TAMPA — Corina Carrera thrilled crowds for more than 40 years with her mellifluous yet powerful contralto voice, all the while charming audiences with her smile and her way of making them feel at home.
The Ybor City native rose quickly, starting at 12 years old on WFLA radio, then at the Columbia restaurant, where she returned for decades. She eventually performed in New York, Puerto Rico and South America.
She belted out as many Broadway show tunes as Spanish love ballads, mixing the music of different countries in fast-paced medleys as easily as she changed costumes. Her rich vibrato drew comparisons to the best female singers.
"I've worked with some of the top stars in this country — Joan Edwards, Diahann Carroll, I've worked with a lot of great ones," said Jack Espinosa, a former standup comic, emcee and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesman who introduced Mrs. Carrera onstage "hundreds of times."
"And she didn't have to take a back seat to anybody. She's really the best one I ever worked with."
Mrs. Carrera, a treasure of Tampa's Cuban community, died May 20 at Tampa General Hospital of pulmonary fibrosis. She was 72.
Ernest Carrera pauses before a dining room table filled with photos of his wife's career. A video of a 1995 concert at the Straz plays in the background. Mrs. Carrera dons a white fur hat for Winter Wonderland and a wide-brim hat for Summertime.
Here is a smiling Corina, then a girl, in a group for young people, Club Infantil Educativo. Though her mother's wages in a cigar factory and her father's as a merchant marine sailor did not allow for music lessons, both parents often sang or danced in the house.
Her ingenue performances on a Sunday morning radio show were followed by regular appearances at the Columbia with owner Cesar Gonzmart and his orchestra.
"She sang blues, she sang jazz, she sang big band Broadway," said Carrera, 80. "Colombian, Mexican, Spanish, Cuban romance and Cuban Afro. She did everything."
They met at her job at a dry cleaner's. He would hang out there while waiting to pick up his father from the King B cigar factory.
By the time they married in 1957, she was singing in the nightclubs that used to dot the Tampa Bay area.
Other musicians wanted her to headline for them. Photos document partnerships. Here she is playing the maracas as part of Angel and Corina; in another, it's Corina and the Caballeros.
Her husband pointed to a photo of Mrs. Carrera posing with Liberace; another in the 1950s attending a state dinner in pre-Castro Cuba.
"Things change," he said.
She stayed close to her roots, often performing with musicians she had known growing up. But one encounter in the 1960s altered her performing career, when the leader of La Sonora Matancera, formerly a popular band in Cuba, heard Mrs. Carrera sing at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.
"He said to her, 'Why are you hiding here in Tampa? That voice belongs to the world,' " her husband recalled.
Mrs. Carrera sang with La Sonora in places like New York and Ecuador, but remained a regular draw at the Columbia while at home.
"She had a star power," said Columbia president Richard Gonzmart. "People came in and they recognized she was truly someone special, one of the greatest vocalists in Tampa that I can remember."
Tragedy struck in 1982 when her son, Michael Carrera, 30, died in a fire. Mrs. Carrera withdrew from performing for two years.
"It was a tough time for her, really," Espinosa said. "That probably set her career back a long way."
Musician friends staged a tribute concert for her at Centro Asturiano. The gesture moved her, and brought her back to performing. It was where she belonged.
"She could connect," her husband said. "She made people comfortable when she sang."
Mrs. Carrera gave her last concert at what is now the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 1998.