Celia & Johnny came out on New York’s Fania Records, a label as synonymous with salsa as Stax Records is with soul. Fania made salsa nationally popular during the late ‘60s to early ‘70s, and Celia & Johnny was one of their biggest hits… But let’s back up a little bit.
When Celia & Johnny was released in 1974, Celia was already a huge star in her native Cuba. After defecting to the States, though, she struggled to break into the salsa scene. Fania co-founder and Fania All-Stars bandleader Johnny Pacheco, meanwhile, was one of contemporary Latin music’s biggest stars. Johnny was a huge fan of Celia’s, but felt that her first forays into the American music scene–recorded with the Tito Puente Orchestra for Tico Records–tended to obscure her powerful voice. As Johnny once told music critic Juan Moreno-Velázquez, “Celia sounded good with a stick banging against a can. She didn’t need all those instruments.”
Johnny was sure that packaging Celia’s agile contralto and improvisational brilliance with his hip, danceable Afro-Caribbean grooves would increase her appeal with American audiences, but even he had no idea how enthusiastically the album would be received: Backed by the Pacheco groove, Celia achieved two career-defining hits, “Toro Mata” and “Quimbara.” Both were met with wild acclaim by dancers, who immediately coronated Celia as the Queen of Salsa, a genre soon to take the world by storm.
Today, the Seventies is considered the golden age of salsa and Celia Cruz as one of the genre’s most iconic figureheads – Celia & Johnny is an essential piece of that history.
Breaks down how Celia & Johnny took the classic Cuban forms – mambos, sones, guarachas and guaguancós – and adapted them for a generation of younger, US-born Latinos.
A brief history of Fania Records, from small-time labor of love to global exporter of Latin American culture.
An exploration of the many diasporic rhythms that meld to form salsa – and Celia’s emblematic status within the genre. ¡Azucar!
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
"Tengo El Idde” - “Tengo El Idde” was written by the late, prolific composer Tite Curet Alonso, arguably salsa’s most famous and revered songwriter. The song was written about an “idde,” a bracelet that is commonly used by people in the Santeria religious practice. As a link to the spiritual world, it protects them from bad vibrations and demonstrates the wearer’s faith. Celia sings with moving conviction as she navigates layers of horns and percussion.
“Lo Tuyo Es Mental” - Lo Tuyo Es Mental is a Guaracha-style track. This Cuban mode suits Celia well as she belts out a humorous tale of a woman rejecting a boastful suitor who falsely presents himself as a wealthy casanova.
“Canto a La Habana” - A heartfelt and colorful ode to Celia’s homeland, this rumba features tight piano and horn riffs as well as an infectious chorus. As moving as it is catchy.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Johnny Pacheco started Fania as a means of guaranteeing musicians income from record sales. As he told NPR, "It was just getting royalties. [Before Fania], we were selling records, and the money wasn't coming in. [Record companies] were spending money like it was going out of style, and that really ticked me off."
- Fania was started with only $2,500, but the business grew quickly thanks to Pacheco’s keen eye for talent, inking future legends like Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz and Ray Barretto.
- The Bata Cubana, or Cuban Rumba dress, was Celia's signature performance costume. The festive, brightly colored garment has roots in the 19th century and brings together influences from Spanish, French, and African culture, combining theater, fiesta, and the spectacle of carnival with slave and gypsy dress.
- In the biography ¡Azúcar!, Celia says that Celia & Johnny was the proudest achievement of her recording career.
- Celia & Johnny marked the emergence of the “Matancera” style in Salsa recordings, a modern interpretation of traditional Cuban musical forms like the guaracha and the rumba.
Listen to Celia & Johnny in its entirety on your preferred streaming platform or purchase on wax below.
Words: Katherine McCollough