Born Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso de la Santísima Trinidad in the Santos Suárez neighborhood ofHavana, Cuba, the artist known as Celia Cruz was a Cuban-American salsa performer. One of the most popular salsa artists of the 20th century, she earned 23 gold albums and was renowned internationally as the “Queen of Salsa”.
Cruz won amateur singing contests as a teenager in Cuba. She tried to follow her father’s dream of becoming a teacher, enrolling at the National Teachers’ College, but dropped out soon after when she gained popularity for her singing. Cruz’s first recordings were made in 1948. In 1950, her singing career took off when she replaced the lead singer in the popular Cuban orchestra Sonora Matancera. Cruz helped the band — and Latin music — raise its profile during tours in Central and North America in the 1950s. When Fidel Castro assumed control of Cuba in 1959, Cruz and her husband, Pedro Knight, became U.S. citizens and settled in Fort Lee.
Cruz became known for her trademark shout “¡Azúcar!” (“Sugar!” in Spanish) during her performances. With Sonora Matancera, she made cameos in some Mexican films such as Salon México (1950) and Una gallega en La Habana (1952). In 1966, Cruz and Tito Puente began a long-lasting association. Cruz’s 1974 album with Johnny Pacheco, Celia y Johnny, was very successful; a decade later, she participated in a documentary film, Salsa, about the Latin culture, along with figures like Dolores del Río and Willie Colon. On July 16, 2002, Cruz performed to a full house at the free outdoor performing arts festival in Central Park SummerStage in New York City. During the performance she sang “Bemba Colora.” A live recording of this song was subsequently made available in 2005 on a commemorative CD honoring the festival’s then 20-year history entitled, “Central Park SummerStage: Live from the Heart of the City.”
Cruz appeared posthumously on the 2006 album, My Friends & Me, by fellow Class of 2013 NJHOF Inductee Dionne Warwick.