On what would be Yma Sumac's 94th birthday, Google has dedicated its Doodle of the day to the singer known as the "Peruvian songbird."
Also nicknamed "Nightingale of the Andes," Ms. Sumac was known for her four-and-a-half – or, as she said, five – octave vocal range and elaborate costumes. She reached the peak of her career in the 1950s, performing at a number of prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and London's Royal Albert Hall.
Sumac, born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo, grew up in the mountains of Peru and caught her first big break when she was invited to sing on an Argentine radio station as a teenager. She moved to the United States in 1946, where she signed with Capitol Records. Her first album for Capitol, "Voice of the Xtabay," was released in 1950 and quickly soared to the top of the charts.
"She sings very low and warm, very high and birdlike; and her middle range is no less lovely than the extremes of her scale," Virgil Thomson wrote in The New York Herald Tribune in 1954. "That scale is very close to four octaves, but is in no way inhuman or outlandish in sound."
Rumors swirled around Sumac at the height of her popularity, including one theory that the singer was actually a housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus. Sumac herself claimed to be a direct descendant of Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, a claim which the government of Peru formally supported in 1946.
After a number of successful records and appearances in two films – "Secret of the Incas" in 1954 and "Omar Khayyam" in 1957 – and the 1951 Broadway musical "Flahooley," Sumac's popularity began to dwindle in the US. She recorded a psychedelic rock album titled "Miracles" in 1971, but the album was not widely released.
Several years later, Sumac returned to Peru and entered a period of semi-retirement – or so she claimed.
"That's the legend that she stuck with all through these decades," Damon Devine, her personal assistant and close friend, told the Los Angeles Times in 2008, months before the Peruvian songbird passed away. "She didn't want people to know she was here and not working. The story was good for her. She's a very eccentric woman.... Her whole career and life is based on her mystery, and so the facts and fiction is a fine line with her."
She resumed her musical career in 1984, appearing at the Vine Street Bar & Grill and the Cinegrill in Hollywood, and continued to perform around Europe and the United States until 1997. In 2005, she released her last album, an anthology titled "Queen of Exotica."
"She is five singers in one," said her then-husband, composer-arranger Moises Vivanco, in a 1951 interview with the Associated Press, the LA Times reported. "Never in 2,000 years has there been another voice like hers."