It was known that Celia Cruz would never end a performance without her signature phrase.
“Azucar!” she would shout as legions of fans swayed and shimmied to the salsa music she popularized. Her cry, the word for “sugar” in Spanish, was a reference to her Afro-Cuban roots where she first learned her passion for music that would earn her 23 gold albums and the moniker “La Reina de la Salsa”.
Today, “The Queen of Salsa” is immortalized outside the music world in the form of a Google Doodle in honor of what would have been her 88th birthday.
Born in Havana, Cuba on Oct. 21, 1925, Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso had a name as big as her impending stardom in Cuban music. She grew up surrounded by the rich music environment of Havana in the 1930s, and got her start singing for local radio stations and cabarets. Her big break came in 1950, however, when she was asked to be the lead singer of the renowned Cuban orchestra Sonora Matancera, which toured across Latin America.
After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, she fled the country with her husband Pedro Knight to the United States, and became a citizen in 1961. Furious, Mr. Castro barred them from returning to Cuba, so she made her home permanently in the US.
From there, her career took off. She performed with the popular Tito Puente Orchestra, which offered a launch pad to spread salsa (the rhythmic, melodic, Afro-Cuban dance music) across the US. She toured around the world with fellow salsa musicians, starred in salsa-themed movies and documentaries, and sold millions of albums. In 1990, she won the Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance for the song “Ritmo en el Corazon”, which she recorded with fellow salsa legend Ray Barretto. Subsequently, she won six more Grammys over several salsa albums. Her mark on the music world was further solidified when she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Bill Clinton in 1994.
Ms. Cruz was known for her flamboyant style, as referenced in the swirling blue, peacock, and gold Google Doodle. She donned vibrant orange and blue wigs, wore sparkling gowns in rainbow tones, and always accessorized with an overjoyed smile.
Cruz died in 2003 at age 77 at her home in New Jersey, but her influence in salsa music lives on in stereos and dance clubs across the world.