The so-called “Queen of Salsa” was born in Havana, Cuba. While she refused to divulge the exact year of her birth, it is believed to be 1924.When she was a young girl, Celia Cruz sang lullabies to the smaller children in her house, and neighbors came to listen to her wonderful voice.
Although Cruz’s family wanted her to become a teacher, her singing talents were irrepressible, and she eventually convinced them to allow her to pursue a career in music. They consented, on one condition—that an older woman accompany her on all her performances.
In the 1940s, Cruz started singing profes¬ sionally on Cuban radio programs. In 1947, she enrolled at Havanas Conservatory of Music, where she studied for three years. Then, in 1950, she became the lead singer for the dance band La Sonora Matancera, which was the most popular dance band in Cuba.
Shortly thereafter, she made her first recordings.When Fidel Castro’s communists led a revo¬ lution that toppled the Cuban government in 1959, Cruz and the other members of La Sonora Matancera fled to the United States. The band continued to perform, but success was elusive.
Latin sounds, such as the rumba and the conga, had been popularized years earlier in the United States by such great performers as Xavier Cugat (see no. 26) and Tito Puente (see no. 43). Cruz’s band, howev¬ er, could not break the grip of rock-’n’-roll. The popularity of rock music eclipsed all other forms of music throughout the 1960s.
Cruz continued to perform, though, and by working with various African and Cuban rhythms, she helped popularize a new form of music known as salsa. Through her work, she helped the sounds of Latin music make a comeback in the United States.
In 1966, Cruz left La Sonora Matancera to join the orchestra of Tito Puente, with whom she continued to perform for many years. From there, she embarked on a career as one of the world’s greatest and most popular singers.
Her career spanned more than four decades, during which she produced more than seventy albums, won numerous Grammy Awards and other musical awards, and performed in elec¬ trifying concerts around the world. In addition to her powerful voice, she was also known for her gaudy costumes, musical improvisation, and boundless energy.
Some of Cruz’s best-selling albums included La Incomparable Celia (The Incomparable Celia) and Feliz Encuentro (Happy Reunion). In addition to her own fame, the popularity she created for salsa paved the way for numer¬ ous other performers, such as Gloria Estefan (see no. 95), to have successful careers in this unique musical form.