Colourful Peruvian singer (86) with five-octave vocal range

 

YMA SUMAC:IN THE Britney Spears era of exposure and disclosure, it's hard to imagine an era where popular singers cultivated mystery to sell records. But for Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, who has died aged 86, the legend that she was descended from the last Incan emperor was as much a part of her success as her extraordinary five-octave voice, one of the widest vocal ranges on record.

Sumac burst on to the American music scene in 1951, outselling even Bing Crosby with her breakthrough No 1 album Voice of the Xtabay. Liner notes describe her as "that most elusive of all women . . . a virgin who might have consumed your nights with tender caresses" - hot stuff in the button-down 1950s.

With her regal poise, exotic looks and over-the-top costumes, Sumac was camp before the term existed.

With a voice that began as a growling, earthy bass and ended five octaves higher as a soaring soprano, she transported listeners to far-off lands with a varied repertoire that included Peruvian folk melodies and wordless tone poems filled with mimicked animal calls.

"The creatures of the forest taught me how to sing," she said once in a rare interview.

An anonymous early collaborator, presumably after heavy exposure to her signature piercing high D, once remarked: "She's either got a whistle in her throat or three nightingales up her sleeve."

Sumac's publicity machine ensured that, even today, almost every aspect of her biography is disputed.

She is believed to have been born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavárri del Castillo, the youngest of six children, in 1922 in Ichocán, a mountain town north of Lima.

Self-trained, Sumac began to sing in church, where she was heard by Carlos Moises Vivanco, a Peruvian record executive.

"Never in 2,000 years has there been another voice like hers," Vivanco said later.

They married in 1942 and she toured with his band, the Inca Taky Trio, reaching the US in 1946. Her stage name was allegedly an adaptation of her Indian name "Imma Sumack", meaning "how lovely".

After a successful club engagement in New York, Capitol Records took a chance with the unknown artist and, when her debut record became a hit, Sumac was soon selling out Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.

Her stage shows became legendary, with the singer appearing in filmy, flowing costumes, flanked by two miniature erupting volcanoes.

"Ms Sumac is a living, breathing, Technicolor musical fantasy - a kaleidoscopic illusion of MGM exotica come to life in an era of practicality," wrote the Los Angeles Times.

She recorded a follow-up album Mambo!and worked with lounge legends Les Baxter and Billy May.

In 1951, producers of the Broadway musical Flahooley hastily wrote her into the narrative as a foreign princess who brings Aladdin's lamp into a toy factory for repairs.

After two forgettable Hollywood films, including a starring role alongside Charlton Heston, she went back on the road, touring the US and even the Soviet Union in 1961 where, again according to her enthusiastic publicity machine, she won Khrushchev as a fan.

Her appeal began to fade in the late 1960s, dogged by the persistent rumour that Yma Sumac was, spelled backward, actually Amy Camus, a Jewish woman from Brooklyn and not a Peruvian princess.

Sumac denied the claim, receiving backing about her regal family history from the Peruvian government, but her carefully cultivated exotic image had been tarnished.

Another blow to her career came when she divorced her husband and manager Vivanco in 1957 - and again eight years later after a short-lived reconciliation. Vivanco had written many of Sumac's songs and created the trademark Sumac sound, arrangements of lush strings, vibrato guitars, bongos and maracas.

Without his guidance, Sumac recorded an ill-advised psychedelic rock album in 1971, Miracles, and disappeared from view.

She went back on the road in the 1980s and, though age had reduced her five octaves to a more modest three, she retained her imperious poise and utter seriousness about her art. Audiences lapped up the haughty, stubborn glamour of a diva from a distant era of show business.

CD reissues of her albums ensured another revival of interest in recent years. One of her earliest hits, Ataypura (High Andes)was featured in The Big Lebowski, while another, Tumpa (Earthquake),can be heard in a current Magnum ice cream advertisement.

Following her death in Los Angeles from colon cancer, her long-time assistant Damon Devine revealed one final mystery, that Sumac was five years older than she had claimed.

"She [was] a very eccentric woman," he said in a statement. "Her whole career and life is based on her mystery, and so fact and fiction was a fine line with her."

• Yma Sumac: born September 13th, 1922; died November 1st, 2008