The first time you listen to Elis Regina, you are overwhelmed by the emotion with which she sings. You can hear her smile and feel her joy. Her intense energy is palpable. The power and attack of her technique spellbinds the listener. Elis interprets every song in her own unique way, with raw and honest emotion. This is especially evident when she sings ballads and sad songs of saudade. Her voice trembles as the tears stream down her face. She truly feels every song and draws in the listener like no other singer can.
Sadly, you will be hard pressed to find her name on lists recognizing the greatest singers of all time. This amazing singer did not achieve international fame, in part because she was first and foremost a Brazilian. She loved her country and was dedicated to her people, but her appeal is not limited to them. Her tremendous talent was a gift that people around the world continue to discover and enjoy.
Born to a working class family in Porto Alegre on March 17, 1945, Elis Regina Carvalho Costa shot to fame at an early age, singing on the radio for the first time when she was just 11 years old. She signed her first professional contract at age 13 and recorded her first album Viva a Brotolândia (Long Live Teenage-Land) in 1961 at age 15. (Listen to Tú Serás)
Elis recorded two more albums in her hometown, Poema (listen to Pode Voltar) in 1962 and O Bem do Amor in 1963. She moved to Rio de Janeiro with her father in 1964, just before Golpe de 64, the coup d’état that led to the overthrow of President João Goulart by the Brazilian armed forces, achieved with the backing of the United States government and involvement of the CIA. This was the beginning of a brutal and repressive military dictatorship that would last until 1985. During this 20 year period, numerous Brazilian writers, musicians and intellectuals were imprisoned or exiled.
Elis Regina’s arrival in Rio de Janeiro also coincided with the decline of bossa nova, which had already peaked in popularity. Bossa nova, which means “new trend,” had arisen in the 1950s as a counterpoint to the traditional dominance of the samba. Bossa nova is considered cool and was heavily influenced by American jazz. In contrast, Elis Regina was a “hot,” emotional singer, and although she was firmly in the jazz milieu, her approach did not readily lend itself to bossa nova. Through her style and reaction to the volatile conditions in Brazil at that time, Elis would go on to write a new chapter in Brazilian popular music, not only because of her unique approach, but also because she introduced a wealth of new songs and composers to the Brazilian music scene throughout her career.
Elis gained national recognition in 1965 at the First Festival of Popular Music aired live on Excelsior TV, where she sang Arrastão (Trawling Net), written by Edu Lobo and Vinícius de Moraes. Elis skillfully rendered this song into a subtle protest against the military dictatorship, running the risk of censorship and disqualification. Her rendition resonated with the Brazilian people; Elis won the festival and firmly established herself in the pantheon of Brazilian music. Here is an excerpt from this performance:
It was around this time that Elis received the nickname “Pimentinha” (little pepper) from Vinícius de Moraes, Brazil’s poet laureate and one of the three giants who created bossa nova, in recognition of her boundless energy and fiery personality. She also became known as “Furação” (hurricane) because of her strength and temper. As with anyone who lived so passionately and emotionally, Elis was a true force to be reckoned with, and this sometimes made her difficult to work and live with. At the age of 20, she had already become a household name and her face was featured on a number of prominent Brazilian magazines, the fulfillment of her lifelong dream and the benchmark by which she measured success.
In 1965, Elis moved to São Paulo and starred in a show alongside singer Jair Rodrigues. Some of her performances with Jair are included on Samba Eu Canto Assim, and featured on the Dois na Bossa album series, all of which are on the Philips label and highly recommended as an entry point into the world of Elis Regina. These early recordings demonstrate the exciting technical prowess and dexterity she possessed. (Listen to Pot-porri (Medley))
That same year, Elis became the highest paid singer in the history of Brazil, earning six million cruzeiros a month (the next highest paid singer had been Agostinho de Santos, who earned 800,000 cruzeiros a month). She went on to record six more albums before the decade was over. These included Elis, Como Porque in 1969, which featured as its first track the unofficial national anthem of Brazil, Aquarela do Brasil (Watercolor of Brazil). This particular song highlights one of Elis’ talents: interpretation. Elis did not write the music or lyrics of the songs she sang, but she listened to a wide range of songs from a variety of composers and had knack for picking out repertoires for each studio recording or live show that expressed how she felt and what she wanted to say at that time.
Other albums from 1969 include Elis in London, made with English conductor and composer Peter Knight (listen to Você) as well as an album recorded in Sweden with Belgian jazz musician Toots Thielemans on guitar and harmonica (Elis & Toots). Here they are performing Wave:
While traveling in Europe in 1969, Elis was quoted in a Dutch newspaper as saying the Brazilian government was “made up of gorillas.” The Brazilian embassy sent the newspapers to the Serviço Nacional de Informações (National Information Service), akin to the Department of Homeland Security or NSA in the U.S. today. The Brazilian government threatened to arrest Elis, but the uproar that would have resulted due to her immense popularity may have been what saved her from this fate.
In 1970, Elis released Em Pleno Verão (listen to Fechado pra Balanço) and an album recorded live at the Praia Theatre in São Paulo featuring actor Luís Carlos Miele that included a wonderful song by Gilberto Gil called Aquele Abraço. This album provides an example of Elis’ ability to sing in languages other than Brazilian Portuguese. She also sang fluently and without an accent in French and English, as you can hear in her luscious rendition of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You by Frankie Valli.
In 1971 the album Ela was released (listen to Aviso aos Navegantes). In 1972, she recorded the first of three different albums entitled Elis. The 1972 version featured what would become one of her signature songs, Atrás da Porta (Behind the Door) by Francis Hime and Chico Buarque, as well as a personal favorite of mine called Olhos Abertos. The second Elis, recorded in 1973, is one of my favorite Elis Regina recordings overall. You can listen to the entire album here.
Despite her opposition to the political situation during this period, Elis sang the Brazilian national anthem at the Olimpíadas do Exército (Army Olympics), a celebration for the military forces during Semana da Pátria (Patriot Week). She was criticized for this, notably by the influential cartoonist and writer Henrique Filho, popularly known as “Henfil,” who said “if people didn’t resist the [government] pressure, how were we ever going to secure this country?” She later revealed that she had been coerced to participate, possibly as retribution for her “gorilla” comment back in 1969.
In 1974, Elis recorded Elis é Tom with Antonio Carlos Jobim (known in Brazil simply as “Tom”). The album begins with Águas De Março, which in 2001 was voted the all-time best Brazilian song in a poll of more than 200 Brazilian journalists. This album went on to become one of the best-selling and most popular Brazilian music albums of all time. It is an absolute must-have for the Brazilian music aficionado.
The third album titled Elis was released in 1974. This is another excellent album (listen to O Mestre-Sala dos Mares (The Master of the Seas)). Elis said she had finally “fallen in love with her voice and was really on a roll, culminating in the Falso Brilhante live show and resulting in a 1976 album of the same name. This was a conceptually complex show that in places surreptitiously criticized the military junta. Here is the full performance:
In 1977, Elis released a fourth self-titled LP (listen to Morro Velho). In 1978, she launched a new live show called Tansversal do Tempo, which yielded a live album and fortunately, video recordings:
One of the many highlights of her career was when she performed at the 1979 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. She and the band were extremely nervous, and she almost lost her nerve on stage. As the band played her intro and she was vocalizing to warm up back stage, the crowd overheard her and started cheering. She was overwhelmed with emotion and nearly unable to sing as she choked back the tears. She later explained, “I remembered that I was the daughter of a cleaning lady. What was I doing on that stage?” Fortunately, she regained her composure and after her performance ended, received an 11-minute standing ovation.
This was as close as she ever got to international fame and recognition. There was a failed attempt at making a record with American jazz musician Wayne Shorter. Had this worked out, it may have catapulted her to a wider audience outside Brazil. Certainly her music, while quintessentially Brazilian, also has universal appeal. Elis was a proud Brazilian who cared about her country and its people. This is evident in her belief that “Both Brazil 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.”
One of her greatest attempts to diminish anguish came in 1979 with her recording of the song O Bêbado E A Equilibrista (The Drunk and the Tightrope Walker). This song became an anthem for the amnesty of Brazilians exiled by the military government. It was included on an album titled Elis, Essa Mulher. The cartoonist Henfil remembers hearing her rendition and realizing “she was singing more with emotion than with technique, I was overwhelmed. When the song ended, I realized that the amnesty would take place. We were at the beginning of the campaign, and could barely get five hundred people out in the street…I realized something: the dictatorship, the government would realize that after this song, no one could prevent the moment of amnesty. I wrote to my brother Betinho [who was in exile at that time] and told him to get ready: Now we have a hymn. And whoever has a hymn, has a revolution.”
In 1980, a new decade began with a new show called Saudade do Brasil that yielded a double album that was later sold as two separate recordings. Here is the full show:
In 1981, Elis created a new show called Trem Azul, and the album of the same name includes the track Alô Alô Marciano, which she used in live performances to showcase her sense of humor and vocal playfulness, as well as her impression of Louis Armstrong. After two failed marriages many ups and downs and more success than failure, Elis was at the peak of her abilities and she was laser-focused on her next steps. She was planning her third marriage and already putting together the repertoire for a new show as she continued to move full steam ahead at the end of 1981.
I have tried to focus on Elis Regina the singer by providing a chronological introduction to her major works peppered with links to songs and video clips I hope the reader will take the time to explore. Much has been written elsewhere about her strong personality and tumultuous personal life, but that is not focus of this essay, which abruptly ends here. It ends here, because this is where Elis ends. She died suddenly on January 19, 1982, at 36 years of age, allegedly from a fatal combination of alcohol and cocaine. The news of her death shocked and devastated her family, friends and nearly everyone in Brazil.
This may ultimately be the reason the name Elis Regina remains unknown in the wider world, and yet, 34 years after her death, she continues to touch people like us who discover her, forever alive through her musical legacy. She was a spark that lit the fire of hope and freedom, a testament to the power of music’s ability to move the hearts and minds of people everywhere.
Robert St-Louis, who translated the biography Furacão Elis into English, remarks that “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.”
Note: Many of the quotes and details in this essay came from Furacão Elis by Regina Echeverria. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about Elis Regina.