Cruz came into my life in 1974 as the release Celia & Johnny was the point of origin for a life-long following of her career. Teamed with Johnny Pacheco, her impeccable singing enraptured audiences previously unfamiliarized with Cruz. If you were a Hispanic under 30 years old at the time, it was highly unlikely that Cruz’s previous work –whether with Tito Puente, La Sonora Matancera or the Mexican Memo Salamanca releases– had any true import in your social or aural life. Cruz’s association with Pacheco , on the other hand, proved classic, profitable and decisive in establishing her as one of the most dominant Latin American female singers ever, if not the most important one. The Cruz-Pacheco merger, however, owed much to Larry Harlow’s addition of Celia Cruz in the 1973 Latin Opera Hommy . Her role as Gracia Divina, or Divine Grace, both in the recording and the Carnegie Hall presentation, launched Cruz into wide-reaching stardom and cultural iconic standing. The song “Gracia divina,” written specifically for her, sounds both regal and swinging. Even so, Harlow was never to produce any of her albums.
A Sonora Matancera sound and style update, under Pacheco’s production in Celia & Johnny and Tremendo caché, proved to be an all around godsend. Both albums still sell and feature hit songs such as “Quimbara,” “Lo tuyo es mental,” “Toro mata,” “Cúcala,” and “Canto a la Habana.” After those albums, Celia’s infectious swing always carried our adolescent salsero dancing feet to the house garage parties, as well as the record stores. Sales among Puerto Ricans –at the time the most important market for Salsa– reflected the widespread impact of the successful Cruz and Pacheco formula. In many ways, it was never quite surpassed in spite of the superb labor of most of the producers she had the opportunity to work with.
Still, this is a posteriori thinking. For everyone I knew at the time –or since– age, social class or ethnicity notwithstanding, Cruz was simply a bad assed vocal improviser and singer that could hang with the period’s best musicians. Period. By then, no one that mattered in any human terms would mind Celia’s physical and artistic Blackness, evolving exotic on-stage persona, or gender. She got you shaking the moneymaker ‘round with her distinctive sabor and infectious happiness. Of course, in time one would find out that she had been doing that all along an already somewhat notorious career. What many of us didn’t realize at the time was that most Salsa stars were already middle aged during that period. That fact didn’t matter one bit among the younger salseros, nonetheless, and it sure didn’t hurt those artists among older audiences. Chronological maturity aside, Cruz came to age as a front liner thanks to the Salsa generation as all her previous achievements were under someone else’s banner and didn’t afford her a wide-reaching following. It was also during the Salsa heydays that her financially successful catalogue started to develop in earnest with her various projects with Ray Barretto, La Sonora Ponceña, Willie Colón, and the Fania All Stars. I, of course, tagged alone through it all listening, learning, dancing and enjoying her presentations as much as possible given the reigning circumstances of my life at the time. Most of the opportunities to see her live where in Miami, however, and that certainly dampened appreciation for what Cruz could do with better ensembles than the ones she commonly performed with at the aforementioned musically overrated city. Even so, she could rise beyond any band’s limitations.
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