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Maria Grever: A Little Known — But Not Unsung— Composer

November 14, 2023
Maria Grever’s photo graced the cover of “My Margarita” in 1939

Images of the composer rarely appeared on sheet music for popular songs. Maria Grever’s photo graced the cover of “My Margarita” in 1939, along with photos of the performers, the usual images included to help increase sales of sheet music. / THF713047

What do the Andrews Sisters’ 1938 hit song “Ti-Pi-Tin” and Dinah Washington’s Grammy-winning 1959 recording of “What a Difference a Day Makes” have in common? Both songs were written by Maria Grever, the first female Mexican composer to attain international attention. Yet amazingly, Grever is little known today.

Grever, born Maria Joaquina de la Portilla in Mexico in 1885 to a Spanish father and Mexican mother, showed musical skills at an early age. While growing up in Spain and then Mexico, Grever’s wealthy family saw to it that she received a fine musical education, studying piano, violin and voice. Grever achieved early success as a composer; at 18, her song "A Una Ola" ('To a Wave') sold three million copies to its Latin audience.

When she was 22, Maria married Leon Grever, an American oil company executive working in Mexico. The couple had two surviving children. Amid the ongoing political turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, the Grever family arrived in New York City in June 1916. Leon returned to his job in Mexico while Maria remained in New York. For the next 35 years, Grever continued her musical career as a composer, singer and vocal coach in America as she navigated its New York-centered music industry.

In her compositions, Grever sought to share her Mexican heritage. While Grever was interested in modern jazz rhythms, above all she cherished Mexico’s rich musical culture. Latin music was only beginning to capture the attention of Americans in the 1930s. The rhumba, a genre of music and dance that combined American big-band music with Afro-Cuban rhythms, appeared in East Coast ballrooms. By the 1940s, Latin-influenced music — Grever’s compositions among them — had begun to take its place in popular songs, musicals and movie scores.

Maria Grever’s lush romantic songs and ballads focused on finding universal appeal as she mixed popular song forms with the rhythms of Latin American music. Grever wrote hundreds of songs — sources mention between 800 and 1,000 — composing the music and creating the Spanish lyrics. Her songs found popularity in Latin America and the United States. Grever also worked with American lyricists — including leading songwriters of the day Stanley Adams, Irving Caesar and Raymond Leveen — who translated her songs into English to increase their accessibility for American audiences. Grever wrote film scores for Paramount, MGM and 20th Century Fox. She created one-act operas, choral works and instrumental pieces in a wide variety of styles. Music critics noted her “innate gift of spontaneous melody.” Testimonials provided by performers mentioned her “exquisite melodies and rare rhythmical charm” and compositions that “are beautiful and reach the heart of the people.”

Maria Grever provided the Spanish lyrics for Cole Porter’s 1935 “Begin the Beguine.”

Maria Grever provided the Spanish lyrics for Cole Porter’s 1935 “Begin the Beguine.” / THF713039

In 1935, the year Grever became a member of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), composer and lyricist Cole Porter, a fellow ASCAP member, asked Grever to provide Spanish lyrics for his musically complex “Begin the Beguine,” a song he wrote for the Broadway musical Jubilee.

Maria Grever’s first big hit in America was “Ti-Pi-Tin.”

Maria Grever’s first big hit in America was “Ti-Pi-Tin.” / THF702012. Gift of Jeanine Head Miller.

Grever’s 1938 song “Ti-Pi-Tin" was Grever’s first big hit in the United States. Yet initially, Grever couldn’t interest a publisher in “Ti-Pi-Tin,” so she published it herself. When bandleader Horace Heidt heard the song, he quickly recognized its possibilities. His orchestra played it on NBC radio — immediately launching the song to success. The demand for sheet music was huge. To keep up, Grever allowed Leo Feist Inc. to publish it. That same year, the Andrews Sisters would create their own smooth and slightly jazzy version of “Ti-Pi-Tin.”

“Magic in the Moonlight,” a song Grever originally wrote in 1930, as “Te Quiero, Dijiste.” was featured in the 1944 MGM movie musical, Bathing Beauty.

“Magic in the Moonlight,” a song Grever originally wrote in 1930 as “Te Quiero, Dijiste,” was featured in the 1944 MGM movie musical Bathing Beauty. / THF713033

Grever’s romantic ballad, “Magic Is the Moonlight” (Te Quiero, Dijiste) graced the 1944 MGM movie Bathing Beauty, a film that featured many on-screen performances by big-band greats of the era. In the movie, Carlos Ramírez sang Grever’s “Magic Is the Moonlight” in Spanish, accompanied by the Xavier Cugat Orchestra. The melody recurs throughout the film.

At the height of Grever’s career in the 1930s and 1940s, she was living at the Wellington Hotel at Seventh Avenue and 55th Street — near Broadway, Carnegie Hall and Central Park. The Wellington was a residential hotel that became a favorite among those in theatrical circles. The apartments of some tenants served as both living space and artistic studio. Here, in addition to composing music, Grever coached voice students on vocal technique and Spanish pronunciation.

Dinah Washington’s recording of Grever’s “What a Difference a Day Makes” (

Dinah Washington’s recording of Grever’s “What a Difference a Day Makes” ("Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado") received a Grammy in 1959 for best R&B performance. / THF370537

Grever is best known for “What a Difference a Day Makes” ("Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado"), written in 1934. Bing Crosby called it “the loveliest of all your lovely songs.” Dinah Washington’s 1959 recording, which earned her a Grammy for best R&B performance that year, made the song one of Grever’s longest-lasting hits.

While Maria Grever’s name is little known to most people today, her songs and international legacy live on. A host of singers — prominent and lesser-known — have performed Grever’s compositions, including Enrico Caruso, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters, Tony Martin, Carlos Ramirez, Andrea Bocelli, Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan, Tony Bennett and Plácido Domingo. El Centre d’Estudis Musicals María Grever, a music school, can be found in Barcelona, Spain, while the theater Teatro María Grever is located in Grever’s birthplace of Leon, Mexico.

Though New York City was Maria Grever’s adopted home, upon her death in 1951 and at her request, Grever’s remains were transported to Mexico City to be buried in Panteon Español, just as she had wished.

As I wrote this blog, I relistened to some of Grever’s songs. Her tunes easily lingered in my mind — testimony to Maria’s Grever gift for melody.

Jeanine Head Miller is curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford.