The Mysterious Maria Grever

Soon after my website went up in early 2010 (wildwomenofsong.com), I started to get emails asking about Maria Grever.  Did I have any idea where to get out of print LP’s of Maria singing? Could I find any more photos?

If you don’t know who Maria Grever was (and I certainly didn’t, before I began this project), her most remembered composition is the beautiful music to “What a Diff’rence a Day Made”, which Dinah Washington turned into a classic.

One man wrote to me from the Dominican Republic to claim that his father had been the inspiration of Maria Grever’s most ardent love songs (much to the chagrin of this gentleman’s mother!)  A woman wrote that she had been terribly jealous of how much her own father and brothers loved Maria Grever…then grew to love Maria’s music later in life. And I was fascinated to read an email which informed me that in pre-revolutionary Cuba it was common practice to play a Maria Grever song before social/political club meetings.

They played Maria Grever music at the meetings because Maria was proud of her Mexican heritage and celebrated it through her songs.  She clearly represented so much to so many people; cultural pride, a romantic time in their lives, and of course, much beautiful and beloved music.

So I was eagerly looking forward to deepening my research about Ms. Grever, as one of the featured chapters in my book, Wild Women of Song (which will be coming out November 1, 2011).   There was a lot of conflicting information out there – books, articles, and almost nothing in the way of photographs of this beloved woman.  I reached out to Latin Music journalists, bloggers, and even the Mexican Consulate.  Although everyone seemed delighted to hear I was writing about Maria Grever, there was very little information to be found that didn’t have a contradiction in the next article I read.

For example:  She was born in 1894, but some articles claim this date as 1884, and two books have it as 1885.  Many bios have her studying composition in Paris under Claude Debussy and Franz Lenhard when she was a teen, but a few articles, including the fine liner notes off a 1951 RCA tribute LP to Maria Grever (written by Bill Zeitug) swear she was mostly self taught on the piano, wrote almost every song in the same key, (just like Irving Berlin) and only took a few classes with Debussy later in her life.

She was married at 16 – or was it 22?

Her husband, an American oil man, helped her launch a career in New York, hosting concerts at Carnegie Hall, featuring her lovely, slightly thin voice, and encouraging her to record albums.   (Although her singing was just above average, her concerts and albums always sold out.  People LOVED her).  Or – her own success at songwriting, starting with “A Una Ola” when she was 18 years old (selling 3 million units of sheet music) continued when she moved to New York, and she composed for Big Bands, American movies (Esther Williams’ Bathing Beauty, for example) scoring Hispanic-American movies for Paramount in Hollywood, while writing music for light opera, ballets and television theme shows.

And how do we pronounce her name – for some say “Grebveh”, “Greh-vare” ….and others say it as “Gree-ver”.

Recently I invited some friends to help watch and translate a ‘bio-pic’ of Maria Grever, Cuando Me Vaya, produced by and starring Libertad Lamarque, the Argentinian-Mexican actress and singer.  Plying my guests with dinner and an assortment of sorbets, we spent an enjoyable evening, but certainly didn’t clear up any details about Maria Grever.  In this film, Maria is abandoned by her husband when his business goes sour.  On the brink of starvation, her songs, celebrating what she loves and misses about Mexico, are discovered.   Long montage of concert halls and ball gowns and arias showing off Lamarque’s soprano voice.   This film only served to deepen the confusion about Maria Grever, (they did, however, pronounce Maria’s name as “Gree-ver” throughout) but later, over our sorbets we had a lively discussion about her music.

Listen to “Jurame” sometime (there’s a wonderful version by Andrea Bocelli on youtube) or “Volvere”, “Asi” or the gorgeous “Cuando Vuelva a tu Lado” (which later became “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” when Stanley Adams gave it an English lyric) These songs all have a sort of aching tenderness within the melody that makes the singer soar, and the listener smile wistfully.  The delightful “Ti-pi-tin” is still a classic sung worldwide.  Caruso, Placido Domingo and Aretha Franklin all carried Maria Grever songs in their standard repertoire.

She generously mentored and promoted many fine singers and poets (Agustin Lara, Nestor Chayres among them).  She was devoted to the concept of introducing the boleros and particular sounds of her homeland Mexico to the world.   She was unabashedly romantic in her musical tastes.  She raised money for the education of the Blind in Latin America, and her altruistic devotion to music education in particular caused schools to be named after her in Spain and in Mexico.

Still, as admirable as are all these qualities, she seems to have inspired a devotion from her fans that is usually reserved for superstars.  It’s clear that many people felt she was writing and singing personally for them.    And that, for all the mysteries and legends surrounding Maria Grever, seems to be empirically true.

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