1947, Celia Cruz studied music theory, voice, and piano at Havana’s National Conservatory of Music. She began singing on Havana’s radio station Radio Garcia-Serra, winning first place on the station’s “Hora del Te” show for her tango song “Nostalgias”. Cruz’s big break came in 1950 when the Cuban band Sonora Matancera decided to give her a chance. She won the support of the band’s leader. Rogelio Martinez and recorded hit songs including “Yembe Laroco’ and “Caramelo”.

Celia Cruz toured with the band for fifteen years. During that time, she also appeared in cameo roles in Mexican films: the 1950 “Rincon Criollo”, “Una Gallega en la Habana”, and “Amorcito” released in 1961. After Fidel Castro assumed control of Cuba in 1959, the band left Cuba to perform in Mexico. Refused permission to return to Cuba by Castro, Celia Cruz and her husband, Cuban musician Pedro Knight, became United States citizens. In 1965, Cruz left the Sonora Matancera band, and with fellow musician Tito Puente, joined the Vaya Records label. Soon after that, she was headlining a concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

In 1969, Celia Cruz won a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance. Celia Cruz’s 1974 album “Celia y Johnny”, a collaboration with musician Johnny Pacheco, was very successful, particularly the song “Quimbara” which became one of her signature songs. Touring with the ensemble group “Fania All-Stars”, she sang in England, France, the DR Congo and in Latin America.

With a voice described as operatic, Celia Cruz moved through high and low pitches with an ease that belied her age, and her style improvising rhymed lyrics added a distinctive flavor to salsa. Her flamboyant costume, which included: various colored wigs, tight sequined dresses, and very high heels, became so famous that one of them was acquired by the Smithsonian institution.

Through a formidable work ethic, Cruz rose to the very top in her genre; a genre that was traditionally male dominated. Celia Cruz died at her home on July 16, 2003 at the age of 77. After her death, her body was taken to Miami’s Freedom Tower, where more than two hundred-thousand fans paid their respects. Her last album, “Regalo del Alma”, won a posthumous award at the 2004 Premios Lo Nuestro for best salsa release of the year.

Leave a Reply