Celia Cruz rose to fame through the 1950s as the beloved front-woman of the popular conjunto Sonora Matancera in her native Cuba, recording Afro-Cuban classics like “Yembe Laroco” and “Caramelos” that showcased the commanding allure of her robust vocals. Leaving Cuba after Castro took power in order to perform internationally, she relocated to New York City in the mid-’60s, collaborating with Tito Puente’s orchestra and scoring signature hits like “Bemba Colora.” Despite her success, Fania Records co-founder Johnny Pacheco couldn’t help but feel Celia’s voice was too often crowded by the busy instrumentation of the big bands that now accompanied her. “Celia sounded good with a stick banging against a can,” Pacheco told journalist Juan Moreno Velazquez. “She didn’t need all those instruments.”
So when Cruz’s career hit an impasse at the dawn of the salsa explosion in the early 70s, Pacheco seized the opportunity to sign her to Fania’s sister label Vaya and return “La Guarachera de Cuba” to the musical settings in which she flourished. From its cover photo (featuring a beaming, afro-ed Cruz clasping hands with the Dominican-born Pacheco) through its emphasis on the guarachas and rumbas on which Celia built her reputation, 1974’s Celia & Johnny exudes Afro-Latino solidarity and musical chemistry. Fania branded salsa as a transnational sound encompassing an amalgamation of styles and subgenres, and the album’s personnel – which not only spanned Cuban and Dominican, but Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Peruvian contributors – reflected this vision in its exploration of the Cuban Matancera style. “When you make a sauce, you have different ingredients,” observed Pacheco. “And when I saw the band and the singer, I thought, this is what we got. We got salsa.”
The masterful “Quimbara” epitomizes this. The title adheres to no formal meaning in Spanish, but as rapidly repeatedly sung by Cruz, it creates an astonishingly infectious refrain that builds to an irresistible guaguanco rumba groove as referenced in its lyric: “Mi vida es tan solo eso/Rumba buena y guaguanco” (“My life is just this good rumba and guaguanco”). A brilliant salsa-fied adaptation of the traditional Afro-Peruvian folk song “Toro Mata” reinforces the album’s pan-Latin approach within an allegory addressing Spanish colonialism. The remainder of Celia & Johnny is similarly creatively unfettered. “Vieja Luna” exhibits Cruz’s strength as a balladeer, while the Tite Curet Alonso-composed “Tengo el Idde” finds her declaring unerring faith in the face of less than kindly spirits. “Lo Tuyo es Mental” has her sassily delivering a comical takedown of a would-be big-shot suitor whose lies she sees through. And “Canto a la Habana” pays lovely homage to her homeland with one of her most heartfelt performances, ad-libbing beautifully over Pacheco’s group’s tres-led arrangement.
An instant classic, the album’s immediate and enormous success established Cruz as an even bigger global star. Crowned “The Queen of Salsa,” she’d join the Fania All-Stars for their most storied international performances; release additional successful collaborations with Pacheco, Willie Colón, and others; and enjoy an acting career before passing away in 2003 at age 77. Celia & Johnny was posthumously added to the Library of Congress’s National Registry in 2013 – apropos given that Cruz, amongst all her accomplishments, considered it her proudest achievement. A reclamation of Cruz’s roots and a gateway to her rejuvenation, Celia & Johnny forever dazzles.