CubaNostalgia: Singer Johnny Ventura remembers the ‘Queen’ — Celia Cruz


Singer Johnny Ventura recalls how he met the ‘Reina,’ and describes the bonds she forged with fellow musicians.


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Dominican singer Johnny Ventura, revered as a giant among merengue artists, was a close friend of Cuban Salsa Queen Celia Cruz, and his band traveled with her to concerts across the world. The two performers met in Santo Domingo in 1955, and they forged a special bond on and off the stage. Ventura recently collaborated on a new musical tribute to Cruz with Cuban singer-songwriter Elain called ‘La Reina.’ As part of CubaNostalgia, Miami Herald readers were asked to share their Celia Cruz story. Here is Johnny Ventura’s.

Celia Cruz retrospective

The Miami Herald this weekend features retropective coverage of Celia Cruz to preview next weekend’s annual CubaNostalgia, which will celebrate the iconic singer’s contribution to Cuban culture through art, music and exhibitions.

On pages 3M and 4M, you’ll find the second two of a four-part timeline showcasing special moments, spread out over eight decades. The first two were published in Saturday’s Tropical Life and are available at

The timeline also will be displayed on large panels at CubaNostalgia in the Miami Herald Media Company exhibit space, which also will feature a collection of photos, special guests and items that belonged to Cruz.

CubaNostalgia runs at 11 a.m. Friday and May 17-18 at the Fair Expo Center, Coral Way at Southwest 112th Avenue. Tickets cost $12 for adults and $6 for children 11 and under. For more information, visit or call 305-929-9773.

Special to the Miami Herald

I met Celia when she came to Santo Domingo for the first time with the Sonora Matancera. I was just 15 years old.

The band was scheduled to play at the Teatro Max, which was right around the corner from where I lived. The tickets to the show cost one peso, which at the time was the equivalent of about $1. But I did not have the money. So I got the bright idea that I would help members of that wonderful band carry in their instruments.

That is how I was not only able to watch the show but earned their affection. Beyond helping them carry in their instruments, I also ran errands: fetched water, bought soft drinks, etc. … This was in 1955, and since then, up until the time of her death, Celia and I maintained a beautiful friendship, one that will last forever.

Later in life, God rewarded me with the honor of having my band accompany Celia and her group on concert tours around the world. For my group, this was the ultimate privilege — we admired her so much. Our chemistry with her was magical. The relationship was so special, she knew every band member by name.

In addition to accompanying her on many stages, I also booked her for many shows in my country. I have a particularly fond memory of one day when I escorted Celia and her husband Pedro to a hotel. As I was filling out the registration form, one of the requirements was to include the age of guests. So I turned to her and said, “Celia, can you tell me your age, please?” She looked at me but did not respond. I asked again. But she continued talking to another person as if she did not hear me. I asked for a third time and she finally replied: “ Chico, just put down that I am an adult, just an adult.” We both exploded with laughter, and I didn’t bother to ask her age again.

The new song in honor of Celia was composed by Cuban singer-songwriter Elain Morales (known professionally as Elain).

Elain asked me to share the honor of paying this small but sincere tribute to the Queen. I did not hesitate, saying I would do it with great pleasure. When I heard the lyrics and he sang the melody, I was truly moved. The subject matter could not have been any better. We recorded in Santo Domingo and the footage for the music video was shot in a studio and in Miami. So there it is: La Reina (The Queen), a title that serves as homage to Celia. Both Elain, who wrote it, and I sing this song filled with emotion, straight from the heart. Celia is my soul sister. You can’t imagine how much I love her.

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