The classic Salsa music Fania recording “Celia & Johnny” celebrates 40 years since its release and continues to receive honorable recognition. I consider it a historical Salsa album in more than one way, and it will now be preserved by the U.S. Library of Congress.
Celia Cruz Returns to New York
The story of Celia Cruz is long, but I’ll try to keep it to the circumstances surrounding the album “Celia & Johnny”. After defecting Cuba in 1960 while touring Mexico with the Sonora Matancera, Celia quickly obtained her legal entry into the U.S, and remained relatively unknown until she joined forces with Tito Puente. With Puente’s orchestra, Celia Cruz recorded 8 albums, including “Cuba y Puerto Rico Son..”.
The research I’ve made indicates that the albums Celia Cruz made with Tito Puente were not as commercially successful as they both expected, but she certainly made her name known in the Latino music community. Her voice, energy, and stage charisma made her a favorite among Latin music fans in New York and elsewhere.
However, in the early 1970’s Celia decided to cater the Mexican market and lived there a few months. Larry Harlow saw her in Mexico and knowing about her plans to visit New York around the time he would record “Hommy”, invited her to drop by the studio. When Celia made her way to New York and the recording studio, she found out that Harlow had a song planned for her (“Gracia Divina”). Although furious at first for Harlow’s tactics to get her in the album, she agreed to record the song, which she learned and performed perfectly in just one take!
“Celia & Johnny” is Born
After Celia’s participation in the Carnegie Hall stage concert of “Hommy”, Johnny Pacheco decided to join forces with “La Guarachera de Cuba”. The first project was the album “Celia & Johnny”.
“Celia & Johnny” not only was the album that started a great musical collaboration between Celia and the Dominican band leader, it also was a great commercial success and gave her exposure to the Salsa fans that came onboard with the Fania-infused Salsa boom of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
I was one of those fans. Although I had heard the name, I really had little knowledge of Celia Cruz until “Celia & Johnny”. Many of my Salsa-loving friends where in the same situation. Yes, we know she sang with La Sonora Matancera, but my generation were not followers of that group. I learned to appreciate and enjoy the Mantancera’s music much later.
A Salsa Classic Album
In my opinion at least 6 of the album’s 10 songs were solid Salsa hits. The first single to make a splash was “Quimbara”, a high energy song which immediately showcased Celia’s vocal talent and stage energy.
“Quimbara” became Celia’s new signature song, and “Celia & Johnny” still had a lot more to offer. The “guaracha” “Lo Tuyo es Mental” became another instant hit, along with a Salsa version of the Peruvian folk song “Toro Mata”.
I also loved Tite Curet Alonso’s two compositions; “Tengo el Idde” and the Puerto Rican bomba “ño Mercedes”. The other song worth noting was “El Pregón del Pescador”.
Impact of “Celia & Johnny”
“Celia & Johnny” was a great álbum that re-established Celia Cruz as a Salsa music star. The Celia and Pacheco next album, “Tremendo Caché” was a fantastic follow up album.
Johnny Pacheco didn’t wait much to maximize Celia Cruz star power. The same year they recorded “Celia & Johnny” he invited her to join the Fania All Stars at what later became the “Live at Yankee Stadium” albums (mostly recorded in Puerto Rico), where Celia Cruz immortalized another Salsa song; “Bemba Colorá”.
I’m glad the Library of Congress decided to immortalize “Celia & Johnny” as it established a new era in Salsa music with the return of Celia Cruz 40 years ago!
Celia Cruz Performing “Quimbara” with the Fania All Stars
Here is a video of the “Queen of Salsa”, Celia Cruz, performing her hit “Quimbara” with Johnny Pacheco and the Fania All Stars in their celebrated concert in Zaire in the eve of the Ali-Foreman boxing fight.