Maria Grever (1894–1951), a pioneer in the field of twentieth-century popular music, was the first Mexican woman to become a successful composer. Her romantic songs and ballads, like "Jurame" and "What a Difference a Day Makes," achieved wide spread popularity beginning in the 1920s among audiences in Spain, South America, Mexico, and the United States.
Although a few of her songs remain international favorites today, Grever has eluded significant coverage in the pages of music history—she is not even mentioned in most listings and encyclopedias of composers. Yet many of her songs, estimated to number in the hundreds, live on, kept alive by recording stars like Placido Domingo and Aretha Franklin.
Grever was born to a Spanish father and Mexican mother on September 14, 1894, in Mexico City, Mexico. Her maiden name was Maria de la Portilla. She spent much of her childhood in Spain and traveled widely in Europe with her family. At the age of 12, she returned to Mexico. According to a New York Times article, Grever composed her first piece of music—a Christmas carol—when she was four years old. Grever settled in New York after marrying Leo A. Grever, an American oil company executive, who was best man in her sister's wedding. She was wed to Grever four days after her sister's nuptials.
Grever studied piano, violin, and voice, although one account of her life suggests that she learned to read music only in her later years. In fact, most of her songs were written in one key. Grever was said to have the gift of perfect pitch. A 1919 review of one of her first New York City concerts in the New York Times mentions that Grever, a soprano, performed opera in Madrid early in her career.
Grever was an extraordinarily versatile musician. She frequently wrote both the melodies and lyrics of her pieces and then performed the pieces in live concerts. During her career, which peaked in the 1930s and 1940s, she wrote film scores and lyrics for Broadway shows and organized concerts combining theatre, music, dance, and song. She was also a voice teacher. But Grever's strongest legacy is her songs. Often based on the folk rhythms and styles of Latin American music, particularly Mexican or Spanish tangos, the lyrics are lushly romantic, full of feeling, and easy to recall. Her message is always direct. For example, her song "Yo No Se" ("I Know Not") begins with the stanza: "When at night my thoughts are winging / To you, my dear, / Then your voice, an old song singing, / I seem to hear; / You are kneeling by me, blending, / Though far away, / Your voice with mine ascending, / In a song of love's first day."
Grever often worked with American lyricists, who translated the songs from Spanish to English to make them accessible to audiences in the United States. In fact, Grever collaborated with three of the leading songwriters of her day—Stanley Adams, Irving Caesar, and Raymond Leveen.
First Hit Became Million-Seller
Grever's first published song, "A una Ola" ("To a Wave"), appeared when she was 18 years old and sold some three million copies, according to a biography on a 1956 retrospective album of Grever's work. Grever published "Besame" ("Kiss Me") in 1921, and in 1926, Grever's Spanish tango "Jurame" ("Promise, Love") found a large audience. Grever's first major hit was "What a Difference a Day Makes," or "Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado," written in 1934. That song is one of Grever's longest-lasting hits; it is included on many currently available recordings by artists as diverse as Chet Baker, Ray Conniff, Dinah Washington, and Bobby Darin.
The same year Ella Fitzgerald sang "A-Tisket A-Tasket" and Cole Porter won over the nation with "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," Grever scored one of her biggest sensations, a nonsensical tune entitled "Ti-Pi-Tin." One account of Grever's music claims that "Ti-Pi-Tin," written in 1938, broke with her usual style, and her publisher rejected it. But bandleader Horace Heidt and his orchestra, performing on NBC radio, took the song to the air and contributed to its eventual hit status.
Grever's songs, broadcast frequently on the radio during her time, include "Lamento Gitano," "Lero, Lero from Brazil," "Magic Is the Moonlight," "Make Love with a Guitar," "My First, My Last, My Only," "Rosebud," "Thanks for the Kiss," "My Margarita," "Andalucia," "Cancionera," and many more. Estimates of her musical output range from 200 to 500 songs, depending on the source.
One of the reasons Grever's songs became well known was that leading performers of her era adopted them in their repertoires. Singers like Enrich Caruso, Lawrence Tibbett, Tito Schipa, Nino Martina, and Jessica Dragonette helped popularize Grever's work. Along with other albums which included Grever's tunes, the 1956 album "The Bobby Hackett Horn," a Columbia label, adapted "What a Difference a Day Makes," and the 1959 Columbia Classic album "Happy Session," performed by Benny Goodman and his orchestra, featured "Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado."
Grever also wrote film scores, including the music for the 1944 movie "Bathing Beauty," featuring her song "Magic Is the Moonlight," or "Te Quiero Dijiste." In 1941, Viva O'Brien, a musical with music by Grever and lyrics by Leveen, had 20 performances on a New York stage. Some of the show's songs were entitled "El Matador Terrifico," "Mood of the Moment," "Broken Hearted Romeo," and "Wrap Me in Your Serape."
Enjoyed International Acclaim
Grever apparently enjoyed performing before live audiences and organizing concerts of her work by other musicians. In 1919, one of her earliest New York recitals of Spanish, Italian, and French music, at the Princess Theatre, received positive reviews from critics. During the height of her fame, she made concert tours in Latin America and Europe. In New York, Grever's music was heard live in many of the city's concert halls. In 1927, she organized a concert at the Little Theatre, which featured an Argentine cabaret, song dramas complete with costumes, scenery, dialogue, and dancing, and a short play, The Gypsy. The evening opened with performances by a jazz orchestra. One of her first successful New York concerts took place in 1928 at the Pythian Temple before an audience that included the ambassadors of Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and Argentina.
The New York Times reviewed a 1939 concert at the Guild Theatre, in which Grever presented popular songs and a miniature opera, entitled "El Cantarito." She performed a few songs, but was assisted by dozens of other singers and musicians, including a large chorus, dance troupe, and orchestra. The Times critic praised her "innate gift of spontaneous melody," and commented that, while some of Grever's music is not to be taken too seriously, "her more earnest endeavors were sincere and effective."
In the late 1930s, she was threatened with blindness as a result of an eye infection. In 1942, Grever hosted a benefit for the Spanish-American Association for the Blind, with headquarters in New York City. She served as mistress of ceremonies for a program that included musical performances by students at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind. The funds raised were to benefit the blind in Spanish-speaking countries.
At the time of her death at the age of 57, on December 15, 1951, following a lengthy illness, she was living in the Wellington Hotel on Manhattan's Seventh Avenue. She was survived by her husband and two children, son Charles Grever, a New York music publisher, and daughter, Carmen Livingston. Following her death, she was honored by a musicale at the Biltmore Hotel by the Union of Women of the Americas. She was named "Woman of the Americas," 1952, by the UWA before her death. Grever was a member of the prestigious American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.
In 1956, RCA released a retrospective album, "Songs of Maria Grever," with 12 songs performed by Argentine singer Libertad Lamarque, accompanied by the orchestras of Chucho Zarzosa and Mario Ruiz Armengol. Along with her more famous songs, the album featured "Volvere" ("I Will Return"), "Eso Es Mentira" ("That Is a Lie"), and "Asi" ("Thus"). The album jacket, written by Bill Zeitung, argues that Grever never enjoyed widespread name recognition, despite the fact that her songs achieved "an immensely deserved run of popularity." Her music "is on every hand," wrote Zeitung. "Yet the name is familiar to only a few."
Lewine, Richard, and Alfred Simon, Songs of the Theatre, Wilson, 1984.
Mattfeld, Julius, Variety Music Cavalcade 1620–1961, Prentice-Hall.
Spaeth, Sigmund, A History of Popular Music in America, Random House, 1962.
New York Times, December 15, 1919; February 14, 1927; February 27, 1928; March 6, 1939; December 16, 1951; May 5, 1952.
Variety, July 31, 1940.
Music research collections, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
"Songs of Maria Grever," RCA record album, 1956.