Salsa queen Celia Cruz dies. The Cuban-born singer, Latin music's most revered figure, was 78

By Gary Susman
Updated July 17, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Celia Cruz, who reigned for decades as the queen not only of salsa but of all Latin music, died Wednesday at her home in Fort Lee, N.J., after a battle with brain cancer, her spokeswoman announced. The publicist gave her age as 78, though other sources have listed her as 77 or 79. In any case, she was ageless, as her Grammy win in February for Best Salsa Album for ”La Negra Tiene Tumbao” proved.

Cruz’s career, which began in the 1940s, included 70 albums, two Grammys, and three Latin Grammys. She was known for her flamboyant costumes and wigs and her frequent shouts of ”Azucár!” (”sugar”). Her honors included the National Medal of Arts, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a street named in her honor in Miami.

She began her career in her native Cuba and was soon singing with the country’s top orchestra, La Sonora Matancera. With the rise to power of Fidel Castro in 1959, the group defected, and she took up residence in New York, never returning to Cuba. Cruz left La Sonora in 1965 and sang in a band assembled by mambo king Tito Puente. Over the years, her collaborators included Latin stars like Johnny Pacheco and Willie Colon, while younger Latin stars — Ricky Martin, Ruben Blades, Gloria Estefan — considered her a mentor. She also crossed over to duet with such popsters as Dionne Warwick, David Byrne, Patti LaBelle, and Wyclef Jean.

Cruz was married for 41 years to trumpeter/composer Pedro Knight, who survives her, and who served as her manager and music director.