Celia Cruz, the undisputed "Queen of Salsa," music, died yesterday after a battle with brain cancer, at her home in Fort Lee, N.J., with her husband of 42 years, Pedro Knight, at her side. She was 77.
Ruben Blades, a frequent collaborator and friend, called Ms. Cruz a classy icon whose dynamic performances became her trademark.
"Celia Cruz could take any song and make it unforgettable. She transcended the material," Blades said. "With Celia, even the most simple of songs became injected with her personality and her vigor."
Pop and salsa singer Marc Anthony, a friend who recently paid tribute to Ms. Cruz at a gala concert, said in a statement: "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."
It started in Cuba
A native of Havana, Cruz studied musical theory, voice and piano at the National Music Conservatory. She later became one of the leading figures during the golden age of Afro-Cuban music of the 1940s and 1950s, and helped La Sonora Matancera become the island's most popular ensemble. While in the group she met her husband, then one of the band's two trumpeters.
In 1949, Ms. Cruz began performing with the band in Havana nightclubs. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, she and band members defected in 1960 while on tour in the United States. Castro reportedly never forgave her and later refused her permission to return to the island for her father's funeral.
Ms. Cruz, best known as one of the leading performers of Afro-Cuban son, the danceable genre that is the root of modern salsa, usually appeared in feathers, sequins, outrageous glasses, high heels and a wig that was often piled high over her head. Her performances often began with the cry of "Azuuuucar" - Spanish for sugar and a reference to the sugar needed for her Cuban coffee.
"She's one of the greatest figures in Latin music history, not just salsa," said producer Sergio George, who collaborated with Ms. Cruz on her album, Regalo del Alma (Gift From The Soul) to be released next month by Sony Music. "I would say she's a icon in the music of the world as we know it in the last 100 years. She's up there in my opinion with some of the top music people in the world."
In Miami, home of the largest Cuban community outside Cuba, the singer's death was met with shock and dismay.
"There's going to be an emptiness for a long time when we realize that there's no more Celia Cruz," said salsa singer Willy Chirino. "She occupied such a privileged space in this industry and was such a strong figure. She will be greatly missed."
She will also be remembered there for her opposition to Castro, although she was not without her fans in Cuba, where even young fans carry copies of her latest CDs.
Cruz loved her homeland and dedicated her career to Cuba, which continued to inspire her late in life. Though she abhorred the island's Communist government, she was proud of its longstanding ability to produce world-class musicians.
"Cuba has given the world very good artists, and it continues to do that," Cruz said in an interview a year and a half ago. "You can't ignore that."
Her publicist, Blanca Lasalle, described the singer as an inspiration for women who proved that a queen could rule in a business dominated by men.
"She opened so many doors for so many other people," said Lasalle, who pointed out that many in the music industry marveled at Ms. Cruz's international stature.
It was Ms. Cruz's alliance with fellow salsa star and "Mambo King" Tito Puente that led to some of her biggest successes. The two recorded albums and regularly performed together, and they were considered legends of the genre.
Puente was also a fan. "When I stopped singing, he would applaud as if he were part of the audience," she said, recalling that the Puerto Rican bandleader, like other Latin Americans in the United States, helped keep Cuban music alive during a time when Cuba's musicians were isolated from U.S. audiences.
She was also a member of the Fania All-Stars, the Afro-Cuban music collective that recorded for the Fania record label in the 1970s, along with Blades and Willie Colon. She dazzled listeners with fiery songs such as "Quimbara."
She recorded more than 70 albums and had more than a dozen Grammy nominations. She won best salsa album for La Negra Tiene Tumbao at last year's Latin Grammy Awards, and won the same award at this year's Grammy Awards. Among her other best-known recordings are "Yerberito Moreno" and "Que le Den Candela."
From her work with Fania Records in the salsa heyday of the 1970s, her recordings in the 1990s with RMM Records, her recent recordings and countless international tours, Ms. Cruz long served as a standard bearer for Latin music - and an inspiration to younger performers. She also has lent her voice to the songs of Latin American composers.
For a while, however, Ms. Cruz grew disenchanted with the direction that salsa music was taking, particularly a decade or so ago, when so-called "romantic" singers infused the music with risque lyrics that she dubbed "salsa porno."
"There were some daring lyrics," she said. " I didn't like them because they were anti-women. How can a man put down women? He was born of a woman. Those songs were too strong."
But as the music changed, so did Ms. Cruz.
In recent years, the singer won three Latin Grammy awards for recordings that infused traditional salsa with modern touches, such as rap. She also recorded with a number of artists from other genres, among them Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso and Wyclef Jean, who included a version of the classic Cuban song "Guantanamera" on a recent album. She has also performed with rock groups such as Fabulosos Cadillacs and Jarabe de Palo.
In 1987, she was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and several years later, the city of Miami gave Calle Ocho, the main street of its Cuban community, the honorary name of Celia Cruz Way. In 1994, President Clinton honored her with an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Ms. Cruz never had children. Besides her husband, she is survived by two sisters, Dolores, in Cuba; and Gladys in New Jersey; and two nieces, both daughters of Gladys.
Last year, her husband and Omer Pardillo, her manager, helped her fulfill a longtime dream by creating the Celia Cruz Foundation, which plans to award scholarships to five students in New York this fall.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Wire services contributed to this article.