Tim Maia’s Superbly Idiosyncratic Soul

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 01.03.13 in Spotlights

Although he died in 1998 at the age of 55 after nearly collapsing onstage a week earlier, Maia’s myth has been growing steadily since the 2008 release of Nelson Motta’s best-selling biography, Vale Tudo: O Som e a Fúria de Tim Maia (Anything Goes: The Sound and the Fury of Tim Maia). The book was turned into a hit musical that in turn inspired a forthcoming biopic. Not bad for a former lunch delivery boy and nearly lifelong dope fiend, who once revealed the secret to his three-decade recording career as “having a balance: Half of my songs are armpit soakers and the other half are panty soakers.”

Although Tim Maia continued to produce hit records throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the ’70s turned out to be his most artistically fertile period. And for Maia’s music, the decade can be further divided into the years before and after his involvement with Manoel Jacintho Coelho’s Rational Culture sect, whose bible, Universe in Disenchantment, Maia encountered while tripping on mescaline. Inspired by Coelho’s Scientological promises of purified consciousness and a flying-saucer rescue back to our real home planet, the Rational World, Maia cut his hair, dressed himself in white, gave away all his possessions, eschewed inebriants, and demanded that his band follow suit. Having already recorded everything except the vocals for his fifth album, Maia rewrote his lyrics, returned to the studio, and transformed his already epic blend of soul, funk and Brazilian into the two-volume 1975-76 masterpiece of propagandistic sect-acular hooey that is Racional.

You’ll find Racional‘s “Imunização Racional (Que Beleza),” “Bom Senso,” “You Don’t Know What I Know,” and 12-minute groove epic “Rational Culture” on The Existential Soul of Tim Maia – Nobody Can Live Forever. Released as part of the Luaka Bop label’s World Psychedelic Classics series on what would have been Maia’s 50th birthday, Nobody Can Live Forever cherry-picks Maia’s peak years, which began in 1970 with Tim Maia — the first of 10 eponymous titles among the baby-faced singer’s 30-something-album discography. His brilliant and eccentric blend of raw funk, remarkable soul screaming (“Eu Amo Voce”), insane instrumental rock (“Flamengo”), and breezy Brazilian pop sold more than 200,000 copies and made Maia a star.

Born in the Tijuca neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro on September 28, 1942, Sebastião Rodrigues Maia was the 18th of 19 children, of whom 12 survived childbirth. A natural when it came to music, Maia formed two bands while still in high school and performed on television. After his father died, Maia hustled his way to America, where he arrived with $12, no English to speak of, and the address of a family friend in Tarrytown, New York. His nickname “Tião” was shorted to “Jimmy,” then “Tim.” During his four years in America, Maia joined a soul group called the Ideals, worked odd jobs and committed petty crimes. In 1964, he was busted in Daytona, Florida, for smoking pot in a stolen car, and spent six months in prison before being deported. Moving to São Paolo, Maia got his break thanks to Elis Regina, who invited him to co-write and record “These Are the Songs” with her in 1970.

With his fluency in American English and soul bona fides, Maia became a powerful force for musical change in Brazil. He inspired the Black Rio movement associated with Jorge Ben, Banda Black Rio, and the Gerson King Combo. He also became an increasingly loose cannon well-known for his many concert no-shows and hard-partying ways. (His preferred “triathlon” mixed whiskey, marijuana and cocaine.) He was married five times, fathered a half-dozen children, and did yet more jail time.

Following an angry break from the Rational Culture club in 1976, Maia quickly released an innovative disco album (Disco Club) and then another excellent Tim Maia disk, which contains the poignant “Nobody Can Live Forever” and Marvin Gaye-like “Brother Father Mother Sister.” Where other Brazilian artists contemplated black America from afar, Maia had imbibed it deeply. He released tracks in English throughout a career that included a lot of late-period hits, misses, and two albums of nicely assayed bossa nova: Tim Maia Interpreta Clássicos da Bossa Nova (1990) and the valedictory Amigos do Rei – Tim Maia e os Cariocas (1997). Maia made a second and final trip to America, and Tarrytown, in ’97. This time, unfortunately, the country didn’t provide the fuel for another three decades of superbly idiosyncratic soul. Instead, Maia ballooned up to more than 300 pounds, which was his weight while attempting to record a television show in Niterói, across Guanabra Bay from Rio de Janeiro, on March 8, 1998. Perspiring heavily, he left the stage shortly after attempting to sing “Não Quero Dinheiro (Só Quero Amar)” — “Don’t Want Money (Just Want Love).” He was taken by ambulance to Antonio Pedro University Hospital, where he died a week later.