Elis Regina, Brazilian singer
Born in 1945 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Elis began her performing career early on a radio show when she was just 11. She recorded her first LP at 14, and in 1965, her smash hit "Arrastão" made her Brazil's biggest selling artist of her day. Arrastão is important not only in Regina's career, but also a crystallized moment signifying the Brazilian musical evolution from a pure bossa nova/samba-based music culture into MPB (Musica Popular Brasilia), which incorporated elements of folk, rock, and R&B along with a more socially conscious lyrical mood.
Elis surprised everyone in 1967 by announcing she was marrying a cross-town music producing rival, the popular but anachronistic Ronaldo Boscoli, more notable for his arrangements of Brazilian samba and American jazz standards. Boscoli was 38, and although the two loved each other passionately, they appeared to argue even more passionately. After the birth of their son Joao their marriage dissolved, with Elis famously throwing Ronaldo's Frank Sinatra LPs into the ocean (a symbolic gesture if there ever was one.)
Following up on the huge success of her first single, Regina - nicknamed "The Little Pepper" for the contrast between her diminutive stature and her dynamite voice - collaborated with a number of excellent musicians and songwriters to help shape and define the new tropicalia sound which emerged from MPB. Some of her co-workers included Gilberto Gil, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Baden Powell, Milton Nascimento, and most importantly César Camargo Mariano, who she subsequently seduced (while he was still married!) and married herself.
Regina was not a political bystander, and her increasingly confrontational comments made at the expense of the Brazilian dictatorship led by Artur da Costa de Silva eventually came to a head when she declared on European television that Brazil was run by a "bunch of gorillas." The statement so incensed the Silva leadership that she was forced, under threat of imprisonment, to sing the Brazilian national anthem in 1969 on Brazilian "independence day." This led to an outcry and backlash against her by her supporters, who showed no sympathy despite Regina's arguments that her children needed her as much as the country did.
Much of Regina's best work came in the 1970s (like Madonna and Cher, "Elis" was a household word in Brazil), and what's particularly striking is that her signature work was all done before she had reached the age of 30. Her voice is confident and playful, her pitch perfect to a lilting fault, and she captures that indescribable Latin charm in every note. Of particular note is her interpretation of "Corcovado" on 1974's Elis & Tom. There has never been a better version.
In Brazil, she was particularly popular for putting on a number of large stage variety shows (something akin to a primitive Cirque du Soleil) featuring singers, dancers, and acrobats, which performed for hundreds of thousands of people over the years.
However, Elis was not without a dark side, and in her case the trouble was cocaine. She became hooked on the drug sometime in the late 70s, but hid her addiction from both Cesar and her many associates. Upon Cesar's discovery of her problem, he filed for divorce and took custody of their three children.
Elis then met Sam McDowell, a lawyer, and two planned a marriage and a new home in 1982. A new recording contract and positive relations with the United States meant an international tour was forthcoming. Everything was coming up roses. But on January 19, while listening to old records and preparing for some new arrangements for a demo session, Regina overdosed on cocaine and Cinzano. She was 36.
One of the reasons Elis isn't more well-known despite her success is that, like many other cult favorites of that period such as Sandy Denny and Margo Guran she suffered from an intense stage fright and fear of failure. By all accounts she suffered not only insecurity but also a form of bipolar disorder, showing manic mood swings and extreme emotional outbursts throughout her life.
Much of her music has been released in the States and abroad through Verve Records. Some of my particular favorites are the aforementioned Elis & Tom, 1970 and 1971's eponymously-titled albums, and Saudade Do Brasil, a recording of one of her stage shows that can only be described as pure Latin joy.