The memory of Celia Cruz is plagued with misunderstanding. When they remember her, casual fans of Latin music evoke her colorful wigs, glamorous outfits and the instantly hummable hits that she recorded during the last chapter of her career (one of them, the rap-meets-salsa smash “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” is included in this collection).
Celia Cruz and her prodigious discography captured the very essence of tropical music. The tracks in this anthology prove that she possessed one of the most seductive voices in the history of Latin American music. Furthermore, her astute choice of repertoire and her knack for surrounding herself with the right bandleaders and producers (from Tito Puente and Memo Salamanca to Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón and Ray Barretto) allowed her to transcend the usual clichés that regard salsa as “hot” music for “passionate” people.
Celia Cruz was born the second of four children in the Havana neighborhood of Barrio Santo Suárez. At an early age, she realized that there was something about her voice that made people happy. When her parents entrusted her with the care of her younger siblings, Celia would entertain them by singing popular Cuban songs. Neighbors from nearby apartments would congregate in front of her house and stay there for hours, listening to the small girl with the beautiful voice. Celia’s father advised her against a musical career. He thought that the clubs and cabarets where live music was being performed at the time in Cuba were no place for his young daughter. Instead, he insisted that she should become a schoolteacher.
Because she adored her father and did not want to disappoint him, Celia followed his advice and graduated with teaching credentials. At the same time, and thanks to a liberal aunt who was invested in coming to the aid of her oppressed niece, she began visiting the local nightclubs, becoming acquainted with the richness of contemporary Cuban music.
Inspired by the musical happenings around her, Celia began competing in local radio talent shows and winning. Curiously enough, a tango was her first song of choice. It was soon followed by dozens of radio appearances interpreting boleros and more upbeat material.
Celia’s big break – the one that would forever solidify her career – came in June of 1950, when she was invited by the legendary Sonora Matancera to replace original vocalist Myrta Silva, who was leaving the band and returning to her native Puerto Rico.
Celia remained with the band for the next 15 years, recording a vast amount of hits. Her throaty pipes infused vitality to even the most pedestrian of Matancera tunes. She was equally adept at the slow boleros and the more party-friendly material, but her forte was the African-oriented side of her repertoire – the rumbas and the pregones.
In 1965, Celia ended her 15-year run with the Matancera. But the successful solo career that the singer and her husband Pedro Knight had fantasized about failed to materialize, even though she recorded sterling albums in Mexico with bandleader Memo Salamanca, and as the singer with the Tito Puente orchestra in New York.
Together, Celia and Tito recorded eight exquisite albums and continued collaborating sporadically until the bandleader’s death in the year 2000. A few months before his passing, Tito Puente told me over dinner that of all the singers that had ever accompanied him, Celia had always been his personal favorite. “There’s nobody in the whole word who could sing like her,” he said. “It was a very strong combination when we played together. Celia is a very educated and intelligent person. She’s unique. I’ve played with her 588 times. She’s kept count, and she has the memory of an elephant.”
By the early ‘70s, Celia was in dire need of a comeback project with serious commercial potential. Miraculously, she positioned herself in the midst of perhaps the most important movement in the annals of Afro-Caribbean music – the salsa explosion unleashed by Fania.
It was one of the label’s biggest stars, keyboardist, bandleader and Cuban music fanatic Larry Harlow, who invited Celia to participate in his 1973 Latin opera Hommy. She performed the hit “Gracia Divina,” introducing herself to a new generation of fans. Later the same year, an extended concert performance of the standard “Bemba Colorá” at the Yankee Stadium (included in the second volume of the two LP set Live At Yankee Stadium) sealed the deal. Celia Cruz had become Fania’s own Queen of Salsa.
In 1974, Pacheco, whose orchestra updated the Cuban conjunto textures of the Matancera with punchy, brassier arrangements, invited Celia to record with him. The resulting album, Celia & Johnny, was a stunning artistic triumph that catapulted the singer to a level of superstardom she had not even experienced with the Matancera. In the loving hands of Pacheco, Celia shone like a shooting star. The opening track alone, the volcanic, African-inflected “Químbara,” was worth the prize of admission – a clear indication of Celia’s almost supernatural vocal powers. Fittingly, “Químbara” is the opening track of Disc 2 in this anthology.
To Fania’s credit, the company treated Celia like the regal performer that she was. In subsequent years, she recorded a string of phenomenal albums with the label’s most talented leaders: Pacheco, of course, but also Willie Colón, Papo Lucca (the virtuoso pianist with Puerto Rico’s Sonora Ponceña) and Ray Barretto (their 1988 collaboration Ritmo En El Corazón gave Celia her first Grammy victory.) Under the guidance of Colón, she delved into Brazilian rhythms with excellent covers of samba and bossa nova nuggets like “Usted Abusó” and “Berimbau.”
“When Celia and I started working together, she was already an established artist,” recalls Willie. “For me, it was like a graduation into the big leagues. But in the end, she was easier to work with than some of the younger divas from my generation. Celia was always willing to listen to ideas, no matter how silly they sounded. She knew that music was not an exact science. I think that was partially the key to her longevity.”
“I remember when we went to Africa together,” Johnny Pacheco told me recently from his home in New York. “The president of the country sent two limousines to pick us up from the airport – one for me, and one for Celia. At one point, she said: ‘We’re here because of you, Johnny,’ and that made me feel so good. I asked her to sing ‘Guantanamera’ and the crowd went wild.” Pacheco sounds melancholy as he remembers the unforgettable diva. “La voz de esa mujer,” he whispers. “That woman’s voice – it was just unbelievable. Out of this world.”
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