In the early 1970′s, Brazilian popular music was approaching a high water mark of creativity and popularity. Artists like Elis Regina, Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento were delivering top-shelf Brazilian pop, while tropicalists Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes (see World Psychedelic Classics 1) were entertaining the college set with avant-garde fuzz-pop poetry.
Enter Tim Maia with a massive cannonball into the pool. It was the only dive Tim knew. Standing just 5’7 (6′ with the Afro) Tim Maia was large, in charge and completely out of control. He was the personification of rock star excess, having lived through five marriages and at least six children, multiple prison sentences, voluminous drug habits and a stint in an UFO obsessed religious cult. Tim is also remembered as a fat, arrogant, overindulgent, barely tolerated, yet beloved man-child who died too young at the age of 55.
Sebastiño Rodrigues Maia was born in Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, on September 28, 1942. He was the 18th in a family of 19 siblings. At six he started to contribute to the family income by delivering homemade food prepared by his mother, Maria Imaculada Maia. Tim learned to play guitar as a child and was 15 when he formed his first band. They called themselves The Sputniks and were notable for also including Roberto Carlos, a neighborhood pal of Tim’s who would later become one of Brazil’s biggest stars. In 1957, at the age of 17, the singer went to America. He left home with $12 in his pocket and no knowledge of English. He adopted the name ‘Jimmy’ and lied to the immigration authorities, saying that he was a student.
Living with distant cousins in Tarrytown, New York, he worked odd jobs and committed petty crimes. Having a prodigious ear he quickly learned to speak, sing and write songs in English. He formed a small vocal group called The Ideals who even recorded one of Tim’s songs, “New Love.” Intent on starting a career in America, Tim never planned on going back to Brazil, but like a badass Forrest Gump, he also had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a 1964 early pre-cursor to Spring Break’s modern debauchery, Tim was busted in Daytona, Florida for smoking pot in a stolen car and served six months in prison. U.S. Immigration caught up with him and he was deported.
Back in Brazil, Tim told his friends that he hadn’t spoken a word of Portuguese for the last 3 years of his stay in the U.S. Not surprisingly, he was completely out of step with the prevailing mode of MPB and Tropicalia. Eventually he got a huge break when legendary singer Elis Regina fell in love with his song “These Are the Songs” which had been released as a single on the Fermata label. She invited him to sing a duet of it with her in Portuguese and English on her 1970 album “Em Pleno Verño”. This high profile debut forced people to take notice of the unknown singer/songwriter with a big voice, bigger afro and huge ambitions. Soon after, Philips signed Tim to a recording contract. In 1970 his first album spent 24 weeks on the charts, beginning a new chapter in Brazilian music.
His close friend, Nelson Motta, who was the A & R rep who signed Tim to the Philips label remembers Tim’s initial impact on the scene:
He was something absolutely new. Until then, Brazilian music was divided into nationalist MPB Tropicalia and international rock. All really white and really English. Tim Maia changed the game, introducing modern black music from the U.S. to national pop music, linking funk and baiño, bringing soul closer to bossa nova and opening windows and doors to new forms of music that were not Tropicalist, nor MPB, nor rock n’ roll: they were quintessentially Brazilian. They were Tim Maia. Prior to the 1970′s, the average white, urban Brazilian imagined him or herself living in a harmonious melting pot of European, African and indigenous heritage, but racism, despite being distinctly different than in North America, still permeated Brazilian society. There were no shortages of prominent Afro-Brazilian musicians, singers or composers, but black Brazilians were primarily typecast as nothing more than happy-go-lucky samba singers.
Tim wasn’t the first Brazilian artist under the sway of North American black music: Wilson Simonal and Jorge Ben experimented and synthesized different soul and funk rhythms into their styles, but Tim was the first to completely flip the equation, embracing soul and funk music wholeheartedly, adding indigenous Brazilian touches if and when they fit.
Tim’s first commercial records showed that a black Brazilian singer could assert his identity with confidence and power. His music helped to build the Black Rio movement, a new Afro-Brazilian music culture influenced by the U.S. civil rights struggle. As a result, Tim Maia’s soul music described a modern Black Brazilian identity that blew the doors off mass culture’s tightly circumscribed role for Afro-Brazilians.
More importantly, as Tim basically says in “Let’s Have a Ball Tonight:” ‘Fuck politics! Let’s make love and party!’ According to Nelson Motta, the impact of his music was felt where it mattered the most: on the dance floor and in the bedroom: With his thundering and sultry voice he enchanted and seduced legions of dancers and lovers along his explosive and turbulent career of 40 years. Sweetening and adding velvet touches to his voice, then downing the lights, he crooned his ballads and inspired hot romances and lots of sex, like a tropical Barry White (one of his idols, together with Isaac Hayes and James Brown). Like no other pop star – including most of the best comedians in the land – he made the people laugh. “I don’t burn, I don’t snort, and I don’t drink. My only problem is that sometimes I lie a little.” (Often said with a joint in hand). He was the funniest (and smartest) man in the Brazilian music scene. With hit after hit, he started his brilliant career, cheered by critics and adored by the big audiences, rich and poor, black and white, rockers and bossanovistas as well.
A funny thing happened when Tim Maia launched his career in Brazil: he kept on writing and recording songs in English. Every album (all titled Tim Maia with only the copyright years to differentiate) included at least one, if not a few songs in English. Obviously, Tim “Jimmy” Maia’s teenage dreams of international soul success didn’t die when he was deported from the U.S.
As Motta notes:
He always dreamed of coming back to America to be successful. But, in Brazil none of his songs in English, not even “These Are the Songs” were hits. Critics and musicians loved it, but nobody else cared. The songs never played on the radio and he rarely sang them in his shows. He had so many huge hits in Portuguese, there was no point in any one listening to songs in English. He always did whatever he wanted, so the record label people, who were basically afraid of him, would take whatever he gave them.
In 1971, fresh from the big hit of his first album, Timwent to London and spoiled himself. He smoked, inhaled, drank, traveled on acid, listened to music, argued with his wife and returned to Brazil with 200 doses of LSD to distribute amongst his friends. As soon as he arrived, he went to (recording company) Philips’ offices, which he called “Flips,” where he visited various departments, beginning with those he considered most “square,” like the accounting and legal departments, where he acknowledged the boss and repeated the same introduction, in a calm and friendly voice:
“This here is LSD, which will open your mind, improve your life, and make you a better and happier person. It’s very simple: there are no side effects. It is not addictive and only does good. You take it like this . . . ”
He would place the acid in his mouth, swallow it and leave another at the front desk. Since he was one of the best-selling artists for the company, everyone thought it humorous. In the production and journalism departments, the gifts were a success. Even Andre Midani, the president of the company, received his.
Tim returned home in his jeep, certain that he had saved “Flips’” soul.
It’s hard to believe, considering the tossed off brilliance of his songs, that Tim Maia did not care much for lyrics (or lyricists for that matter). Motta says, “Tim would ‘fill-up’ the music with good sounding words and that was that.” His English lyrics were so spontaneous and off the cuff that they sound more like Tim is having a conversation, with whomever was around, about his own tumultuous life. One line that seems to sum up his restless feelings after his initial success is “I am so groovy now and I don’t care.” Considering Tim’s sense of largess, not to mention his largeness, it’s not surprising he would quickly grow jaded and continued to search for new sensations.
In 1974, touched by who knows what, he converted to a religious sect, the cult of Racional Engergy. The sect was based in the faith that we are perfect beings from a distant planet, exiled on Earth to suffer but able to purify through the reading of a single book and to finally be rescued by flying saucers of our original home. It was a perfect fit for someone like Tim.
At the moment of his illumination, he was finishing his fifth solo album with what would later become known as the Vitória Régia Band, the band that would be with him the rest of his life, almost. When he joined the cult, he dressed in white, shaved his ever-present facial hair, he quit alcohol, drugs and red meat and always kept a strange book in-hand. He would say things that, for him, were completely out of character, like “Pot and booze are the devil’s stuff.” He decided that all the songs he recorded and sang would be in celebration of his new faith in the Superior Rational from outer space. He rewrote the lyrics and recorded the funky devotional albums Tim Maia Racional I (1974) and II (1975). Philips had no interest in these bizarre and uncommercial songs, but that did not stop Tim Maia. Always a pioneer, he started the first independent music label in Brazil, called Seroma, and arranged for the albums to be produced and distributed by his company. The label name was taken from his initials: S E bastiao RO drigues M A ia.
Having given up smoking and drinking, he had lost a lot of weight and his voice had never been so clean and strong. His singing on the Racional albums is unrivaled, but to most the lyrics didn’t make any sense. Radio refused to play the Racional albums, which were mostly purchased by fellow cult members.
He left the sect one year later, broke, disillusioned and fed up with the hypocrisy of the cult leader. He ordered the destruction of all the Racional recordings and forbade anyone to record the songs. As someone who prided himself on being street smart and prison wise, Tim may have felt a bit ashamed of having been duped by a charlatan in a white robe preaching about UFO’s.
On his first post-Racional album Tim Maia 1976, Tim made sure to include a couple of ‘answer’ songs, possibly to assure fans that he was no longer under the sway of extra-terrestrials. Leaving Racional ism behind, Tim once again embraced the earthy reality of life. In “Nobody Can Live Forever,” he confronts human loneliness (“Nobody will know how I feel”) alongside the absence of God (“There’s no heaven / there’s no god / there’s no devil / there’s no hell), and concludes with existential resolve. “Play your music,” he chants.
As his career carried on through the 70s, 80s and 90s Tim became more like the folkloric characters he liked to â€¨sing about – the malandros – someone you had to be careful about trusting. He was famous for not showing up at his own shows and for sometimes appearing so drunk that he was not able to perform. When he did show up, he would terrorize the sound guy with demands for “More Bass! More Treble! More Volume! More EVERYTHING!”
Four months before his death, at his own cost, he played a chaotic show at a hotel lounge in Miami attended by 50 Brazilian nuts. He then filmed a fabulous road trip from Miami to New York, including the Daytona pen, New York City and Tarrytown, all the places he visited 40 years earlier, talking to people along the way. It was a like a wrap-up of his unfinished history.
He died on March 15, 1998, at the age of 55.
“I am bicão,” he used to say about himself, which is slang for people who go to a party without an invitation. He may have crashed the party, but he never failed to warm it back to new levels of fun and decadence.
- Allen Thayer, Paul Heck and Nelson Motta