Celia Cruz’s career spanned more than half a century when she died on July 16, 2003, at age 77. Her popular nickname, “the Queen of Salsa,” was something of a misnomer; Cruz reigned not only as the female star of 1970s New York’s Latino immigrant music scene, but as an essential artist whose voice transmitted both the sacred sound of timeless Afro-Cuban music and the swing of Cuba’s Pre-Revolutionary big band era. More than a witness to the evolution of Latin music in the United States, she was the embodiment of it. A crossover pioneer, she kept on making hits and breaking ground as a senior citizen. Most of all, she spread joy wherever she went. In homage on the 94th birthday, here are ten eternal Celia Cruz songs.
Celia Cruz’s star quickly rose on stage and screen in Cuba after the fledging singer joined La Sonora Matancera, a band whose members included her future husband Pedro Knight, in 1950. Here she sings “Juancito Trucupey” on Cuban TV in 1956.
“Guantanamera” became a standard of Cruz’s repertoire after she left Cuba for Mexico in 1960, and subsequently moved to the United States. Her version of the song, based on Cuban icon Jose Marti’s poetry and made famous internationally by Pete Seeger was released on the 1967 album Bravo Celia Cruz, recorded with La Sonora.
Cruz first recorded the anti-racist rumba “Bemba Colora” for her 1966 Tico Records’ album Son Son Guaguanco.
Cruz’s alchemy with the musicians who came to be known as the Fania All Stars during her soulful salsa years in 1970s New York resulted in a string of milestone albums. Among those is 1974’s Celia & Johnny, with Fania co-founder Johnny Pacheco, which opens with the explosive “Quimbara.”
Another forever Celia song from the Celia & Johnny album. Here Cruz sings “Toro Mata,” composed by Peruvian songwriter Caitro, on a Panamanian TV special, after a sisterly intro targeted for the housewives in the audience.
Cruz laid testament to her infallible sabor, heating up a stark TV studio with a performance of the salsa classic “Cucula” in 1983.
Cruz and her husband Pedro Knight laid bare their lasting romance in this beautiful moment from 1999.
La Negra Tiene Tumbao
Cruz welcomed the new century with the hit song “La Negra Tiene Tumba,” the title track from her 59th album. Produced by Sergio George, the track showed the singer’s continued willingness to embrace new sounds on the eve of the reggaetón explosion. She appeared more fabulous than ever in the memorable video by Cuban director Ernesto Fundora.
Rie y Llora
The final song recorded by Celia summed up her zest for life. It was released with a retrospective video of career moments.
Cruz’s 2000 salsa cover of “I Will Survive” has special significance now. Especially since the song was released as “Yo Vivere,” which translates from Spanish as “I Will Live On.”