One of the main architects of bossa nova, Brazilian singer and guitarist João Gilberto patented the genre's singular vocal and rhythmic signature. Being of a more reserved nature than brothers in arms Antonio Carlos Jobim and Newton Mendonça, Gilberto always seemed content to keep a low profile. From the early 1960s on, as he was making a name for himself in the United States, the musician chose to follow a non linear career path. Recordings and concerts came at irregular intervals, in keeping with this eccentric genius' whim. His reputation as well as his undisputed authority over musicians the world over earned him the most suitable nickname, O Mito - The Myth.
Music is his passion
João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born on June 10, 1931, in the Brazilian town of Juazeiro, near Salvador de Bahia. The boy took an early interest in music. That interest soon turned into an obsession, very much to the dislike of João's father, who was rather hoping his son would obtain a school diploma.
At 14, João was offered a guitar. He invested much time and effort to master the instrument. Within a year, the boy was proficient enough to take the reins of a group of young local musicians.
At 18, he moved to Salvador in the hope of making it as a professional. His first endeavours did not make him an overnight sensation, but thanks to a few live radio performances, he was invited to move to Rio and join popular boys band Garotos da Lua.
Gilberto's tenure with the Garotos was short-lived. His lackadaisical attitude got him the boot. The musician spent the next couple of years gently drifting from one friend's flat to another. He turned down work offers he thought were demeaning. He embraced a Bohemian lifestyle, sleeping all day, staying up all night, and making marijuana the staple of his diet.
Gilberto was eventually shaken out of his apathy by fellow vocalist Luiz Telles, who convinced him to relocate to the quiet provicial city of Pôrto Alegre. The change of scenery was profitable. Having kicked his drug habit, the singer and guitarist focused solely on music. His experiments bore fruit, as he perfected his distinctive vocal style and refined his guitar playing.
The birth of bossa
Making the most of a stay in his local hometown, Gilberto wrote one of his better known ditties, Bim-Bom, which some consider as the very first bossa nova song. Back in Rio, the artist resumed work and set on expanding on his repertoire, making new friends and renewing old friendships along the way.
One contact from yesteryear proved crucial: Antonio Carlos Jobim, by now a fully-fledged composer, was impressed with Gilberto's approach to rhythm. He offered him to have a go at Chega de Saudade, a song cowritten by Vinicius de Moraes which songstress Elizabeth Cardoso had already recorded. Gilberto put his stamp on it and bossa nova was officially rolling. The composition featured on Gilberto's first album, which was titled after it (1959). Two popular LPs, O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor (1960) and João Gilberto (1961), soon followed.
In 1962, the musician moved to the United States, where he would stay until 1980. During his time there, he put out a handful of well-received albums. His 1963 collaboration with American saxophonist Stan Getz led to the recording of the absolute classic Getz/Gilberto in 1963. With Tom Jobim guesting on piano, the pair recorded a handful of gems, including the definitive version of The Girl from Ipanema - sung by João's wife, Astrud. Getz and Gilberto shared the bill of a live Carnegie Hall recording the year after. The two artists would team up once more in 1976, on The Best of Both Worlds.
Back in Brazil
Since returning to his native land at the beginning of the 1990s, Gilberto has rubbed shoulders with a host of Brazilian legends, from Caetano Veloso to Gilberto Gil and Cgico Buarque. As well as delighting the crowds with his own compositions, the musicians has taken it upon himself to revive the work of forgotten songwriters from the first half of the 20th century.
Gilberto played his first concert at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 2001, at Place des Arts. Since then, he has been spending his days quietly in the shadows, living up to his mythical reputation. His heart still beats to the music, his lifelong passion.