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María Grever: The Mexican Composer Who Blew Our Minds

by David Mack
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Maria Grever

Maria Grever was a Mexican composer, the first female Mexican composer to reach international stardom. Her best-known song  “What A Difference A Day Makes” (originally “Cuando vuelva a tu lado”) was made more popular by the Jazz legend Dinah Washington who covered the song with much passion winning a Grammy award in 1959. Grever’s “What A Difference A Day Makes”  has been covered by several artists in the industry. Grever’s musical success did not come with one popular hit, many of her songs were an international success.


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María Grever’s Early Life and Career

Maria Grever was born in León, Guanajuato on 14 September 1885 to a Spanish father  (Francisco de la Portilla) and a Mexican mother (Julia Torres). Her birth name was María Joaquina de la Portilla Torres. Grever spent the first six years of her life in Mexico City before being taken to her father’s hometown, Sevilla in 1891. Her music career started quite early when at the age of four she composed a Christmas carol, exhibiting the exceptional musical talent brewing in her.

Grever went on to study music in France under the tutelage of great voices such as Claude Debussy and Franz Lenhard. In 1900, at the age of 15, Grever returned to Mexico to continue her musical studies at her aunt’s prestigious school, solfège where she had more lessons and access to music.

Grever, then de la Portilla found love in an American oil company executive, Leo A. Grever, and both of them got married in 1907. Grever was 22 at this time and in 1916, she got American citizenship and moved with her husband to the USA where they resided till the end of her life.

Grever’s first record A Una Ola (To A Wave) was released in 1912 A Una Ola was a success, selling millions of copies and was covered by many performers.

Grever is credited to have written more than 1000 songs most of which were boleros. Her fame spread to Latin America, Europe, and the USA where her audience found her music totally refreshing. Grever was acclaimed for having a perfect pitch and most of her songs were written in one key. She wrote “A Una Ola” at the age of 27, the beginning of many international hits.

She became a film composer for  Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox in 1920 lending her musical essence to the projects she handled. Her compositions which blended traditional folk rhythms, tango, and bolero styles created music that made her a favorite not only in the US but also internationally in Latin America and Europe. In 1935, she joined ASCAP and had great collaborations with Stanley Adams and Irving Caesar.


Grever once said: “I had to leave my country, and now in New York, I am interested in Jazz and Modern Rhythms, but above all, in Mexican Music, which I long to present to the American people. I am afraid they don’t know much about it. It is music worth spreading; there is such a cultural richness in Mexican Music (its Hispanic and indigenous origins and how they mix) where melody and rhythm merge. It is my wish and yearning to present the native rhythms and tunes (of Mexico) from a real perspective, but with the necessary flexibility to appeal to the universal audience.”


Maria Grever had her first international hit with “Júrame” (Promise, Me). “Júrame” was a habanera-bolero which was interpreted with excellence by tenor José Mojica. Grever had other hits that furthered her career which included “Volveré” (I Will Return); “Te Quiero dijiste” (I love you, you said), which were written for the 1944 Esther Williams film Bathing Beauty. Her other international hits included “Cuando vuelva a tu lado” (When I Return To Your Side) and “Por si no te vuelvo a ver” (In case I don’t see you again). Other highlights of her music career was the release of her songs “Tipitipitin”,  (recorded as “Ti-Pi-Tin” by the Andrews Sisters), Tú, Tú y Tú (as recorded by Mexican tenor Juan Arvizu in 1928), Qué Dirías de Mi, Eso Es Mentíra, Mi Secreto, Dame Tu Amor, Una Rosa, Un Beso, Despedida, Así , Chamaca Mía, Todo Mi Ser, Alma Mía, Para Que Recordar, and Ya No Me Quieres.

Grever’s Death and Posthumous Success

María Grever died after a prolonged illness in 1951 in New York aged 66. She requires she be buried in Mexico City. She was a composer that paved the way for other women in Mexico. Her works continued to make waves even after her death. In honor of her musical contributions, the Union of Women of the Americas (UWA)

named Grever ‘Woman of the Americas’ in 1952. Grever’s biopic titled Cuando me valla (When I Leave), was released in 1953 starring Argentine singer-actress and Latin America star Libertad Lamarque as Grever. It was directed by Tito Davison.

Three years later, Lamarque honored Maria Grever with the release of a best-selling tribute to Grever’s most popular songs titled Libertad Lamarque canta Canciones de María Grever.

In 1959, Maria Grever won a posthumous Grammy Award with Washington’s rendition of What Difference A Day Makes, and in 1998 the recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Operatic soprano, Ailyn Perez in 2018 performed “Júrame” live for WFMT in Chicago thrilling audience and Google honored Grever with a Google Doodle on February 11, 2021, reminding us about the music legend.

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