The bossa nova was conceived in Rio in the mid-'50s by a generation of highly gifted singer-songwriters who loved West Coast jazz and adapted its lyrical approach to cool off and personalize the samba. Among these Brazilian innovators were Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Luiz Bonfa, Joao Donato and Vinicius de Moraes. By the early '60s, the demand in the U.S. and Europe for new catchy bossa nova melodies began to outstrip the supply, and new Brazilian composers were sought. Enter Marcos Valle [pictured], whom I write about in today's Wall Street Journal (go here) in advance of his Birdland appearance in New York starting tonight (go here). Marcos will be joined by another Brazilian legend, vocalist Wanda Sa.
For those unfamiliar with Marcos, back in the mid-'60s he was at the forefront of a second generation of bossa nova singer- songwriters and was the new wave's most prolific writer. Over the course of his career, he has composed nearly 600 songs, many of them instantly known. His most famous is Summer Samba (So Nice), which was recorded as an instrumental by the Walter Wanderley Trio in 1966 and reached No. 26 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Marcos, the 67-year-old bossa-nova guitarist, pianist, accordionist, singer and composer talks about growing up in Rio and composing Summer Samba (So Nice):
JazzWax: When was the last time you were in the U.S. to perform?
Marcos Valle: Last May, I was a guest of Emilio Santiago at Birdland. Several weeks ago I was in Fort Lauderdale, where I received an award and tribute for my contribution to Brazilian culture and helping to export it worldwide.
JW: Did you grow up in Rio de Janeiro?
MV: Yes. My family was middle-class. My father was a lawyer, and there were five of us—three boys and two girls. So it was not easy for my father to support us. We never had anything easy. But we had a comfortable life.
JW: What is the age difference between you and your brother Paulo Sergio Valle, the famous Brazilian lyricist?
MV: My brother [pictured] is three years older than I am. He still writes lyrics for his songwriting partners. We also collaborate, and I try to include at least two of those songs in each album I record.
JW: What did you listen to on the radio and on records while growing up?
MV: Even before I was five years old, I was interested in music. I used to listen to different kinds of popular music in Brazil. My parents had many records that I played, and I was especially attracted by Baiao, a rhythm that’s from the north of Brazil. But the traditional samba also was very important to my development. I would listen to a lot of classical music. My grandmother was a piano teacher and my mother played.
JW: When did you start playing?
MV: When I was almost 5 years old. I would play melodies on the piano. So my grandmother and mother decided to take me to an important classical music teacher. She gave me a test and told them that I had talent and that I should develop it. I studied classical music on the piano for almost seven years. Later I started listening to the American big bands as well as Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
JW: What other instruments did you study?
MV: In addition to piano, I began studying the accordion at age 12 and the guitar at age 16. I started by writing songs for girlfriends in school. I had bands, and we would play for free at parties. Then we began playing on TV shows, which caught the attention of record producers.
JW: When was the first time you heard bossa nova?
MV: I was at a party with a girlfriend when someone put on a newly released record by Joao Gilberto. I was immediately enchanted by it. I thought it was so refreshing and charming. It was like magic.
JW: Why was bossa nova so upbeat and romantic in the late 50s and early 60s?
MV: Brazil was very positive and optimistic at the time with President Juscelino Kubitschek in power. The economy was doing very well. So the bossa nova was part of that spirit and reflected the national feeling. It was at once simplistic and sophisticated. The basic instrument to play it was the guitar, because the instrument was easier for many young people to learn than the piano.
JW: How did you compose with your brother?
MV: When I started writing songs to sell, my brother and I were still living with my parents. This allowed him to hear me playing melodies on the piano and guitar. He would try to imagine what I was trying to say with those songs. One day, my brother, who was well read and had learned a little bit of accordion, gave me a poem to see if I could write a melody for it. It was difficult, since the poem’s meter changed four times. But that only made me work hard to find a suitable melody. As a result, the song became unusual and interesting.
JW: What was the name of the song?
MV: Sonho de Maria, or Maria’s Dream. Maria was a poor woman who lived in the slums and had lost everything she owned in a heavy rainstorm. After that experience, I told my brother we should work the other way around. I would write the melody first, then he would write the lyrics. And this is how we worked going forward.
JW: When did you start recording?
MV: In 1963. The album, Samba Demais, was released in 1964. That year I received an award from Brazilian critics as best new singer and songwriter of the year. My brother was named best lyricist, and Eumir Deodato was best new arranger.
JW: When did you write Summer Samba?
MV: In 1964, shortly after Samba Demais was released. I included it on my second album, O Compositor e O Cantor, released in 1965. I wrote the song in the bedroom that my brother and I shared at our parents’ house. I wrote it on the guitar. The melody came at once. I felt that it was a strong melody, but I never imagined it would be such an international hit.
JW: When did you realize it was special?
MV: Days later I was surfing at Arpoador Beach near Ipanema when the songwriter and musician Roberto Menescal arrived in his Volkswagen. He had a guitar with him, so I asked him if I could borrow it to play him my new melody. He listened intently and told me right away that it was going to be a big success.
MV: And he was right. The song became a hit in Brazil as an instrumental, recorded by my friend Deodato, in 1964 and then by Walter Wanderley in the U.S. in 1966.
JW: How did Summer Samba become So Nice?
MV: With the success of Walter Wanderley’s instrumental version, the American publisher asked Norman Gimbel [pictured] to write lyrics for it. He did, but his translation did not follow the Portuguese lyrics. He did something different. The theme of the lyrics was So Nice, so it became known as So Nice with Summer Samba as the subtitle. Then Johnny Mathis, Connie Francis and dozens of other singers recorded it.
JazzWax tracks: Marcos Valle's first two albums were released in Brazil: Samba Demais (1964) and O Compositor e O Cantor (1965). They created a sensation, leading Antonio Carlos Jobim to become Marcos' mentor. Both albums are poetic, seductive and overwhelmingly beautiful. Both are hauntingly sensual and gentle, evocative of Rio in the early '60s. Fortunately, both are available as downloads at iTunes or here and here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Marcos on the Andy Williams Show singing his hit, Summer Samba (So Nice)...
Here's Deodato's recording of Summer Samba from 1964...
And here's Wanda Sa in the early 1960s...