Celia Cruz
Singer, entertainer
Born: Oct. 21, 1925, in Havana, Cuba
Died: July 16, 2003, in Fort Lee, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2013: Arts & Entertainment

Befitting her trademark shout, “Azucar,” Celia Cruz lived a sweet life, bringing her vibrant brand of Afro-Cuban music to adoring audiences around the world.

Born Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso de la Santísima Trinidad, Cruz began singing as a child in Cuba, often performing lullabies for her siblings and young cousins. She also sang in school productions and at neighborhood gatherings. Her father, a railroad worker, wanted Cruz to become a teacher, but she followed her heart and, after winning amateur singing contests as a teenager, enrolled in Havana’s National Conservatory of Music, where she studied theory, voice, and piano.

Cruz made her first recordings in the late 1940s. Her career took off in 1950 when she was hired to sing for La Sonora Matancera, Cuba’s most popular orchestra. For more than a decade, Cruz recorded hit songs and toured throughout Latin America with the band. In 1957, Cruz made her first trip to the United States to accept her first gold record award for the single “Burundanga.”

In 1961, after Fidel Castro had seized power in Cuba, Cruz and her longtime musical and romantic partner Pedro Knight, moved to the United States, settling in Fort Lee. They married the following year. She continued to tour internationally with La Sonora Matancera for several years before launching her career as a solo artist with her husband as arranger/director.

While on tour, Cruz met the renowned orchestra leader Tito Puente. In 1966, he asked her to join his orchestra. Working together, the two energetic performers brought wider attention to Latin music in the U.S. and worldwide. They also were central to the development of the new dance sound known as Salsa, which fused African, Latin and Cuban musical traditions. In time, Cruz earn the title “Queen of Salsa.”

In the 1970s, Cruz linked with Fania, a new label dedicated to spreading the Salsa gospel. At Fania, she recorded major albums with label co-founder Johnny Pacheco (the hugely successful “Celia y Johnny”) and with a Salsa supergroup, the Fania All-Stars. She also recorded and performed with Salsa star Willie Colon, with who she appeared in the documentary film “Salsa.”

Cruz had already achieved legendary status by the time the Latin music boom exploded in the U.S. in the 1980s. With her flamboyant costumes, brightly colored wigs and her shout of “Azucar” (meaning sugar), Cruz captivated concert audiences of all ages around the world. Thanks to her broad appeal, she performed with a wildly varied array of fellow superstars, including Gloria Estefan, Dionne Warwick, Wyclef Jean, and Luciano Pavarotti. She also was featured in several Mexican television programs and in the Hollywood films “Mambo Kings” and “The Perez Family.”

During her remarkable career, Cruz earned 23 gold albums. She was nominated for 14 Grammy Awards, winning twice, and was posthumously given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. She also won four Latin Grammys.  In 1994, President Bill Clinton presented Cruz with the National Endowment for the Arts award. And in 2004, one year after her death, the New Jersey municipality of Union City dedicated Celia Cruz Park during its annual Cuban Day Parade.

Intro/Acceptance Video