The fruitful career of the legendary queen of salsa Celia Cruz can be roughly divided into three distinct periods that, in many ways, mirror the development of Afro-Caribbean music during most of the twentieth century.
First there was la reina’s artistic awakening in her native Cuba as part of La Sonora Matancera, a tropical supergroup that gave Cruz the opportunity to perform a variety of Afro tinged dance formats: from rumbas and guarachas to boleros, merengues and even rock’n’roll hybrids. Then, her move to New York, which found her recording a series of cult albums with the Tito Puente orchestra in the ‘60s and witnessing the salsa explosion of the ‘70s as part of the Fania roster. Finally, the success of the smooth salsa romántica movement, with a string of exceedingly popular albums that she recorded during the ‘80s and ‘90s for the RMM and Sony labels. By the time she passed away in 2003, Celia Cruz and her trademark cry of Azúcar had become one of the quintessential symbols of Latin American culture.
A luminous session from 1977, “Only They Could Have Made This Album” delivers an opportunity to enjoy Cruz at both her vocal and artistic peak. A collaboration with Nuyorican trombonist, producer and songwriter Willie Colón it finds Celia in the caring hands of a musical director willing to place his notorious perfectionism at work, searching for a solid repertoire of songs and a distinctive sound.
Colon, who at the time was busy working on his solo output as well as developing the blossoming career of a young Panamanian vocalist by the name of Ruben Blades, selected a kaleidoscopic gallery of tunes that could showcase Cruz’s fiery vocalizing while indulging his own omnivorous taste for a wide variety of moods.
The ‘70s was a moment when tropical music was looking both inwards and outwards for inspiration. Inwards, through a celebratory exploration of the inherent richness to be found in Afro-Latin idioms. Outwards because it also embraced a number of intriguing foreign influences such as r&b, mainstream pop and jazz.
The opening track, “Usted Abusó” never fails to bring a smile on the faces of Brazilian music aficionados. The original version of the song was a hit with vocalist Maria Creuza. Colón leaves its lilting melody intact, while introducing a salsa beat and new lyrics in Spanish (later on, he would follow the same path as a solo artist when transposing the Chico Buarque smash O Que Sera into the Nuyorican barrio). La reina’s delivery begins on a mellifluous tone, before building up simmering intensity in typical Cruz fashion. The instrumental break in the middle of the track depicts Colón’s weakness for smoother-than-smooth, semi-orchestral arrangements.
A sticky bolero is also part of the program. Cruz delivers a deliciously mannered interpretation of the classic” Plazos Traicioneros”, framed by velvety touches of bongoes and strings.
Pleasures abound throughout: from the majestic layers of trombone (an all-star lineup that includes Leopoldo Pineda, Papo Vazquez and Lewis Kahn) and the funky bass lines of “Zambúllete” to the sobering lesson on religious tolerance that lies at the core of Félix Hernández’s “Todos Somos Iguales.” On Mon Rivera’s “A Papá”, Celia shows off her ability to articulate complex Spanish lyrics with remarkable clarity and at the speed of light. There’s also a traditional merengue “Pun Pun Catalú”, composed by no other than the Dominican Republic’s own Johnny Pacheco– and a delicate remake of the Sonora Matancera oldie “Burundanga”.
During her tenure with Fania, the queen of salsa collaborated with many of the company’s biggest bandleaders: Johnny Pacheco (1974’s Celia & Johnny is arguably the very best of all her albums), Ray Barretto, Papo Lucca and Willie Colón. With Colón, she was able to express a different side of her vocal bravado, aided as she was by the many shades and colors of the man’´s extensive musical palette. The ten tracks on this classic session are proof that, indeed, “Only They Could Have Made This Album”.
Willie Colón – Bass Trumpet, Chorus
Leopoldo Pineda – Trombone
Papo Vasquez – Trombone
Lewis Kahn – Trombone
Luis Romero – Timbales
Jose Mangual – Bongo, Percussion, Chorus
Milton Cardona – Conga, Chekere, Chorus
Pablo Rosario – Percussion
“Prof. Joe” Torres – Piano
Yomo Toro – Guitar, Trio
Dalia – Trio
Ruben Figueroa – Trio
Celia Cruz – Lead Vocals
Productor – Willie Colón
Executive Producer – Jerry Masucci
Recorded At – La Tierra Sound Studios
Arrangements – Willie Colon, Ernie Agosto, Louie Ramirez, Francisco Cabrera, Louis Ortiz, Ray Coen
Engineer – Jon Fausty
Original LP Photo – Lee Marshall
Original Album Design – Ron Levine
Original Art Director – Elliot Sachs
Special Thanks to Pedro Knight, OTRA VEZ!
Written by Ernesto Lechner