Nélson Gonçalves

Nélson Gonçalves

Sérgio Motta and Luís Eduardo Magalhães die in action leaving
Fernando Henrique Cardoso orphan.
By

A heart attack sealed for ever the mouth of one of the most prolific and beloved
Brazilian crooners, Nélson Gonçalves. The 78-year-old singer who suffered from lung
emphysema for many years, but who kept an active agenda till the end, died April 18 at his
daughter Margareth’s house in Gávea, a neighborhood in Rio’s south side. He was living
with his daughter since separating from his wife Maria Luíza a year and a half ago. They
had lived together since the ’60s. The singer had seven children, five of them adoptive.

On October 1996 he had suffered another heart attack and was taken to an ICU (Intensive
Care Unit). The crooner was buried under applause and the accords of one of his most loved
songs, "A Volta do Boêmio" (The Bohemian’s Return).

In a recent interview with Rio daily Jornal do Brasil the singer dreamed of a
glorious death: "It will be during a nationwide TV program. The orchestra will start
the music and then I will interrupt and say: `My friends, my artistic career is right now
getting to an end. Farewell.’ Distrustful of the respect Brazilians reserve for its idols
he made a wish that wasn’t granted him. "I want to be cremated," he said,
"so nobody will be able to come and pee over my tomb."

The powerfully-voiced romantic balladeer—so powerful that he could do without a
microphone—was looking forward to a golden disc award (for records that sell more
than 100,000 copies) given him for Ainda É Cedo (It’s Still Early), a CD with rock
and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira—Brazilian Popular Music) tunes. Recorded in
September of last year, Ainda É Cedo was his 128th disc. He recorded more than
2,000 songs and sold more than 78 millions copies of his tunes.

His own life had much of the drama of the despair-ridden songs he sang. Born on June
26, 1919, in Santana do Livramento, state of Rio Grande do Sul, Antônio Gonçalves Sobral
moved with his family to the working-class neighborhood of Brás, São Paulo, when he was
six. He changed his name to Nélson before turning 20 because he liked the sonority of the
new name. His father was the owner and his mother the dancer on a little circus. Composer
Adelino Moreira, his most frequent partner, says that Gonçalves was really born in
Portugal, but did not want to reveal this for fear of losing fans.

Nélson was a stutterer. His father, a Portuguese by the name of Manuel, was a small
time con who would play the guitar on open markets, sometimes pretending to be a blind man
while little Nélson perched on a soapbox would sing and collect money from the
compassionate audience.

As a child, Nélson worked as paperboy and shoeshine boy. Later he also tried his hand
as barber, car mechanic, and waiter in a bar owned by his older brother in Avenida São
João in downtown São Paulo. It is said that he got enough money to move to Rio, then the
federal capital, by pocketing part of the money paid by customers.

His romantic life was stormy and his personal life deserving of a bad and outlandish
soap opera. His descent into hell apparently started in São Paulo at the end of the ’50s
after being "betrayed by the woman I loved." At that time he became addicted to
cocaine, a problem that dogged him from 1958 to 1973. Bully, womanizer, and a gigolo of
four prostitutes from Lapa, in Rio, he married three times. The singer also spent time in
jail accused of drug trafficking.

He was 18 when he had his first chance as a singer after winning a talent show at
Rádio Tupi in São Paulo. Two years later, in 1939 he moved to Rio, where in 1941
RCA-Victor (BMG-Ariola today) would record his first disc including Ataulfo Alves’s samba
"Sinto-me Bem" (I Feel Good). That same year Nélson was elected by the readers
of Revista do Rádio as Rei do Rádio (King of Radio). One year later he was hired
as a crooner by fabled hangout-for-the-wealthy Copacabana Palace Hotel. His 1946
recording, "Maria Betânia," a classic by Pernambucano (from Pernambuco
state) composer Capiba, was the reason famed singer Maria Bethânia got her name.

But the tune that most people associate with Gonçalves was recorded in 1953. It is
"A Volta do Boêmio" (The Bohemian’s Return) composed by his most constant
partner, Adelino Moreira. Together they created anthological pieces of Brazilian
sentimentality and kitsch, songs like "Deus do Asfalto" (God of the Asphalt),
"Escultura" (Sculpture), "Êxtase", "Mariposa" (Moth) and
"Fica Comigo Esta Noite" (Stay With Me Tonight).

This was a bountiful partnership that lasted throughout the ’50s, even though sometimes
it is not very clear which was Nélson Gonçalves’s participation. There is no doubt,
however, that it was thanks to his stirring voice that the songs became such a big hit.

In 1961 he sang at New York’s City Hall, but by 1962 his career seemed finished due to
his drug problems. Three years later he rebounded with the LP A Volta do Boêmio nº 1
(The Bohemian’s Return No. 1).

His life inspired a successful play called Metralha (Machine Gun) by Stella
Miranda with actor Diogo Vilela interpreting the singer. Nélson saw the play and was
moved by it. Metralha was the nickname he got as a child for stammering, even though the
singer tells a different story, that he got the epithet for talking too fast. "I am
not a stutterer," he used to say, "I just want to talk as fast as I think."
With Francisco Alves, Orlando Silva and Sílvio Caldas, Nelson Gonçalves made up the
quartet of the vastly popular male singers who won Brazilians’ hearts in the 40s. He was
the last survivor.

Nélson Gonçalves became that rare character in Brazil: a non-foreign artist
considered a cult figure. Superstitious in extreme, he used to carry around an array of
religious amulets from Our Lady medals and crucifixes to voodoo symbols like Ogum, Xangô
and Oxalá charms.

In an interview with Brazilian Playboy published in March, the crooner confided,
"I am 78, but I feel like a 25-year-old youngster." Macho man till the end, he
had implanted a penile prosthesis.

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