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Elizete Cardoso, the singer whose album Chega de Saudade launched the bossa nova, was also the first popular singer to interpret Villa-Lobos at the Municipal Theaters of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and was considered by Almirante the best interpreter of Noel Rosa. Adored by Edith Piaf ("C'est merveilleuse! C'est merveilleuse!"), paid homage by Cartola (who wrote especially for her his famous samba-canção "Acontece"), and a most cherished artist by the Brazilian audiences, she was also known as "the Divina" (an alias given to her by Haroldo Costa and popularized by Vinicius de Moraes in his liner notes to Chega de Saudade).
Her ample tessitura, capable of exploring faithfully both low and high registers, and her highly personal interpretation, full of a melancholy that witnessed the essence of an artist who experienced deep sadness in her life (along with all the rewards that success can bring), conveyed an unforgettable poetic density. In her almost 70 years of artistic activities, she performed a wide palette of genres, but her preference was for the samba.
Born to a musical family, her father was a seresteiro (serenader) and her mother an amateur singer. At five, Cardoso debuted as a singer, performing at the rancho Kananga do Japão (a historical Carnival rancho founded in 1911). Having to work since very young, she had several small jobs until she was discovered by Jacob do Bandolim at the party for her 16th birthday, where he was brought to by her cousin Pedro, a popular figure among the musicians of the time. Enthusiastic about the young singer, Jacob do Bandolim took her to Rádio Guanabara, where she opened, on August 18, 1936, at the Programa Suburbano, with such artists as Noel Rosa, Vicente Celestino, Aracy de Almeida, and Marília Batista. Approved as a member of the cast, she started to perform there regularly at Tuesdays. Cardoso worked at several other radio stations, but she supplemented her earnings with performances in circuses, clubs, and cinemas. With Grande Otelo, she kept a duo for over ten years whose pièce de résistance was "Boneca de Piche" (Ary Barroso/Luís Iglésias). Always in financial difficulties, Cardoso got a job as a taxi-girl at the Dancing Avenida, where she also became a crooner in 1941. In 1945, she was hired by Júlio Simões to work in his dancing ballroom Casa Verde in São Paulo, where her fan club was expanded and came to include Adoniran Barbosa, the producers Vicente Leporace and Egas Moniz, and Blota Júnior, the A&R director of Rádio Cruzeiro do Sul. Cardoso worked there for one year and returned to her job at the Dancing Avenida, in Rio, as the crooner of the Orquestra de Dedé. Soon, she started to work at other dance ballrooms, like the Brasil, the Samba Danças, the Eldorado, and the Belas Artes. She was also, in that period, the crooner for the Orquestra de Guilherme Pereira.
In 1948, Cardoso met Evaldo Rui, who would be instrumental in her artistic career (having also been her lover). Rui counseled her in terms of her performance and took her to Rádio Mauá, where she worked with her discoverer, Jacob do Bandolim. But, soon, she was hired by Rádio Guanabara, which reopened big time and decided to compete with the major radios, Nacional, Tupi, and Mayrink Veiga.
In 1950, Ataulfo Alves got Cardoso an invitation to record for the first time, at Star. The first record though, with the sambas "Braços Vazios" (Acir Alves/Edgard G. Alves) and "Mensageiro da Saudade" (Ataulfo Alves), was withdrawn from circulation by the company due to alleged technical problems. But she was spotted at the Dancing Avenida by the composer Erasmo Silva, who was working for the Todamérica recording company, which would be opened in a few days. On July 25, 1950, she recorded through the new company "Complexo" (Wilson Batista), on the A-side, and "Canção de Amor" (Chocolate/Elano de Paula). The arrangements by the conductor Pachequinho for the latter song proved to be too complicated for the violinists; 12 of the 18 had to leave for their gig at Rádio Nacional, causing the song to go unrecorded. It was up to the outstanding saxophonist Zé Bodega to improvise the introduction and fill in the blanks.
Surprisingly, the radios preferred to play "Canção de Amor." The result was immediate, with Cardoso being hired by Almirante to work at Rádio Tupi, the second most popular station in Rio. In the next year she debuted on TV, working on the first TV show of Rio de Janeiro (at TV Tupi), and in the cinema, in Coração Matrerno (Gilda de Abreu) and É Fogo na Roupa (Watson Macedo). Also in 1951, she was hired by Rádio Mayrink Veiga and by the Vogue club, recording in that year one of her biggest hits, "Barracão" (Luís Antônio/Oldemar Magalhães). In 1952, Cardoso worked on the film O Rei do Samba (Luís de Barros), and in the next year she had a signal of her rising prestige through an invitation to perform at the Golden Room of the Copacabana Palace, where just international artists were allowed (the only other Brazilians to perform there being Sílvio Caldas and Dorival Caymmi). But she preferred to perform at the Casablanca club, because the place was frequented by journalists. She opened there with the show Feitiço da Vila (dedicated to the songs by Noel Rosa and his partners) on June 8, 1953, and her strategy was successful, with enthusiastic reviews by renowned critics like Lúcio Rangel, Elsie Lessa, Vinícius de Moraes, Fernando Lobo, and others.
In November, Cardoso recorded one of her few Carnaval hits, the marcha "Ai, Ai, Janot" (Pedro Alves/Gerson Filho/Antônio Filho). The song played with the fiasco of engineer Janot Pacheco, who had claimed to have discovered a chemical process to produce rain.
The show Feitiço da Vila was opened in São Paulo with the same success of the Carioca season. But in September 1954, Evaldo Rui committed suicide, and the newspapers explored with sensationalism her role in the tragedy. Out of her suffering, she was invited to a 15-day tour of Uruguay, the first of a series of tours in that country.
Still in 1954, Cardoso opened a show with Sílvio Caldas at the Oasis nightclub in São Paulo. According to the newspapers of the city, it was the most successful spectacle until then in the history of São Paulo.
In 1956, Cardoso signed with the Copacabana recording company (in spite of the attempts of Odeon and Sinter), through which she would release most of her hits for the following 20 years. Already a famous artist, Cardoso hosted several exclusive shows on different radios, including Audições Elizete Cardoso (Rádio Mundial) and Canta Elizete (Mayrink Veiga).
Two years later, Cardoso was invited by Vinicius de Moraes to be the singer of an album of songs written by himself and Tom Jobim. Canção do Amor Demais became the first album of bossa nova, launching the new genre. The album was recorded for the label Festa, owned by Irineu Garcia. The label was specialized in recorded poetry, having produced albums in which authors read their poems, immortalizing the voices of such poets as Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, Pablo Neruda, Nicollás Guillén, and others. Therefore, nothing was more natural for the label than to record another album with the poems by Vinicius de Moraes. Only it would be the first time that music would come into the picture. With the permission of Copacabana, Cardoso started to rehearse with Jobim and de Moraes. As the rehearsals were held at Jobim's home in Ipanema, they were later immortalized by de Moraes in "Carta ao Tom" ("Letter to Tom"): "Rua Nascimento e Silva, 107/Você ensinando pra Elizete/As canções de Canção do Amor Demais" ("107 Nascimento e Silva Street/And you were teaching Elizete/The songs of Canção do Amor Demais").
Immediately after the release, the most commented-upon track of the album was "Chega de Saudade," the first recording in which appears the revolutionary syncopation of João Gilberto's guitar (who also appeared on "Outra Vez"). In spite of Cardoso's remarkable interpretations, though, she came to record the same songs later, and better. That can be explained in part because earlier in that same day she accepted an invitation to perform for an Army division in the middle of a forest where she had to walk under rain and through the mud.
In 1959, Cardoso recorded for the film Orfeu do Carnaval (Marcel Camus), also an important piece of the initial period of bossa nova (it derived from De Moraes' play Orfeu da Conceição), the songs "Manhã de Carnaval" (Luís Bonfá/Antônio Maria) and "Samba de Orfeu." The soundtrack, a top seller in several countries including the U.S. and France, unduly credits the actress Marpessa Dawn as the singer.
After performances in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Portugal, Cardoso launched one of her top-selling albums, Meiga Elizete, in which she was accompanied by the groups of Moacir Silva and Walter Wanderley. Elizete Interpreta Vinícius, dedicated to compositions by De Moraes, was another success. Produced by him and arranged by Moacir Santos, the album also was enthusiastically saluted by the critics.
On October 12, 1964, invited by the conductor Diogo Pacheco, Cardoso interpreted Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Número 5" at the Municipal Theater of São Paulo. When she finished the piece, the 1,800 people present at the event stood up and applauded for 15 minutes, asking for an encore. She stared at the audience and simply cried; perhaps thinking about her long career full of obstacles, financial hardships, and prejudices against her dark skin. But in the end she did the awaited encore.
Praised by the whole press, her performance of a piece of the Brazilian icon of classical music was also heartily appreciated by Mindinha, the composer's widow, who gave her the sheet music and asked her to interpret Villa-Lobos' "Samba Clássico" in a future appointment. Cardoso's touching interpretation was repeated at the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro, and so was the response of the audience; again 15 minutes of standing ovation and the insistent asking of an encore.
In 1965, thrilled by the show Rosa de Ouro, idealized by Hermínio Bello de Carvalho, which launched Clementina de Jesus and brought again to the stage Araci Cortes, accompanied by Paulinho da Viola, Elton Medeiros, Jair do Cavaquinho, Anescar do Salgueiro, and Nelson Sargento, Cardoso communicated her intention to record all the songs of the show. Rehearsing each song with the instrumentalists, in June 1965 she recorded in just four days one of the masterpieces of the Brazilian popular music, Elizete Sobe o Morro. It represented the debut of Nelson Cavaquinho on record, both as a guitarist and singer. It was also the first time that Paulinho da Viola had one of his songs recorded.
In that same year, Cardoso performed at the Cassino Estoril, in Portugal, and, upon her return, she was invited to host the TV Record show Bossaudade, which lasted for 18 months. In 1966, she participated in the Festival of Black Arts, in Dakar, Senegal, and in the next year, her album A Enluarada Elizete had the participation of Pixinguinha, Cartola, Clementina de Jesus, and Codó. In February 1968, Cardoso participated in the historic show at the João Caetano theater, produced by Hermínio Bello de Carvalho for the Image and Sound Museum, with the Zimbo Trio, Jacob do Bandolim, and his group Época de Ouro. The show was recorded live and released on two LPs.
In the same year, Cardoso toured with the Zimbo Trio through Latin America. In 1969, she would be invited to participate, together with the Zimbo Trio, in the Inter-American Festival of Popular Music in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1970, she toured the U.S. with the trio. Five years later, Cardoso had enormous success in Paris, France, at the MIDEM. In 1977 and 1978, she toured Japan, and in 1979 she performed with the Camerata Carioca directed by Radamés Gnattali. The relationship with the Camerata would endure until her last recordings. In 1983, she performed again with the Camerata and Gnattali in the show Uma Rosa Para Pixinguinha, a tribute to Pixinguinha in the tenth anniversary of his passing, later released as a LP. In the next year, Cardoso opened the show Leva Meu Samba, a tribute to Ataulfo Alves in the 15th anniversary of his demise, which toured northeastern Brazil (Fortaleza, Recife, Maceió, Salvador, Feira de Santana, and Ilhéus) and was released as a LP in 1985. In 1986, she commemorated the 50th anniversary of her career with the show and LP Luz e Esplendor. In August of the next year, she toured Japan again with the Zimbo Trio, the Choro Carioca, and Altamiro Carrilho. In 1988, she was paid tribute at the ceremony of the I Sharp Prize Awards. In the next year, she performed with Raphael Rabello at the Seis e Meia project, in a show which brought the Divine again to the headlines.
Already consumed by the cancer that would kill her, Cardoso still wanted to realize one of her old dreams, which was to record an album dedicated to the compositions by Ary Barroso. In spite of the interest of Hermínio Bello de Carvalho, there was no budget. Ary Amoroso was only produced through the sponsoring of a furniture factory. One cannot imagine that she was suffering pains during the recording sessions, as her voice was, as always, impeccable. The very Ary Barroso would probably repeat his own words describing her interpretation if he was alive, the reason why Bello de Carvalho remembered them in the liner notes: "Artista de raça. Voz suavíssima e convincente. Interpretação magnífica." ("A race artist. A sweetest and convincing voice. Magnificent interpretation.")