Remembering the Queen of Salsa

A year without Celia Cruz

By Irma Barrios
Published on LatinoLA: July 8, 2004

Remembering the Queen of  Salsa

On July 16, 2003, the world mourned the passing and celebrated the life of the legendary queen of salsa, Celia Cruz. She conquered the world with her voice and charm, and never forgot her humble beginnings in Havana, Cuba. Her musical career jump-started in 1950 when she joined big band La Sonora Matancera where her husband Don Pedro Knight played the trumpet. She made 79 albums and 10 movies, of which the most recent were ?The Mambo Kings? and ?The Perez Family.?

Earlier milestone collaborations were with Willy Colon and the late, legendary timbalero, Tito Puente. During the 1970?s she experienced a surge in her musical career with trombone great Johnny Pacheco under his Fania record label as lead singer for The Fania All-Stars group. Her smile and charisma on stage were unlike any other and as story has it, she came up with her trademark shout ?azucar? (sugar) when she found herself repeatedly requesting sugar from a waiter for her bitter coffee.

Celia received many accolades, such as 12 Grammy nominations with three wins: One in 1989 in the category of ?Best Tropical Performance? for the song ?Ritmo en el Corazon? and her second win in 2002 in the category of ?Best Salsa Album? for the album ?La Negra Tiene Tumbao? and her third win in 2003 for ?Best Salsa/Merengue Album? for her final album ?Regalo Del Alma.?

Other accolades include honorary degrees from Yale University, Florida University and Miami University. She was presented with a National Endowment for the Arts medal by President Clinton, and the Smithsonian Institute Lifetime Achievement Award. Nevertheless, it appears, her biggest joy came from the love people around the world gave her. According to her husband Don Pedro Knight, she thoroughly enjoyed replying to fan mail personally with the stroke of her own pen? In order to get a closer glimpse of this bigger-than-life legend, I was privileged to speak with several people who were very close to her.

Ralph Mercado, founder of the RMM label shared his recollections of Celia Cruz.

IB: How did you first meet Celia Cruz?

RM: I first met Celia in 1967 and I did my first show with her and Tito Puente in 1968 at a place in Brooklyn called The St. George Hotel? I met her on 52nd Street by the Union Hall. The musician?s union was up there. I was gonna get a contract or something when I met her and Don Pedro.

IB: So you had already heard her before?

RM: Oh, yeah. I had heard her for many years. That?s when I started my first association with her. My first show with her was in 1968. But I actually started managing her in ?75. I managed her for 25, 26 years.

IB: What does that entail to manage a legend of that magnitude?

RM: Well, you know, I?m very grateful for the position that she put me in, in this business? For entrusting her career to me without her asking how much she was going to make, where or how or what. And all of this was done on a hand shake for 26 years.

IB: Wow. Now that?s rare.

RM: Yes, that?s very rare. Yeah, I had that relationship with her and Tito Puente for those 26 years. (Releases a chuckle) And when they left, I left... Things were growing you know. I was in the middle of my record company. I had over 40 artists and I wasn?t traveling with Celia. I had other people road managing her. I wasn?t there for her as much as I used to be. Omer Pardillo used to work in our office in the video department and he was always a big Celia Cruz fan. He loved Celia. He had posters of her? He had built a nice relationship with Celia and when the time came that I needed someone to work with her, I had him step up to the plate. I told him I didn?t have anybody else that could do it. It all worked out. (His tone becomes somewhat somber) And he was there at the right time especially in the later years where dedication had to be intense. Thank God he was there for her.

IB: What do you think was the success factor in Celia?s career?

RM: Well besides her talent she had so much charisma. She was the most professional person I had ever worked for in my life, across the board. You know, you would tell her eight o?clock and she was there at seven thirty. Very, very professional? I?ll tell you what kind of person she was. She was scheduled to do a show with Johnny Ventura in Santo Domingo and she had gone to Ecuador. A place called Esmeralda in Ecuador and coming off the stage she slipped and she twisted her ankle. She had a cast on her foot. I wanted to cancel the show in Santo Domingo which was the following week, but she said, ?I made a compromiso with Johnny and I gotta go.? Ralph adds, ?And she went. She hopped all over the stage to keep her word to her friend. She was an amazing woman. (Recalling warmly) And her transformation used to inspire me. She would get to the stadium or arena and when she?d get into make-up and dress, her transformation was amazing. She was another person on stage.

IB: In person, she was down to earth?

RM: She was never ever demanding things. We knew we had to take care of her but she never insisted on "I want this, I want that." We made things possible because she was very flexible. She was a trouper. We opened a lot of doors like that. We opened all of Europe and South America? She was one of the most traveled artists around for a long, long time. She made history when she went to places like Amsterdam and Japan? (Recalling fondly) She would give the same energy whether it was for one thousand people or one hundred thousand people. It was great.

IB: What are your final thoughts of Celia Cruz?

RM: She taught me how to be very responsible? If the majority of the artists were like Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, this would be a great business... As far as their talent, their word and their professionalism.

IB: Do you still do handshake deals?

RM: (Releases hearty laughter) No. Not anymore. Unfortunately, you know? You can?t do that with everybody. Those days are gone. It?s a different day now.

Sergio George, Grammy winning musical producer and co-writer of the hit, ?La Negra Tiene Tumbao? stated, ?At first I was intimidated to work with her. Although I knew her for twenty years, I thought? How do I tell her what to do? But once in the recording studio she would ask for advice by saying ?How does this sound?? It was a working relationship. She was open-minded and allowed you to create. She was a true professional and she wouldn?t waste any time.?

Sergio George shared how the process in producing for Celia Cruz was ?fun, difficult, and a challenge.? Since the world knew of Celia?s husband, Don Pedro Knight, the songs selected had to have a narrative story with social issues. The songs he sought for her were mostly about everyday life. They were songs listeners could relate to.

He shared how he approached the queen with the song ?La Negra Tiene Tumbao.? First, he had her listen to the song without musicians playing. Once he knew she loved the song, he added the rap portion to it and showed it to her again. ?She loved it!? Sergio George reflected, ?She was very open-minded. ?She approved it!?

In producing the last album, Sergio recalls how emotional that was because he knew about her illness. He stated that her manager, Omer Pardillo, broke the news to him. Celia Cruz never spoke about her bout with cancer. Sergio blurted, ?She was so positive. She didn?t want to talk about it. After the surgery in removing the tumor, she remained focused on her work? She was a little scared because she didn?t know if she could sing afterward.?

Ironically, the first song she sang after her surgery became the billboard hit ?Rie y Llora? (Laugh and Cry) where she advises to live life to the fullest because everyone?s time will come. In pondering the thought of moving forward without Celia, Sergio shared that it was hard to go into the studio. ?It took me at least two weeks before I could even look at a studio, but I know I had to get back to work.?

World-renown fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez (pictured with Celia Cruz) was emotionally overwhelmed in speaking about Celia. ?As a little boy, I recall Celia would come to New York and my family would love to take us to see her. I remember looking up at this amazing woman singing. I learned to dance salsa to her music! I think she came here (referring to his office) because of our Cuban connection. I had an understanding of what she was about and she wanted me to create or re-create a queen. It was fun? to marry what I do which is more architectural in order to make her look as beautiful as possible. For me to give her something? someone who inspired me so much. (sigh) I don?t remember being so nervous. It was an amazing experience.?

Narciso recalled how Celia?s team visited him at his office. They talked about things she liked. ?We all worked together as a team? Omer, Blanca (referring to publicist, Blanca La Salle), and her stylist.? He chirped with fondness, ?Celia loved (pause) had an extravagant style.? He disclosed how she offered her opinion? ?No. We?ve done red.? Instead, he designed for her using pale chiffons, silver metallics with elegance and a flamenco flair. Narciso added, ?She loved the flamenco influence.?

Narciso disclosed that designing for Celia Cruz was something that personally meant a great deal to him and he did it with great love. ?I consider myself so fortunate and so blessed with her friendship. She touched my life.? When asked if there was something about Celia Cruz that the public may be unaware of that he may want to shar, he stated fondly, ?Everybody knows her. Everyone loves her. She was an amazing woman. Incredibly humble, gentle, sweet and unassuming. She was so unaware of her own power. So down to earth and yet she was one of the brightest stars that shined in the sky. Across the board, no one can compare. You know when you?re in the presence of greatness. She was something otherworldly.?

He ended the conversation sharing how sad it was to say good-bye and he dedicated his last show to her, a real queen.

Omer Pardillo, manager of Celia Cruz, also shared his personal experience with the legend. He disclosed that he met her when he was only sixteen through a family friend. He recalls always being a fan and was surprised to find that although she was famous, she was a very personable and humble person.

He began working with Ralph Mercado in 1992 (founder of record label RMM) in the publicity department and then became Celia?s road manager for several years. After Celia left RMM in 1998, Don Pedro Knight and Celia asked him to manage her, ?From now on, who could be better than you? You who know all the people that work with us from Latin America and Europe and besides, we?ve been together for so long.? Omer added, ?We had a wonderful relationship.?

From that moment forward he became her manager until the day she died? Omer confessed, ?At first, I was terrified because I was very young and there were a lot of people who didn?t want to deal with me because they felt I was too young. But thanks to Celia, who had the foresight and was unconditionally supportive? She told everyone that if they didn?t deal with me, they couldn?t deal with her. I was very nervous because I knew that either I was going to further her musical career, or I was going to destroy her. It was a huge responsibility.?

When asked if he had prior artist management experience before managing Celia, he blurted, ?No, the only work I have had in my entire life has been her. I was very fortunate to connect her with a new record label, Sony Music, and in the last years her career took a very positive turn. Thank God everything worked out well.? Omer added, ?Celia was the type of person that entrusted so much in you? At the end of the day she knew that whatever decisions I made, they were the best decisions for her. She gave me all her trust.?

In a grateful and fond tone Omer added, ?Celia never overreacted when things didn?t run smooth. She wouldn?t add to the problems or have a demanding attitude. She never behaved like the grand diva that she really was. I truly believe she didn?t know how great she really was.?

When asked about challenging times during her career, Omer recalled one particular occasion toward the end of her life when he had to cancel a show in Mexico due to Celia?s illness. At that time, no one outside of Celia?s team was aware of her bout with cancer. The show?s promoter placed so much pressure on him because he couldn?t understand that if Celia was very ill, why the press was unaware of it.

Omer had to explain that it was Celia?s wish to keep her illness private. ?Keeping personal things private was challenging. We were able to keep her illness very private? If she was hospitalized, we denied it. If it leaked to the press, then that was a stroke of bad luck. Because of the lack of information to the press, it generated a lot of speculations. When the press misinformed the public on Celia?s passing, Celia was distraught because she worried about her family in Cuba especially because most are elderly.?

When asked if Celia Cruz ever returned to Cuba, Omer stated, ?Celia wanted to return to Cuba in ?62 at the beginning of Castro?s revolution and she requested a visa, but they didn?t allow her entry. As you know, for us Latinos, our mother is very important. If something was done to your mother, you would never forgive that person. Celia vowed never to return to Cuba until that regime?s oblivion. Unfortunately, she passed away without ever returning to Cuba. Celia and I talked about this many times... She felt grateful for not having died in Cuba. She was grateful she was in this country where so many Latinos loved her. She went from belonging to Cuba to belonging to the entire world. The Colombians love her as if she were Colombian. Mexicans adore her. Celia would be in Mexico, and she was a Mejicana! (He chuckles) Celia would show me awards she received from the 60?s like the Geraldo award and the inscription would say ?For Best National Artist? and Celia would say in amusement, ?But how am I their favorite national artist? I?m a foreigner.?

Omer added, ?Were you aware that a U.S. Postal Stamp was made in her honor? She placed that stamp in her address book. She liked it very much.? When asked if there was something about Celia the public was unaware of Omer shared, ?I think people are unaware that she was a great humanitarian. She did so much for so many people. She helped many organizations. Since the 60?s, nearly a dozen of her concerts have contributed to the AIDS organization in Mexico, cancer organizations and to build homes in impoverished neighborhoods in Peru. Celia never publicized that part of her. The only people who were aware of this were Pedro and myself. Aside from us, no one else knew.?

When asked what he has learned from such a legend, Omer disclosed, ?Number one was to be professional. Celia was so professional that if she had an appointment at 7 a.m., she would show up at 6:45. It didn?t matter who her appointment was with. Also, to be humble. Nowadays everyone is me, me, me. Everybody has an ego. Before, unfortunately, I used to be like everybody else?me, me me. She taught me to give in order to receive. What you give always comes back to you.?

When asked what their last conversation was like he stated he would prefer to keep that private. But added, ?It was beautiful? She was very grateful to all of the people. She already knew? She knew those were her last days. She spoke a lot about the worries her public expressed... The love they had for her. She and I would go to the hospital together. Pedro wouldn?t go because the treatment process was too much for him. People supported her. They would call out to her from the streets, ?Celia, we love you!? All of this support sustained her. It was the faith that sustained her until the last day of her life... the people. Especially the Dominican community because the hospital where she received treatments was in a barrio with many Dominicans. All of those Dominicans who expressed words of encouragement during her most difficult time, helped her fight the battle everyday.?

When asked how he would like the public to remember her, Omer stressed, ?Don?t ever forget her. I know they never will. She was someone who lived for the world and her public. Just as she gave to the public, give back to her. Don?t forget her and keep her in your heart always as the person who gave so much joy.?

Omer?s work with Celia continues as the President of the Celia Cruz Foundation that assists low-income children to study music and aids cancer institutions like the Cancer League to benefit cancer patients.

It had been speculated that Celia Cruz was born in 1924 and had fourteen siblings. However, her husband Don Pedro Knight has set the record straight. Celia Cruz was born on October 21, 1925 and there were four siblings: three sisters and one brother.

IB: Can you share what your first impression was of Celia Cruz when you first met her?

DPK: ?She was sensitive, respectful and very charming.?

IB: What was it like being married to such a legend and how did you always remain so calm??

DPK: ?Because she was always calm and serious. She wasn?t wild or anything and maybe that?s why in time I fell in love with her.?

IB: What were the most difficult times during her musical career?

DPK: ?She experienced some difficult times because as you know before her, the Sonora Matancera had the singer Mirta Silva. When Mirta Silva moved to Puerto Rico to be close to her family, the band sought another singer to replace Mirta. They sought out Celia? The radio company found her, but the people from Cuba wouldn?t accept her. They wanted Mirta Silva. Since Celia was so poor, she was humble and really fought to be accepted. When she made her first recording, the Cuban public went crazy for her. ?Mata Siguaraya? was the first number she recorded with Sonora.?

IB: How did the orchestra find Celia?

DPK: ?They found her because she was singing on the radio.?

IB: Was there a certain period in her career that she enjoyed more than any other?

DPK: ?As I mentioned to you, when she began singing on the radio, the Cuban public would not accept her. But when she recorded her first song ?Mata Siguaraya,? it became a hit and the public accepted her. It was very rewarding to see them accept her.?

IB: What was your secret in remaining energized and motivated throughout the years?

DPK: ?That we always got along well and everything was on an equal basis and people respected her greatly.?

IB: What musicians did you both admire? Who inspired you?

DPK: ?Actually many musicians admired the Sonora Matancera. Many said that it was the best band in Cuba. I don?t know if we were the best, but it was the most respectful and serious band. No one would dance or get drunk. Everyone had to be serious about the music.?

IB: What is the most important thing Celia taught you?

DPK: ?Her love. She shared her great love with me. We were married for 41 years.?

IB: Congratulations because as you know, that is rare these days.

DPK: ?Yes, certainly. These days it?s all over in four or five months. We got married to be together forever. We were always together.?

IB: Aside from her voice, what were the qualities you most admired in Celia?

DPK: ?That she was very respectful. She was very respectful of everyone. She would treat everyone the same.?

IB: Of all the places you visited in the world, did she have a favorite place?

DPK: ?Since she was so unaffected and so respectful, the whole world loved her everywhere we went and she would fall in love with all of the places. All artists are similar that way? If they are a hit in a certain place, they fall in love with that place. If they are a hit in Spain, they fall in love with Spain. If they are a hit in France, they fall in love with France. Since she was so down to earth, everyone loved her.?

IB: What was Cuba like during the time you both lived there?

DPK: ?Cuba was a beautiful country when we were over there. Afterward, it changed a lot.?

IB: Why did you both decide to live in New Jersey?

DPK: ?Because when we came here, the owner of The Palladium of New York, on Broadway between 53rd and 54th, offered both us work. Then, one of her sisters came here and her nephew was born. Plus, the public here accepted her as well.

IB: Out of curiosity? What was one of Celia?s favorite foods?

DPK: ?She loved soup. Very hot soup.?

IB: How would you like the world to remember Celia?

DPK: ?She would like everyone to remember her the way she was? natural. As you know, her funeral was the greatest that has ever been held in this country for an artist.?

IB: What was the last exchange you had with each other?

DPK: ?The last thing I told her was on the 14th of July, 2003. It was our anniversary. I told her, ?Oye negra. Today we have 41 years of marriage.? And she didn?t say a word. She only let out a big tear.? (Two days after their 41st wedding anniversary, Celia Cruz left this earth).

In one of Celia Cruz?s interviews, the queen of salsa herself stated how she wanted to be remembered. ?I want to be thought of as someone who is always happy. I would like to die on the stage?. I know I will always live. Why? Because there is my recording.? In my opinion Celia did get her wish of dying on stage as it appears the whole world was her stage. It may be fitting to remember her with the lyrics in mind of her song ?Yo Vivire? the Spanish rendition of ?I Will Survive.?

Lyric: ?In the soul of my people, In the skin of the drum, In the hands of the conguero, In the feet of the dancers, I will always live.? ?Gracias por todo el azucar Celia Cruz! ?Siempre ser?s la reina!

About Irma Barrios:
Irma Barrios is a contributing writer for Latin Style magazine and can be reached at: irma@rollnspeed.com. Contributions to the Celia Cruz Foundation can be sent to: Celia Cruz Foundation, 55 Flanagan Way Ste. 302, c/o Harold Leib, Secaucus, NJ 07094

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