Selecting a favorite Celia Cruz recording is like picking the most beautiful star in the sky….there are so many and they are all so pretty. But if I had to pick just one of Celia’s Salsa albums, I would go with “Celia & Johnny”.
“Celia & Johnny” Sound and Musicians
I selected the Salsa album “Celia & Johnny” because this is the sound which I believe was “made for” Celia – the Sonora Matancera sound. Keep in mind that Celia Cruz could make any sound work for her. Tito Puente, Willie Colon, Ray Barretto; she sounded great with all of them. But this “conjunto” sound made her famous. Pacheco, who adapted this “matancerienze” sound for his conjunto, brought in many reinforcements for this recording. Luis “Perico” Ortiz and Hector “Bomberito” Zarzuela in trumpets, Papo Lucca on piano, Charlie Rodriguez on the Cuban “tres”, and Justo Betancourt in the chorus.
Songs in “Celia & Johnny”
Despite the fact that I didn’t care much for the biggest Salsa hit song of this recording, “Quimbara”, I loved most of the other Salsa songs. “Quimbara” was a rumba with such a fast tempo that it would make a Jossie Estaban y La Patrulla 15 merengue sound like a bolero. I got much more into “Toro Mata”, “Lo Tuyo es Mental”, “Tengo el Ide”, and “Ño Mercedes”. “El Paso del Mulo” and “El Pregón del Pescador” are good supporting Salsa songs as well.
Celia Cruz voice was just excellent. I had to refrain from saying Celia’s voice was at her peak, because it was at her peak since she was 15 years old until her death. Celia Cruz’s voice is just so crystal clear and her demeanor in stage so elegant that she could win over anyone who listen to her.
Celia Cruz with Fania All Stars in Zaire
The Salsa album “Celia & Johnny” was released in 1974. That same year, the Fania All Stars were part of one of the most important events in sports history. They were in Zaire, Africa to be part of the activities which surrounded the Muhammad Ali – George Foreman boxing event, “Rumble in the Jungle”.
To give you a test of how Celia was at that point, I found the below video clip of the Fania All Stars doing a sound check test earlier in the day before their show. Celia picks to sing a piece of the Cuban classic song “Guantanamera”, and she goes at it as if the few cats that were around the stadium during the sound check had actually paid to witness this test.
Her voice is at full power, and her joy in singing is all over her. Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci, seeing what she’s doing, signal her that she can stop singing, but acknowledges them and continues singing as if to say “I’m gong to keep singing until I’m done with my lyric, you can then do whatever…” 🙂
The Fania All Stars of 1974 were at one of their best moments. The Live at Yankee Stadium Live Salsa albums, which were released in 1976, were recorded mostly in San Juan in 1973. Of all those musical stars on that stage, only Celia Cruz has a star in the Hollywood Walk of Stars.
Here is the clip of Celia Cruz doing a sound check with the Fania All Stars in Zaire, Africa. I’ll share more Celia Cruz favorite Salsa albums in upcoming blogs.