Felipa “Graciela” Pérez has Passed

Felipa “Graciela” Pérez Gutiérrez, the legendary “First Lady of Afro-Cuban Jazz”, has passed at the age of 94 at New York Cornell-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City at 7:58 am, Wednesday, April 07, 2010.

A pioneer in music, as a black Cuban woman, in a `so-called man’s world’ she opened doors for all those who followed her. She performed around the world, recording and sharing the stage with her foster brother Machito (Frank Grillo) and brother-in-law, Mario Bauzá (originator of the genre Afro-Cuban Jazz) in the world renowned orchestra “Machito and the Afro-Cubans.” Some of her biggest hits include “Ay, José”, “Si, Si, No, No”, “Noche de Ronda”, and “Novio Mio” among many others. Her storied career lasted 77 years long. She died of renal and pulmonary failure with her dear friend and slave Mappy Torres by her side. Her `big’ heart never gave out.

Graciela was primarily known for her tremendous voice, risqué and sassy stage presence and sexy double entendre lyrics. She sang `jazzy’ guarachas as easily as handling the most romantic of boleros which she could deconstruct like no other. She could sing it all, not just one style or fashion like other singers, as many critics and musicologists have mentioned. Graciela’s versatility and virtuosity were un- matched. Though her last name was Pérez-Gutierrez, she was only known by her one name moniker before it was fashionable to do so in more modern times.

Born in Havana ,Cuba in August 23, 1915, she was christened a “singer” at age five by the trova singer/composer María Teresa Vera and taught to sing by her older foster brother Machito. Graciela commenced her career at 17 with the most popular of female orchestras “Anacaona” which was comprised of 10 sisters from the Castro family back in 1933. She traveled to New York, Paris, Latin America and the Caribbean with them for 10 years. They made their recording debut with the RCA/Victor label which traveled to Cuba to record several 78 records with them between 1936 and 1937.

She was summoned to New York in 1943 by Mario Bauzá, when Machito was drafted into the army. She joined the orchestra as lead singer until Machito returned in 1944 and from then on the three shared the stage together until their untimely split in 1975. For 32 years they were on top of the charts and were the orchestra not only to beat, but to emulate. Not only did they travel the USA and the rest of the world, but they were leaders and reigned supreme during the heyday of the Palladium (where blacks, whites, Jews, Italians and Latinos, and celebrities would converge to dance), from 1946 until it’s closing. Besides the Palladium, they would perform at the Royal Roost, Birdland, the Park Palace, the Corso and the Apollo Theater on a yearly week-long gig –and many other clubs and theatres in New York.

Graciela and the orchestra also performed on a yearly basis in Hollywood– specifically at the Crescendo nightclub. Graciela and the band were also a favorite of the famous dee-jay `Symphony Sid’ who had them on his weekly program several times a year, and was broadcast coast to coast in the `1940’s and 50’s. They were also the summer headliners in the Catskill resort hotel, the Concord, for more than 20 years. They recorded milestone albums, for several labels throughout the years, including three of her solo releases “Esta es Graciela”, “Intimo y Sentimental”, “Esa Soy Yo, Yo Soy Así”, plus others.

Respected and highly sought after by producers, composers and arrangers for her versatility, phrasing, and emotive delivery she was a favorite of Chico O’Farrill, Arsenio Rodríguez, José Antonio Mendez, Agustin Lara, Rafael Solano, René Hernandez, Cesar Portillo de la Luz and Mario Bauzá himself.

In the 1980’s and early 90’s Graciela was an integral part of Mario Bauzá’s comeback and recorded several albums with him including his last three Grammy nominated albums for Messidor records. Upon Mario’s death in 1993, Graciela unofficially `retired’ but had been coaxed back to the recording studio or the stage on special occasions, including with trombonist Steve Turre on a fabulous rendition of “Ayer lo ví Llorar”, “Oye Mi Rumba” on Chico O’Farrill’s last CD and also dueted with percussionist Cándido Camero on the Grammy and Latin Grammy nominated CD “Inovidable”. Her stage appearances, in recent years, have been primarily in the tri-state area.
The last few years for Graciela has had a wave of long time well deserved accolades from such organizations such as The International Latin Music Hall of Fame (1999, 2001), Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2007) and a slew of other honors and accolades from different organizations. Plus the United States government recognized her service in entertaining the troops during World War II.

Most recently Graciela’s 93rd birthday was celebrated in Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors festival along with the Caribbean Cultural Center where over ten thousand people jammed Damorsch Park to wish her well. Graciela performed five tunes for them to standing ovations. Needless to say she was overjoyed with the love that the public displayed for her. Since then she had been in the midst of recording a CD, writing her memoirs and filming a documentary on her groundbreaking, legendary life and career which spanned 77 years. Up until the end she was always a trooper, strong willed forceful and full of life.

Graciela was under excellent care at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center. In her final months, she was attended to by the Cardiac Catheterization team of Dr. Bergman, Dr. Wong, and staff for a specialized experimental valve procedure of the heart which was a great success. Unfortunately, while in physical rehabilitation, her other organs deteriorated. But her heart never gave out. Graciela wanted to thank them by doing a benefit concert for the Partners Trial of which she was a part of at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center, the entire Cardiac Care team, and all those that work in 4 North, 4 South and 10 North along with dear friend Dr. Emilio Carrillo, vice-president Community Health Development at the hospital and Dr. Erica Jones, cardiologist and director of the Inpatient Telemetry Unit.

Graciela’s wishes were to be cremated and to celebrate her life and not mourn her death. Details of her life’s celebration will be released in the coming days. Dissemination of her ashes will be held in private. Graciela leaves behind no immediate family and is survived by only her dear friends and fans.

Graciela’s extraordinary career was also shared with such friends as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Miguelito Valdéz, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Benny Carter and many others. Though never married and not having children of her own she never lacked love in her life and she had many great romances. She was in deed very special woman.