San Juan, Puerto Rico (CNN) — Puerto Rican salsa legend Jose Luis "Cheo" Feliciano, a giant of the genre, died in a car crash early Thursday morning in San Juan, police said. He was 78.
A crooner with one of the most recognizable and imitated voices in Latin music, Feliciano sang with the long-running Fania All Stars in the heyday of New York's thriving salsa scene in the 1970s.
"Cheo was one of the most important stalwarts and forces of our music," said Juan Moreno Velazquez, a New York-based journalist who has written biographies of salsa's biggest stars. "He will be mourned in Puerto Rico and throughout Latin America. He connected to the people, a true stalwart of our culture for all Latinos. The passing of this icon leaves immense pain throughout Latin America."
Indeed, the governor of Puerto Rico has declared three days of mourning and, throughout the island on Thursday, many motorists drove with their headlights on in tribute.
Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said in a statement: "Today, Puerto Rico lost one of its greatest voices."
Feliciano was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and made a name for himself in New York as a musician and singer for a number of groups.
Considered salsa royalty, Feliciano was awarded a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
The fatal car wreck happened about 4:13 a.m. Thursday, Puerto Rico police said.
Feliciano lost control of the Jaguar he was driving and crashed into a light pole, police said. He died at the scene.
Police told CNN en Español the singer was the only person in the car. The speed he was traveling at was under investigation, police said.
His wife, Coco, told reporters that Feliciano did not like to wear a seat belt.
The singer's son, José Enrique Feliciano, praised his father at the scene of the accident.
"Papi is for all times, leaving his music and his heart to the people," he said. "Thank God that we have his music to remember him."
The singer was diagnosed with a treatable type of cancer last year, and he had undergone cancer treatments.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez called Feliciano a Puerto Rican treasure.
"His music embodied the rhythm of Puerto Ricans living in New York City and his lyrics helped tell our collective story," she said.
The death of Feliciano, beloved for his hits such as "Anacaona" and "Amada Mia," was noted on the Twitter and Facebook accounts of some of Latin music's biggest stars, from Ricky Martin to Ruben Blades, who tweeted "BROTHER CHEO. I've just learned of the accident and it is difficult for me to accept."
Singer Ricardo Montaner tweeted: "I cannot believe that Cheo is no longer with us … Cheo Feliciano one in a million."