I will start by saying, this is far from an exhaustive list, but it will be a continually growing one
As a bandleader with a weekly performance, I make a point to regularly add music to my songbook. We all have our favorite tunes, but no one wants to hear the same set week after week. A few years back, I decided to make use of social media to keep myself on track. Each week, I posted a photo of the songwriter(s) in the Facebook and Instagram post about the gig. I soon observed a trend: all of the songwriters were white men. From that point on, I made an effort to seek out music written by women and BIPOC. As a result, I have found a treasure trove of lesser-known tunes and stories of determined artists that would not let the norms of society dictate their roles. In recent years, I have been collecting music and researching the lives of the women that broke the Tin Pan Alley glass ceiling. If you're a jazz or cabaret musician, you most likely are familiar with one or more of their tunes. Although, odds are, you don't know their name or their story.
"All my admiration for your beautiful songs and winning personality."
Born in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, Mexico in 1885, Maria Joaquina de la Portilla Torres became the first Mexican songwriter to achieve international success. Her music bridged the gap between classical music and popular song and defied her era's expectations of women. During a time when women were expected to simply be objects of desire, her fiery passion bled through her music and lyrics and showed that women could desire and long and love as deeply as men. Her legacy would change the face of music forever.
When Maria was three, her family moved to her father's hometown of Seville, Spain. Her father was Francisco de la Portilla, an Andalusian merchant. Francisco recognized Maria's musical gifts when at the age of four she composed her first song. The composition was a Christmas carol dedicated to the infant Jesus.
While in Europe, Maria's family regularly traveled to Paris and London where she learned to speak English, French, and Spanish. These travels also gave her the opportunity to study piano with the foremost pianist of the day, Claude Debussy. A well-rounded musician at an early age, Maria also played guitar, violin, and sang.
In 1900, Maria's father passed away and her family moved back to Mexico. She continued her music studies at her aunt, Cuca Torres' solfège school.
In 1907 at the age of 22, she met her husband, Leon A. Grever, at her sister's wedding. Leon was a 38-year-old oil company executive in charge of building a railroad in Mexico. They were wed a few days later and moved to Jalapa. There, they had three children, Charles, Carmen, and Laura.
In Jalapa, Maria wrote many of the songs that would build her path to international success. Her first hit song was a composition she wrote in 1912, A Una Ola. It would go on to sell more the 3,000,000 copies.
After a few years, Leon's work took them to Mexico City. In Mexico City, their youngest child, Laura, died when she was only six months old. The impact of the loss would touch Maria for the rest of her life. She wrote, Muñequita linda or Cute Doll, about Laura dying in her arms.
In 1916, Maria and her children fled the instability of the Mexican Revolution to New York. Leon stayed behind for work and in the chaos of the civil unrest was unable to communicate with his family for six months. He joined them in New York after Maria wrote a letter saying "you have forgotten us".
“María did not write her music with color, she wrote it with the soul.”
Maria pursued a music career in New York working as a vocalist and writing music. She sought to preserve and share her Mexican heritage with an American audience. Grever once said that she believed folk music was the valid basis for all music.
Maria wrote almost exclusively in Spanish and in the style of Canciones. Canciones are a traditional style of Mexican songs written as a response to the unrest of Mexican Revolutions. They celebrated peace, hope, and love. Many of her songs were brought to an American audience when famous lyricists such as Stanley Adams and Irving Caesar added English lyrics.
During her early years in New York, she met and worked with tenor José Mojica before he became a renowned opera singer. Together, they put together a group of Mexican musicians to perform classical arias as well as popular songs.
The group was met with much aversion when presenting themselves as Mexican musicians and soon began to introduce themselves as Spanish musicians. After this rebranding, they found wider success.
Later, when Mojica became a star tenor of the Chicago Opera, Mojica recorded Maria's composition Jurame in 1927. The lyrics of Jurame are rumored to have been written about Maria's long absence from her husband. In 1928, Mojica sang Jurame in the film La leynda del beso and made them both world-renowned.
Grever and Mojica would not see each other between 1916 and 1928. When they met again in New York, Maria would tell her friend of the hardships she endured since they had last been together. After falling on hard times in New York, Maria worked as a nurse to make ends meet. She fell in love with a doctor, and the unrequited love inspired much of her compositions in the 20s and early 30s.
"Your songs shall live forever because of their sincerity."
In the 1930s, Grever gained success from her work writing music for Paramount Pictures, successful recitals and compositions made famous by singing stars of the day. She began to make a name for herself in popular music.
One of her most famous compositions Cuando vuelva tu lado or "What a Difference a Day Makes" in 1934 and in 1935, she joined ASCAP, becoming the first Mexican songwriter to join. The same year, Cole Porter personally selected Grever to write the Spanish lyrics for his famous Begin the Beguine.
In 1938, she underwent a dental procedure that left a portion of a needle in her jaw. The needle eventually made its way to her optic nerve and caused her to go blind.
During the terrifying experience of losing her sight, a maddening tune popped into her head. After being given a sedative, she told her doctor, "I'm tipping." She turned the tune into another hit, Tipitin.
When she took it to her usual publishers, they refused to accept it. Certain she had a hit, Grever published it under her own company. Tipitin would become number one on Your Hit Parade. Her sight was later restored through an incredibly painful procedure that involved breaking her jaw without an anesthetic. Not one to let a horrible experience go without a positive response, Maria gave a benefit concert for the Spanish-American Association for the Blind.
Following the success of Tipitin, Grever composed a Spanish operetta, El cantarito, in 1939. Always one to dream big, the show is described as "using enough singers to cast a grand opera, enough musicians for a small symphony, enough scenery for a road company of 'A Night in Spain' and enough stage hands to scare any ordinary mortal half to death" and "two authentic looking Spanish donkeys", the show received positive reviews, but was short-lived.
"She expresses so much in such a few words that I cannot help but admire her even though I am not a musician."
~Vincente Blasco Ibinez
In Mexico, popularity of Maria's music began to spread through XEW Radio of Mexico. The station would make her a household name in most of Latin America.
In 1941, Maria wrote music for another large-scale production, a musical comedy, Viva O'Brien. The show featured a nine-foot deep swimming pool in the center of the stage and culminated in a memorable dive from two-time Olympic diving champion Pete Despardins. The incredibly expensive show was not a hit but may have gone on to inspire the 1944 film "Bathing Beauties" which featured Esther Williams and Red Skelton. Maria wrote the theme to the film.
Throughout her career, Maria taught voice lessons. As she put it, "I teach singers all day and compose all night. I do not sleep very much."
After years of hearing American singers butcher her Spanish lyrics, she developed a system to teach Spanish diction through music. The program was successful among American singers, but unfortunately documentation of the method has not been found.
In 1948, Grever suffered a stroke that left half of her body paralyzed. In spite of this impairment, she continued to write music until her death in 1951.
Maria was able to return to Mexico one final time a year before her death and was given a hero's welcome. Maria was honored with the Keys to Mexico City, the Medal of Civic Merit and the Medal of the Heart of Mexico. She was also honored as the Union of Women of the America's "Woman of the Americas 1952". Per her wishes, after her death in New York City, her remains were transported to Mexico where they were buried in Panteon Español.
Maria Grever's legacy lives on throughout the world. In 1959, Dinah Washington would win a Grammy for her recording of What a Difference a Day Makes. Legendary singers Frank Sinatra, Andrea Bocelli, Chet Baker, Bobby Darin, Libertad Lamarque, Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan, Tony Bennett, Plácido Domingo, Alfonso Ortiz Tirado, Chucho Martínez Gil and many more performed her compositions. In Barcelona, there is a music school in her name. In Leon, one can find a statue of her as well as the Teatro María Grever. The woman known as The Madonna of the Song, lives on.