I don’t smoke, I don’t snort coke, and I don’t drink, but sometimes I lie a little.Tim Maia
Tim’s determination to bring the sound and spirit of soul music to Brazil was initially a liability, because no one was singing this music. Tim was at least three years ahead of the curve, but that didn’t stop him from converting friends and strangers along the way. Tim made fast friends with the three Paulista youths soon to be known as Os Mutantes.(10) Sérgio Dias remembers that “there was a bunch of guys in this hit parade [television show], in terms of musical styles, right—and that’s where we met Tim. He had just arrived from America, so when he started to sing, we were so much into the Four Tops and all those guys, and we knew all the backing vocals. So every time he would sing, we did the backing vocals. So when we went to PolyGram, we introduced him [to the label].”(11) Show business in Brazil, or anywhere else for that matter, is anything but kind to overweight racial minorities. Tim jumped up and down on the sideline for years watching less-talented and lighter-skinned friends struggle to take his songs up the pop-charts.
Nelson Motta was getting ready to produce his first album with the extremely popular singer Elis Regina and was in search of some interesting new songs when a colleague and Tim’s producer played him the unreleased single “Primavera” backed with “Jurema.” Motta was blown away by Tim’s style and invited him into the studio with Elis to try out some songs. Elis fell in love with the English-Portuguese hybrid, “These Are the Songs.” What was supposed to be merely a writing credit evolved into a duet with one of Brazil’s biggest stars.
“These Are the Songs” immediately shot Tim into the stratosphere. While not necessarily a brilliant song, or even a hit, it was on an album of one of the most celebrated artists in Brazilian history, and anyone who heard the song realized that Elis’s duet partner was in possession of an entirely new sound. According to Nelson Motta:
Here was something absolutely new. Until then Brazilian music was divided into nationalist MPB, tropicalismo and international rock.(12) 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 baião, 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.(13)
In 1970 and nearly thirty years old, Tim recorded his breakthrough solo album. The album was the result of sheer determination, natural talent, and his irresistible personality. Like the best purveyors of diasporic soul music, Tim’s amalgamation of R&B with traditional music was effortless. His vocal style, like that of Elis Regina and another young mulatto singer, Milton Nascimento, abandoned the hushed tones of bossa nova, preferring a more dramatic and soaring delivery reminiscent of older vocal styles, such as the samba canção and boleros of the 1950s. And his compositions, or those of his immediate circle (including soul supporters Cassiano and Hyldon), were first rate. Tim’s first album spent twenty-four weeks at the top of the pop charts and turned Tim into the star he always wanted to be.
In spite of Tim’s popular and critical success, loads of money, bottomless whiskey bottles, endless joints, and hordes of adoring female fans, he always wanted more. In his quest to find a deeper truth, or at least a laugh, Tim built a home recording studio, experimented with every drug imaginable, and even tried to “open the minds” of the uptight employees at his record label, Philips, with a sheet of LSD he brought back from a trip to London. Tim approached each and every Philips employee, beginning with the accounting department, which needed more immediate “salvation,” asking, “Do you know what this is? This here is a divine gift that will open your mind, improve your life and make you happier. It doesn’t have side effects, it’s non-addictive and it won’t make your hair fall out—it only does good. It’s called LSD and you take it like this...”(14)
Tim was a regular drug user, particularly of marijuana, which he asserted had saintly effects of peace and artistic inspiration. When recording at Philips, everyone knew when Tim was on break, because the smell of marijuana wafting out of the air vents betrayed Tim’s favorite joint-smoking spot—the central air conditioner room. But this was classic Tim Maia: even when he was taking a break, he was creating a scene.
Ed Motta, Tim’s nephew and the heir to his uncle’s physical and musical style, was only a child during Tim’s early career, but he remembers that “the first time I listened to American funk music and saw the characters and the atmosphere of soul music, that just looked to me like my uncle Tim and his friends. He was freaky, very wild, always doing drugs and having crazy sex. Because of his lifestyle, my family would tell me he’s everything you can’t be in your life.”(15)
Tim’s first four albums on Polydor reveal an artist stretching out and challenging the boundaries of Brazilian pop music. Tim’s first albums consisted of straight-ahead soul music sung in Portuguese (and at least one song in English on each album) as well as fusions of soul with traditional Brazilian styles like forró and baião. It wasn’t until his fourth album, released in 1973, that samba worked its way into recordings on such classics as “Réu Confesso,” “Over Again,” and “Gostava Tanto de Você.” With the help of cream-of-the-crop session musicians and songwriters, Tim blazed the way for a unique fusion of Brazilian styles and American soul music, something timeless and wholly original.
With their accessible themes and irresistible hooks, Tim’s first four albums were hugely successful, single-handedly drawing the blueprint for the Brazilian soul music of the 1970s. If Tim had stopped recording after his first four albums, he would still be remembered as a major figure in Brazilian pop music. Thankfully, he didn’t stop, but he did change directions.
The RCA executives balked at releasing the albums, no doubt cursing themselves for signing the erratic star. No bother, because Tim finished the recordings at his home studio and released both volumes, Racional Vol. 1 and Racional Vol. 2, on his recently established record label, Seroma, an abbreviation of his given name: SEbastião ROdrigues MAia. Band members distributed the albums themselves, mostly to fellow cult members, with limited success. “Imunisaçao Racional (Que Beleza)” was the only song to receive any radio airplay, partly because its lyrics contained the fewest references to the Racional cult’s unique vernacular.
Tim’s existential detour was unprecedented. Historically, famous musicians have a reputation for religious flights of fancy: Cat Stevens went Muslim way after he was hitting the charts; Bob Dylan was briefly born again during an artistic dip in the late ’70s; and the Beatles’ foray into spirituality only added to their counterculture credibility; but Tim Maia self-released a double album of extraterrestrial funk at the peak of his fame. Tim’s mission was now to evangelize for the Superior Rational, and he played and performed constantly at the religious sect’s compound in the Rio suburb of Baixada Fluminense. His evangelizing efforts extended to other musical icons. Tim announced that he sent copies of the book, in Portuguese, to James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, and John Lennon, convinced that “the Superior Rational is made so that anyone can understand.” Not necessarily so, it would seem, as Tim received a response from John Lennon: a photo of the ex-Beatle, entirely nude, with a note—“Dear freak, I don’t understand Portuguese. What about LISTEN to this photo? John Lennon.”(18)
At the time, most Tim Maia fans struggled to understand why their fun-loving godfather of Brazilian soul was proselytizing for a fringe cult instead of churning out hits, but, in hindsight, these albums are much more than a curious footnote. According to the Brazilian music critic Tarik de Souza, “Racional Vol. 1 is proof that Tim Maia was a genius. He succeeded in making the unmusical musical: taking a dense text devoid of melody and rhythm and creating a timeless work.” The first volume plays like a radio show, with introductions before some songs, such as the a cappella introduction of “You Don’t Know What I Know.” Every word on the album urges the listener to explore the wisdom of “Rational Culture,” such as the soulful ballad “Contato Com O Mundo Racional” where Tim pleads for a chance, just one chance, to have contact with the “rational world.”
For the first time in decades, Tim was eating healthily, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, and recording music nonstop. Listening to his Racional albums, it’s clear that Tim was stretching out musically and vocally, never sounding better than he did on these recordings. After a blowout argument with cult founder Manoel Jacintho Coelho, Tim severed his relations with the cult just as suddenly as he initially dove in, but not without some painful soul searching. According to guitarist Paulinho Guitarra, Tim “was screaming from his window to all that passed below that everything in the universe was a lie.”(19)
Once Tim set his mind to a task he was all in, but just as soon he could change his mind again, as if nothing had ever happened. Emerging from the Rational Superior’s spell, he confided in Fábio that “I lost everything, even my prestige!” Then, moments later, before setting out for burgers and fries, he added quite seriously, “Fábio, some day yet I’m gonna play a show on Jupiter!”(20)
By some accounts, he was only involved with the cult for less than a year, but during that time he completed two of his best albums. Producer and musician Kassin confirms that a recent discovery of tapes, assumed to be have been destroyed by Tim after leaving the cult, reveal that there are at least enough tracks for one more album of Racional recordings that were never released.
One of the first recordings following his exit from the cult was an album recorded entirely in English with his eyes on the international market. Having “invested” all of his riches into the cult, he found there wasn’t enough money left over to distribute the record, so it sat in boxes in his closet for two years until he had enough money to release it. Though an excellent album of raw yet romantic funk, it sold the most poorly of any of his albums, no doubt due to its domestic Brazilian release though none of the songs were in Portuguese.
For his next album, Disco Club, Tim ditched his loyal band and gritty sound in favor of a glitzier studio production, a choice that paid off in the form of two disco hits. Like most Black musicians, Tim saw disco music for what it was—syncopated funk music that White people could dance to—and he said as much in an interview following the success of his Disco Club album: “I make Black music. And Blacks need to be convinced that they’re coming to the White world accidentally, in Black galleons. Look, this movement they call ‘Black Rio’: these Blacks are not photocopies of the Americans… You can’t deny that this whole thing goes back to Africa.”(21)
Tim’s return to popularity and success brought with it no shortage of hangers-on and dubious characters looking for favors or trying to interest the star in exotic, expensive, and illegal delights. There was the hawk that Tim purchased and kept in the maid’s quarters until late one night, in the midst of one of his frequent “triathlons” (whiskey, weed, and coke), he decided to pay a visit to his new pet birdie. In his usual “triathlon” uniform—just his underwear—he opened the door, and before he could defend himself, the hawk scratched the hell out of his face and back. After attempting to tackle the bird, he received a vicious pecking. When Tim lunged to open the window to call for help, the bird escaped to freedom.(22)
On another occasion, a stranger showed up at Tim’s apartment offering to sell him a semiautomatic machine gun. Tim liked the idea of having a gun to intimidate dishonest promoters and record-label bosses. He bought the gun and stored it in a paper bag under his bed. A few nights later around 3:00 AM, in only his undies and several hours into another “triathlon,” he thought it a good idea to experiment with the machine gun inside his apartment.(23) The following conversation with his lawyer, Dr. Nelson, took place later that morning:
Tim: Dr. Nelson, they’re trying to break into my house!
Dr. Nelson: Well, call the police.
Tim: But they ARE the police, Doctor.
Dr. Nelson: Well, then call the robbers.(24)
Fábio and Tiberio Gaspar came to his rescue before the cops could break in, where they found Tim sprawled on the floor in his underwear with whiskey spilled everywhere, sobbing with the machine gun in his hand. After uttering some incomprehensible words, he managed to deliver this classic Tim Maia–ism, “The hand that holds the microphone also holds the machine gun.”(25) Tim Maia, original gangster.
Tim followed his Disco Club album with a series of successful dance-oriented albums helmed by Lincoln Olivetti, the Brazilian Quincy Jones. Another independently released album from 1982, Nuvens is an overlooked classic and possibly his best career album. His last great album, Descobridor dos Sete Mares from 1983, returned him to the top of the charts with an even mix of disco and quiet-stormers. The secret to his success, Tim admitted, was always “having a balance: half of my songs are armpit-soakers and the other half are panty-soakers.”(26)
Soon thereafter, the ’80s kicked in: coke, paranoia, and rerecordings of his classic hits turned Tim into a highly profitable, yet unreliable, superstar.