- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) — Celia Cruz, who went from singing in Havana nightclubs to become the “Queen of Salsa,” died yesterday, her publicist said.

Miss Cruz, 77, died of a brain tumor. She had surgery for the ailment in December but her health faltered. She died at her home in Fort Lee, N.J., according to the publicist, Blanca Lasalle.

Her husband, trumpeter Pedro Knight, was at her side. The pair had celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary Monday, the publicist said.

Ruben Blades, a frequent collaborator and friend, called Miss Cruz a classy icon whose dynamic performances became her trademark.

“Celia Cruz could take any song and make it unforgettable. She transcended the material,” Mr. Blades told the Associated Press in a phone interview last night. “With Celia, even the most simple of songs became injected with her personality and her vigor.

“I don’t think you could hear anything she ever did and be indifferent,” he said.

Miss Cruz studied to be a teacher in her native Havana, but was lured into show business when a relative entered her in a radio talent contest, which she won. She later studied music at the Havana Conservatory and performed at the world-famous Tropicana nightclub.

In the 1950s, Miss Cruz became famous with the Afro-Cuban group La Sonora Matancera. She fled Cuba in 1960 for the United States after Fidel Castro’s communist revolution and never returned.

With her powerful voice and flamboyant stage shows, Miss Cruz helped bring salsa music to a broad audience.

“She became a symbol of quality and strength, and she became a symbol of Afro-Cuban music,” Mr. Blades said. “You couldn’t be a fan of Celia and not be a fan of Afro-Cuban music, because she was Afro-Cuban music.”

Miss Cruz dazzled not only with her voice but also her personality.

Always flashing a wide smile, the entertainer gave a highly energetic stage show, punctuated often by her trademark shout, “azucar,” in the middle of a song. The Spanish word for “sugar” became her catch phrase after a waiter asked her, to her surprise, if she wanted sugar in her coffee.

Her alliance with fellow salsa star and “Mambo King” Tito Puente resulted in some of the biggest successes in her career. The two recorded albums and regularly performed together, and were considered legends of the genre.

She was also a member of the Fania All-Stars, the Afro-Cuban music collective that recorded for the Fania record label in the 1970s, along with Mr. Blades and Willie Colon. She dazzled listeners with fiery songs such as “Quimbara.”

Mr. Blades noted that though she was often the only woman excelling in the salsa field, she was never intimidated.

“She was a proud woman in a male-dominated business where she excelled because she had class herself,” he said.

Miss Cruz recorded more than 70 albums and had more than a dozen Grammy nominations. She won the award for best salsa album for “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” at this year’s Grammys. Among her other best-known recordings are “Yerberito Moderno” and “Que le Den Candela.” At last year’s Latin Grammys, she showed up wearing a frothy blue-and-white headpiece and a tight red dress and gave a hip-shaking performance.

In 1987 she was honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and several years later the city of Miami gave Calle Ocho, the main street of its Cuban community, the honorary name of Celia Cruz Way.

The Recording Academy and Latin Recording Academy issued a statement yesterday that read in part: “One of Latin music’s most respected and most revered vocalists, Celia Cruz, was an icon of salsa, tropical and Latin jazz music. … Thank you, Celia, for teaching all of us that life should be lived with much ‘azucar!’”

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