The Celia Cruz material comes from two 78 rpm singles recorded in 1949 in Caracas, Venezuela, where a 23-year-old Cruz was backed by the society big band Orquesta Leonard Melody (they were also released in Venezuela on 45). Leonard Melody was the stage name of Leonardo Pedroza, a well-known Venezuelan musician, composer and orchestra director active from the late 1930s through the 1960s. Cruz recorded these sides when she was on tour with Rodney Neyra’s Las Mulatas de Fuego (she had joined in 1948 as lead vocalist), and the songs are some of her earliest, predating her joining La Sonora Matancera by two years. She covered several upbeat popular Latin classics with Melody’s orchestra, namely the Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández’s “El Cumbanchero,” and “La Mazucamba,” written by Cuban pianist and composer Orlando De La Rosa. Interestingly, the other two numbers are more obscure, down-tempo recordings showcasing Cruz’s moodier side and both have Afro-Cuban cultural themes. Cruz interprets the son afro “Mambé,” which was originally titled “Yo Mambé" and recorded by the great Afro-Cuban folkloric vocalist Mercedita Valdés with Conjunto Gloria Matancera (composed by L. Yañez and R. Gómez). “Mambé” is written in bozal, a stylized form of Spanish based creole with African language elements that was often used in Cuban songs of the afro genre in the 1930s and 40s. It tells of a proud drummer’s allegiance to his African roots. “Quédate Negra,” a ‘bolero negro’ lament in the afro genre, was written by the great Cuban composer and pianist Facundo Rivero and showcases lyrics advising the subject of the song to not pretend to be white, to “stay black” because that’s the way the narrator wants the her to remain and it would be futile to try and pass for white.
With a career that spanned more than half a century, Celia Cruz is one of the most influential and beloved vocalists in Latin music. By the time of her death in 2003, her singular contralto voice had graced hundreds of recordings and an immeasurable number of concert stages and performance venues the world over. Her zest for life, rhythm, movement and melody was deeply contagious and inspiring to millions of fans the world over. She really was a pan-Latin icon, and these obscure early recordings from Venezuela show that she was already well on her way to stardom, except the world hadn’t caught up to her yet.