Newton Mendonça and Tom Jobim met in 1942, when they were fifteen, and became inseparable. There have been speculations about Mendonça’s songwriting abilities. Would he have measured up without Tom as his partner? What did he contribute to the songs they wrote together?
by: Daniella Thompson
Who was Newton Mendonça (1927-1960)? Among bossa nova lovers, the name is familiar as the one trailing Tom Jobim’s in the credits of such standards as “Desafinado,” “Meditação,” and “Samba de uma Nota Só.” Ruy Castro’s Chega de Saudade, the book many consider to be the seminal work on bossa nova, doesn’t shed much light on the figure long known as Tom’s earliest and personally closest partner. Castro tells us only that Newton Mendonça spent his entire musical career trapped as a nightclub pianist and died early of hereditary cardiac disease.
Over the past forty years there have been speculations about Mendonça’s songwriting abilities. Would he have measured up without Tom as his partner? What did he contribute to the songs they wrote together?
Many of the speculations have now been laid to rest in Marcelo Câmara’s biography Caminhos Cruzados: A Vida e a Música de Newton Mendonça (Mauad Editora, 155 p.). Câmara has been researching the life and work of Mendonça since 1996. He paints a portrait of a boy from a poor family, whose parents lived apart from the time he was twelve. Son of a junior army officer, Newton was educated in a military academy, where he manifested more interest in music than in socializing.
He was known as Newton Gaitinha, for the harmonica never left his mouth. Unlike Tom Jobim, who grew up in a middle-class household and had the advantage of formal musical education, Newton was largely self-taught beyond the rudimentary violin and piano lessons he had received from his mother. Yet a fellow military-academy student (who happened to be the son of the great choro flutist Benedito Lacerda) said that “music burst out of him.”
In 1940, Newton, his mother and siblings moved to Rua Nascimento Silva in Ipanema. There he befriended Carlos Madeira, who was distantly related to Tom Jobim. Newton and Tom met in 1942, when they were fifteen, and became inseparable, their bond cemented largely with music. Recalls Madeira: “Tom and Newton played the themes they created, without title or lyrics. They kept creating, experimenting…”
By 1951, both Newton and Tom had begun to play piano in nightclubs. The following year, Newton composed the samba-canção “Você Morreu pra Mim” and took it to the journalist and songwriter Fernando Lobo (Edu Lobo’s father), who arranged to have it recorded by the singer Dora Lopes in exchange for a co-author’s credit (friends report that this rankled Newton). Newton & Tom’s first recorded song was “Incerteza” (1953), with vocalist Mauricy Moura accompanied by Lyrio Panicalli and his orchestra.
How did they compose? By all accounts, they did it together, in “four hands,” as Newton characterized the process in a rare interview. Both contributed melody, harmony, and lyrics, passing the song from one to the other and arguing over the piano seat, which both wanted to occupy. Altogether, they collaborated on seventeen songs, thirteen of them recorded, two unpublished, and two lost. But this wasn’t Newton’s entire output. Of the 43 compositions Newton left, 26 (including “Você Morreu pra Mim”) were his alone—sambas, choros, canções, sambas-canções, and Carnaval marchinhas. The second part of the book is devoted to the songs. The musicians Jorge Mello and Rogério Guimarães discuss the musical aspects of thirty songs and present their scores.
Fourteen of the songs were recently released on the beautifully produced CD Caminhos Cruzados—Cris Delanno canta Newton Mendonça. Eight of them were penned by Newton alone (including the Lobo partnership), and two of those (“O Mar Apagou” and “Verdadeiro Amor”) had never been recorded. Even those solo songs that had been previously released are quite unknown, as are some of the New-Tom collaborations included here.
But this disc is worth hearing not just for the rarities it presents. Music director/arranger Roberto Menescal (who also plays all the guitar parts) assembled an expert team of musicians that includes pianist Adriano Souza, bassist Adriano Giffoni, drummer/percussionist Marcio Bahia, saxophonist Sérgio Galvão, and trombonist Bira, who provide the right setting for Cris Delanno’s powerful yet sensitive interpretations.
The booklet is a valuable bonus, crammed full as it is with lyrics, extensive notes on each song, a biographical timeline, and rarely seen photos of Newton Mendonça who, in a bizarre twist of fate, appears never to have been photographed with Tom Jobim.
Caminhos Cruzados—Cris Delanno canta Newton Mendonça
(Ilha Verde/Albatroz/Ouver 3306744-2; 2002) 48:49 min.
Musical direction & arrangements: Roberto Menescal
01. Brigas (Antonio Carlos Jobim/Newton Mendonça)
02. Só Saudade (Newton Mendonça/Antonio Carlos Jobim)
03. O Mar Apagou (Newton Mendonça)
04. Nuvem (Newton Mendonça)
05. Canção do Pescador (Newton Mendonça)
06. O Domingo Azul do Mar (Antonio Carlos Jobim/Newton Mendonça)
07. Incerteza (Newton Mendonça/Antonio Carlos Jobim)
08. Canção do Azul (Newton Mendonça)
09. Verdadeiro Amor (Newton Mendonça)
10. Seu Amor, Você (Newton Mendonça)
11. Caminhos Cruzados (Antonio Carlos Jobim/Newton Mendonça)
12. Você Morreu pra Mim (Fernando Lobo/Newton Mendonça)
13. Teu Castigo (Newton Mendonça/Antonio Carlos Jobim)
14. O Tempo Não Desfaz (Newton Mendonça)
This article was originally published in Daniella Thompson on Brazil.
Copyright © 2003 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.