Johnny Alf is a true genius, unfortunately he is also highly underestimated. He introduced Brazil to a new way of singing, playing, and composing several years before the term "bossa nova" was coined. Tom Jobim, Leny Andrade, Luís Eça, Carlos Lyra, and all those who came after had some Alf influences. Always rejecting the label bossa nova, Alf focused on his artistic achievements and let go of the music press, which continued ignoring him. His importance in Brazilian popular music as a fundamental precursor is still to be properly regarded, while he has been frequently recorded by international musicians such as Lalo Schifrin ("Rapaz de Bem"). In Brazil, his playing is registered on 46 albums, singles, compilations, and participations, but he has recorded only nine solo LPs or CDs in his career.
His father, an Army sub-official, died in 1932. His mother had to work as a washerwoman in a family home where Johnny was accepted and raised as a son, together with Luís Paulo Ribeiro, the family's own son. Alf began his piano studies at nine with a family friend, Geni Borges. Soon, he demonstrated interest for North American composers, such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and for unnoticed Brazilian revolutionaries such as Garoto, Custódio Mesquita, Lúcio Alves, and Gilberto Milfont, together with the famous Dick Farney. At 14, he formed a group with friends in Vial Isabel, playing on weekends in Andaraí. Studying at the Pedro II school, he was invited by his colleagues to join the cultural meetings promoted by the Brasil-U.S. Institute Ibeu. They met weekly to listen and discuss jazz music and to see jazz movies, concerts, etc. At that time, Alf was working as an accountant assistant and was already writing music. At 18, he enlisted; a little after, in 1949, Dick Farney returned from his season in the U.S. As one of the first (and certainly the most successful) singer to incorporate jazz influences in his personal expression, Farney already had a great number of fans, people who were avid in new music directions. The jazz meetings, welcoming Farney, adopted the name of Sinatra-Farney Fan Club, revering another already influential name in those times. Amongst the frequenters, there were several names that would later be famous in music, such as Tom Jobim, Nora Ney, and Luís Bonfá, among others. He'd been a longtime a die-hard jazz fan, jazz journalist José Domingos Raffaelli was also a longtime friend of Luís Paulo Ribeiro's, whose home he, together with other friends, frequented regularly on Saturdays to listen and discuss music. Those encounters began in 1949 and in 1950, they created another jazz fan club, the Hot Club do Rio. Raffaelli accounted, in a private testimony, of one of those musical meetings where he knew a boy who lived with the family who had been enlisted, but had been recovering from a tuberculosis. They were listening to a Red Rodney 10" LP recorded for Imperial, on which the second track was Chopin's "Minute" valse in a jazz rendition. When the third track began, one of the listeners commented, "Isto dá samba..." (loosely, "it can be turned into samba rhythm"); Alf replied that that track couldn't, but the previous one could. Challenged, he went to the piano and composed his masterpiece samba "Seu Chopin, Desculpe," with lyrics and music done in only 15 minutes. Some months later, Raffaelli met César de Alencar casually on the street as he was then the most popular radio host in Brazil. de Alencar told him that he was opening a new nightclub and was looking for a pianist who could sing both in Portuguese and English and wasn't expensive. Alf, who had been previously mentioned to de Alencar by Farney, was chosen and began to play at the Cantina do César, at Rua Rodolfo Dantas, Copacabana. That was in 1950, when Tom Jobim was an unknown who after his day gig would go to the Cantina do César to learn those crazy harmonies, that new comping style (inspired by Nat "King" Cole's), and that new compositional style, having even formally asked Alf to teach him. At the Cantina do César, Alf was approached by actress Mary Gonçalves, who'd been elected Queen of Radio of 1952. She included on her debut album, Convite ao Romance, four of Alf's compositions, "Estamos Sós," "O que é Amar," "Podem Falar," and "Escuta." Alf then went to the Monte Carlo nightclub, playing with violinist Fafá Lemos' group. Alf's first recording (for Sinter) dates from this period (September 1952), with his "Falseta" accompanied by the great Garoto (violão), and bassist Vidal. He also played at nightclubs Mandarim, Clube da Chave, and Drink. Already a renowned musician on the artistic scenery, Alf began to play at the focal point of the nascent bossa nova, the Plaza nightclub at the Avenida Princesa Isabel. A meeting point for all people interested in jazz music, the Plaza was the cradle of bossa, not the South side apartments generally associated within that, and Alf consolidated his position there as a seminal influence in modern Brazilian music.
In 1954, before the bossa movement boomed in Rio, Alf felt segregated from the other musicians, so he moved to São Paulo. His extraordinary musicality frightened the competition. He primarily went there to open the nightclub Baiuquinha at Major Sertório. After that, at Michel, he played with the then novices Paulinho Nogueira, Sabá, and Luís Chaves. In 1955, he recorded a 78 rpm album for Copacabana Brasil, which is considered by several musicologists to be the first bossa nova album, three years before João Gilberto's Chega de Saudade. In 1961, he was invited by composer Chico Feitosa to perform at the historic Carnegie Hall Bossa Nova Festival, but Alf refused the invitation. That was the year he recorded his first LP, Rapaz de Bem, for RCA. The next year, he spent a season in Rio at the Bottle's Bar, which also featured Sérgio Mendes, Luís Carlos Vinhas, Sílvia Telles, and Tamba Trio. With the important drummer Edison Machado and bassist Tião Neto, he formed a trio that performed at the Little Club and Top Club. In 1964, he recorded the LP Diagonal (RCA) and in 1965, Johnny Alf (Mocambo). In 1967, his composition "Eu e a Brisa" was presented at TV Record's III FMPB (Brazilian popular music festival) by singer Márcia. Taken by the tropicalista novelties of "Alegria, Alegria" (Caetano Veloso) and "Domingo no Parque" (Gilberto Gil), the jury neglected that song, which only one month after would became one of the biggest hits of Alf's career. In 1971, he recorded Ele é Johnny Alf for Parlophon. In 1974, he recorded Nós (Odeon) and in 1978, Desbunde Total (Chantecler). Away from the studios during the whole decade of 1980, he recorded a new album in 1990 for RCA, Olhos Negros. In 1997, together with distinguished arranger/pianist Leandro Braga, he recorded an album dedicated to his personal interpretation of one of the most traditional samba composers of Brazil — Noel Rosa — which was somewhat ironic, as he was so many times mistakenly regarded as an Americanized composer/performer. In that year, he also did tribute shows to Ary Barroso. In 1998, he recorded live Cult Alf for Natasha. In 1999, he was commissioned for the composition of popular theme songs for bishop Dom Pedro Casaldáliga's social poems and the production was recorded on the CD As Sete Palavras de Cristo na Cruz (Paulinas). Also in 1999, Alf recorded the CD Eu e a Bossa for Rob Digital, regretting in later interviews the label's choice of title and subtitle (40 Years of Bossa Nova). In that year, he was also the 20th artist awarded for lifelong achievement with a Prêmio Shell. During all his life, he has kept a regular schedule as a nightclub performer. ~ Alvaro Neder