Celia Cruz (born Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso on October 21, 1924 – July 16, 2003) was a Havana, Cuba born salsa singer, and was one of the most successful Salsa performers of the 20th century, with twenty-three gold albums to her name. She was renowned internationally as the "Queen of Salsa" as well as "La Guarachera de Cuba." She spent most of her career living in New Jersey, and working in the United States and several Latin American countries.
In 1950, Cruz made her first major breakthrough, after the lead singer of the Sonora Matancera, a renowned Cuban orchestra, left the group and Cruz was called to fill in. Cruz was hired permanently by the orchestra. Soon Cruz became famous throughout Cuba. During the 15 years she was a member, the band traveled all over Latin America, becoming known as "Café Con Leche" (coffee with milk). Cruz became known for her trademark shout "ˇAzúcar!" ("Sugar!" in Spanish). The catch phrase started as the punch line for a joke Cruz used to tell frequently at her concerts.
With Fidel Castro assuming control of Cuba in 1959, Cruz and her husband, Pedro Knight, refused to return to their homeland and became citizens of the United States.
In 1966, Cruz and Tito Puente began an association that would lead to eight albums for Tico Records. The albums were not as successful as expected. However, Puente and Cruz later joined the Vaya Records label. There, she joined accomplished pianist Larry Harlow and was soon headlining a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Cruz's 1974 album with Johnny Pacheco, “Celia y Johnny,” was very successful, and Cruz soon found herself in the group Fania All-Stars, which was an ensemble of salsa musicians from every orchestra signed by the Fania label (owner of Vaya Records). With the Fania All-Stars, Cruz had the opportunity of visiting England, France, DR Congo and to return to tour Latin America; her performance in Congo is included in the film “Soul Power.” In the late 1970s, she participated in an Eastern Air Lines commercial in Puerto Rico, singing the catch phrase ˇEsto sí es volar! (This really is flying!).
During the 1980s, Cruz began a crossover of sorts, when she participated in the 1988 Hollywood production of “Salsa,” alongside Robby Draco Rosa.
In 1990, Cruz won a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance with Ray Barretto for “Ritmo en el Corazon.” She later recorded an anniversary album with la Sonora Matancera. In 1992, she starred with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas in the film “The Mambo Kings.” In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Cruz the National Medal of Arts.
On July 16, 2003, Cruz died of a cancerous brain tumor at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
In February 2004, Cruz's album “Regalo del Alma,” won a posthumous award at the Premios Lo Nuestro for best Salsa release of the year. It was announced in December 2005 that a musical called "Assuca" would open in Tenerife before touring the world. The name comes from Cruz's well-known catch phrase of "ˇAzúcar!"
On May 18, 2005, the National Museum of American History, administered by the Smithsonian Institution and located in Washington, D.C., opened "ˇAzúcar!," an exhibit celebrating the life and music of Celia Cruz. The exhibit highlights important moments in Cruz's life and career through photographs, personal documents, costumes, videos, and music.