Johnny Alf: Singer and pianist hailed as 'the real father of bossa nova'
Tuesday 08 June 2010
Although he never achieved the same fame or wealth as many of his colleagues, the singer, pianist and composer Johnny Alf was belatedly recognised as a seminal influence on the formulation of bossa nova. During a career spanning nearly six decades, he recorded only nine albums, but contributed to 46. The Brazilian journalist Ruy Castro, author of the book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (1990) described him as "the real father of bossa nova".
His best-known song was "Rapaz de Bem", which he first recorded in 1955. A samba-cancão with a jazz-oriented melody and piano block chords, it is seen by many as prefiguring the bossa nova craze that kicked off just two years afterwards. The song was covered by several artists, including Nara Leão, Baden Powell and Carlos Lyra, who recalled: "He opened the doors for us with his way of playing piano, with its jazz influence. When my generation arrived, he had already planted the seeds." Ironically enough, the song's lyrics contrasted the carefree lives of youth in south Rio de Janeiro with those of the rougher North Zone, where Alf grew up.
When Alf was only three years old, his father was drafted into the Brazilian army, and died during the brief Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932. His mother then went to work as a maid for a family in the wealthy beachside suburb of Tijuca, bringing her son with her. Noticing his love of music, her employer enrolled him in the IBEU (Brazilian-American Institute) where he studied piano from the age of nine. Although initially focused on classical music, he soon drifted towards jazz, heavily influenced by American artists such as George Shearing, the (Nat) King Cole Trio, George Gershwin and Cole Porter. At 14, he formed his first group, and took up his stage name at the suggestion of an American friend.
Alf was already writing songs when he applied to join an exclusive group of music enthusiasts dubbed the "Sinatra-Farney Fan Club", which included many of the future stars of bossa nova. The group's well-connected founder, Dick Farney, recommended Alf for his first professional engagement as the pianist at the Cantina do César in 1952. The same year, the actor and radio star Mary Gonçalves launched her recording career with the album Convite ao Romance, which included three of Alf's songs. Alf made his own recording debut the following year with a 78rpm single, featuring his song "Falsete".
He developed his heavily syncopated piano and bebop-influenced vocal style in a series of nightclub engagements, and by 1954, when he began playing at Copacabana's Plaza Hotel, he had acquired a serious following. The likes of Tom Jobim, João Donato and João Gilberto would drop by and jam with him, unconsciously working towards what would soon become bossa nova.
However, in 1965, Alf accepted a job in São Paulo to play at a bar called Baiuca. When visiting the venue in 1959, the American jazz singer Sarah Vaughan invited the star-struck Alf back to the US with her, but he froze and pretended not to understand.
In 1961, he recorded his first LP, Rapaz de Bem, and moved back to Rio the following year, by which time the bossa craze had peaked commercially – at least in Brazil. He moved back to São Paulo in 1965 to teach at a music conservatory, and had another hit in 1967 with "Eu e a Brisa" ("Me and the Breeze"). A significant acknowledgement of his importance came in 1990, with Olhos Negros, a collection of duets with admirers and colleagues such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil; his last album appeared in 1999.
Alf took part in the 50 Years of Bossa Nova celebration in Rio in 2008, although he was too ill to be included in a related show subsequently staged at London's Barbican Centre, having been receiving treatment for prostate cancer. His last public appearance was in August 2009 at Teatro do Sesi in São Paulo.
Alfredo José da Silva (Johnny Alf), singer, pianist and composer: born Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 19 May 1929; died São Paulo 4 March 2010.
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