On most Saturday nights, you can find me sipping a gin & tonic on my patio, listening to retro cocktail classics. One of my favorite singers from that era is Yma Sumac. Her five-octave range and mysterious beauty turned her into a world-wide sensastion during the 1950s and 60s.
Yma was born in 1922 in Peru. Her family was descended from Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor.
From the moment she could open her mouth, it became clear Yma had an incredible gift. Not only was her voice pure as silk, but she could hit extremely low and high notes, which is virtually impossible for most singers.
When she was 20, Yma married orchestra and bandleader Moisés Vianco. That same year, she recorded numerous songs, quickly making a name for herself in her homeland.
In 1950, the happy couple moved to New York City, where Yma was promptly signed by Capitol Records.
It was during this decade that she helped make music history. Working with legends like Les Baxter and Billy May, Yma became the voice behind exotica, otherwise known as lounge music.
Her striking beauty and glamorous wardrobe caused a sensation in Hollywood. She appeared in a couple films (such as Secret of the Inca with Charleton Heston) and a Broadway show.
The U.S. media was dazzled by Yma, flowering her with titles such as the "Peruvian Songbird" and emphasizing her aristocratic roots by calling her a princess. Her exotic glamour was so exagerrated that it even fed a popular rumor that Yma was actually a Jewish housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus, her name spelled backward.
By the end of the decade, Yma's career was on fire, but her personal life was ice cold. After discovering her husband had fathered twins with her 24-year-old secretary, Yma caused a violent scene in their Beverly Hills mansion. The fight, which oddly involved a pretty young Peruvian dancer, eight newsmen, and a stranger playing an ancient harp, created headlines all over the world. There was a shootout involving police detectives and foreign curse words flying through the air.
Despite her personal struggles, Yma's success lasted throughout the next few decades. She recorded a rock album in the 1970s and a techno dance album in the 1990s. She performed on late night talk shows and crooned to hungry audiences at some of the most prestigious theaters in the world. Her songs have appeared in numerous films.
In 2008, nine months after being diagnosed with colon cancer, the elderly songstress died in her assisted living facility.
But her legend lives on.