MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Here's one review of a Celia Cruz record, "Play It Loud: It Will Make You Dance." Well, thats a pretty good recommendation and it's one reason Cruz is one of the 50 Great Voices we're talking about this year.

NPR's Noah Adams is going to get to know her better now, by focusing on one particular song.

NOAH ADAMS: Heres the cut well be playing. Celia Cruz sings "Quimbara."

(Soundbite of song, "Quimbara")

Ms. CELIA CRUZ (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: This is from 1974. Celia Cruz was already in her 40s and "Quimbara" made her famous all over again.

Celia Cruz was born in 1925 in Havana, and grew up in a music-filled neighborhood. She traveled for 15 years with a Cuban orchestra, and did not go back home when Fidel Castro took over.

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: I wanted to get a better understanding of the sound, the voice of Celia Cruz on "Quimbara. I knew Charles Williams could help. He sang opera for years and now hes a vocal coach. Id met him back in the summer at a music camp in West Virginia. So I asked Charles Williams for his evaluation of this singer. Id kept it a surprise, he didnt know who hed be listening to.

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: This is Celia Cruz.

Mr. CHARLES WILLIAMS (Former Opera Singer): Oh, Celia Cruz. Havana, Cuba. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: My God, what a goddess.

ADAMS: Listen to Cruz sing. Her voice seems to come from a point two feet in front of her face.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, absolutely. Thats her loudspeaker. You know, when I teach Im always saying, hey, you got to keep the tone in the bone, you know, right from the cheekbones forward. And because thats your carrying power. Thats your meddle, thats your bite.

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. WILLIAMS: And then she drowned it, but its in her body. So you got the right combination of coffee and milk, and you get this dark light sound. This creaminess, you know, thats very exciting.

ADAMS: Celia Cruz, after the revolution in her country, would sing: I send to Cuba my voice from this distant beach.

She settled in Fort Lee, New Jersey, married her trumpet player Pedro Knight. They would be together for 41 years until her death. She worked with Tito Puentes band, made dozens of albums.

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: For many fans, and for many years, this song brings the smile of Celia Cruz. "Quimbara" is still played on the radio. Makes Jon Fausty a happy guy -takes him back the 35 years. He was the recording engineer.

How does it make you feel? That's a long time ago?

Mr. JON FAUSTY (Recording Engineer): It makes me feel great. I mean, I feel proud because its truly a classic, "Quimbara."

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. FAUSTY: Celia was so good at tongue twisters. And if you listen to the lyric of that music, it would take a tongue twister specialist to be able to execute the lyric.

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: The studio session was in New York City. A young Jon Fausty helped create a new Celia Cruz sound. Always before, shed be recorded on a microphone in front of the whole band, just like at a nightclub. The "Quimbara" session was multi-track - a separate track for the congas, a separate track for the timbales, one for the trumpets, the piano. And that mix is what Cruz would hear in her headphones as she sang. Shed be surrounded by driving percussion and the splash of brass.

Mr. FAUSTY: She didnt have to get it right the first time. But she had a chance in the overdub of the vocal to redo a part if she wasnt totally satisfied, without having the band to have to play it over again.

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

Ms. CARMEN RIVERA (Playwright): I actually got a chance to see her live at SOBs here in New York, which is a pretty small club.

ADAMS: This is Carmen Rivera, a New York-based playwright.

Ms. RIVERA: She performed and it was astounding. She started performing from the dressing - the basement, in the dark. The lights went down, she started performing in this booming contra alto voice that she had; came, you know, resonated through the whole place and it made the whole place feel like Madison Square Garden.

ADAMS: Carmen Rivera and her husband Candido Tirado wrote the play "Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz." It ran Off-Broadway, played in Miami and recently in Chicago.

Mr. CANDIDO TIRADO (Playwright): She lived such a sound life, a lot of people didnt think there was a story there.

ADAMS: Tirado and Rivera did see tragedy in the life of a singer in exile who couldnt go home for her mothers funeral. In preparation for their writing, they watched a lot of video footage of Celia Cruz, especially television shows. And while viewing a Telemundo tribute, filmed just before Cruz passed away, the playwrights found the center of their story.

Ms. RIVERA: When she came out for a bow, she looked lovely. She was all in silver with a silver wig. And she can rock a silver wig looking elegant and beautiful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERA: And Pedro Knight, her husband, is watching her and hes crying.

Mr. TIRADO: And theres so much love in his eyes.

Ms. RIVERA: Yeah.

Mr. TIRADO: And so much pain 'cause she was already very ill. And we said thats the story.

Ms. RIVERA: Those eyes.

Mr. TIRADO: Those eyes is the story.

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

NOAH: Celia Cruz was 77 when she died. Two hundred thousand people in Miami came to say goodbye to the Queen of Salsa.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

KELLY: There's video of a live performance of Celia Cruz at NPRMusic.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Mary Louise Kelly.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

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