In February 1939 a young, unknown singer-songwriter got the most fabulous break of his life by recording a duet of his swinging samba "O Que É Que A Bahiana Tem?" ("What is it about Bahian Women?") with Brazil's biggest ever vocal star. The song became one of Carmen Miranda's signature pieces just before she took Hollywood by storm, and launched Dorival Caymmi as a leading figure in Brazilian song.
Caymmi's own stellar recording career would span the next 65 years, at the end of which Brazil's president described him as "one of the founders of música popular brazileira". Caymmi was an enduring influence on successive generations of Brazilian musicians, most notably the bossa nova pioneers António Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto, as well as Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, the main protagonists of the politically informed tropicalismo movement of the late 1960s. Caymmi himself released over 20 albums, using his silky baritone and guitar on more than 100 of his own songs. Many were also recorded by other Brazilian artists as well as the American crooners Andy Williams and Perry Como, who both covered "Das Rosas", made over in English as "And Roses and Roses".
Born in 1914 to an Afro-Brazilian mother and an Italian father, Caymmi grew up in the Bahian state capital, Salvador, absorbing the rich mix of folkloric and popular styles of the time, such as the toada and modinha as well as fishermen's chants and the incantations of candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian faith that has most of its followers in Bahia. These would all influence the samba-cançao ("sung samba") style he worked in after beginning to write songs at the age of 16.
He started a career as a reporter for the newspaper O Imparcial, but in 1936 won the local carnival song contest. Two years later, he moved to Rio de Janeiro to study law and continued working as a journalist, but friends persuaded him to pursue music instead. This decision paid off when "O Que É Que A Bahiana Tem?" was chosen as the theme song for the Carmen Miranda film Banana-da-Terra (1939). Not only did Caymmi add his voice to this initial version (later re-recorded in the US), he also coached the star to perform the expressive arm and hand movements that would become one of her trademarks.
Caymmi performed often on Rádio Nacional, where he met his future wife Adelaide Tostes, whose stage name was Stella Marris. They were married in 1940 and all three of their children – Nana, Dori and Danilo – went on to become successful musicians in their own right. Over the years, several of Caymmi's songs including "Promessa de Pescador" and "Samba da Minha Terra" became standards, establishing an emblematic image of Brazil, and in particular his native Bahia.
As the writer Jorge Amado (who collaborated with Caymmi on several songs) observed: "His theme is Bahia, its life, its people, its drama, its struggle, its mystery, its poetry, its loves, the morena (dark-haired girls) of Itapoã and the roses of April, Iemanjá (the sea goddess) and the wind from the ocean, the sailboat and the schooner, the world of Bahia."
Caetano Veloso was another artist who revered Caymmi, and describes himself in his memoir Tropical Truth (1997) as a "Caymmian" song writer. Veloso notes how Caymmi's song "Rosa Morena" was a key influence on João Gilberto's development of what would become the bossa nova in the late 1950s: "Caymmi's songs seem to exist of their own accord, but the perfection of their simplicity, attained through precision in the choice of words and notes, is the mark of an exacting author."
In 1993 the label Lumiar issued the first disc of a four-CD compilation, Songbook Dorival Caymmi, featuring versions of his works by the likes of Tom Zé, Martinho Da Vila and Dori Caymmi. In 2001, the Salvador City Hall dedicated its annual carnival to Caymmi.
Although he underwent treatment for cancer during the last decade of his life, Caymmi managed to record his final album at the age of 90. He wasn't well enough, however, to take part in the Barbican's "50 Years of Bossa Nova" celebration in May this year, but his son Dori did appear. The night's compère, the Brazilian singer Joyce, observed that bossa nova "did not come out of the blue" but was the result of the groundwork by songwriters such as Noel Rosa and Dorival Caymmi.
Dorival Caymmi, singer and songwriter: born Salvador, Brazil 30 April 1914; married Adelaide Tostes (two sons, one daughter); died Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 16 August 2008.