Yma Sumac (/ˈiːmə ˈsuːmæk/; September 10, 1922* – November 1, 2008) was a Peruvian soprano. In the 1950s, she was one of the most famous proponents of exotica music and became an international success based on the merits of her wide-ranging voice, which ranges "well over three octaves" and was commonly claimed to span four and five octaves at its peak. (*The Birth Date Mystery: “Her family says that the date was the 12th, but Yma always celebrated it on the 10th which we believe to be the correct day,” noted Don Pierson on his site, www.SunVirgin.com.)
Yma Sumac was said to have been a descendant of Inca kings, an Incan princess that was one of the Golden Virgins. Her offbeat stylings became a phenomenon of early-'50s pop music. While her album covers took advantage of her strange costumes and voluptuous figure, rumors abounded that she was, in actuality, a housewife named Amy Camus. It mattered little because there has been no one like her before or since in the annals of popular music.
According to the Sumac legend, she was the sixth child of an Indian mother and an Indian/Spanish father, who raised her as a Quechuan. She began performing in local festivals before her family moved to Lima, Peru. Once she was in Lima, she became a member of the Compania Peruana de Arte, which was a collective of nearly 50 Indian singers, musicians, and dancers. Sumac married Moises Vivanco, the leader of the Compania, in 1942. Four years later, Vivanco, Sumac, and her cousin Colita Rivero formed the Inca Taqui Trio and moved to New York. By the end of the decade, they were performing in nightclubs throughout New York and playing radio and television programs, most notably Arthur Godfrey's TV show. The Trio also became a fixture on the Borscht Belt circuit and the Catskills.
Sumac was signed as a solo artist to Capitol Records in 1950, releasing her first album, the 10" Voice of the Xtabay, the same year. Voice of the Xtabay was released without much publicity, but it slowly became a hit and Capitol began pushing Sumac with a massive marketing campaign. In 1951, she made her Broadway debut in the musical Flahooley, which featured three songs written by Vivanco; the musical's lifespan was quite brief and it completed its run by the end of the year. Nevertheless, Sumac's career was ascending at a rapid rate, as she continued to release hit records including "Mambo!" (1954), with fiery arrangements by Billy May, and "Fuego del Ande" (1959).
Many of the songs were composed by her husband and based on Andean folk themes, even if purists found them less than authentic. She also toured Europe and South America, as well as Las Vegas nightclubs.
She played an Arab princess in a short-lived Broadway musical "Flahooley" (1951) and appeared in the Hollywood films "Secret of the Incas" (1954) with Charlton Heston and "Omar Khayyam" (1957) with Cornel Wilde.and played sell-out concerts across the country, including one at the Hollywood Bowl and another at Carnegie Hall.
By the early 1960s, her popularity in the United States was waning, but she made a triumphant tour of the Soviet Union in 1961 -- Nikita Khrushchev reputedly was a fan -- and cultivated a small but devoted following in Asia, Europe and Latin America. Sensing the erosion of her popularity, Sumac retired in the early '60s, without leaving any word or her location. She performed a handful of unannounced concerts in the mid-'70s. A comeback album of rock music, "Miracles" (1971), had a limited release.
In 1987 she played New York's Ballroom nightclub for a total of three weeks; she also had a stint in a Los Angeles club that same year. She followed these shows with occasional concert dates around the world. Her appearance on David Letterman's late-night show in 1987 was greeted by sarcasm by the host, who asked "Who is this woman?" after her heartfelt rendition of one of her earliest hits, "Ataypura." Periodic concerts and the 2005 release "Queen of Exotica," a massive anthology of her work, kept her most-fervent fans happy and renewed her cult appeal. The magic-comedy team Penn & Teller used her music to score their stage routines. To some music writers, she was an inspiration to punk and rock performers. "All the big stars came to see Yma Sumac," Ms. Sumac told Newsday in 1989. "What is the name of that one, I think Madonna?"
Though Sumac did not perform frequently in the '90s, she experienced a popular revival, as a cult of alternative music fans discovered the exotica records of the '50s. The ongoing interest in exotica and Sumac led to the CD release of her catalog in 1996.
On May 2, 2006, Sumac flew to Lima, where she was given the "Orden del Sol" award by Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, and the Jorge Basadre medal by the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.
Yma Sumac died on November 1, 2008, aged 86 at an assisted-living home in Los Angeles, nine months after being diagnosed with colon cancer. She was interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood in the "Sanctuary of Memories" section. (edited from Wikipedia & AMG)