Born on October 21, 1924; died July 16, 2003, in Fort Lee, New Jersey; raised in the Barrio Santo Suarez, Cuba; came to the United States in 1960, and became a citizen in 1961; married Pedro Knight, trumpeter, 1962; Education: Studied at Havana, Cuba's National Conservatory of Music, 1947-50. Addresses: Record Company--Omar Pardillo-Cid, RMM Records, 568 Broadway, Suite 806, New York, NY 10012; Agent--Bookings Online Talent Agency, Ltd., 236 West 26th St., Ste. 701, New York, NY 10001.

The Queen of Salsa, the Queen of Mambo, the Queen of Latin Music--Celia Cruz reigns as supreme diva. During her illustrious career, Cruz has performed across the globe with other top Latin musicians, recorded more than 50 albums--20 of which went gold, and earned over 100 awards from various countries. The legendary singer with the rich, powerful, contralto voice covering several octavesis known for her incredible ability at improvisation, flamboyant costumes and for sprinkling audiences with sugar during live performances. She has opened doors for other women performers during her career spanning almost fifty years, in a formerly male dominated Latin music world. Although some try to compare her style to jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Sara Vaughan because of her quick staccato interjections of jazz-like scat, Cruz has a unique style, unrivaled by another; she has created her own musical niche.

Salsa sound has been described as Cuban music combined with Puerto Rican and other influences, and behind it all, African religious music. Salsa has a wide range of colorful associations, with an up beat tempo, and includes a wide range of Latin styles and rhythms. Cruz described salsa for World Music: The Rough Guide, "Salsa is Cuban music with another name. It's mambo, chachacha, rumba, son.... All the Cuban rhythms under one name." Myth claims that the term "salsa" was created by a Venezuelan radio disc jockey.

Salsa's roots hail back to the 18th century with the Cuban "son," a rhythm created by Theodora Ginez. It evolved with the influx of Haitians and French to Cuba, and for a while the government officially forbade its playing, saying its lyrics, which protested slavery, encouraged riots. "Son" combined both the African and Spanish roots of Cuban music, with the African percussion and rhythm, the flavor of Spanish guitar, and the style of call and response between one or two male singers. The unifying theme behind it all are the references to a conglomeration of various religions, including Afro-Catholic, incorporating the inconsistencies among them. Through song, the singers hail deities and invoke various goddesses. Although links to deities, goddesses, and saints may be unspoken, many in the audiences understand the connections through the singer's actions on stage.

Celia Cruz was born on October 21, 1924, and grew up in the Barrio, Santo Suarez, near Havana, Cuba. She was one of four children. As a child she often sang for her family, many times singing her siblings to sleep at night. Later as a teen, she sang in school programs, and soon began entering and winning local radio talent shows. By 1947 she had won her first prize on a radio program, and enrolled in Havana's National Conservatory of Music, which she attended until 1950. Encouraged by her father, she first dreamt of becoming a teacher. Then a professor at the Conservatory persuaded her she was destined to be a professional singer, and soon Cruz's first big opportunity would present itself.

Cruz said one of her first influences was a singer, Paulina Alvarez, who was the first singer she ever saw performing in front of an orchestra. Cruz dreamt of performing as Alvarez did, in spite of her different singing style. It was a dream destined to come true. Her big break came when she was chosen to replace the lead singer for the popular Cuban big band, La Sonora Matancera. Beginning in1950, Cruz recorded and toured extensively with the band throughout Latin America and Mexico for the next fifteen years. She and La Sonora came to be known as "Cafe con Leche" ("coffee with milk").

Cruz left Cuba with La Sonora Matancera after the revolution when Fidel Castro came to power, arriving in the United States in 1960. The following year, in 1961, Cruz became a U.S. citizen. Also during 1961, she met Pedro Knight, a trumpet player with the orchestra she was contracted to perform with at Hollywood, California's Palladium. In 1962 she married Knight, who in 1965 put his own career aside to manage his wife's career. During the 1920s and 1930s the salsa style had regained popularity with various bands continuing innovations to el son. Perez Prado's 1949 hit, "Mambo #5," officially kicked off the mambo era.

Tito Puente was among those who adapted Prado's sound for audiences and the dance crowds of New York during the 1950s. In 1966 Cruz joined Tito Puente's Orchestra and recorded eight albums with him on Tico Records. Cruz maintained her alliance with Puente into the 1990s, performing in Europe with him. Puente is known as the King of Latin Music.

In 1973 Cruz sang at Carnagie Hall in the role of Gracia Divina in Larry Harlow's Hommy-A Latin opera, an adaption of the rock opera, Tommy, by the Who. It was during this time that salsa music was revitalized in the United States. Throughout the 1970's Cruz performed with many others including Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colon, and the Fania All-Stars. The All-Stars included other salsa notables such as Bobby Cruz, Ricardo Ray, Ismael Quintana, Larry Harlow, Ray Barretto, and many more. During this time as a featured singer with the Fania All-Stars she toured worldwide with the group including spots in London, England, Cannes, France, and Zaire, Africa.

Willie Colon, singer and trombonist, was responsible for much innovation in salsa in New York, as was Johnny Pacheco, musician and producer who directed Fania Records. Cruz and Pacheco made the album, Celia and Johnny, which went gold. She and Pacheco would team up and produce two more hit albums. Soon this style was copied in Latin America, and the Caribbean, but New York maintained its position as the creative and evolutionary center of the Latin music world.

During the 1980s and 1990s Cruz performed with a wide range of talent, including David Byrne, Emilio Estefan, and Willie Chirino. She has appeared in cameo roles in The Perez Family and The Mambo Kings; exposure in both films gained her the attention of a greater non-Latin audience. Although Cruz is one of the few Latin singers with an extensive audience in the U.S., language barriers interfere with breakthrough onto pop charts in the United States. Unlike many European countries where people speak several languages, and American music is played alongside the music of that country, salsa may get limited air time in the United States because it isn't in English.

Cruz has been recognized in countries worldwide by various institutions, newspapers, and magazines. Some of her awards include an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University, a star on Hollywood Boulevard in California, a Grammy Award in 1989 for Best Tropical Latin Album, plus many Grammy nominations over the years. She received a medal from President Clinton in 1994 from the National Endowment of the Arts. Cruz is included in Walks of Fame in Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Mexico . She has earned many other awards during her career, over 100 total.

She continues recording and performing live, showing no signs of slowing down. Cruz tours about ten months out of each year. "Azucar" is her calling card, and she is known for her ability at improvisation as well as her talent to bring a sense of euphoria through her music to her audience. Peter Watrous of the New York Times, described her voice during a 1995 performance: "Her voice sounded, as if it were made of cast iron, durable and pure." In a later review, of a performance in November 1996 at the Blue Note, Greenwich Village, New York, which Watrous also covered for the New York Times, he noted Cruz's use of "rich, metaphorical language." He added, "This was virtuosity that is rarely heard, where a combination of languages, cultures, and epoches all added up to a deep intelligence, a Creole vision of the New World's promise."

In spite of her monumental success, reigning as supreme diva over Latin music for over 40 years, one of Cruz's fondest desires has nothing to do with music. She told Beat interviewer, Derek Rath, she would welcome the opportunity to return to Cuba, to visit her mother's grave. Cruz's greatest rewards come from her ability to bring others happiness through her music. She told Rath, "When I sing I put everything I have inside me into it, a lot of love. Music is the only gift I have that was given to me by God.... {it} is my purpose in life.... I want people to feel their hearts sing and their spirits soar."

by Debra Reilly

Celia Cruz's Career

Began singing on Cuban radio in the late 1940's; in 1950, became the lead singer of Cuban big band, La Sonora Matancera, recording and touring with them until 1965; joined Tito Puente Orchestra in 1966; recorded eight albums with him; sang the role of Gracia Divina at Carnagie Hall in Larry Harlow's Hommy-A Latin opera, 1973; during the 1980's and 1990's performed with such artists as pop singer David Byrne, Emilio Estefan, and Willie Chirino; cameo roles in The Mambo Kings and The Perez Family; has recorded over 50 albums, 20 of which became gold; performed worldwide.

Celia Cruz's Awards

Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Album, 1989, awarded medal by President Clinton from the National Endowment of the Arts, 1994.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

July 1, 2003: Cruz undergoes surgery for brain cancer. Source: Yahoo! News,, July 11, 2003.

July 16, 2003: Cruz dies on July 16, 2003, at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, after battling cancer. She was believed to be around 78 years old. Source:,, July 17, 2003; New York Times, July 17, 2003, p. B9.

July 13, 2004: Cruz's album, Dios Disfrute a la Reina, was released posthumously. Source:,, August 5, 2004.

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 11 years ago

I am the author of biographies on La Lupe, Celia and Ismael Rivera. You could look them up on if interested please write to me. Enjoy...

over 11 years ago


almost 12 years ago

i hate tht her n her husban died on the same day

over 13 years ago

Celia was amazing