This article appeared under the title "Plain Joćo" in the May 1998 issue of Brazzil magazine.

The Man Who Invented Bossa Nova

by Daniella Thompson


He’s been called O Rei da Bossa, O Mito, Il Maestro Supremo, and O Zen-Baiano. He’s been widely gossiped about throughout his long career. Hailed as a genius, clucked over as a reclusive eccentric, and arguably the most enigmatic Brazilian alive, João Gilberto continues to confound his countrymen forty years after he burst upon the public scene and changed Brazilian music forever.

  You do something to me
Something that simply mystifies me
Tell me why should it be
You have the power to hypnotize me
Let me live ‘neath your spell
Do do that voodoo that you do so well
For you do something to me
That nobody else could do.
–Cole Porter (recorded by João Gilberto in 1990)

Bossa nova, that most personal and international of Brazilian musical forms, has been blessed with numerous gifted composers. By far the greatest was Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim. Alone or in partnership with poet Vinícius de Moraes, fellow composer Newton Mendonça, and other illustrious collaborators, Jobim created some of the most famous and enduring bossa nova standards, such as "Garota de Ipanema," "Desafinado," and "Corcovado."

Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, the seminal bossa nova songwriting team, met in 1956, but the songs they turned out at the time were not particularly innovative. For two years, Jobim/de Moraes tunes sounded like traditional samba-canção (samba-song, a slower and more lyrical version of samba). Nobody got particularly excited over them. Then a certain young singer and guitarist came out of nowhere to give these songs a new vocal interpretation and a new beat. The year was 1958, and the new beat was soon known throughout the world as bossa nova.

That singer and guitarist was João Gilberto.

His seductive vocals caressed the ear as well as the soul, while his guitar set an insouciant swinging rhythm going. The voice pulled in one direction, the beat in another. The combination was mesmerizing and highly addictive, refreshing and modern. It opened a new page in the history of popular music. Yet it all began at the most traditional roots.


João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born on 10 June 1931 in Juazeiro, a small provincial town in the interior of the state of Bahia. His father, a prosperous merchant, was a stickler for education and insisted that each of his seven children obtain a school diploma. He was successful with six of them. The exception was the most intelligent child: Joãozinho (little João), who from an early age was interested in only one thing–music. When João was fourteen, a bohemian godfather gave him a guitar that soon became an extension of his body. By the age of fifteen, he was the leader and arranger of a boys’ musical group that rehearsed under an old tamarind tree in the center of town and performed regularly at social functions.

The music João heard during his childhood in the ’40s emanated from the loudspeaker of a local store. It included U.S. hits like "Caravan" with Duke Ellington, "Song of India" with Tommy Dorsey, "Dream Lover" with Jeanette MacDonald, and "Ménilmontant" with the French singer/composer Charles Trenet. Of course, there was also a host of Brazilian successes of the period, such as Geraldo Pereira’s "Bolinha de Papel" with Anjos do Inferno; Herivelto Martins’ "Ave Maria no Morro" with Trio de Ouro, whose members included the composer and his wife, Dalva de Oliveira; Bide and Marçal’s "A Primeira Vez" with João’s singing idol Orlando Silva; and "O Samba da Minha Terra," composed and sung by the great Bahian songwriter Dorival Caymmi. In later years, many of these old songs would find their way into João Gilberto’s repertoire and recordings, much to the consternation of his modernist fans.

By the time he was eighteen, João had outgrown Juazeiro and moved to Bahia’s capital, Salvador, to try his luck as a radio singer. Many singers of the period derived their sole income from performing on live radio shows. Traditionally, gambling casinos had provided the best employment for musicians, but when gambling was declared illegal in 1946, performers fell upon hard times, and competition for radio contracts became fierce.

João never became a radio success in Salvador, but while he was there, someone heard him sing and liked his voice. That someone was a member of the vocal group Garotos da Lua, who sang daily on Radio Tupi in Rio de Janeiro. Radio Tupi had just hired a new artistic director, Antônio Maria, who was to become a powerful columnist and successful songwriter (he would write the lyrics of "Manhã de Carnaval," theme of the film Orfeu Negro). Maria took a dislike to the intimate singing style of the group’s lead singer, Jonas Silva. Complaining that Silva was singing baixinho and forcing the whole group "to whisper"–and when it came to singing Carnaval songs, they "just didn’t make it"–Maria threatened to cancel the Garotos’ contract unless they replaced their crooner with someone who sounded more like Lúcio Alves, the highly popular founder and leader of the premier vocal group Namorados da Lua.

At the time, João Gilberto sounded like a hybrid between Lúcio Alves and Orlando Silva. The Garotos figured they were getting the best of both worlds and cabled him to come to Rio. It’s interesting to note that nine years later, João would revolutionize popular singing with the same low-pitched, whispering, vibrato-less style for which Jonas Silva had lost his job to João.

Rio de Janeiro

In 1950, at the age of nineteen, João Gilberto arrived in the capital. From his very first days in Rio, it was eminently clear to his group-mates that their new crooner harbored aspirations for a solo career. To make things worse, his behavior wasn’t altogether professional. On more than one occasion, he was late for shows or simply didn’t appear at all. The Garotos da Lua began to prepare for surviving without him. A year after his arrival, João was fired from the group for one absence too many, but he remained their friend and even continued to share an apartment with several of them. In fact, throughout his first decade in Rio and until he married Astrud Weinert, João Gilberto never had a home of his own. He was forever a "permanent guest" at one friend’s apartment after another. It was always understood by his hosts that he would never be asked to participate in paying the rent or covering other household expenses. Occasionally he would bring home some fruit (tangerines were his favorites), but his most significant contributions were his surpassingly intelligent conversation and the captivating music he played.

A night owl, João would sleep during the day and play all night, even though his hosts usually held day jobs. Upon returning from work, they would keep him company until the small hours and think nothing of it. João’s ability to charm people and get them to do his bidding worked against all odds–until finally his hosts would have enough and ask him to move on. There was always someone else willing to take him in.

Following his dismissal from Garotos da Lua, João’s career took a steep downward turn. For seven lean years he was out of the public eye. By his mid-twenties João was chronically depressed and a heavy user of maconha (marijuana). His appearance was unkempt, his hair long, his clothes ragged. Almost no one would hire him. João’s girlfriend at the time, Sylvia Telles (later one of the most successful bossa nova singers), left him for another musician.

At night, he would stand outside the Rio clubs where his friends–pianists João Donato, Johnny Alf, and Tom Jobim, guitarist Luiz Bonfá, or singers Dolores Duran, Ivon Cury, and Lúcio Alves–were performing and wait for them to join him during intermissions. It looked as if João Gilberto would never amount to anything. Without money and work, almost without friends, his pride nonetheless prevented him from taking on jobs he considered demeaning, such as singing in clubs where people talked during the performance or recording commercial jingles. And he resolutely refused to consider a "normal" (i.e., non-musical) job, as his family wished him to do.

The "Lost" Years

If any one man can be credited with helping João Gilberto get back on track, it is the gaúcho Luís Telles. The leader of the old-fashioned singing group Quitandinha Serenaders, with whom João sang for a while, Telles took João under his wing and got him away from the corrosive influences of Rio. In 1955, João spent seven months in Telles’ hometown, Porto Alegre, where Telles put him up in a luxurious hotel and circulated him in society. João soon became the toast of the sleepy town. Single-handedly he altered Porto Alegre’s nightlife. People who normally went to bed early now stayed up all night to adapt themselves to his hours.

The Clube da Chave (Key Club) became the obligatory nightspot, because at any moment Joãozinho might appear with his guitar (and this could occur at 3 am). All the patrons adored him and sat enraptured for hours listening to him play or just talk. Soon, some lost their gaúcho accent and adopted his Bahian one. At the club, João never sang any song all the way to the end. After some questioning, he confided that he didn’t like his guitar, and besides, the strings were made of steel; if possible, he’d like to have a new guitar with nylon strings.

The club members chipped in and bought him a new guitar. Still João didn’t play. It turned out he didn’t care for this one either. His patrons weren’t offended; instead, they went back to the store and exchanged the instrument. New guitar in hand, João began a performance marathon that lasted several months.

His ego bolstered, João followed the spell in Porto Alegre with a stay of eight months in Diamantina, a historic mining town in the state of Minas Gerais where his elder sister Dadainha lived with her husband. Soon the whole town knew that Dadainha and Péricles had a peculiar guest who spent his days dressed in pajamas, always playing guitar and never leaving the house. João played day and night, often the same chord repeated innumerable ways. Having found that the bathroom possessed ideal acoustics for hearing his voice and instrument, João took his experiments there.

He discovered that by singing quietly and without vibrato, he was able to speed up or slow down his vocals in relation to the guitar, thereby creating his own tempo. To accomplish this, he learned to change the way he emitted sounds, using the nose more than the mouth. He incorporated into his music the best features of his various idols: the natural enunciation of Orlando Silva and Frank Sinatra; the sustained breathing and velvet tones of Dick Farney; the timbres of trombonist Frank Rosolino from Stan Kenton’s band; the cool, intimate delivery of the Page Cavanaugh Trio, Joe Mooney, and Jonas Silva; the interplay of the vocal groups–in João’s case, using the voice to alter or to complete the guitar’s harmony; and the syncopated piano beat of his close friends João Donato and Johnny Alf.

In Dadainha’s tiled, humid bathroom, the legendary João Gilberto began to take his recognizable shape. So far, however, nobody but he knew of his talent. For the first time, João began to admit that he wasn’t professionally disciplined enough to take Rio by storm. At this time he also developed a strong aversion to maconha. For the rest of his life, João Gilberto disavowed smoking or drinking anything stronger than orange juice, although the singer/composer Joyce recalls that when she first met him in Mexico City in 1970, he ate nothing but smoked cigarettes).

While João was honing the bossa nova beat, Dadainha and Péricles were very concerned about his emotional health and believed that he needed medical help. João was therefore sent to his parents’ home in Juazeiro, where his father, a bel canto fan, ridiculed his singing with the remark, "This isn’t music–It’s nhenhenhém." To his boyhood friends, who remembered how he used to imitate Orlando Silva to perfection, his new mode of singing sounded less than masculine. Eager to avoid taunts, João took to practicing in secluded spots. On the banks of the São Francisco river, he watched the laundresses pass by, balancing loads of clothes on their heads. Attempting to reproduce the rhythm of their swaying steps, he composed "Bim-Bom," the first bossa nova song.

Bim-bom, bim-bim-bom
Bim-bom, bim-bim-bom
Bim-bom, bim-bim-bom
Bim-bom, bim-bim-bom
É só isso meu baião
E não tem mais nada não
O meu coração pediu assim

Bim-bom, bim-bim-bom
Bim-bom, bim-bim-bom

This is all of my song
And there’s nothing more
My heart has asked that it be this way...

The zen-like simplicity of "Bim-Bom" would come to characterize all future João Gilberto compositions. Over the intervening forty years, they’ve been considered works of pure perfection. At the time, however, the only impression such music made on João’s father was a growing belief that his son was mentally disturbed. An embarrassment to his family in Juazeiro, the errant son was dispatched to a psychiatric sanatorium in Salvador, where he was subjected to a battery of psychological interviews. In the course of one of those, staring out of the window, João remarked, "Look at the wind depilating the trees." The psychologist committed the error of saying, "But trees have no hair, João," to which remark he responded, "And there are people who have no poetry." He was released from the sanatorium after a week’s stay.

On the Brink of Stardom

In late 1956, João was finally ready to return to Rio. There he spent the next year making contacts and demonstrating his new beat with "Bim-Bom" and another song he’d composed, "Hô-Ba-La-Lá." Some of his new friends were old-guard artists like the composer Bororó, whose classic songs "Curare" and "Da Cor do Pecado" João would record years later. Others were budding talents he would profoundly influence: guitarists and future composers Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescal, and singer/guitarist Nara Leão, the celebrated muse of bossa nova.

João also renewed his friendship with old colleagues. He visited Jonas Silva, the singer he had replaced in Garotos da Lua, and asked, "Jonas, do you have a guitar?" Jonas replied, "No João, you know that I don’t play guitar." "Well, buy one. Then I’ll be able to come to your house and play." The same day, Jonas bought a guitar, selected with great care by one of João’s oldest friends. João appeared a few days later, played one song composed by Jonas, and said he had to leave. It was the first and last time he played that guitar. Jonas’ song, "Rosinha," fared better. In 1990, João would record it on his album João.

Of all the contacts, old or new, that João Gilberto made in Rio, by far the most important was the rekindled acquaintance with Tom Jobim. Tom was now a full-fledged composer. Years ago he had graduated from nightclub pianist to recording arranger and producer at the British-owned record label Odeon (now EMI). When João played "Bim-Bom" and "Hô-Ba-La-Lá" for Tom, the latter was impressed not so much with the singing as with the guitar.

He immediately recognized the possibilities inherent in the beat: it simplified the rhythm of samba and allowed a lot of room for modern harmonies of the kind Tom was creating. Looking over his compositions to see how he could work the new rhythm into them, he found a song he had written with Vinícius de Moraes at least a year earlier. The song was "Chega de Saudade."

"Chega de Saudade" is universally acknowledged as the song that launched both the bossa nova movement and João Gilberto’s career. It’s his signature piece. But João was not the first singer to record "Chega de Saudade." That distinction belongs to Elizeth Cardoso, a highly respected singer’s singer who never sold vast quantities of records. The recording came about because Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes had the opportunity to make a limited-edition (2,000 copies), non-profit album of their songs in 1958. The disc was called Canção do Amor Demais, and nobody would be talking about it today but for the fact that João Gilberto’s guitar was present on two of its thirteen tracks. While Elizeth Cardoso was learning the songs, João showed her how to delay and advance a chord’s rhythm the way he thought "Chega de Saudade" should be sung, but Elizeth would have none of it and let him know she could do without his advice. She sang the song the conventional way. Only João’s guitar hinted at what was to come.

João wasn’t the second artist to record "Chega de Saudade" either. His friends, the vocal group Os Cariocas, recorded it before him, and because their guitarist Badeco couldn’t duplicate João’s beat, João volunteered to sit in at the recording and play anonymously. Twice now he’s accompanied other singers on a recording of "Chega de Saudade." It looked as if the song that was tailor-made for him was slipping away.

His own chance came in the summer of 1958. Tom Jobim had been agitating at Odeon to record a 78-rpm single with João, and it was an uphill battle. Odeon’s artistic director at the time was Aloysio de Oliveira, who had been Carmen Miranda’s bandleader in the United States. A lover of powerful, resonant voices (his idol was Dorival Caymmi), he saw no commercial potential for an artist who sang quietly and used no vibrato. It took a lot of pleading from Tom, a guarantee from Odeon’s sales director, and a personal recommendation from Caymmi himself before Aloysio relented and authorized a low-cost production.

But the recording, which with any other singer would have been concluded in a matter of a few hours, stretched on for days as João constantly interrupted the musicians (whose errors only he could hear), confronted the technical staff with unheard-of demands (separate microphones for voice and guitar), and argued with Tom himself about chords. Despite all the conflicts, the definitive takes of "Chega de Saudade" and "Bim-Bom" were finally recorded on 10 July 1958. The single was sent to the record stores in Rio, where it remained in total obscurity for several months.

What finally rescued the disc from oblivion was the concerted effort of Odeon’s sales staff in São Paulo. There, too, the beginning was rocky. When they played "Chega de Saudade" for an important client, he thundered, "Why do they record singers who have a cold?" Before the song was over, the client tore the disc off the turntable, smashed it against the corner of the table, and declared, "So, this is the shit they send us from Rio?" The Odeon staff explained that this music was something different, modern, courageous; that young people were going to buy it. The client thought again, and the ball started rolling. The success in São Paulo snowballed back to Rio. A star was born.

The Reluctant Star

Over the next three years, João Gilberto recorded the three seminal albums of bossa nova: Chega de Saudade (Odeon, 1959), O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor (Odeon, 1960), and João Gilberto (Odeon, 1961). The three LPs have been reissued on the CD The Legendary João Gilberto (World Pacific, 1990).

In 1961, the U.S. State Department organized a good-will jazz tour of Latin America. One of the musicians on that tour was guitarist Charlie Byrd, who was deeply impressed with João Gilberto and Tom Jobim’s music. Back in the States, he played one of João’s records for his saxophonist friend Stan Getz. As Getz told it two decades later, "I immediately fell in love with it... Charlie Byrd had tried to sell a record of it with I don’t know how many companies, and none of ‘em wanted it. What they needed was the voice–the horn."

Getz and Byrd’s LP Jazz Samba (Verve, 1962) became a monster hit. It spent 70 weeks on the pop charts and attained #1 ranking. It made Getz a superstar and spawned four more Getz bossa nova albums, the most successful of which was (and still is) Getz/Gilberto (Verve, 1964) with João, Astrud, and Tom. It was the record that unleashed "The Girl of Ipanema" upon the world.

João Gilberto lived in the United States from 1962 until 1980 (with the exception of a two-year stay in Mexico). During his years of exile he recorded–including Getz/Gilberto –a scanty list of five outstanding albums: João Gilberto en México (Philips, 1970); João Gilberto (aka "The White Album," PolyGram/Verve, 1973); The Best of Two Worlds with Stan Getz and João’s second wife Miúcha (Columbia, 1976); and Amoroso (Warner Bros., 1977). Never concerned with financial success, João spent his time privately playing, composing, and plumbing the forgotten treasures of Brazilian music.

Against the prevailing market trends, he recorded masterpieces by older Brazilian composers such as Ary Barroso ("Morena Boca de Ouro"), Dorival Caymmi ("Rosa Morena"), Noel Rosa ("Palpite Infeliz"), and Geraldo Pereira ("Falsa Baiana"). More than anyone, João Gilberto is responsible for the popular revival of neglected songs from the first five decades of the century. He’s also the only non-Italian–perhaps the only person–ever to turn an Italian song into a worldwide jazz standard ("Estate").

Since his return to Brazil, João Gilberto has recorded five more albums: João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira (Warner Bros., 1980; reissued on CD with four bonus tracks in 1998); Brasil with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Maria Bethânia (Warner Bros., 1981); Live in Montreux (Elektra, 1987); João (PolyGram/Verve, 1991); and Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar (Sony, 1995). João’s discs typically mix bossa nova mainstays with his own minimal compositions, old songs from any part of the world, and the work of younger Brazilian songwriters such as Chico Buarque ("Retrato em Branco e Preto," with music by Tom Jobim), Caetano Veloso ("Sampa"), and Gilberto Gil ("Eu Vim da Bahia"). The latter three, along with MPB superstars like Gal Costa, Djavan, Moraes Moreira, and João Bosco, regard him as their inspiration and master, as do several generations of composers and performers around the globe.

A famous recluse, João Gilberto is the subject of many widely circulating stories and anecdotes. Some of the most endearing concern cats, whom he adores. One day in 1960, he was in the recording studio when his wife Astrud phoned to say that their cat Gato fell out of the window. João rushed home in a taxi and took the cat to the vet, but it died on the way. While he was gone, the studio musicians invented the story that the cat committed suicide after hearing João rehearse the song "O Pato" one time too many.

Another cat story marks the end of the marriage. In the summer of 1963, João, along with his alter-ego and pianist João Donato, bassist Tião Neto, and drummer Milton Banana traveled to Italy for an engagement. Astrud was with them in Rome, but by the time they’ve reached Viareggio, in Southern Italy, she was gone, replaced by a female cat called Romaninha that João had found in Rome.

A third cat story concerning João in Rome was told by Massimo Berdini, an Italian producer: "One day, on leaving a restaurant, he spent a long time conversing with a street cat. And the most surprising thing was that the cat was hypnotized by his language. In the face of my astonishment, he explained himself saying that the cat could hear in the same mode as he did."

Moraes Moreira, leader of the group Novos Baianos, told the following two stories during a show (on the CD Acústico, Virgin Brasil, 1995). Before singing "Mistério do Planeta": "It’s impossible to sing this song without remembering João Gilberto and his presence in my life and the life of Novos Baianos. When he came to our apartment in Botafogo, he arrived at midnight. He started to sing with us and left at eight in the morning, after a marvelous breakfast. He came back the next day at midnight, and we sang all night long."

Before singing "Lá Vem o Brasil Descendo a Ladeira": "Another time João Gilberto is present in my life. We were in Rio de Janeiro at dawn–João adores the night, doesn’t he?–and on one of those marvelous hills of Rio, João saw a mulata coming down in the morning with full energy, with full swing, ready for life. He looked and said, ‘Look there, look at Brazil coming down the hill.’ That’s how this song was born."

Caetano Veloso told a French magazine, "To give you an idea, sometimes he decides, just for fun, to imitate people. He imitates the way of walking, the way of talking, of anyone. When he feels like it, he even imitates Fred Astaire." Caetano’s sister, singing star Maria Bethânia, says João Gilberto "simply is music. He plays. He sings. Without stopping. Day and night. He is very, very strange. But he is the most fascinating being, the most fascinating person, that I have encountered on the surface of the earth. João, he is mystery. He hypnotizes."

An excellent place to conclude this piece.

Recommended reading: Most of the biographical information in this article was extracted from the book Chega de Saudade, a História e as Histórias da Bossa Nova by Ruy Castro (Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 1990).