Latin music icon Celia Cruz dies
By Rose Arce
Wednesday, July 16, 2003 Posted: 6:56 PM EDT (2256 GMT)
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Latin music icon Celia Cruz, the "Queen of Salsa," died Wednesday afternoon after battling cancer, her manager said.
She was believed to be 79 years old.
Friends and her manager, Omar Portillo, said she passed away quietly at 5:15 p.m.
"I am in a state of complete shock and sadness. This is the end of an era," said Aurora Flores, a former writer for Billboard magazine who studies the Latino music industry.
Known as "The Queen of Salsa," Cruz's influence went well beyond the dance floor and music studio, as her style, creativity and success established her not only as an innovative entertainer but also as an ambassador of Latino culture.
She helped reinvent the sound of modern Latin music, with its tropical background and drumbeats that set-off swift, hip-shaking, swirling and whirling dance moves for more than half a century.
While she always refused to give her age, close friends estimated Cruz was about 79 at the time of her last performance, a private gathering in March in New York, according to her publicist Blanca LaSalle.
She had often told reporters she would die on stage, screaming her trademark catcall "Azucar!" -- sugar, in Spanish -- to a loving audience. But she spent her final days at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, trying to recover from a December surgery to remove a brain tumor.
In more than five decades of performing, during which she released more than 70 albums and appeared in 10 movies, Cruz scooped up many of music's highest accolades, including five Grammys and two Latin Grammys.
She also enjoyed major and frequent tributes from outside the music industry, including honorary doctorates from Yale University, Florida International University and Miami University; a National Medal of Arts, the United States' highest honor for an artist; and a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Streets in New York, Mexico, Costa Rica and Miami, Florida, bear her name.
Clearly, Cruz came a long way from her childhood in Havana, Cuba, when she began her musical career singing traditional Cuban music on city street corners.
On July 14, 1942, she married trumpeter, Pedro Knight, who would become a central figure in her music, inspiring numerous songs about the wonders of a happy marriage. By 1949, now a member of the band Sonora Matancera with Knight, she had become one of Cuba's brightest stars.
When Fidel Castro tightened his grip on Cuba in 1960, Cruz fled to the United States and refused to return to her homeland as long as the Communist leader remained in power.
She joined forces stateside with legendary drummer Tito Puente. Together they helped popularize Latin music for U.S. and European audiences and contributed significantly to the creation of the Latin music boom known as "salsa."
Besides her work with Puente, Cruz's collaborations with Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colon, Pete Conde, Ray Barretto, Sonora Poncena and Fania All Stars are considered Latin music classics.
Cruz remained in the spotlight until late in her life, releasing a high volume of albums and filling out a frenetic schedule of concerts, large and small. In her later years, she became a darling of radio disc jockeys at a time when Spanish-language radio stations in many major cities began beating their English-language counterparts in ratings.
And Cruz's fame cross cultural boundaries when she began teaming up with popular American talents such as Patti Labelle, David Byrne and Dionne Warwick.
In a 2002 interview, Cruz told reporters: "My life is singing. I don't plan on retiring. I plan to die on a stage. I can have a headache but when it's time to sing and I step on that stage there is no more headache."
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