Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: In the decades of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, I listened a lot to a Peruvian singer named Ima Sumac. Her voice was acclaimed as the one with the highest pitch, even above any bird in high tones. She also had the lowest bass and the lowest tones.

She was terrific and a big favorite of mine, so I am hoping you can provide some background information about this lady.

Finally, is there any place where one can get her recordings?
—Walter Rodriguez, via e-mail

DEAR WALTER: Time has a way of reducing the ability to remember extraneous details, especially dates.

Though known in South America as Ima Sumack, and also as Imma Sumack, this dynamic entertainer has been Yma Sumac since she made her first American recordings in 1951, for Capitol.

So, unless you were in South America in the mid-to-late 1940s, it is unlikely you or anyone here heard her before 1951.

Sumac did record regularly in Argentina, before coming to the US. Those very first tunes — all Indian folk music — came out there in 1943, on 78 rpm of course.

Yma was quite prolific in the '50s, with at least a half-dozen LPs to go along with a flock (well, one of her best known tunes is titled “Birds”) of singles and EPs — on which Sumac brandishes a four-to-five octave range.

The first Capitol LP, “Voice of the Xtabay,” perched at No. 1 on the LP charts for six weeks in the spring of '51.

Perhaps as celebrated as Yma's immense vocal skills, though, is the incertitude regarding her background. Even the biographical publicity from Capitol, including actual text from album liner notes, is sometimes nothing more than nonsense.

Beginning with her date of birth — reported to be sometime between 1921 and 1928 — sifting through the legend looking for facts is a challenge.

Born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo, in Peru, she began performing on radio and records as a child.

Circa 1946, some of the family moved to New York. In 1950, Capitol signed “Yma Sumac” and began a mammoth marketing campaign, promoting everything from Yma's vocal range to her bizarre costumes. And of course, the legend: “Yma Sumac is the sixth child of an Indian mother and an Indian-Spanish father, who raised her as a Quechuan in Lima Peru,” etc.

We do know that Yma played many of the top stateside venues in New York and Las Vegas. And that she appeared in the 1951 Broadway musical, “Flahooley,” and had acting roles in films like “Secret of the Incas” (1954), and “Omar Khayyam” (1957).

As recently as 1997, Yma could still be found touring and performing before live audiences.

Most of her recordings are easily available on compact discs, even including those 1940s tracks issued in Argentina on 78s.

DEAR JERRY: Waylon Jennings is my favorite singer, and I sure was sorry to here of his death earlier this year.

My mystery involves a song of his titled “Wrong.” I have almost all of his albums, and “Wrong” does not appear on any of them. What am I missing?
—Frances C. Campbell, Paducah, Ky.

DEAR FRANCES: I'll help you get it right with regard to “Wrong,” which is Waylon's biggest hit single of the late '80s and early '90s (Epic 73352).

This Top 5 hit in 1990 is found on Waylon's album titled “The Eagle” (Epic 46104), also a mid-'90 issue.

IZ ZAT SO? Upon hearing Waylon Jennings' “Bob Wills Is Still the King,” a No. 1 hit in 1975, one would have thought it to be Waylon's personal tribute to Wills. Not exactly the case, as Jennings explains:

“I was never a big Bob Wills fan. I wrote “Bob Wills Is Still the King” because, at the time, I was mad at Willie Nelson.

“Willie had booked me at some clubs his old squirrelly friends were running. I found out he was booking me. He was branching out, booking me into the honky-tonks down there [in Texas]. The bandstand was set up for big bands. With a four-piece band, I looked like an idiot. I wrote that to give him his comeuppance.

“The song's key couplet is, 'It doesn't matter who's in Austin, Bob Wills is still the king.”

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