Smithsonian National Museum of American History curator Marvette Perez remembers “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz on the 10th anniversary of her death:
I stood in awe at the sight of such hyper-abundant exuberance: sequins, organza, silk, polyester, mirror beads, wigs, fuchsia, chartreuse, rings and earrings, bracelets, and a pair of custom outer space shoes ready for the take-off. Celia Cruz appeared before me in all her splendor, dressed to the nines, in the middle of the Washington Mall, by the reflecting pool, in a concert with Johnny Pacheco, founder of Fania Records, and her friend and collaborator. It was 1992, my second year as Curator at the National Museum of American History.
I can’t say I was hooked then, since I first got hooked as a young adolescent, growing up in the 1970s in Puerto Rico, where the sounds of Latin music were part of my daily life. El Gran Combo, Tito Puente, La Sonora Ponceña, Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Rivera, and so many other salseros had captured my imagination and are the soundtrack of my youth and my coming of age.
Looking back, I felt such visceral admiration for Celia Cruz, even though at the time I was not consciously aware that she was the only woman who made it as a salsa singer and sonera in a world heavily dominated by men and masculinity. She made all her songs her own and imbued them with such tremendous force and energy that it made it impossible for anybody to deny her proper place.
Her thunderous voice, deep, warm, and powerful, always sounded to me as if the earth itself had opened her mouth to sing; and sing she did for more than 60 years of a career which took her from Cuba, to Mexico, Latin America, the United States, and the world. I had not expected that our paths would cross again so soon, but in 1998 I had the honor and privilege of meeting Celia Cruz one-on-one when I conducted an archival oral history with her as well as an onstage interview. To this day, this is the highlight of my career.
As a true original and a perfectionist, Celia Cruz was always preoccupied with not only being the best singer, but also looking better than anybody in the audience. Once she said to me: “If I look into the audience and see somebody dressed better than me, I feel like I have failed, people pay good money to come hear me sing, but also to see me sing and I should always look the part.” Her musical selections, from her years with the Sonora Matancera during the 1940s to the 1960s, through her long career in Mexico and the United States, showed an impeccable understanding of her voice and the challenges of performing with different orchestras.
She started singing at the young age of fourteen when she entered and won a singing contest in the radio in Havana, Cuba. From then on, she never stopped performing as the lead singer of many orchestras with the ability to shine in many different musical genres. She performed with the Sonora Matancera, and the orchestras of Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, José Alberto “EL Canario,” Ray Barreto, Larry Harlow, and the Fania All Stars, among others.
Her ability to adapt to different genres and orchestras is exemplified in a conversation I had with salsa pianist Larry Harlow, one of the composers of the salsa opera Homy which opened at Carnegie Hall in 1973. Harlow wanted Celia Cruz to play and record the role of
Gracia Divina, even though they had never met or performed together.
He then described the event: “I called Celia and sent her a cassette with the music she was to record and perform for the opera. She showed up at the recording studio in New York, and we had a full live orchestra, salsa and symphony orchestra musicians. I asked the musicians for a run of the song before the recording, and she said, ‘That is not necessary, I am ready’; and what you hear in the recording was the first live take. She was a genius.”
Homy catapulted Celia Cruz into the world of 1970s salsa, a musical genre born in the Bronx, where many Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, as well as African American and Jewish musicians collaborated. From New York, Celia became a global phenomenon, which lasted until the end of her life. She remained current and of the day by performing Hip Hop, and other more contemporary musical genres.
Upon hearing about Celia Cruz’s illness and then her death, I felt a sense of obligation to commemorate and honor the memory and career of a woman who had been so important to me, not only professionally, but personally as well. That day on July 16, 2003, marked my crusade to develop an exhibition about Celia Cruz. It was a labor of love, and two years of constant research, collecting, phone calls, fund raising, travels. My correspondence and the memory of my conversations with Celia Cruz over the years, always kept me on track, and I was always aware of her presence throughout the whole process. To me, it was as much her curatorial work as it was mine. The exhibition opened in May 2005, and marked a new era in my professional life and helped re-established the presence of great music at the National Museum of American History, just as Ella and Duke had done before her. I am so pleased that she left so much of her ¡Azúcar! everywhere.
Above: Celia Cruz’s shoes; second photo: Celia Cruz with Johnny Pacheco.