By Roberto Muggiati
I was very excited to see one of the first performances of Elis, a musical that would be the Brazilian equivalent of, say, a Broadway show devoted to the life of Judy Garland. Elis is a spectacle of deep nostalgia, taking into account the tragic fate of the singer, Elis Regina, who died in January 1982 at the age of 36. (That’s a sad record for solo female singers: Billie Holiday died at 44, Piaf at 47.)
Contemplating the show, I traveled in a time tunnel to the privileged and unique personal encounter I had with Elis, a tête-à-tête showered with champagne at the Club des Musiciens at the Montreux Jazz Festival. On that Brazilian Night on Friday, July 20, 1979, her show had sold out, so there was an extra show added in the afternoon. In both shows, Elis preceded Hermeto on stage, and not the other way around, as many people have written. I’m certain Elis opened because I wrote my article less than 72 hours later for Manchete. Elis “opened” for Hermeto without problems. There were no frills of a diva; also, she took into account that Montreux was a primarily instrumental festival.
Elis debuted on WEA after 15 years at Polygram and knew Montreux was a fabulous showcase for her. She gave the best of herself in a purple lamé blouse that put her arms on display, a red skirt like a flamenco dancer’s, and a purple orchid in her hair, recalling Billie Holiday. Her group was very jazzy: her husband, Cesar Camargo Mariano on keyboards; Hélio Delmiro, guitar; Luizão Maia, bass; Paulinho Braga, drums; Chico Batera, percussion.
André Midani, the president of WEA, gave his impressions of that Brazilian night in his book, Música, ídolos e poder: Do vinil ao download (2008). According to Midani, Elis “sweated in droves, was pale and breathless, as if carrying the world on her shoulders.” Barely walking at the back of the stage, Midani provided Elis with a glass of water, and she “drank it in a gulp and returned to the microphone.”
Following the last song by Hermeto, Elis took the stage again to sing with O Bruxo at the piano. Asa Branca, Corcovado, and The Girl from Ipanema (check it out on YouTube) are perhaps the most intense thirteen minutes in the history of MPB. Elis had switched her vamp costume for a plain dress with floral prints. According to the alarmists on duty, Hermeto tried to outshine Elis. But there would be none of this: his bending chords and delirious polyrhythms only validated her songs, by then the supreme lady of all arts and genuine vocals. She stroked several times the pure leonine mane of Hermeto and exchanged hugs and kisses and cuddling without end, in physical and spiritual communion.
Elis was quoted as saying about her performance: “And to think that Ella Fitzgerald had stepped on that same stage just a week ago! I am the daughter of a laundress, I was upset, I wanted to die!” (Ella Fitzgerald was also the daughter of washerwoman.) Dissatisfied with her show, Elis made Midani swear he would never release those tapes. I didn’t know about this whirlwind of ideas and emotions from Elis when I went with her to a tête-à-tête at the Bar des Musiciens, where César performed with the gringos.
At the invitation of Marco Mazzola, producer of the WEA, I had the unique opportunity of an informal conversation with Elis, sipping champagne, she with the same simple dress immortalized in clips with Hermeto. I talked for hours, gave her a copy of my book: Rock el grito y el mito, in the version from Siglo Veintiuno, editor of Borges and Cortazar. At the time, for a Selmer tenor saxophone, I was on the verge of throwing away 25 years of journalism.
Stimulated by the bubbles, I dumped on Elis — a patient listener — all my existential doubts. Eight years younger than I, she seemed to have a zen tranquility, totally at peace with life. The next day, Saturday, I found Elis again at a luncheon at the home of Claude Nobs, the Montreux Festival organizer. Under the summer sun, she was talking in the garden with Al Jarreau about a project to bring together the two of them on an album. Sunday morning, I saw her for the last time on our flight from Geneva to Paris, from the front of the plane she gave me a wave. At Charles de Gaulle airport, our ways parted: she was disappearing gradually into a huge glass tunnel that led to her plane to Tokyo. Elis and Hermeto were leaving for a jazz festival in Japan, and I was going back to Rio to tell the story of Montreux.
Two and a half years later — like all of Brazil — I was surprised by the news of her death at the age of 36. I watched at home on TV her burial at the Morumbi Cemetery. In Rio, it was the holiday of St. Sebastian, January 20. Elis, Elis, why did you abandon us? — I thought, recalling her serene presence on that night in Montreux. Weird life: I thought I was the suicidal one . . . .
Roberto Muggiati is a regular contributor to CIE. He is a musician who writes about music for numerous newspapers and magazines in Brazil.
[Photos courtesy of the author]