Monday, November 03, 2008

Yma n' Al

In 2001 I wrote a long career article in Japan's "Record Collectors" magazine about former Capitol Records head Alan Livingston. Here is some of what he told me about his association, beginning in 1950, with singer Yma Sumac, who died this week:

"I can tell you a story. I had a man who was head of the New York office. He said somebody brought me in this woman, a Peruvian Indian, who had a 4 l/2 octave range. She has an amazing voice quality. She doesn't speak any English. I don't know what to do with her. He sent me some tapes. There was no music on them, nothing that you could put your finger on. Somebody tired to do something with her on another label, but nothing had happened. She came to California and I met with her and her husband, Moises Vivanco who was a musician and a guitar player. He spoke English. I said, I'd like to try something with her and we made a deal. I hired the composer/arranger Les Baxter. And I said, 'I want you to work with me and her and see if we can come up with something that will be appealing.' She couldn't read music, we didn't know where to start. We had her sing all the various things she did which had no form of any kind. Les sat down and wrote a score based on what she was singing. Then I went into the studio with them and an orchestra and we began recording the whole thing live and literally we were dealing with pieces of tape that were [hold out his hands one foot from each other] this long. We'd get something, then say okay, then go from there. We sat and worked and worked and it was driving me crazy. I thought we would never get finished. But we did finish and had come up with an unusual album of effects and sounds. Now what to we call this. I asked Moises. What is this music known as? Tell me about her background. Well, she came from the hills of Peru. She's an Indian and they called it the music of Xtabay. What does that mean? Well, it has a significant meaning to them. I don't know exactly. Well I said, 'We're going to call it Voice of the Xtabay.' And we put it out and promoted it as something unusual. And it caught on."
A typical Livingston understatement if there ever was one: Sumac went on to become perhaps the most successful offbeat act in Pop history. Left out of the article, for purposes of space, were his fascinating comments about how the subsequent "sell" of Sumac was instrumental in helping to launch the newly aborning 1950s Hi-Fi (remember HI-FI?) craze. Suddenly, post-war Americans felt it incumbent upon themselves to go out and buy the best woofers and tweeters that money could buy in order to experience Sumac in the lowest lo's and highest hi's that money could buy.

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