When talking about bossa nova, perhaps the signature pop music sound of Brazil, frequently the first name to come to one’s lips is that of Antonio Carlos Jobim. With songs like “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Desafindo,” Jobim pretty much set the standard for the creation of the bossa nova in the mid-’50s. However, as is often the case, others come along and take the genre in a new direction, reinventing through radical reinterpretation, be it lyrically, rhythmically, or in live performance, making the music theirs. And if Jobim gets credit for laying the foundation of bossa nova, then the genre was brilliantly reimagined (and, arguably, defined) by the singer/songwriter and guitarist João Gilberto. In his native country he is called O Mito (The Legend), a deserving nickname, for since he began recording in late ’50s Gilberto, with his signature soft, near-whispering croon, set a standard few have equaled.
Born in 1931 in Juazeiro in the northeastern state of Brazil known as Bahia, Gilberto seemed obsessed with music almost from the moment he emerged from the womb. His grandfather bought him his first guitar at age 14 (much to the dismay of João’s father). Within a year, the result of near constant practicing, he was the leader of a band made up of school friends. During this time Gilberto was absorbing the rhythmic subtlety of the Brazilian pop songs of the day, while also taking in the rich sounds of swing jazz (Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey), as well as the light opera singing of Jeanette MacDonald. At 18, Gilberto gave up on his small town life and headed to Bahia’s largest city, Salvador, to get a foothold in the music industry performing on live radio shows. Although he was given the opportunity to sing, instant stardom was not in the offing, but his brief appearances on the radio brought him to the attention of Antonio Maria, who wanted Gilberto to become the lead singer for the popular radio band Garotos da Lua (Boys From the Moon) and move to Rio de Janeiro.