Walter Wanderley, noted jazz organist

Walter Wonderley's fiendishly bouncy Jetsons space-party sound brings to mind visions of poolside conspiratorial conferences of Swiss bankers in girlwatcher shades and emigre Nazis clutching pina-coladas while disposing of ill-gotten gold bullion amidst tanga-clad chocolate babes.

Stuart Swezey

Walter José Wanderley (pronounced VON-der-lay) Mendonça was born May 12, 1932 in Recife, Brazil. He began taking piano lessons at the age of 5, and by 12 he had entered an arts school in Recife to study arranging. Early on he took part in the musical culture of the city, playing organ and piano for a number of jazz and Latin groups around town. In 1958, he met and married Isaurhina Garcia, a popular Brazilian singer, and became her chief accompanist.

In 1959, he and Isaurinha recorded their first album, and over the next 3 years, he would record 6 albums with his wife and, after Isaurinha settled down to take care of their daughter Monica, 19 others with early bossa nova luminaries such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, and Marcos Valle. More often than not, Walter would receive no credit for the recordings, because he had an exclusive deal with Philips Records.

Wanderley was known as around town as the best pianist, but he was something of a secondary artist, a second fiddle to the famous bandleaders of the day. Sometimes this caused him great consternation, as when he walked out on Gilberto's recordings one day because Gilberto kept correcting Walter's organ sound for him to get just the right tone. Still, Walter proved himself to be a most able player all the same, and in 1963, he was spotted by the great Tony Bennett, who urged him to move the United States and sign with Verve Records. Wanderley, who had just gotten a divorce from Isaurhina, reluctantly agreed and came to America.

In 1966, he recorded Valle's "Summer Samba" and it became an instant hit, reaching #26 on the Billboard charts and receiving heavy rotation on the radio. He followed it up with his LP Rain Forest featuring the song, and the album went platinum two years later. He later hooked up with Astrud Gilberto (Joao's wife) to record her album A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness. All in all, he recorded 6 albums for Verve in his lifetime, most of which displayed his upbeat, kinetic free-form bossa nova roots and his technical prowess at the organ.

Walter spent the last years of his life moving into the newer sounds of fusion jazz and progressive rock. Sadly, the Boss of the Bossa Nova contracted cancer and passed away September 4, 1986. Ten years after his death, the lounge pop revival has brought his name back to certain music circles, and he is widely regarded as one of the most inventive and fun-loving jazz organists of all time. Although you might not recognize his name, the sound of his jazz organ is so definable as to be almost iconic.

Selected Discography

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