Owner of a distinctive, harsh voice, Elza Soares is one of the most swinging samba singers. From the time she issued her debut single — "Se Acaso Você Chegasse" in 1959, and on which she introduced scat singing à la Louis Armstrong, to samba — she became a successful recording artist. Her second album, A Bossa Negra, from 1961, is considered a treasure of Brazilian music at home and abroad. With her voice and songs, Soares has always celebrated the gritty aspects of peasant life. It is her birthright, as she was born in a favela. Her dispassionate, exaggerated style won over audiences in Brazil and across the world. In the lineage of Brazilian she is considered part of an eternal avant-garde, because of her desire to innovate in everything she sings. Admired by artists such as Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, and Nick Cave, to name a few, she was awarded best female singer of the millennium by the BBC. Soares shows no signs of slowing down in her eighties. With the album A Mulher do Fim do Mundo, she navigated a combined landscape of noise, angry rock, and Afro-Brazilian rhythms, to global acclaim.
Having appeared in 1959 with the samba "Se Acaso Você Chegasse," Elza Soares always had her artistic career complicated by her personal life. Having gotten married at 12 and lost three children who died of hunger, she later became the wife of Garrincha, one of the most genial soccer players ever, and also a chronic alcoholic. The peak of her career was in the '60s, with albums like O Máximo em Samba (1967), Elza Soares & Wilson das Neves (1968), and Elza, Miltinho e Samba (a three-album series shared with Miltinho). In that decade she had several hits, among them "Boato," "Edmundo" (a version of "In the Mood"), "Beija-me," "Devagar Com a Louça," "Mulata Assanhada," "O Mundo Encantado de Monteiro Lobato," "Bahia de Todos os Deuses," "Palmas no Portão," and "Palhaçada." In the '70s, she had further success with "Salve a Mocidade" (1974) and "Malandro" (1977; this song launched Jorge Aragão as a composer). But it wasn't enough to prevent her from facing huge economical adversity, and at the same time she was being systematically turned away by recording companies. With Garrincha, Soares had a very troubled marriage and the untimely demise of their son Garrinchinha in a car accident in 1986 didn't help.
Trying unsuccessfully to develop a career abroad, she returned to Brazil in 1994, poor and depressed. Finally, she was rediscovered in the '80s by the younger generations of Brazilian rockers (Os Titãs, Lobão) and MPB artists like Caetano Veloso, after having been awarded the Sharp Prize award as the Best Samba Singer of 1997. Her life was depicted in the musical Crioula, which had several songs written especially for her by Chico Buarque, Chico César, Nei Lopes, and others. In 2000, she was appointed Singer of the Millennium by London's BBC. Soares continues to challenge her destiny, performing shows in every venue available.
Living in extreme poverty throughout her childhood and teens, Soares had her first audition in radio at Ary Barroso's novice show when she was 16, winning first place. She was then hired as a crooner by the Orquestra Garam de Bailes (led by conductor Joaquim Naegli). She worked in the orchestra until 1954, when she became pregnant. In 1955, she was invited to star with Grande Otelo in the play Jour-Jou-Fru-Fru, which was a smash. Three years later, she toured Argentina, returning in the next year when she was hired by Rádio Vera Cruz. Also in 1959, she recorded a 78 rpm of "Se Acaso Você Chegasse" (Lupício Rodrigues/Felisberto Martins), one of her biggest hits. In 1960, she went to São Paulo, where she performed regularly in the show I Festival Nacional de Bossa Nova and recorded her first LP, Se Acaso Você Chegasse. In 1962, she represented Brazil in Chile during the World Soccer Cup, where she met Garrincha. Having recorded several albums with the hits "Só Danço Samba" (Tom Jobim/Vinícius de Moraes), "A Banca do Distinto" (Billy Blanco), "Pressentimento" (Elton Medeiros/Hermínio Bello de Carvalho), and "Princesa Isabel" (Sérgio Ricardo), she moved to Italy in 1969, where she performed at the Sistina Theater (Rome), returning to Brazil in 1972. In the same year, she opened the show Elza em Dia de Graça at the Opinião Theater (Rio) and participated in the Brasil Export Show (Canecão). Rediscovered in the '80s as a cult heroine by Os Titãs, she performed with the band in a regular show at the Madame Satã nightclub. Soares also recorded in duet with Caetano Veloso on his album Velô, and with Lobão on Casa de Samba. With her Trajetória (1997), in which she was paid tribute by Zeca Pagodinho, she won the Prêmio Sharp Award as Best Samba Singer. In November 1999, Soares participated in the show Desde Que o Samba é Samba (at Royal Albert Hall, London, England), together with Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Virginia Rodrigues. In 2000, her life was depicted in the musical Crioula (by Stella Miranda).
In 2002, she released the acclaimed Do Cóccix Até O Pescoço on Maianga Discos, which successfully wedded samba, bossa, and MPB with electronic sounds. Produced and recorded by Alê Siqueira, it featured an enormous cast of guest musicians under the direction of pianist Jose Miguel Wisnik, including Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, and Carlinhos Brown. It sold well internationally and received a Grammy nomination. Vivo Feliz followed on Tratore in 2004 and contained the singles "Rio de Janeiro" and a reading of "Concordia" by Nando Reis, featuring the songwriter in a duet. Working again with Wisnik, she released the live Beba-Me Ao Vivo and a concert DVD with the same title in 2007.
Though Soares continued to perform, she took an extended break from recording. A year later she was the featured vocalist on the soundtrack of the film Chega de Saudade. She fell from the stage during a performance and required numerous spinal column surgeries. It slowed her down and forced her to perform in a chair, but she never stopped. In 2015, she re-entered the studio with producer Guilherme Kastrup of São Paulo’s groundbreaking samba sujo scene. She didn't like his idea of recording a set of classic sambas in modern settings and instead insisted on creating entirely original new material — a first in her long career. He hired the city's vanguard post-punk band Passo Torto (with Metá Metá's Kiko Dinucci) and several players from Bixiga 70. A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo, a collection of 11 songs (culled from over 50) that focuses on the achievement of justice for women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community — causes she had celebrated throughout her life. Issued in Brazil in October by Circus Produções Culturais, it was celebrated in the national press as the year's best album by a national artist, regardless of genre. Due to global acclaim, it was re-released internationally by Mais Um Discos in June of 2016. The recording was selected as Album of the Year by the BBC, and other outlets. After numerous shows in Brazil and South America, Soares enlisted the same team — Guilherme Kastrup as producer with assistance from Romulo Fróes, Marcelo Cabral, Rodrigo Campos, and Kiko Dinucci — for her follow-up, Deus é Mulher ("God Is a Woman"). In accordance with its title and theme, Soares also enlisted a number of female instrumentalists for the project including Maria Portugal and Maria Beraldo, and recorded songs by Tulipa Ruiz and Alice Coutinho. The full-length was released in May of 2018 and charted inside the Top Ten on the International and Brazilian Albums charts. ~ Alvaro Neder