”Azucar!” Celia Cruz often shouted from the stage, punctuating her performances with ”Sugar!” The colorful Cuban singer embodied the best qualities of that country’s music, both raw and refined. Her death on July 16 at 77, from brain cancer, leaves Latin music without its queen.
By the time Cruz earned international fame in the 1960s, in collaboration with salsa king Tito Puente, she was already a star at home. Cruz defied stereotypes of female performers in Latin America with her power, invention, and nuanced musicianship. She was a flamboyant original – towering hair, high heels, and long, painted nails.
Earlier this year, while recuperating from brain surgery, she recorded Regalo de Alma (Sony Discos, Aug. 5), expanding her influences in the company of a Panamanian rapper and Spanish and Brazilian singers. Of her 70-plus recordings, these are definitive moments:
100% AZUCAR: THE BEST OF CELIA CRUZ CON LA SONORA MATANCERA (Rhino, 1997) Compiles some of Cruz’s best efforts from ‘51 to ‘64 with Cuba’s biggest dance band. A-
HOMENAJE A LOS SANTOS (PolyGram, 1994) Cruz performs Afro-Cuban spiritual chants with high-caliber dance-music bands. A
TREMENDO CACHE Celia Cruz with Johnny Pacheco (Vaya, 1975) With bandleader-flutist Pacheco, she helped define the salsa of New York City’s ”Nuyorican” scene. A
ONLY THEY COULD HAVE MADE THIS ALBUM Celia Cruz with Willie Colon (Vaya, 1977) Finds Cruz and legendary trombonist-bandleader Colon at the top of their form. A
HOMENAJE A BENY MORE, VOLUME 3 Celia Cruz & Tito Puente (Vaya, 1985) Of their many collaborations, this one is special, not least for its focus on the legacy of More, a standard-bearing bolero singer and bandleader. A-
LA NEGRA TIENE TUMBAO (Sony Discos, 2001) Earned a Latin Grammy for Cruz, whose producers included Sergio George, the man responsible for bringing a hip-hop aesthetic to tropical music. B+