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Reigning Queen of Salsa Singer Celia Cruz Dies

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Fort Lee, N.J. (Reuters)

By Robert Gibbons

Legendary Cuban-born singer Celia Cruz, the flamboyant and charismatic entertainer known as the "Queen of Salsa", has died at her home in New Jersey, her representative says.

Cruz died shortly after 5 p.m. (10 p.m. British time) on Wednesday with her husband, Pedro Knight, and close friends at her side, said Silvia Cantarell, her representative in Mexico. She lived in an apartment in Fort Lee, across the Hudson River from New York.

She had been suffering from cancer and had been in a coma, Cantarell said. Cruz's representative said she was born on October 21, 1924, although some Web sites say she was born in 1925.

In her native Cuba, where her music was silenced under communist-rule after she defected to the United States 1960, Cruz's death was not even mentioned in the nightly news broadcast. But Cuban musicians lamented her passing.

"Cuban music is in mourning because it has lost the greatest singer of its history," Latin jazz pianist Chucho Valdez told Reuters. "She is irreplaceable. But her voice and music remain with us for ever."

Cruz was famed for her vocal talent, outrageous costumes, wild wigs and energetic stage persona. Her trademark phrase was "Azucar!" -- Spanish for "Sugar!" -- which she would shriek to wild applause during her concerts. Her best-known recordings include "Yerberito Moreno" and "Que le Den Candela".

A Grammy Award-winner who recorded more than 70 albums, Cruz found success in a musical style previously dominated by men. She performed well into her 70s, often decked out in flamboyant gowns of sequins or gold lamé. She won her first Grammy in 1989 and also won two Latin Grammy Awards.

In Miami, home to much of Cuba's exile community, the singer was mourned by many as a great artist and a symbol of exile opposition to Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"She was the best ambassador the Cuban exile community had," said Ninoska Perez, a well-known radio host and leader of an anti-Castro exile group called the Cuban Liberty Council.

"Her colourful spirit, uplifting music and inspiring passion will live on forever," the Recording Academy and the Latin Recording Academy said in a statement.

Born in a poor Havana neighborhood, Cruz was one of four children. Her father wanted her to become a teacher, but she had other interests. In 1947, she enrolled in the National Music Conservatory of Cuba, where she studied musical theory, voice and piano.

She became famous in the 1950s when she joined the Afro-Cuban group La Sonora Matancera, which was looking for a new female member. She sang with the group for 15 years.

After Castro came to power in 1959, La Sonora Matancera defected. She settled in New York in 1962 and married Knight, a trumpeter in the group. Cruz struggled to sell her albums in the 1960s when her style fell out of vogue, but in the 1970s, young Hispanics rediscovered her music.

In a 2000 interview with Billboard magazine, she said she developed her catch phrase after a restaurant waiter offered her coffee and asked if she took it with or without sugar.

"I said, 'Chico, you're Cuban. How can you even ask that? With sugar!' And that evening during my show -- I always talk during the show so the horn players can rest their mouths -- I told the audience the story," she said. "And one day, instead of telling the story, I simply walked down the stairs and shouted, 'Azucar!'"

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