It seems to me that I often open by writing about how a name might be unfamiliar to modern music fans, and I’m guessing today’s spotlighted singer will baffle most. And yet, Yma Sumac was a pretty big deal in her day. A flamboyant performer whose voice covered more than four octaves, she was a star of the music genre known as Exotica, and was said to be a descendant of Inca royalty. (But was she? More later about that.)
So the story goes, she was born in Peru as Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo, and began performing in local festivals as a child. Her family moved to Lima in the pre-World War II years, and she became a member of a renowned Peruvian collective of musical performers, eventually marrying its director, Moises Vivanco. Within a few years Yma and her husband had joined with a cousin to form the Inca Taqui Trio and moved to post-war New York.
It wasn’t long before the threesome — and especially Yma — began finding a lot of success, appearing in nightclubs and on radio, and even finding the occasional spot on early TV. By 1950 Capitol Records had signed her to a solo contract and she was soon selling a lot of records too. Her amazing voice, combined with her colorful costumes and voluptuous beauty, helped her become a star. Before long she was appearing on Broadway and later at both Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. She made European tours and even showed up in the 1954 Charlton Heston film Secret Of The Incas.
It was probably inevitable that someone would start rumors about her, and they did. Even though the Peruvian government supported her claim of being a descendant of the last Incan emperor, stories circulated that she was really a Brooklyn housewife named Amy Camus. (Yma Sumac spelled backward.) But she never acknowledged any of that, and eventually the fervor died down although her career momentum was beginning to slow a little anyway. By the 1960s she was semi-retired, but she would continue to make spot appearances for many years. She was 86 when she died in 2008.