Known as the "Peruvian Songbird", Yma's voice was truly otherworldly, stemming from her four-and-a-half octave range, and the ability to sing as different characters within a single song. She was a sensation in the 1950s, due to her exotic looks and regal personae, which may have been entirely of her creation, as she claimed that the Peruvian government officially certified her as an Inca Princess (the direct descendant of ancient Inca kings), and a "Golden Virgin Goddess". It has been rumored though, that she was actually a housewife named Amy Camus, but as the song in the musical Gypsy goes, "ya gotta have a gimmick", so boring Amy became royal Yma, depending on which tale you believe.
She started her career as a performer in both chic NYC night-clubs, and the Catskill's "Borscht Belt", and eventually became so popular that she landed a role opposite Charlton Heston in the 1954 Technicolor film Secret of the Incas. At the height of her popularity, she played sell-out shows all around the world, including The Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall. She has recorded 5 awe-inducing albums, my favorite being her 1950 debut, Voice of the Xtabay, but i've been trying to find her lost '70s psychedelia LP, Miracles, for eons, so when I finally find it, my fave may change.
I was lucky to see her perform in the mid-'90s, during the Lounge/Exotica music revival (aka: the Swingers era), at L.A.'s House of Blues, and it is a show i'll never forget . . . she glided onto the stage in a Grecian gown of flowing green chiffon, covered in sparkling brooches, and belted out Taita Inty (which really lets her show off that astonishing set of pipes), and whenever people would speak too loudly at the bar in the back of the venue, she would stop the song, strike a diva pose (much in the same vein as Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard), and hush everyone in the concert hall with a loud "sshhhhhtttttt!" into the mic. When the entire place was silent, she would resume. Her voice made me cry at several points, it was so crystal clear and flawless in person, sounding even better than her records at times, and to think she was in her late 70's!
What also made it quite memorable, was the fact that her sleeveless Grecian dress kept slipping off her shoulders (and she wasn't wearing a brassiere!), so when it would fall, she would continue to sing with her big tatas on display, until her assistant would run onstage from the sidelines to pull it back up. She had to run back and forth across the stage at least 4 times, and Yma was so lost in the realm of the Sun Gods, I don't think she even noticed. There will never be another like her.
Photos: Corbis, AP, yma-sumac.com,
And please make sure to VOTE today, especially if you want me to think you're awesome : )
And since this is really a blog about vintage, with the hope of showing you gorgeous things that will bring you inspiration, I don't want to stand on any political soap boxes, but, in regards to the whole McCain/Palin thang, this quote by Fran Lebowitz (the brilliant writer and wit) perfectly sums up how I feel:
“Being the mayor of 9,000 people qualifies a person to be vice president of the United States? Are you kidding me? 9,000 people live on my block. In New York, if you’re waiting for an elevator and there’s only 9,000 people in it, you say, ‘It’s not too bad, I can get in.’ I cannot express strongly enough my contempt for this.”