Sunday, March 7, 2010
Elis used to say that she arrived in Rio de Janeiro on March 31st 1964. It was certainly not on that date - some days before, actually - but it made for a good story when she said that. Elis in Rio on March 31st, the day of the military coup (1), with the added colourful detail of her father having come with a letter of recommendation from the PTB, the party of the deposed president, João Goulart.
They moved into a tiny furnished apartment on Figueiredo Magalhães Street, in Copacabana. For the first time, Elis was venturing out from under her mother's apron. She quit CBS and contacted Armando Pittigliani of Philips, who kept his promise. Two months later, she signed a contract with TV Rio - she appeared on television and participated in several Noites de Gala (Gala Night) shows, which were famous at the time and one of the station's flagships. Elis really was working very hard. In the end, she had to support the apartment and her father in Rio, as well as the rest of the family in Porto Alegre.
Everything happened very fast for her. Everyone was impressed with Elis. From the studios of TV Rio, she would go right away with the drummer Dom Um Romão to the "Beco", the famous Beco das Garrafas. A narrow street - Rodolfo Dantas - in the middle of the buildings of Copacabana. It was there that one found the bars of the Beco. The fame of that spot began in the late 50's, when Brazil was living under a strongly nationalistic government which favoured progress and economic expansion, the government of Juscelino Kubitschek, the "bossa-nova president" (2).
Brazil did not look at itself as a poor, rachitic peasant anymore, and could now smile at itself. Its soccer team had won the World Cup in 1958, Maria Esther Bueno was first at Wimbledon, Eder Jofre was world bantam weight champion. Living its own democracy, Brazil tore down Belém-Brasília and built a new capital. Show business was bringing forth new formulas. Aloysio de Oliveira tested the so-called "pocket-shows" in the club Au Bon Gourmet and wrote the musical Pobre menina rica (Poor Rich Girl) with Carlos Lyra, Nara Leão and Vinícius de Morais.
In 1962, a bossa-nova group appeared at New-York's famous Carnegie Hall. In 1964, when Elis arrived in Rio, the generation that was raised with Juscelino was at its apogee. Bossa-nova was discarding the themes of love, smiles and flowers in favour of social content. Cinema novo (new cinema): a camera in the hand, an idea in the head. Glaúber Rocha (3), the Centre of Popular Culture (CPC). Rural links, agrarian reform, University of Brasília.
Jânio Quadros, elected with 6 million votes, took office in Brasília. It was the utopia of a democratic Brazil, which discovered the Brazil of Pelé (4), Garrincha, Antônio Maria (5), Stanislaw Ponte Preta, Dolores Duran, Nelson Rodrigues. The National Student Union paraded in the centre of Rio because the Light (6) had increased mass transit fares. Few were aware of this from 64 to 68. No one realized the dimension of the dictatorship that would have to be confronted. No one imagined the explosion that would culminate with Tropicalismo (7), Rei da vela, Terra em transe, Roda-viva (8), with the CCC (commando to hunt communists), with beaten artists, with the fight between MacKenzie and USP in São Paulo (9).
Elis at nineteen years old, facing the Brazil of 1964, was no longer timid nor quiet. Either she would take the reins, or she would be nothing. She started like a wolf in sheep's clothing, then showed her true nature. She faced the Brazil and Rio de Janeiro of 1964, aggressive and
suspicious. She was certain that she was playing in the arena and that the lions could slaughter her at any time. For someone who, up to that time, had sung boleros and versões (10), the coolness of bossa-nova singing did not suit her style very well. In fact, Elis Regina's voice clashed radically with the intimate character of bossa-nova, where the verb "sing" was conjugated with softness, in a feminine gender. Bossa-nova, in the language of jazz, was cool. Elis' voice was hot. Different.
Like water and wine.
"She had a virile voice", in the definition of the journalist Nelson Motta (Nelsinho) who, from a young age, frequented bossa-nova sessions through his "godfather" Ronaldo Bôscoli (11). Nelsinho remembers having seen Elis on television. "She was a woman who was terribly dressed, with long hair, who was singing at the top of a staircase. An exquisite figure, singing to attract attention". In Salvador (12), another attentive spectator, who at the time was writing movie reviews in the press, paid attention to Elis. Caetano Veloso (13) also had a shock when he saw Elis on TV:
- I thought that she was very talented although very rough around the edges. I was impressed. "This woman is incredible", I used to say. But she made some gestures, some dances that were remarkable. And, since I was into bossa-nova - a big fan of João Gilberto, of things cool and of good taste, and of more discrete colours - I found Elis tacky, but full of talent.
At the end of 1964, Elis found a boyfriend. Solano Ribeiro was twenty-five years old - a young politicized producer trying to make his way. He worked on the production of the Bibi Ferreira Show on TV Excelsior, in São Paulo, and was in Rio to sign up artists for a show called the Eduardo Spring Festival of Bossa-Nova.
Solano was Elis' first boyfriend since she had left Porto Alegre. "I was enchanted with the singer and wanted to marry her", Solano tells me today, at 48 years old, having established his own production house, the VPI, and working again on a festival, the Festival of Festivals of TV Globo (14), twenty years after Excelsior (15) and Arrastão (16).
- There was a great political involvement at that time. I was coming from the Arena Theatre and was a radical 25 year old. I wouldn't allow her to sing Tom Jobim (17), so you can see how stupid I was when I arrived. I used to fight a lot with her, and am under the impression that I exercised a great influence on her, because she could be easily influenced. And she became somewhat political.
One day, she sang a Tom Jobim song and I wrote her a letter talking about the influence that this would have on people's heads, that is to say... I didn't admit certain things. Our discussions were always like this. She had an open mind toward cinema, literature. It was her that took me to see Gláuber Rocha's Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun) at the Metrópole Theatre in São Paulo.
Forty days after having settled in Rio, Elis and Romeu went to get dona Ercy and Rogério. All of them lived in the apartment at Figueirido Magalhães. It was this scenario which started to break up the relationship with Solano, who recalls:
- I spent a carnaval (18) in Rio with Elis, in that apartment. I lived right alongside her family and I lived with her. From then on, things became complicated. Elis' relationship with her parents was wickedly aggressive. She knew how financially dependent they were on her. I was shocked with the aggressiveness with which she dealt with the members of her family, and with her own aggressiveness, which at once enchanted and frightened me. At times I would be sitting and she would come from behind and pow, she would start hitting me on the head with a magazine. With vigour. I don't know, she always wanted to throw something. At times we would go somewhere and she would be all charged up. Suddenly she would go in a corner and fall asleep. She was energy. She was empty.
But it wasn't because of this that Elis and Solano broke up. Elis became pregnant and got an abortion. According to Solano's version, it was then that everything came apart:
- She became pregnant, got an abortion and never told me anything about it. She told me after.
Solano did not like the idea of assuming the role of the "singer's husband". According to him, she occupied all the space, and he couldn't bring himself to live with someone who took up so much space. He also wanted to have his own:
- I also had problems, I was also complex.
The fact is that Elis, after a broken relationship, a first pregnancy and an abortion, was also fighting a battle at home. Romeu, unemployed, made of Elis' career an occupation. He started to look after her salary, take care of the contracts for her shows, welcome people, as if he was a manager. But Elis was starting to realize that she had economic control over her family and was feeling powerful. She demanded of her father - as she did of her brother - that he change and start taking care of his own life. But at the same time she fed this dependency by giving him money, as if she found it impossible to put up with the guilt complex of living a comfortable life while her parents lived in need.
On this subject, Elis said years later: "I know that my mother couldn't tolerate to see me come home at three in the morning, tired, with no regular meals, etc. I didn't enjoy being constantly under observation, and neither did she, gravitating around me. Of course, all kinds of
problems related to oppressive affection started".
But on top of the fighting at home, Elis had other problems in the cariocan nights. From an initial appearance at the Little Club bar, she went on to be managed by the boastful pair of that time, Luís Carlos Mieli and Ronaldo Bôscoli. Both of them worked exclusively for the Midas Agency, the office of Abrahão Medina, known as the King of Voice because of a chain of appliance stores.
But they couldn't resist the call of the Beco das Garaffas. They went there to drink cuba-libre (19) and worked there almost hidden in the production of pocket-shows for the Beco. According to Ronaldo Bôscoli, the Beco was a mess. It didn't even have spotlights. Light effects were done with cardboard tubes. The pairs' slogan, at that time, was: "give us a room and we'll give you a show".
Moreover, Mieli and Bôscoli were familiar with super-productions like Dreams of Broadway. But they had to put on shows in tiny spaces. When Mieli and Bôscoli met Elis one Saturday night
for her first rehearsal, she was in a bad mood. Maybe thinking a bit too much about having to remain at the disposal of the directors' schedules. When Ronaldo Bôscoli met Elis Regina, she was in love with Edu Lobo (20), and together with him would later cause a great turnaround in popular music. He has a nice memory:
- She was getting on the telephone every hour, and kept asking me: can I talk on the phone for a minute, director? And she was talking to Edu.
It was at the Beco that Elis met Lennie Dale (21) and with him, learned to use her body more when she sang. That business of laia-ladaia-sabatana-ave-maria (22) was certainly her creation, but motivated by the lessons of the american dancer. This was the motive of her first disagreement with Ronaldo Bôscoli. He found that swimming motion a little ridiculous. He went to talk to Mieli about it, who responded with a declaration that became legendary:
- Never mind, Bôscoli, it's her way of burying bossa-nova for good.
Elis' show at Bottles Bar (23), directed by Mieli and Bôscoli, featured the participation of the group Dom Um Romão, the dancer Marly Tavares and the tambourim-player Gaguinho. It was a success.
There are many versions of the story of what happened after that. Elis began to miss going to some of the shows at the Beco. And always on Saturdays. According to Ronaldo Bôscoli, she was forced by Romeu to do shows on the side in order to earn more money. I find it difficult to believe that Elis Regina could be forced to do anything, that she would do something against her will. But there is a basis for it. According to Elis, those shows did take place, but she was only absent from the Beco once. Bôscoli counters: "There were many times". Romeu always gave the excuse that Elis was sick.
The third time she missed going to the Beco, Bôscoli spoke to her:
- Elis was already talking: "Say what you want to say!" And I said that this wasn't a place of total confusion, that it wasn't a whorehouse and that I demanded an explanation. She insisted on the story that she was stressed-out and tired. I said that I knew about shows which she was giving in other places at the same time. And the discussion continued until she started doing a Joan-of-Arc imitation, crying and saying that she was being unfairly accused.
The fact is that Elis was keeping her eye on São Paulo. More precisely, on the new movement stimulated by university students of the time: to bring popular music into the theatres.
Do live shows with new people. Horácio Berlink, Eduardo Muylaert, Antônio Carlos Calil, João Evangelista Leão organized the first one, which took place in the August 11 Academic Centre of the Law Faculty of São Paulo, at the Paramount Theatre. The name of the show: The Best of Bossa.
Elis Regina was invited to participate in the second show of the series, on August 31st 1964, the show Good Bossa. It was an enormous success, so much that the journalist Walter Silva, host of the famous program O Pick-up do Pica-Pau, decided to lease the Paramount Theatre and do there more or less what Solano Ribeiro was doing on the little stage of the Opinião Theatre.
Walter Silva was thinking of popular music shows for large audiences, and a large audience at that time meant the Paramount Theatre, with two thousand seats. Elis was already attracted by the São Paulo salaries and was earning more per show than she would earn in a month at the Beco. The choice was evident.
But before abandoning the Beco das Garrafas, and burying it in the process, Elis picked a fight with Ronaldo Bôscoli, because he had ordered that a black line be painted above her name on the poster beside the door at Bottles. "I asked that the line be painted in order that people could see her name underneath".
That was it. They became mortal enemies from that moment on.
In São Paulo, Walter Silva and Solano Ribeiro presented Elis to Marcos Lázaro, an up-andcoming Argentine impresario. In February 1965, she was already living in São Paulo. She went there alone and stayed in Marcos Lázaro's house, a little four-room apartment on Rio Branco Avenue, which crossed Ipiranga Avenue, in the centre of São Paulo. The Lázaro family - Elisa and two sons, put up Elis on the living room sofa, where a little privacy at night was provided by a makeshift curtain in the middle of the room. Dona Ercy, Romeu and Rogério remained in Rio, and
later returned to Porto Alegre.
Elis Regina, humble guest of the Lázaro family, managed by the patriarch. She was his first exclusive brazilian artist - he normally managed circus artists and nightclub singers. In exchange for 20% of the artists' fees, Marcus Lázaro started to grow. Elis, who left and returned home escorted by the impresario, played cards on her nights off. "I remember that sometimes she played cards loudly, ran to the window and started to sing and sing", Eliza Lázaro told me.
Shortly after arriving in São Paulo, Elis declared to journalists that she had been treated unfairly in Rio de Janeiro. She claimed to have been discriminated against for being gauchá and that she had been involved in a real war at the Beco das Garrafas. Bôscoli denies this version, of course, but it's possible that Elis had really felt this way. A war. She found it necessary to create stories in which she portrayed herself as the heroine, and was motivated by competition. In her own way of singing, she demonstrated athletic manners, and she would get deeply involved in disputes between musicians, entering into the fray with sharpened teeth and nails, ready to take the first bite.
Elis was like this when she was asked by her ex-boyfriend Solano Ribeiro to interpret two songs at the First Festival of Brazilian Popular Music, put on by TV Excelsior. This festival coincided with the decline of TV Record, which beefed up its programming with foreign artists. TV Record contracted and presented names like Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzie Gillespie, Rita Pavone, Chubby Checker, Brenda Lee. In the midst of a financial crisis, it was impossible to maintain the same level. In spite of this, TV Excelsior entered with its music festival. Elis entered this festival on her guard. She didn't trust the producer Solano Ribeiro, after everything that had happened while they had been together. Of the two songs that she received - Por um amor maior (For a better love) by Francis Hime and Ruy Guerra, and Arrastão (Trawling net) by Edu Lobo and Vinícius de Morais, Solano remembers that she preferred the former. When that song was disqualified, she thought that someone was pulling a dirty move, more specifically, that Solano Ribeiro was up to dirty tricks.
"She didn't even look at me, it was an exquisite climate".
According to the recollections of this important festival's producer, however, the story wasn't quite like that. There was a plot articulated by the impresario Lívio Rangan, now deceased, then the head of Rhodia. Solano recalls:
- Rangan wanted the winning song to be the one written by Vinhas and Bôscoli, and defended by Simonal (24). He argued that if this song didn't win, no other winner would work on his show. Moreover, he bribed the jury with presents. And part of the jury were not politicized, were alienated, and resented songs that included social messages. Eumir Deodato (25) was one of those. It was a delicate moment. With the addition of the coup of 1964, people wanted an outlet. The censorship. All of this contributed to Arrastão almost losing.
But it didn't lose, according to Solano, because he himself promoted a counter-attack for the jury, with the help of Walter Silva in the Folha de São Paulo (26). In the end, Elis won, Arrastão won, and for whoever remembers, it was an unforgettable moment on Brazilian television.
Elis Regina gave a formal farewell to bossa-nova. A cycle was completed by the athletic singing style with which she defended the song. National success. Elis Regina wins Excelsior's First Festival of Popular Music.
Olha a arrastão entrando num mar sem fim / É, meu irmão, me traz Iemanjá pra mim (I see a trawling net entering an endless sea / And, my brother, it brings Iemanjá (27) for me). Elis, black wig, black tube dress, open arms like the Cristo Redentor (28). Arms rotating like a helicopter, and a voice released with force, hunger, and the will to win. The winner of the competition. Gold medal. The good girl finds success. Facing backwards, tears in her eyes. For me ... I see the trawling net ... Tears and a smile consecrated on that face.
Too much for a poor heart.
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Copyright Regina Echeverria – Robert St-Louis
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