No one can argue the fact that Celia Cruz enjoyed a long and illustrious career as salsa music’s premier ‘guarachera’. A career that began in Cuba where she gained national notoriety while singing for the long-standing Sonora Matancera orchestra and continued as a revered vocalist in her own right. She recorded several albums for the Seeco label, among other record companies, before she was re-introduced to the Tico label to record a series of albums with the world-renowned Tito Puente orchestra.
But bandleader Johnny Pacheco had bigger plans for Celia and for his celebrated Fania/Vaya label’s 1974 release. His idea of creating the consummate conjunto recording lacked one vital ingredient. An exciting partner to lead the ensemble. And that person was Celia Cruz. So Pacheco went out and signed up Celia Cruz to Fania. Before long, the inimitable Celia & Johnny sound was created. At completion, Johnny knew that he had produced the ultimate “salsa” album.
When I was rehearsing the band,” Pacheco remembers, “I saw that we had Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and two Jewish fellows. When you make a sauce, you have different ingredients. And when I saw the band and the singer I thought, this is what we got. We got salsa.
The rumba hit “Quimbara,” with its lively beat, hit the salsa market early and immediately became an enormous and explosive hit. “‘Quimbara,’ a song written by Junior Cepeda (a talented young boricua who died at the tender age of 22, killed by his live-in girlfriend), is almost certainly the most important song performed by Cruz upon her return to the Spanish-speaking market. However, ‘Toro mata’ was also an integral part of her extraordinary success.” Paired with the Pacheco groove, the “Queen of Rumba” evolved, unleashing two of her greatest hits: “Toro Mata” and “Quimbara.” Both received wild acclaim among dancers, who immediately accepted her as the favorite on the growing salsa market, which was about to take the world by storm.