Sunday, March 7, 2010
Elis Regina Carvalho Costa
Born March 17, 1945 at 15:10 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Died January 19, 1982 at 11:45 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
It is Brazil Night at the 13th Montreux Jazz Festival, in 1979. This evening of the festival is traditionally reserved to showcase some of the best musical talents from Brazil. The audience awaits with great anticipation the arrival of the main performer, a female singer who has been at the forefront of Brazilian popular music since the mid-60's. In the audience are such luminaries as Rick Wakeman and Chick Corea, and the backup musicians are visibly nervous as they warm up.
At the rear of the stage, a small figure appears. She has always been extremely nervous before going onstage, ever since the days when, as a girl of twelve, she would get nosebleeds before going up to the studio microphone during the local radio show for children. She starts to vocalize to warm up her voice and chase away the nervousness. The audience notices her and gives her a spontaneous standing ovation.
As she walks up to the microphone, she is visibly moved by the audience's greeting, and has tears in her eyes. The band starts into the first number and her rich, generous voice starts to fill the evening air. But the tears have messed up her mascara - she has problems seeing and keeps rubbing her eyes. The band is loosening up as she struggles to regain her composure.
At one point, looking at the cheering audience in front of her, the singer asks herself: "What the hell am I doing on this stage? I'm just the daughter of a cleaning lady!" Her manager, watching in the wings, fears that she is on the brink of failure. He reaches out and offers her a glass of water. She takes a few gulps and returns quickly to the mike, obviously struggling with herself, a look of fear and determination in her darting eyes. She gradually gets stronger and eventually regains control. The audience is mesmerized by her every move, by the energy that emanates from her, and by the power of her voice. She no longer looks like the small, waif-like figure that first entered the stage. She now owns the stage. She looks like a giant.
Like a hurricane.
With a natural talent, and a will that seemed to spring from a bottomless well, Elis Regina Carvalho Costa rose from very average lower-class beginnings to quickly become one of the most well-known, well-loved and well-paid entertainers in her country's history. She was nicknamed Furação (hurricane) and also Pimentinha (little pepper) because of her seemingly boundless energy. Her first name became a household word and several of her records are simply titled "Elis". Through her coverage of their songs, several of her country's most prominent composers were introduced to the limelight. She made many friends during her life and career, as well as some enemies. The one thing she didn't leave behind her was apathy: she made a difference in all the lives that she touched, if only with her voice. She once said: "I have dedicated my life to singing, and there isn't a man, father, mother or child that can drag me away from that."
Her Early Life
Elis was born to relatively poor parents in Porto Alegre, a city located in the south of Brazil. Her mother was a housewife and her father was in and out of jobs. She was the first child, to be followed by an only brother, Rogério, a few years later. Her mother was the daughter of Portuguese immigrants, and her father was of Brazilian descent. Family pictures show Elis to be impeccably dressed by her mother, with ribbons always in her hair. The Costas could pick up Argentinean radio stations and Elis at a very young age could sing Spanish songs as well as Portuguese.
By the time she entered grade school, she already knew how to write, read and count. Her mother gave a tremendous amount of attention to Elis, but may have inadvertently smothered her, with future repercussions as we shall see.
A local radio station featured a children's show called Clube do Guri, where children often sang on the air. Elis' first experience at the microphone was at the age of 7, where she froze and could not utter a sound. At the age of 9, Elis took piano lessons for 2 years. She learned very fast, and eventually faced a dilemma: either buy a piano or stop her studies. She began to sing because they could not afford a piano.
When she was 12, she returned to Clube do Guri, and this time she didn't freeze. She was a sensation and won the prize, the first of many... For 2 years, she sang on the show almost every Sunday, and became a local celebrity. Her only fear came when she had to go on stage. Until the end of her life, Elis became intolerable before going on stage: she always had the same insecurity, the same fear of making mistakes, of not being perfect.
Soon thereafter, she signed her first professional contract, at 13 and 1/2, with Radio Gaucha. There was some reticence from her mother, who wanted Elis to do well in school, possibly becoming a teacher some day. She felt that music would not last. Anyway, they came up with some kind of compromise and Elis' singing career continued. Not even 14, Elis was earning more money than her father. This created a family conflict that would only worsen as the years went by and her income increased.
At 15, Elis was urged to go to Rio de Janeiro, where she recorded her first LP. She was to record 3 records there, returning to Porto Alegre between each.
Eventually, Porto Alegre had nothing to offer her, and Elis went with her father to live in Rio. He was out of work and hoping to find some there. Elis was 18.
They arrived in Rio around the same time that a military junta took over control of the country. Her mother stayed behind with Rogério and a young cousin that she was raising. Later, the mother would say that she lost her daughter at 19 years old.
Her Rise To Fame
It didn't take long for Elis to land a contract with a TO station, where she sang on various shows, and became quickly known. She did not arrive in Rio a quiet and timid girl, but rather with confidence and an aggressive desire to make a mark for herself. The Bossa Nova reigned at the time, but the "coolness" of that genre did not suit Elis' personality or her voice, which were very "hot". She was not well dressed, and looked somewhat awkward on stage, but her voice commanded attention and made people notice her. She was a rough pearl, full of talent.
Some months later, her mother and brother joined them in Rio. Elis had a boyfriend at that time, named Solano. At some point, she became pregnant and got an abortion without telling him. Solano felt that Elis was taking all the space, and that he did not want to become the "singer's husband". The relationship came to an end. At home, Elis realized that she had economic control over her family (her father had still not found work). On one hand, she wanted to fly her own wings, but was guilty to leave her family in need. She never really resolved that quandary, and to the end of her life, had difficult relations with her family.
Elis faced a very competitive music market in Rio, with club owners, radio and TV stations, and numerous musicians and singers caught up in intense turf battles. She made friends and enemies, and had to learn to survive. In 1965, she sang at the first big popular music festival, and won first prize for her rendition of Arrastão, a controversial song that had come close to being censored by the ruling military government. She finished the song with strong voice, her arms outstretched like the Cristo Redentor, tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. Her career took off from then. She was on the cover of magazines, and was sought after by record companies, music producers, TV, etc. In 1966, at 21 years old, Elis was the highest paid singer in the country. She remained the reigning queen of Brazilian popular song until her death.
Her First Marriage
Successes followed each other. Money flowed in and although she made sure that her family lived in comfort, her relations with her parents did not improve, and were marked by long periods of little or no contact, interspersed with periods of intense fighting. In 1967, she shocked the music world by announcing her upcoming marriage to one of her arch-enemies from the turf battles in Rio, Ronaldo Bôscoli, a composer/producer called the Don Juan of Rio. She was 22 and he was 38. They remained married for 6 years, and had a son together. Their relationship was one of open and passionate love and hate, as they would often get into terrible arguments in front of journalists. He had come from a rich, cultured family that had lost all its money while he was a child.
Elis always had a very volatile temperament, alternating between extremes of joy and anger. This wreaked havoc on all of her relationships, but particularly with the one with Bôscoli. Their arguments became legendary, although they did have their good moments together. He was somewhat of a father figure to her, and proceeded to teach her manners and social etiquette that she was evidently lacking. He taught her how to dress and suggested that she cut her hair short like Mia Farrow - the look became a trademark with her. He claimed that one of the reasons for her bad relations with her parents is that they had used her when she was young, to make money from her voice.
In the end, he indeed became the "singer's husband", and of the most famous singer in Brazil to boot. This put great stress on their marriage. While she was travelling the country and the world because of her growing career, he stayed on the sidelines or at home, often drinking. When they broke up, and in retaliation to rumours that he had married her for money, he said that he had walked into the marriage with 3 suitcases, and came out with 2, and nothing else. The third suitcase contained series of love letters and personal documents from his past that Elis had burned during a fit of anger. Their house overlooked the ocean in Rio, and one day after a particularly strong argument, she had also thrown into the water his collection of LPs by Frank Sinatra. Until the end of her life, Elis maintained a bitter grudge against Bôscoli, and made it difficult for him to even see his child.
Her Second Marriage
Her next relationship was with the pianist on her current recording, César Camargo Mariano, a talented musician/arranger who was a shy, quiet, sensitive man (very different from Bôscoli). He had been totally enthraled with her, sitting in the same studio for weeks/months. One day, she invited him to come to her house to see Bergman's film "Wild Strawberries" (she always had an avid interest for cinema). When he got there, he found a lot of people and was uncomfortable. Between two reels, she slipped him a piece of paper and quietly told him to go read it in the bathroom. When he got there, the paper read: "I want you".
Uncertain as to what to do (he was married at the time), he climbed out the bathroom window and scampered home.
The next day, at the studio, Elis was distant to him. At some point, César asked the producer to send the other musicians away, so that he could record a ballad with Elis, accompanying her on the piano. At the end of the day, she offered him a ride home in her car. He stopped at his house to pick up his toothbrush and they wound up at her house. She was a woman who possessed tremendous personal appeal. César divorced his wife and married Elis thereafter. They were married for 8 years and had 2 children together. Although they had their fair share of quarrels, overall their relationship was quite a good one. On vinyl, the musical marriage of César's arrangements with her voice is something truly special. Elis knew some of the happiest moments of her life with César and the three children. They would spend a lot of time in an idyllic country house, away from the smog and hustle of São Paulo, which had an 'in ground' pool but no telephone.
A Political Anecdote
In 1969, while Elis was touring some European countries, she said during a press conference that Brazil was run by "gorillas", in a direct attack to the military junta ruling the country. Only her prominent stature in the music world apparently prevented her from being persecuted, exiled or even jailed by the Junta upon her return, as had been done to other outspoken composers and performers of that period (Veloso, Gil).
A couple of years later, however, she was compelled to sing the national anthem at a big ceremony put on by the military government to celebrate the anniversary of Brazil's independence (according to César, she was threatened with prison if she did not show up). This appearance attracted the criticism of many people in the Arts community and on the Left, who were opposed to the military rulers. There was a cartoonist named Henfil who published in one of the large newspapers. He had a series of cartoons called the cemetery of the living-dead, in which he would portray publicly known people (living dead) who had ridiculed themselves or fallen out of favour. Following her singing at the military gathering, Elis appeared in Henfil's cartoon, in which she metamorphosed into Maurice Chevalier singing to a crowd of saluting Nazis.
Some time later, Henfil and Elis found each other at the same table in a restaurant along with a crowd of people, after one of her shows. During the meal, Elis started attacking Henfil, saying that he should not have depicted her in such a way in his cartoon when he didn't know all the reasons behind her presence at that ceremony.
She then started to cry, asking "Why did you bury me alive?". Henfil told her that it was just a cartoon but Elis would hear nothing of it. Finally, Henfil sort of apologized for it and he and Elis then began discussing a number of things, and eventually became good friends. Elis would often call him up to discuss politics or other issues. She would also give him money to give to intellectuals who were condemning and opposing the junta, since he had contacts in that area.
Some years later, when the Junta appeared to be on the way out, and when there was talk about whether or not to provide an amnesty to the many people who had been exiled for political reasons, Elis picked up a song by João Bosco and Aldir Blanc, called O Bébabo e A Equilibrista (The Drunk and The Tightrope Walker) and made it her own, producing a wonderful recording of it in 1979. The song was an allegory about the absurdity of the military government, and the fragility of freedom. It featured a line that said "bring back Henfil's brother" (Henfil had a brother who had been exiled). Because of Elis' rendition of it, the song became the anthem for the amnesty of exiled Brazilians, and contributed to uniting people on this issue, with the result that the government eventually gave in and amnestied the exiled.
At a concert that she gave around the time of the amnesty, Elis sang that song triumphantly. Henfil was in the audience, with his newly arrived brother. When the song was over, Elis looked at him with a way that seemed to say "We're even now." A few days after her death, there was a memorial concert in the Morumbi stadium in São Paulo, where several of the country's most popular singers sang tributes to Elis.
The high point of the show was when all the singers and the audience (100,000 in all) joined in to sing O Bébabo E A Equilibrista. What a moment that must have been...
Elis was one of the most well-loved entertainers in her country's history. Several high points mark her career, as well as some low ones. First, there were the tremendous successes in the popular music festivals of the mid-60's that launched her career. In 1965, fate united her with another young singer, Jair Rodrigues, for a stage performance. They worked so well together that they became an extremely popular team who gave many concerts and produced 3 live records together (the Dois Na Bossa series) over a 3-year period.
In the late 60's, Elis toured some European countries and was a hit at the Olympia in Paris; she also recorded an album with Toots Thielemans in Sweden, and with Peter Knight in London.
In 1974, Elis was sent to L.A. by her record company to record an album with the master of modern Brazilian popular music, Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim. The record, simply called ELIS & TOM, is legendary, timeless, and generally regarded as one of the top 10 Brazilian popular records of all time. A little later, she put on a stage show in São Paulo called FALSO BRILHANTE, featuring dance, mime and music; it went on for 18 months and is probably one of Elis' finest moments. Other shows that she put on and which were large successes were ESSA MULHER (1979), SAUDADE DO BRASIL (1980), and TREM AZUL (1981).
During the latter, she was singing under the influence of cocaine and attained levels of vocal expression exceeding what she had ever done, according to some commentators. One low point was an appearance that she made at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in 1979. She and the band were enthraled at having been invited to that prestigious gathering, and they were nervous because of the famous musicians in attendance in the audience. During the warmup, as Elis was vocalizing offstage, the audience gave a standing ovation. Elis was so moved when she hit the stage that she started crying, which messed up her eye makeup and made it difficult for her to see. The first part of the concert was a fiasco because of that. She recovered enough in the second part to end on a good note but overall, the whole affair was very disappointing for her.
Another low point was an episode in the late 70's with the jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter. They were to record an album together, and Elis felt that this could launch her into an international career. She and César put up Shorter in their home; she would cook him breakfast while he meditated or went on his jog, and they generally did all they could to please him. In the end, when they finally got to the studio, it became evident that Shorter only intended Elis to play a minimal background vocal role in the recording. César became indignant at this and angrily criticized Shorter, who packed up his stuff and left the country.
Overall, though, her career is marked by many more successes than failures. She carried several notebooks in her purse, in which she would meticulously note down plans for the future, engagements, concert dates, song titles for possible recording, etc. As late as the night before her death, she was still entering plans for the future into her notebooks.
Her Tragic End
Around the time that her marriage with César broke up for good, Elis started using cocaine, probably after a stay in the U.S. She did this in the secrecy of her own bedroom, or dressing-rooms backstage. Even her family and closest friends knew nothing about it (which in fact contributed to her untimely death). In a way, cocaine may have provided her with the crutch that she needed at that time in her life, when she was trying to cope with raising three children, supporting her parents, and maintaining a very demanding career (touring, recording, engagements, etc.).
Soon after, Elis fell in love with her lawyer, Samuel MacDowell. In December 1981, they decided to get married in the coming year. As the year 1982 got underway, Elis's life opened up with many new ventures: a marriage with Samuel, a new house for their family, a new recording contract with a different company, a new show with a different band, etc. She was in the process of coming up with the songs for her new album, and getting ready to enter the studio, as well as finalizing the move to the new house that she would share with Samuel, when she succumbed to a bad combination of Cinzano and cocaine, during a night that she spent up alone in her bedroom, making plans for the future and listening to tapes for her new record.
An accident and a senseless waste. This was on January 19, 1982. She was not yet 37 years old. Brazil was shocked and shattered by the news.
Elis was often a controversial public figure. She took chances in her career and public life, and had her share of both great successes and dismal failures, although the good by far outweighed the bad. Her personal life consisted of great peaks and valleys, characterized by difficult relations with her parents, and often- tortuous relationships with the men who shared her life. She was opinionated, and publicly defended her views forcefully and convincingly, even though her viewpoints would often change drastically. She once said: "Between the wall and the sword, I am drawn toward the sword".
She was a temperamental person whose mood could quickly shift from exuberance to terrible anger and frustration. She was often very demanding of the friends around her, but would give a tremendous amount in return. It was said that there was no better place to be than around her when she was on top of things. Not when she was down, however, as she could then make life very miserable to those around her. She loved to cook a big meal for friends, and maintained a meticulous house, with everything in its place. She knew how to manage a house with children, and was very handy with crafts like crochet and knitting.
Elis was afflicted with an insecurity regarding the more intellectual composer/singers such as Gilberto Gil or Caetano Veloso, and late in life even considered going back to school to enhance her intellectual side.
Having attained the status of top singer in the country at an early age, Elis fought all her life, and successfully, to maintain that status, because she could not bring herself to accept to being anything else than first. This drove her to be very demanding of herself and others. She was driven by a strong sense of achievement and was a perfectionist. She once said "I make a lot of compromises with my clothes, my friends; but with my stage, there are no compromises".
She could easily have become one of the top singers in the world, if she had so wished. A small woman, her stage presence was so strong that she often appeared to be a giant. She had an ear for music and language that would have enabled her to sing convincingly in almost any language. But she loved her country and didn't want to be away from it for the long periods of time required to engender an international career.
Shortly after she died, a newspaper paid homage by publishing a caricature of her at the microphone, casting a shadow on the wall behind her; but instead of her shadow, it was the outline of Brazil that was projected. She was the soul of brazilian popular music, and her death has left a void that can never be filled. In a way, this void serves to remind us of the great talent that breathed so much life into 20 years of recorded and stage music.
Elis always took great care in choosing the songs that she would sing, either because they described aspects of her life, or portrayed her aspirations. In the end, I feel that those who know her music are probably the ones who know her best. She once said: "When I get old like Edith Piaf, they will put me on the stage. It's the only thing that I know how to do, and which will be left to me: singing."
Obrigado e Boa Noite, Furação.
(Thank you and good night, little hurricane.)
Author's Note (March 20,1996)
"Both Brasil and the world are full of excellent singers. I'm not interested in being an extraordinarily good singer. I just want to use the gift that Mother Nature gave me to diminish, by using it, the anguish of someone. This idea is what can give meaning to my work."
- Elis Regina
I wrote the biographical text above a few years ago, mainly to provide an introduction to details of Elis Regina's life and career to English language readers who may not have the opportunity to read her biographies or articles written about her in the Brazilian press. I have also translated her biography Furacao Elis (Hurricane Elis) into English.
Although I would probably write the biographical summary of Elis somewhat differently if I were to write it today, I have decided to leave my previous version intact, warts and all. Instead, it was suggested that I write this author's note, to bring the story up to date.
On March 17, 1996, just a few days ago (as I sit writing this), Elis would have turned 51. It is difficult to imagine just what she would have been doing, musically speaking, in the 14 years since her death in 1982.
Surely, she would have continued to record albums with her characteristic flair for repertoire selection, her impeccable taste, as well as her commitment to quality and the quest for perfection. She would also have continued appearing on TV specials, and on concert stages. Perhaps she would have decided to try to establish that elusive international career and perhaps, as a result, I and many others north of the equator would have had the pleasure of seeing her perform live. She would probably have recorded a joint album with Milton Nascimento, as they had planned to do prior to her death. She may also have decided to venture into more "jazz" oriented ventures, or even to record an album of secular, classical" vocal music, an idea that had been toyed with during the last months of her life.
One thing for sure is that she would have remained, to this day, one of the landmark performers in Brazilian popular music, continuing to take chances on new repertoire and material from previously unknown composers and lyricists, as she had done all her life. We would have considerably more jewels to pick from in her recorded repertoire, and we could look ahead with anticipation to what she would be doing next.
Alas, such dreaming leads us nowhere, and we must be content with the body of work that she did leave behind and which, thank God, is a considerable and rich assortment of material indeed. As Gerald Seligman once wrote, the quantity and consistent quality of her recorded output provides some solace from the painful knowledge that her career was cut so tragically short.
A few years ago, it looked as if Elis was destined to become increasingly forgotten by the listening public, both in Brazil and abroad. Most of her original records were out of print, and only a few compilation CDs could be found abroad.
Today, most of her original records have been re-issued on CDs and numerous compilation CDs have been issued by several companies. As well, some important and previously unreleased material has seen the light of day, including the 3-CD set from the O Fino da Bossa TV show, for which we owe thanks to the Velas label and the dedication of Zuza Homem de Mello. More recently, a live recording from an important concert given in the late 70's (while she was seven months pregnant!), was released last year under the title "Elis Regina Ao Vivo" on the Velas label.
It's difficult to say just how much more "previously unreleased" material of Elis' exists or will be released in coming years. There does not seem to be evidence of much being available as far as unreleased studio recordings go, and it strikes me that Elis was not particularly well served by live recordings. For example, the Trem Azul CD, produced from a cassette recording of one of her final concert series, taunts us with the reality that a better, more professional live recording of that and other great shows of hers (for example, the exuberant Falso Brilhante, or the gorgeous Essa Mulher) do not appear to exist.
One of Elis' finest recordings is the one she made with Tom Jobim in Los Angeles, in 1974. It was also one of Tom's best efforts, in my opinion. Of the four main participants at that meeting of musicians - Elis, Tom, Aloysio de Oliveira (the producer) and Cesar Mariano (her husband and arranger at the time), only Cesar is still with us.
Tom and Aloysio both passed away in recent years. Another one who passed away was Elis' first husband, bossa nova lyricist Ronaldo Boscoli. Ronaldo had made efforts before his death, to get a filmed version life, with actors, made by Brazilian television. Each time, Cesar had successfully challenged it in the courts, on the grounds that revealing personal details about Elis' life would be detrimental to the emotional well being of her surviving children. Perhaps one day, when her children are all of legal age, this decision will be overturned, and the story of Elis' life will finally be presented for all to see. Though it ended needlessly and tragically, her life is a wonderful example of dedication, willpower, and persistence, and also provides a wonderful backdrop on the rich and dynamic world of MPB during the 60's, 70's, and early 80's, of which Elis was one of the undisputed standard-bearers.
Elis' two sons, João Marcelo (from her marriage with Boscoli) and Pedro (from her marriage with Mariano) presented a small concert in São Paulo last year, to commemorate Elis' 50th birthday. They also appeared on Brazil's most popular late night talk show (Jo Soares) and performed a rendition of Elis' great ode to youth, "Como Nossos Pais" (Like Our Parents). It was nice to see them having grown up into pleasant, balanced and happy human beings. Both are talented musicians, and one can only hope that like their mother before them, they will, too, enrich the world of MPB.
Elis was a product of her time and, like all true artists, she also transcended it, creating a body of work that is at the same time truly Brazilian, while having a strong universal content. Because emotions go beyond the limitations of language: her music used to make me laugh and cry even before I understood a single word of Portuguese. She remains today as potent a musical interpreter of the passions and longings of the human soul as she was, consistently, during her twenty year recording career. She once said: "I want to suffer everything to the last drop, I want everything to which I am entitled - good and bad things - and not pretend to leave anything for anyone."
A few weeks before she died, Elis was interviewed on Brazilian television, where she said: "I think that I have improved incredibly, that I have shed some of my cobwebs from the moment I decided to face the fact that I am Elis Regina, that I carry a type of load that others don't carry, that I can't pass unnoticed in the crowd. This is heavy to bear. But, though it is heavy, one has to prune some of the jagged edges and at least conserve a sense of humor, and the will to live. Because if not, one finds oneself buying a "22" and shooting a nice bullet in one's head, at 36 years old, three great kids, a career that has hardly reached its mid-point, with the ability to evolve even more. Basically, I am a person who adores living, loves to party. I want my house to be full of friendly people, but I dispense with intimate enemies. The thing is to seek out
the pleasant things in life - flowers, sun, beach..."
Though very much in the public eye all her adult life, there was a very private side to Elis, one which she would share with very few people, if any. Elis once said that she was like the Sphinx, and that no one would ever decipher her. I have tried to do so, over the last few years, to understand the motivation and the complexities of the woman behind the singer. Although I cannot claim to have had more success than anyone else, I do feel that I have acquired a better understanding and appreciation of this complex, gifted, generous and all-too-human person. I firmly believe that her passionate musical legacy remains, for us, the best window that we have on the rich world of this exceptional artist. If you take the time to listen, she will surely reward you.
-- Robert St-Louis, Ottawa, Canada