Johnny Alf: Singer and pianist hailed as 'the real father of bossa nova'

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West, performing in New York last week, has been the subject of controversy as rock's traditional headline slot at Glastonbury is lost once again
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living