Celia Cruz was the most successful Salsa performer of the 20th century, with twenty-three gold albums to her name. She was renowned internationally as the "Queen of Salsa" as well as "La Guarachera de Cuba". She spent most of her career living in New Jersey, and working in the United States and several Latin American countries.
Celia Cobo of Billboard Magazine once said "Cruz is indisputably the best known and most influential female figure in the history of Cuban music."Cruz once said in an interview "If I had a chance I wouldn't have been singing and dancing, I would be a teacher just like my dad wanted me to be".
Celia Cruz was born Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso in the diverse Santos Suárez neighborhood of Habana, Cuba on October 21, 1925, the second child of Catalina Alfonso and Simón Cruz. Simón worked in the railroads as a stoker, and Catalina took care of the extended family.
When she was a teenager, her aunt took her and her cousin to cabarets to sing, but her father encouraged her to keep attending school, in hopes that she would become a teacher. However, one of her teachers told her that as an entertainer she could earn in one day what most Cuban teachers earned in a month. Cruz began singing in Havana's radio station Radio Garcia-Serra's popular "Hora del Té" daily broadcast, she sang the tango "Nostalgias", (and won a cake as first place) often winning cakes and also opportunities to participate in more contests. Her first recordings were made in 1948 in Venezuela. Before that, Cruz had recorded for radio stations.
In 1950, she made her first major breakthrough, after the lead singer of the Sonora Matancera, a renowned Cuban orchestra, left the group and Cruz was called to fill in. Hired permanently by the orchestra, she wasn't well accepted by the public at first. However, the orchestra stood by their decision, and soon Cruz became famous throughout Cuba. During the 15 years she was a member, the band traveled all over Latin America, becoming known as "Café Con Leche" (coffee with milk). Cruz became known for her trademark shout "¡Azúcar!", ("Sugar!" in Spanish). The catch phrase started as the punch line for a joke Cruz used to tell frequently at her concerts. Once, she ordered cafe cubano (Cuban coffee) in a restaurant in Miami. The waiter asked her if she'd like sugar, and she replied that, since he was Cuban, he should know that you can't drink Cuban coffee without it! After having told the joke so many times, Cruz eventually dropped the joke and greeted her audience at the start of her appearances with the punch line alone. In her later years, she would use the punch line a few times, to later say: "No les digo más 'Azúcar', pa' que no les dé diabetes!"which means "I won't say 'Sugar' anymore so that you won't get diabetes"
With Fidel Castro's assuming control of Cuba in 1960, Cruz and Knight refused to return to their homeland and became citizens of the United States.
In 1966, Cruz and Tito Puente began an association that would lead to eight albums for Tico Records. The albums were not as successful as expected, however, Puente and Cruz later joined the Vaya Records label. Soon after Celia was headlining a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Her 1974 album, with Johnny Pacheco, Celia y Johnny, was very successful, and Cruz soon found herself in a group named the Fania All Stars, which was an ensemble of salsa musicians from every orchestra signed by the Fania label (owner of Vaya Records). With the Fania All Stars, Cruz had the opportunity of visiting England, France, Zaire, and to return to tour Latin America.
During the 1980s, Cruz made many tours in Latin America and Europe, doing multiple concerts and television shows wherever she went, and singing both with younger stars and stars of her own era. She began a crossover of sorts, when she participated in the 1988 Hollywood production of Salsa, alongside Draco Cornelio Rosa.
In 1990, Cruz won a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance - Ray Barretto & Celia Cruz - Ritmo en el Corazon. She later recorded an anniversary album with la Sonora Matancera. In 1992, she starred with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas in the film The Mambo Kings. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Cruz the National Medal of Arts. In 2001, she recorded a new album, on which Johnny Pacheco was one of the producers. In early 2003, she had surgery to correct knee problems that she had for a few years, and she intended to continue working indefinitely.
On July 16, 2003, she died of a cancerous brain tumor at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She was survived by her husband Pedro Knight and family. After her death in New Jersey, her body was taken to Miami to lie in state in downtown Miami's Freedom Tower, where more than 200,000 of her South Florida fans paid their final respects. Her body was returned to New Jersey where tens of thousands of fans paid tribute to her at the funeral home. A service was held for her in St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. She was interred in a private mausoleum at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx; an epilogue in her autobiography notes that, in accordance with her wishes, Cuban soil that she had saved from a visit to Guantánamo Bay was used in her entombment.