Born João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira on June 10, 1931, in Bahia, Brazil; son of a prosperous merchant; married Astrud Weinert (divorced); married singer Miucha; children: Bebel. Addresses: Record company--Verve Music Group, 1755 Broadway, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10019, phone: (212) 331-2064, website: http://www.vervemusicgroup.com.
Shy and at times reclusive, singer and guitarist João Gilberto nonetheless played a central role in the birth of bossa nova. Together with Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim, they tamed the Brazilian samba, injected it with American jazz, and created a new music that took the world by storm in the early 1960s. Gilberto sings in a quiet whisper and accompanies himself on an acoustic guitar with nylon strings. With haunting harmonies and unusual accents, the beat of the bossa nova is enchanting and always fresh. Although success would lead to a long stay in the United States, Gilberto's lifestyle remained the same: he recorded and performed infrequently. In 1998, as bossa nova celebrated its 40th anniversary, Gilberto played a handful of dates, continuing to follow his unassuming path toward making beautiful music.
Born João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira on June 10, 1931, in Bahia, Brazil, Gilberto became interested in music early in life. His father, a prosperous merchant, attempted to properly educate his seven children, but only music interested Gilberto. At age 14, his godfather gave him his first guitar, and within a year, Gilberto became the leader of a group of school friends who performed at social functions. He absorbed the sounds of American jazz, from Tommy Dorsey's "Song of India" to Duke Ellington's "Caravan," and listened to popular Brazilian performers like Geraldo Pereira, Orlanda Silva, and Herivelto Martins. At 18, Gilberto moved to Bahia's capital, Salvador, to become a radio singer. Although he was unsuccessful, he was asked to become the lead singer of the group Garotos da Lua (Boys from the Moon) in Rio de Janeiro. His behavior was non-professional, however. Arriving late for performances and sometimes not arriving at all, Gilberto was fired after one year.
After being fired, Gilberto's life took a downward turn for the next seven years. He became depressed and used marijuana heavily. He let his hair grow long, wore old clothes, and could not find work. His girlfriend, Sylvia Telles (later a famous bossa nova singer), left him. With no place of his own, he lived with friends, never contributing to expenses and usually overstaying his welcome. Still, he was well liked. He slept during the day and played music at night. When he returned home from nightclubs, friends would sit up with him for the remainder of the night and chat. Gilberto refused to take jobs that he considered beneath him, including playing music in clubs where the customers were allowed to talk during performances. It seemed as though Gilberto would spend his life as a drifter.
After seven years of aimlessness, singer Luis Telles removed Gilberto from the corrupting influences of Rio and took him to Porto Alegre. He checked him into a good hotel for seven months and got him a job at the Clube da Chave (Key Club). This boosted Gilberto's confidence, but he still wasn't ready to return to Rio. He lived with his sister Dadainha and her husband for six months and played guitar constantly. Her bathroom's unique acoustics allowed Gilberto to learn to sing quietly without vibrato and to play his guitar at fluctuating tempos. During this period he also disavowed marijuana use (as well as strong substances). Although a recognizable artist was taking shape, his family worried about his erratic behavior and committed him to a sanitarium in Salvador. During a series of interviews, Gilberto reportedly made the curious statement, "Look at the wind depilating the trees." When the psychiatrist said that the trees have no hair and therefore the wind could not rid them of it, Gilberto replied, "And there are people who have no poetry." He was released after a week.
In 1956 he returned to Rio with two quiet, simple songs that he had written: "Bim-Bom" and "Hô-Ba-La-Lá." He renewed his contact with composer Tom Jobim who listened to the songs and was impressed by the new rhythms of Gilberto's guitar. The two musicians began a collaboration that would give birth to a unique Brazilian hybrid, the bossa nova (new wave). The bossa nova has roots in many cultures. The samba, full of wild rhythms propelled by various percussion instruments, has its origins in African music. American jazz, especially West Coast players like Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, and Shorty Rogers, also proved central. First Jobim and Gilberto toned down the samba, added a looping acoustic guitar, and then inserted intricate harmonies and quiet vocals. In July of 1958 their recording of "Chega de Saudade" jump-started the bossa nova movement in Brazil. After a visit to South America, guitarist Charlie Byrd would carry these enchanting sounds back to the United States, helping spread bossa nova fever. The music received international exposure after Gilberto and Luiz Bonfá wrote the soundtrack for the movie, Black Orpheus, in 1958.
In 1962 Gilberto came to the United States where he would remain until 1980 (with the exception of two years in Mexico). In 1963 Verve released Getz/Gilberto, an album that brought Gilberto to broader critical and popular attention. The album also included "The Girl from Ipanema," sung by his wife Astrud, which became a hit. The album won two Grammys, one for best album and another for best song, beating out the Beatles' Hard Day's Night. In 1966 Verve released Getz/Gilberto, Vol. II, an album of live performance from Carnegie Hall. All of this attention brought little change to Gilberto's lifestyle or approach to performing. He seldom played live and gave few interviews. In 1964, he was scheduled to play a nine-night gig at the London House in Chicago. He played four short sets on the first night, and then canceled the remainder, saying the club was too noisy. While he recorded infrequently over the next 15 years, he continued to make beautiful albums such as 1973's João Gilberto.He also made a concerted effort to preserve earlier songs by Brazilian artists like Dorival Caymmi, Noel Rosa, Geraldo Pereira and others. New York Times critic Robert Palmer saw Gilberto at a rare appearance at the Bottom Line in 1977, and reported: "Mr. Gilberto's charms are durable. For one thing, his taste in material is unimpeachable."
In 1998 a number of events were planned and classic CDs re-released to commemorate the 40th anniversary of bossa nova. The music retains its freshness and vitality, and even finds expression in a younger generation. Gilberto's daughter Bebel has become a talented and popular entertainer in her own right. Gilberto continues to quietly pursue the art of his music, regardless of trends. For the 40th anniversary of the song "Chega de Saudade" he played a small number of dates in Europe and the United States. "One didn't need to understand Portuguese to feel the sadness, longing and joy of these songs," wrote Jesse Hamlin of the San Francisco Chronicle. "The sound of Gilberto's gentle voice was enough." Verve re-released 1999's Joao voz e violão in 2000, and Gilberto, at 69, continues to captivate. With no more than his quiet guitar and whisper of a voice, he confidently surveys both classics and newer material.
by Ronald D. Lankford Jr
João Gilberto's Career
Received first guitar from godfather at age 14; led band of school friends at age 15; at age 18 moved to Salvador to become a radio singer, then moved to Rio de Janeiro where he became the lead singer of Garotos da Lua; fired after one year for showing up late to performances or not at all; relocated to Porto Alegre with the help of singer Luis Telles; began working relationship with Antonio Carlos Jobim, 1956; released "Chega de Saudade," starting the bossa nova craze, 1958; moved to United States, 1962; remain in the U.S. until 1980 (with the exception of two years in Mexico); released Getz/Gilberto on Verve Records, 1963; recorded infrequent though well-received albums including João Gilberto, 1973; moved back to Brazil, 1980; performed several dates in the United States and Europe to commemorate 40th anniversary of bossa nova, 1998; released João voz e violão on Verve, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Getz/Gilberto , Verve, 1963.
- Joao Gilberto , Polydor Brasil, 1973.
- The Legendary Joao Gilberto , World Pacific, 1990.
- Joao voz e violão , Mercury, 1999; reissued, Verve, 2000.
- New York Times, September 19, 1977, p. 44.
- San Francisco Chronicle, July 29, 1998, p. D1.
- "Joao Gilbeto," Slipcue E-Zine, http://www.slipcue.com/music/brazil/brazillist.html (April 11, 2001).
- "The Man Who Invented Bossa Nova," Best Web, http://www.bestweb.net/~silkpurs/joao/essay.htm (April 12, 2001).