Celia Cruz, the Cuban-born “Queen of Salsa’’ who recorded more than 70 albums and thrilled audiences with her outrageous high heels and wigs, died seven months after undergoing surgery for brain cancer.
She died at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a spokeswoman for Sony Music Entertainment said.
Cruz adamantly refused to reveal her birth date during her life. Biographies list it as Oct. 21 and either 1924 or 1929.
Her death follows that of Compay Segundo earlier this week. The Cuban singer found recent fame as a member of the Buena Vista Social Club.
Cruz was among a group of musicians including Tito Puente who helped pioneer the popularity of Afro-Caribbean music in the U.S., and she influenced a generation of younger female singers such as Gloria Estefan.
She recorded more than 70 albums, 20 of which went gold, and received 12 Grammy nominations, winning for the first time in 1989. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Cruz a National Endowment of the Arts medal.
Cruz thrilled crowds late into her life as she folded the upbeat rhythms of her music into a flamboyant stage personae. She usually appeared as a spectacle of feathers, sequins, outrageous glasses, high heels and a wig that was often piled high over her head. Her performances often began with the cry of “Azuuuucar’’ - - Spanish for sugar and a reference to the sugar needed for her Cuban coffee.
Defects on U.S. Tour
As a child and teenager growing up in Cuba, she often sang for her family and school, winning local radio talent shows. She attended Havana’s National Conservatory of Music from 1947-50 and dreamed of being a professional singer like her idol, Paulina Alvarez.
In 1950, she was chosen to replace the lead singer in the popular Cuban big band La Sonora Matancera, recording and touring with them for the next 15 years. Cruz was a headlining act at Havana’s Tropicana night club in the years before the communist revolution of 1959 brought Fidel Castro to power.
In 1960, Cruz and the band members defected during a tour in the U.S. Castro reportedly never forgave the singer and later refused her permission to return to the island to attend her father’s funeral.
She became a U.S. citizen the next year. She married trumpet player Pedro Knight in 1962, and he became her manager three years later.
Cruz partnered with Puente, known as the “King of Latin Swing,’’ and his orchestra in 1966, recording more than eight albums on Tico Records and helping confirm her as a recognized icon of Afro-Cuban music. They continued to play together occasionally over the next three decades.
Before his death in 2000, Puente told the New York Times that the first time he head Cruz sing on Cuban radio, he was sure it was the voice of a man because of its power and energy.
Sings at Carnegie Hall
She sang at Carnegie Hall in 1973 as Gracia Divina in Larry Harlow’s “Hommy-A Latir’’ opera, an adaptation of the Who’s rock opera “Tommy.’’
In the 1970s, salsa saw a renaissance in the U.S. and Cruz toured worldwide with some of the greats, including Willie Colon, a trombonist and singer, Johnny Pacheco, a musician and producer, and the Fania All-Stars. She and Pacheco made several hit albums; “Celia and Johnny’’ went gold in 1974.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Cruz became one of the few Latin singers with an extensive U.S. audience, but language barriers and the limited radio time salsa receives limited her breakthrough onto the pop charts.
She performed with David Byrne, Emilio Estefan and Willie Chirico and won a 1989 Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Album. Cruz also appeared in several movies, including “The Mambo Kings’’ (1992) and “The Perez Family’’ (1995).