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[whitespace] Celia Cruz 50-Year 'Reina': Beloved salsera Celia Cruz has spent half a century earning her crown.

Royal Rhythms

Cuban singer Celia Cruz still rules as the 'Queen of Salsa'

By Robin Davies

WHEN YOU TALK about salsa music, Celia Cruz's name is synonymous with the genre. She is the greatest salsera in the history of Latin music--an icon and living legend. She has been crowned the "Queen of Salsa" for her signature fiery vocal styling, passionate improvisational skills and dynamic performances.

During a career that has spanned 50-plus years, Cruz has recorded more than 75 records, toured the world and worked with the best Latin musicians, including Benny More, Johnny Pacheco, La Sonora Matancera and the late, great Tito Puente.

Born in Havana, Cuba, and raised in the Santos Suarez district, Cruz was one of 14 children. Family and neighbors recognized Cruz's singing talent after hearing her croon lullabies to her younger siblings.

Cruz's father, however, thought differently. "He didn't want me to become a singer because [back then] women artists were known to be "loose" women," Cruz continues, "but my mother said 'Look, don't pay attention to him. Just keep going. I will support you.'" With her mother's blessings, Cruz continued singing.

In 1935, Cruz's older cousin became instrumental in launching her professional singing career, entering her in a local radio talent show in which she won first prize. With the money she earned from such contests, Cruz entered a teachers college, studying literature. After graduating, she began looking for work as a teacher, but the public demand for her singing won out.

Though she was already enjoying moderate fame, Cruz's big break came in 1950, when she replaced Puerto Rican singer Mirta Silva in the popular band, La Sonora Matancera. "Mirta left the band to live in Puerto Rico, where she had just built her new home," recalls Cruz. "Everyone in Cuba loved her. It was hard for me at first; people would write to the radio stations saying they didn't like me and to bring her back," says Cruz. But she was persistent, eventually winning the audience over. For the next 15 years, Cruz recorded albums and toured the Americas, Europe and Japan with La Sonora Matancera.

In July of 1960, after Castro's revolution, the members of La Sonora Matancera defected to the United States. The band settled in Los Angeles, becoming the hottest ticket in town at the Hollywood Palladium.

In 1965 Cruz launched her solo career, signing with Tico records and working with Tito Puente, a 15-year collaboration that would ignite an explosion of interest in Latin music globally. "From the first time we met, Tito was like family, like a brother. He was the best," comments Cruz.

By the '70s, Cruz had signed with Fania Records, touring with the infamous Fania All-stars. RMM Records signed her in the '80s, and she was instrumental in helping the careers of Marc Anthony and La India. "I don't think that there is anyone who could take her spot. She's a phenomenal artist, not only for her vocal abilities but her public relations," comments La India.

A goodwill global diplomat of sorts, Cruz has endless energy, visiting children's cancer wards, speaking at schools, encouraging youths to make something of their lives. "I love to visit the children and families, give support; I'll sing two or three songs, listen, and do what I can. It makes me feel good; I am giving back. I'm old but still healthy," says Cruz.

Over the years Cruz has also garnered her share of accolades, among them a Grammy award in 1990, a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, an honorary doctorate from Yale University, and the National Medal of Arts, which was presented to her by President Clinton in 1994.

Looking to the future, Cruz's new CD, Siempre Vivide, will be released in September featuring the single "Oye Como Va." Cruz's career and life are perhaps best summed up by Doña Celia herself. "I think that life is the most wonderful gift God has given us. Music is a gift that was given to me by God as well; unless he takes it away, I will continue to share my gift with the world."

Fuel and Villa Montalvo present Celia Cruz, performing on Sunday, (Aug. 6), at 4pm on the Front Lawn of Villa Montalvo, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. Charanga Nueve opens. Tickets are $42-$52. (408.961.5858)

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From the August 3-9, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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