The big recording stores don’t carry any titles by Wilson Simonal, a singer who died blacklisted, accused of being a police informant. The musician himself and others prefer to attribute his ostracism to racism.
He started his career in the early sixties singing rock in a radio program hosted by Carlos Imperial, a talent scout who has discovered many other musical entertainers. His swing and ability to make the public sing with him made Wilson Simonal de Castro, better known as Wilson Simonal, a huge success on TV and in always packed live shows. His work spanned 37 years and 19 albums, but after being accused of being an informant for the military regime—an accusation that was never substantiated—Simonal was blacklisted by the media in the early seventies and never was able to recover from this.
He died on June 25, at age 62, from cirrhosis before his wife, Sandra Manzini Cerqueira, a lawyer and talent manager, was able to finish her work to prove the singer was never a collaborator of the military dictatorship. Recently she was able to access documents from the Justice Ministry and the presidency’s Department of Strategic Affairs showing that Simonal’s name does not show in any list of informants for the military.
He was born of a mother who washed clothes for a living, on February 28, 1938, in Água Santa, a suburb of Rio. His name was a tribute to Simonard, the doctor with a French last name, who used to help the poor woman. The official preparing the birth certificate didn’t know how to write the name and spelled Simonal.
He started singing in the late ’50s and was taken to Rio’s renowned Beco das Garrafas in 1961, where he was heard by Sérgio Mendes, Luís Carlos Mièle, and Ronaldo Bôscoli. But he would not be linked to the bossa nova. In 1962 he released the album A Nova Dimensão do Samba, a mix of samba and black American pop music. He would soon adopt a more popular approach.
The singer became a national idol using a style that became known as pilantragem (mischief) and singing tunes like “País Tropical,” “Sá Marina,” “Meu Limão Meu Limoeiro,” and “Mamãe Passou Açúcar em Mim.” The album Tem Algo Mais was released in 1963 and had an instant hit: Tito Madi’s “Balanço Zona Sul”.
“Meu Limão, Meu Limoeiro” was a Carlos Imperial adaptation of the American folk song “Lemon Tree”. As for Jorge Ben’s “País Tropical,” Simonal would not say país tropical (tropical country), but pa tropi, and patropi became a national way to refer to Brazil during a time in which people had to be very careful when referring to the country in order not to incur the ire of the military.
In 1966, the musician started hosting Show em Si Monal, a musical show on TV Record. Simonal had no political preference, but had some friends in the police when, in 1971, he found out that Rafael Vivani, his bookkeeper, was embezzling from him. Instead of taking the man to the justice he called those friends in the police to give the swindler a lesson. He was condemned and later sent to jail for having helped in the kidnapping of the employee. At the time he was cited as saying that he felt comfortable about the kidnapping because he had friends at DOPS (Departamento de Ordem Política e Social—Department of Political and Social Order), the police arm of the military regime that took over Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
The story leaked and from then on his career went into a sharp decline. He would soon be banned by recording companies, his own singing colleagues and by radio and TV. Even today the big recording stores don’t carry any titles by him. Simonal himself and others preferred to attribute his ostracism to racism. After all, he was the only black singer who was a big star in his time, drove expensive foreign cars, was always dating beautiful blonde women and sold more records than almost anybody else.
Talking about the importance of Simonal for the Brazilian music, music expert Zuza Homem de Mello declared soon after the singer’s death: “Simonal was one of the most modern singers of Brazilian music history. He certainly was one of the most representative singers during the ’60s and it was a tremendous injustice to link his name with the military dictatorship. Whatever sin he committed he paid too steep a price. There was a lack of humanity, people transformed him into a monster. There’s no certainty that he collaborated with the dictatorship, but the case was presented as if it were the truth. He suffered a lot with all these stories.”
Mello visited the singer in the hospital a week before his death: “Despite still being very hurt by this story of having his name connected to the military dictatorship he was in good spirits.”