Celia “Azucar” Cruz
[Women’s History Month]
I “went home” to the Apollo Theatre, March 22, and for three hours witnessed, in this month of March honoring our women, a musical tribute honoring one of, if not, the greatest singing exponent of our Afro-Cuban music, Celia Cruz.
It was in honor of the 50th year that she first appeared at the Apollo and celebrating the decades of her magnetic fame and friendliness that attracted and united people of different languages and cultures from all over the world.
In fact, just as Louie “Satchmo” Armstrong was the “Ambassador of Jazz”, Celia Cruz was our “Ambassadress of our Latin Afro-Cuban music and Culture”. Cruz transcended all generations worldwide just like Satchmo did, even today.
This special concert of the life and legacy of Ursula Hilaria Celia De La Caridad Cruz Alfonso De La Santisima Trinidad, or Celia Cruz, brought back memories of how this great human being from humble beginnings in her birth country of Santa Clara, Havana, Cuba, began her magical journey to worldwide super stardom, and idolatry.
Celia Cruz, born on October 21, 1925, was the second of four siblings raised in a Catholic home by her parents, father, Simon Cruz and mother, Catalina Alfonso who wanted her to be a school teacher instead of a singer. While a student, she also practiced singing Santero songs with her neighbors who practiced Santeria, Afro-Cuban spirituality, another form of Nigerian Afrianism, Yoruba.
Many Africans who were brought to Cuba by the Spaniards would sing these ritualistic rhythms at the end of their working day playing their home-made drums in the plantations to ease their pains and sufferings of being away from home and praying for a relief and return home.
As the years went by, these songs or incantations were then integrated into the common Spanish songs of the land.
Always wanting to sing, Celia would enter singing contests sponsored by radio stations like Havana’s number #1 station, Radio Garcia’s popular program, “Hora De Te”, or Tea Time Hour, and she always won first prize which was a cake.
Finally, despite her parent’s opposition she decided to become a singer when another teacher told her that as a singer she would make more money in a week than a teacher would make in a month.
The jump start to her first musical break was when in 1950 she was hired by Cuba’s most popular and successful orchestra at that time, La Sonora Matancera, or The Harmonious Band from Matanzas, when their lead singer for years, Mirta Silva left.
The fans for some strange reason, maybe racist because Silva was a White Cuban, resented Cruz who was obviously Black; but Rogelio Martinez the founder and leader, knowing her talent, kept her. The band’s reputation, and Celia’s grew; they enjoyed worldwide fame.
Celia remained with La Sonora for 15 years, recording many hit albums; she toured all over Latin America.
While singing with La Sonora Celia met her future husband, Pedro Knight, the lead trumpet player.
During the long years of courtship, Fidel Castro chased Cuban dictator Fulgensio Batista out of Cuba in 1959, and instead of returning to Cuba, Celia and Pedro, like many other Cubans refused to return to the mother land and fled to the United States. They became American citizens.
Finally, Pedro and Celia were married in 1962.
Their super-stellar years in music began to flourish here when Celia joined Tito Puente’s orchestra replacing another Cuban female singer, “La Lupe”, Guadalupe Victoria Yoli Raymond, also a certified school teacher in Havana.Cruz recorded eight hit albums with Puente, and also performed with Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colon, Ray Barretto, all top Latin Bands. Celia Cruz also became a member of an All-Star ensemble of top musicians, named the Fania All-Stars, traveling all over Latin America, also performing in what was then Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo, when Muhammad Ali fought and beat George Foreman.
Celia Cruz recorded 70 albums most of them going gold and platinum, while winning three Grammys and four Latin Grammy Awards. She even recorded with Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Wyclef Jean, The Fabulous Cadillac’s, Gloria Estefan, and also Luciano Pavarotti.
Streets were named after her. Celia received many citations for being such a good will person. Former President Bill Clinton presented her with the National Medal of Arts in 1994, and even a Music High School almost like Julliard, was constructed and named in her honor in the Bronx. Many other aspects of her life obviously led to the Apollo memorial concert.
The heart and soul of this tribute to Celia Cruz was Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, Founder and Director of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute which was opened in 1972.
Dr. Vega recruited the top crop of female vocalist who could not only sing Cruz’ songs, but also sound like her. She managed to contract Cita Rodriguez, popular super talented singer and daughter of world famous Latin singer the late Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez. Then Anissa Gathers who actually portrayed Celia Cruz in an off-Broadway play and Lucresia, a versatile Latin female vocalist rounded out the trio of female singers who would sing Celia’s songs.
All of Cruz’ music was to be played by Jose “El Canario”, The Canary-Alberto, world renowned Salsa orchestra, 30 years in the music business having recorded 27 solo albums. Jose Alberto was nicked named El Canario, because of his exquisite high pitched voice and ability to sound like a flute as he whistled his songs.
Hosted by two-time Emmy recipient, Felipe Luciano, and former Radio WADO broadcaster, Malin Falu, the Celia Cruz musical odyssey began to the delight of a predominantly older audience, some of whom I recognized from my days living in Harlem and Spanish Harlem; “El Barrio”.
All of that musical history began to settle in me as I then remembered her catch-all greeting to the audience, “Azucar”, Sugar, which started as a joke in Miami, and caught on as the audience themselves, would yell, “Azucar.”
Cita Rodriguez led off with a hit tune, “Cucala”, which immediately put the audience in a musical frenzy as they sang along. Soon after some folks not being able to contain themselves began to dance in the aisles to the delight of all of the performers, including El Canario, as we all remembered the great Celia who passed away from brain cancer on July 16, 2003, followed by her husband Pedro, on February 3, 2007.
They are both buried together in a mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, N.Y.; it is a tourist attraction. They are buried close to Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
From Cita to Gathers’ “Bemba Colora”-Red Lips-who electrified us wearing wigs and dresses similar to Celia’s, and to Lucretia’s “Sopa en Botella”-Soup in a Bottle-, we had a great emotional time going down memory lane with the help of Jose Alberto as song after song related to Celia were sung with the help of the excited audience.
The Apollo Directors then announced that Celia Cruz would be enshrined that same night in the Apollo Hall of Fame along with the other female artists who graced their stage.
I began to go back in time remembering the female greats like Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Bette Carter, who would now be joined by Celia Cruz, the first Latin Afro-Cuban female to join this illustrious group of female entertainers.
It was a well, deserved recognition.
Throughout the entire performance I sat back and began to reminisce of the many years and hours I spent visiting my home away from home the Apollo, for music entertainment, and how it gave me a sense of musical culture and education, having been born in Harlem Hospital, the original, lived in Harlem, and then years later moved to Spanish Harlem.
I never lost my “roots”.
I also remembered, Arthur Prysock, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Will Maston Trio, Tito Puente, Billy Eckstein, Joe Cuba, Cal Tjader, Machito and his Afro-Cubans with Graciela, Chico O’Farrill, and the above mentioned ladies of song.
What a line-up! Sometimes, I would even stay for the second show just to drink in the musical greatness of these artists.
Those were the days; those were the days.
Long live the Apollo and it’s great memories.