'Queen of Salsa' Celia Cruz Dies at 77

07/17/2003 AT 08:16 AM EDT

Celia Cruz, who went from singing in Havana nightclubs to become the "Queen of Salsa" -- to the late percussionist Tito Puente's "King" -- died of a brain tumor Wednesday at her home in Fort Lee, N.J., reports the Associated Press. She was 77.

The star had undergone surgery for the ailment in December but she never quite recovered, and her health declined. Her husband, trumpeter Pedro Knight, was by her side, according to Cruz's publicist, Blanca Lasalle. (The couple had celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary on Monday.)

Despite her innate, powerful voice and unstoppable energy, Cruz was on her way to becoming a schoolteacher in her native Havana when a relative entered her in a radio talent contest, which she won. This led her to study at the Havana Conservatory and perform at the world-famous Tropicana nightclub, where she became associated with the legendary Afro-Cuban group La Sonora Matancera, reports AP.

Cruz left Cuba after its 1959 revolution and remained permanently in the United States.

"She became a symbol of quality and strength, and she became a symbol of Afro-Cuban music," Ruben Blades, a frequent collaborator and friend, told AP on Wednesday. "You couldn't be a fan of Celia and not be a fan of Afro-Cuban music, because she was Afro-Cuban music.

"Celia Cruz could take any song and make it unforgettable. She transcended the material. With Celia, even the most simple of songs became injected with her personality and her vigor."

She recorded more than 70 albums and received more than a dozen Grammy nominations, winning for best salsa album for "La Negra Tiene Tumbao" at last year's Latin Grammy Awards. She also took the same prize at this year's Grammy Awards. She was also honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Among her other best-known recordings are "Yerberito Moderno" and "Que le Den Candela."

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