Natalício Lima: Guitarist best known for the million-selling 'Maria Elena'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Towards the end of 1963, the world was entranced by two Brazilian brothers playing "Maria Elena" on acoustic guitars. The record sold several million copies and although they had a long career before and after "Maria Elena", they are regarded as one-hit wonders.

The Tabajara tribe was part of the native population living in the jungles of Cearà in northern Brazil. Around 1933, the tribe of around 800 people was visited by a detachment of Brazilian soldiers. Two teenage boys, Muçaperé ("number three" in the Tupi language) and Erundi ("number four"), the sons of a chieftain with 14 children, were baptised by the army chaplain and given new names by the commander, Lieutenant Hildebrando Moreira Lima: Natalício (often shortened to Nato) and Altenor Lima.

The army had given the boys a spirit of adventure. They left the tribe and followed the soldiers. They hunted and fished and did odd jobs where they could, although at first they had no concept of money. En route, they found a guitar that had presumably been left by some explorers. At first, they handled it warily, thinking that it might be a weapon or a bomb, but then realised that it made musical sounds.

The brothers reached Rio de Janeiro, a journey of over a thousand miles, after three years. By then, they were able to sing tribal songs to their own guitar accompaniment. They busked and then played in bars, and they taught themselves to read and speak Portuguese.

After performing for some time on radio as Los Indios Tabajaras, they were signed to RCA in 1943. They recorded for the Latin-American market and their biggest success was with "Pajaro Campana" in Brazil in 1954. They studied classical composers and recorded works by Chopin, Villa-Lobos and Rimsky-Korsakov. Natalício built himself a guitar with 26 frets instead of the standard 19 so that he could achieve a higher tone.

In 1958, Los Indios Tabajaras made an album for RCA Records, Sweet and Savage. This album included "Maria Elena". The tune had been written by Lorenzo Barcelata in 1930 and named after the wife of the Mexican president, Emilio Portes Gil. In 1941, it was an American success for Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra with an English lyric, which was sung by Bob Eberle. The version by Los Indios Tabajaras simply featured their acoustic guitars.

In 1963, a radio station in New York, WNEW, was using "Maria Elena" by Los Indios Tabajaras to go in and out of the news, and listeners wanted to know what it was. As a result, RCA released "Maria Elena" as a single in the States, and disc jockeys picked up on its beautiful, gentle melody. At the time the brothers were working on a ranch outside of Rio. Although the record had no gimmicks they were encouraged to wear ceremonial costumes, including feathered headdresses, usually made by Altenor. The single reached No 6 in the US and No 5 in the UK.

They followed their success with "Always in My Heart", an equally fine record, but lightning did not strike twice. They made easy listening albums such as Casually Classic (1966) and Twin Guitars: In a Mood for Lovers (1967). Usually, they would wear their Indian costumes for the first half of the concert and then switch to dress suits for classical pieces. They also appeared regularly on The Johnny Carson Show.

The country music producer, Chet Atkins, persuaded Don Gibson to record with them. There were language difficulties and Gibson, hard-drinking and impatient, gave up after five tracks. The subsequent album, Don Gibson with Spanish Guitars (1966), was made with Nashville session men, but the completed tracks from the aborted sessions were added to a reissue on the Bear Family label in 1986.

Natalício married Michiko Mikami in Tokyo in 1971 and they settled in New York. Michiko had played the piano as a child and when Altenor retired in 1979, she resolved to learn the guitar and partner Natalício. They released an album, Beautiful Sounds (1981), and were touring until recent years when Natalício became ill.

Spencer Leigh

Natalício Lima, guitarist: born Brazil 1918; married 1971 Michiko Mikami; died New York City 15 November 2009.