Tripping Out on Tim Maia

Sebastiao Rodrigues Maia, or “Tim” Maia, is primarily known in Brazil as a fat, hilarious, hedonist train wreck who died too soon. But he is equally known for his phenomenal music, a fascinating blend of American Soul and Funk with Brazilian Bossa Nova and Samba which took Brazil by storm. In the early 1970s, propelled by the likes of top-shelf Brazilian artists such as Chico Buarque, Elis Regina, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento, Brazilian music was entering the peak of its creativity and popularity. Enter Tim Maia, bursting through the front door with his big size and even bigger afro. Tim Maia was the true personification, if you will, of a rock-and-roll star who shined too bright, too fast.

With 5 marriages, 6 children, deportations, prison sentences, inhumane drug habits and a brief period obsessed with a UFO religious cult, to name just a few “highlights,” Maia’s life story could have come straight from a Hollywood movie.  Adored by the public, cheered by critics, with a musical repertoire filled with bangers and absolute belters, Maia was also known for being a “triathlon” enthusiast which for him, unlike the olympic sport, involved consuming large quantities of cocaine, cannabis and whiskey – this little ritual often meant that he would miss shows and appointments, and often inspired hilarious comments such as “you didn’t go to the Tim Maia show? Neither did he.” When he did show up, sound technicians were always aware of his insane demands for “More Bass! More Treble! More Volume! More Everything!”.

A young Tim Maia with his friend Erasmo Carlos

But let’s rewind back to the start. Born in 1942 in Rio de Janeiro, Tim’s reputation of not being trustworthy started as a young boy, while working on the family business delivering lunch boxes – he often found himself playing with friends, instead of following the carefully planned schedules, or even eating the meals he was supposed to deliver. Nevertheless, Tim was what you could consider a musical prodigy, learning how to play guitar as a child and forming his first band, Os Tijucanos do Ritmo, at the age of fourteen. Equally influenced by American Rock-and-Roll and Bossa Nova, which was quickly spreading nationwide at the hands of Brazilian mammoths such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto, Maia taught several friends of his how to play the guitar, including future Brazilian superstars Roberto Carlos and Erasmo Carlos. In 1957 he started the vocal group The Sputniks with fellow friends Roberto Carlos, Arlênio Lívio, Edson Trindade e Wellington Oliveira. Considering the group something ahead of its time, Maia wanted to choose a name that reflected this “avant garde-ness”, and what better than a fricking space satellite, right? In any case, The Sputniks’ career was short lived, as both Tim Maia and Roberto Carlos left the group soon after a successful appearance in TV show Clube do Rock in pursuit of solo careers.

In 1959, fuelled by the breakup of The Sputniks and by the death of his father, Maia decided to head for the US to taste a slice of the American Dream. Being his unorthodox self, he lied and pretended to be Jimmy Maia, an exchange student in New York, convincing American immigration officers to allow a seventeen year old that did not speak a word of English into the country – very different times, one might say. Armed with 12 dollars, Maia headed to the address of a family friend that was living in New York which, as you might have guessed, had absolutely zero clue that little Sebastiao Maia was coming. He stayed wit the O’Meara family just long enough to find a place of his own – something that, according to several friends, never really happened. Embracing the true rock-and-roll spirit, Maia simply jumped from couch to couch as much as he jumped from job to job. Janitor, cook, delivery boy, snow shoveler – you name it, he did it. Having a very musical ear, Maia quickly learnt how to write, speak and sing in English (yes, music is also great in that way), and was forming a small vocal group, The Ideals, soon after arriving. It was with then-bandmate Roger Bruno that he wrote his first English song, New Love, which would end up recorded several years later for Tim’s fourth solo album in 1973. Like a true Charlie Hustle, Maia was able to bring in two professional musicians for the original recoding of the song – Brazilian drummer Milton Banana and American jazz bassist Don Payne – after tracking down Banana (known as Joao Gilberto’s favourite drummer), who was in town for a show at Carnegie Hall, at his hotel in New York. As Roger Bruno, who went on to write songs recorded by the likes of Cher and Pat Benatar, puts it, Tim “knew what he wanted to do musically,” and their Sunday routines consisted of absorbing elements of church gospel choirs in the morning and lurking around smoky jazz clubs in the afternoons. Things started to look promising for “Jimmy” Maia, who, step by step, was making a career and a name in America. But then, and in a truly Hollywood-esque story, came the return to Brazil. Although going back was never really part of Tim’s plans, he did not have much saying in the decision – in 1963, clearly anticipating the spirit of what now has become known as “Spring Break”, Maia was arrested in Daytona Beach in Florida driving a stolen car and in possession of marijuana. Following a six-month stint in prison, his American dream was over, as US Immigration deported young “Jimmy” back to his homeland and his original name.

Tim Maia, the Brazilian Barry White

Upon returning to Brazil, with nothing but the clothes he had on, Tim quickly realized his hometown of Rio de Janeiro was not where the action was and moved to São Paulo, where the music scene was dominated by his old friends. Roberto and Erasmo were now superstars, constantly surrounded by adolescent girls in sort of a Beatlemania environment, and in Tim’s mind, this was his gateway to storm the Brazilian music, as he felt he was owed for teaching the two of them how to play guitar. Roberto Carlos eventually recommended Tim Maia to his producer, in 1968, with whom Tim recorded his first singles, including Meu Pais and These Are the Songs. As you might have guessed, these recording sessions – much like Maia’s life and career – were anything but smooth. You need to understand that Tim was one of those artists that knows exactly how they want the songs to sound and, in late ’60s Brazil, recording a soul record was as common as winning the lottery. Frustrated with the recording studio’s old fashioned methods and how accustomed to Samba and Pop Rock they were, Maia didn’t even listen to the final product. Roberto, however, didn’t give up and invited Tim to perform at his TV show, Jovem Guarda, known for catapulting anyone brought to stage by Roberto Carlos to fame. But Tim was not “anyone” and ended the show marching off stage while complaining about poor sound quality – an action he later became known for in his superstar years.

Tim’s big musical break finally came in 1969, when Brazilian legend Elis Regina invited him to sing an English and Portuguese versions of his song These are the Songs, with which she had fallen in love, as part of her 1970 record Em Pleno Verao. This turned out to be the decisive push Tim needed to reach mainstream – Philips quickly signed this unknown big man with a bigger voice and even bigger ambitions, who shortly thereafter released his debut self titled album, Tim Maia. The album changed the game, as it brought together black music from the US with Funk, Baiao and Bossa Nova that, up to that point, dominated the Brazilian radio and music scene, and wrapped all of this nicely in the form of a completely new sound – the Tim Maia sound. The record, off the back of fantastic tracks such as Eu Amo Voce,  Azul da Cor do Mar and Primavera, spent 24 weeks at the top of the charts and catapulted Tim Maia into superstardom.

Tim Maia in the 1970s

In 1971 he released his sophomore album, with arguably two of his most famous songs, Voce and Nao Quero Dinheiro (So Quero Amar), which basically talk about how the only thing Tim Maia needs in life is love. Ironically enough, it was also in 1971 that he discovered LSD. Coming back from a hedonistic trip to London with 200 doses of LSD, he ventured into Philips’ offices and, starting with the departments he considered… well, the lamest – like the Accounting and Legal departments – and proceeded to distribute the drug amongst the record people. In his own words, “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…”. As one of the company’s best-selling artists, everyone indulged, gladly accepting his gift – even Andre Midani, president of the company, took his. Philips’ golden goose continued to lay eggs and quickly released his third and fourth self titled records in 1972 and 1973. From these two drug-fuelled years, bursting with unbelievable stories and equally-matching tours and musical hits, I personally recommend the fantastic Where is My Other Half?, perhaps his most powerful ode to loneliness and heartbreak, Gostava Tanto de Voce and Reu Confesso.

If Tim’s story had ended there, on the back of his first four self-titled albums, we would still be talking about him today – deservedly – as one of Brazil’s greatest musicians but, fortunately for all of us, it did not. In 1974, clearly lacking unusual and mind-blowing stories in his life, Tim converted to the cult of Rational Culture – for those of you that, like me, are not familiar with existence of such a cult (or any cult, for that matter), in a nutshell it is a religious sect that believes humans are perfect beings from another planet that have been exiled on Earth to suffer. But fear not, as we are all able to purify ourselves by reading the Universe in Disenchantment to be rescued by flying ships from our original planet. Sounds crazy? Well, that’s Tim Maia for you – equal parts genius and insane. Legend has it that at the moment of his conversion, Maia was finalising his fifth album and, after coming across the so-called salvation book, set up an emergency band meeting to discuss the impact the book was having on his thoughts and the change in direction, both personally and musically, Maia wanted to take. If, on one hand, this saw him renouncing alcohol, drugs and even red meat – actions his strained cardiovascular system surely thanked him for – it also meant that all songs written and recorded would be in celebration of his newly-founded belief. Repackaging the upcoming record as two funky devotional albums, Racional (Vol 1) and Racional (Vol 2), it is surprising to look back on how easily the other members of the band accepted these changes, with the whole lot dressing up in white and shaving their facial hair. Unsurprising is how much Philips was uninterested in these uncommercial songs, which forced the eternal pioneer Maia to launch the first independent label in Brazil, Seroma, to promote and distribute his gospel in 1975 and 1976.

Tim Maia during his Rational Culture years

The healthier lifestyle clearly impacted his voice, with some of his most powerful and clear vocal performances being delivered in these two records. Quer Queira Quer Nao Queira, Imunizacao Racional (Que Beleza), O Caminho do Bem, Bom Senso, Leia o Livro Universo em Desencanto and Rational Culture, to name a few, are all soul-packed funky hits, phenomenal belters that are arguably some of Tim Maia’s best ever songs – if his 1970’s debut album was considered by Rolling Stone magazine back in 2007 the 25th greatest Brazilian record of all time, Racional (Vol I) ranks ahead at 17th and Racional (Vol 2) in the 49th position. Unfortunately, radio at the time did not agree with Rolling Stone’s opinion and refused to play the songs, as – bizarrely enough – Maia decided to include 30 second interludes urging listeners to buy the book Universe in Disenchantment, and so Maia’s most experimental and probably best music wound up mainly listened to by fellow cult members. In 1976, just as quickly as he had been converted, Tim left the cult, disillusioned by the beliefs and hypocrisy of its members. Or perhaps he decided that following the UFO-filled preaching of a man dressed in a white robe was too crazy, even for him – unfortunately, we will never know. What we do know is that these extremely rare records are some of the most sought after items for collectors, willing to spend big bucks in the music from one of the most bizarre chapters of Tim Maia’s life, which, at the same, time represent one of his greatest achievements – not sure you agree with me, but turning devotional messages and preaching into instant classics is pretty damn impressive, in my book.

In 1976’s Tim Maia, the first record post his extra-terrestrial years, Maia was keen on assuring his fans that he was back to his “normal” self, as one might ascertain from Nobody Can Live Forever, where he sings about human loneliness in the world (“Nobody can live forever / Nobody will know how I feel”) and the non-existence of a God (“There’s no God / There’s no Heaven / There’s no Devil / There’s no Hell”) – a message also explored in Brother Father Sister and Mother (“Cause there’s no Heaven / There’s no God / Cause there’s no Devil / There’s no Hell”). It was also during this period of disillusionment and disappointment with his search for life’s answers that he released the less-known Ela Partiu, on which he dwells into something more profound than the loss of a romantic love. It didn’t take long for Maia to get back to his old habits and shady companions, with the absurd and unbelievable stories that were by now part of the Tim Maia package – some of which involve hawks or machine guns – but also many more records and hits, including the successful Disco Club album of 1978, funk anthem Voce e Eu Eu e Voce (Juntinhos), released as part of his 1980 self-titled record, or O Descobridor dos Sete Mares, the phenomenal single from which his 1983 album, and probably his last great one, takes its name from. The record, a weirdly zen combination of Funk anthems such as Terapeutica do Grito and smooth love ballads like Mal de Amor, saw Maia return once again to the top of the charts.

Equal parts genius and insane

Alarmed by his declining health, and with his weight ballooning to nearly 140kg, Maia finally visited the doctor in the early 90s and discovered how much trouble he was actually in. One last effort to control his hedonistic habits saw the beloved Tim Maia rewarded with a string of late hits, some of which covered by emerging and upcoming artists, and remarkable live shows. Following one of his multiple comebacks in the 90s, Brazilian mammoth beer company Brahma offered him a series of 70 sponsored shows across the country but Maia, in the middle of a decisive show for the contract, announced to the fifty-thousand crowd that, even though he as doing a show for Brahma, he actually preferred rival brand Antarctica. Needless to say, Brahma did not appreciate that moment of honesty and offered the shows to his old friend Roberto Carlos. If this story highlights just how much Maia was his own worst enemy, it is also the perfect summary of how he lived his life. As Nelson Motta, Tim’s friend and biographer, puts it “Tim Maia was the freest person I’ve ever known, because he always did, in every waking moment, only what he wanted to do. Clearly, he paid an enormous price for this, but he did it until the very end.” As the closer to the ultimate Tim Maia musical cocktail, I leave you, dear reader, with a phenomenal live rendition of one of his greatest hits, Do Leme ao Pontal, performed in 1995. Perhaps aware that his time was running out, Maia embarked on a final trip down memory lane, travelling to the US for the first time since being deported to perform one chaotic final show in Miami for 50 Brazilian fans, before driving upwards to New York, talking to people along the way and reliving his days as young “Jimmy” Maia. Finally, in March 1998, at 55, his overindulgent lifestyle finally caught up with him and, while performing at the Municipal Theater of Niterói, obese and in very bad health, Maia collapsed onstage and died a few days later.

Like a Brazilian Barry White, Tim Maia often said that his music influenced what mattered the most – the dance floor and the bedroom. But, in reality, his impact went much further than that. Influenced by the civil rights struggle in the US, Maia helped establish a new Afro-Brazilian identity and culture that went beyond music, redefining what it meant to be a black Brazilian. He represented a rupture with the past, both musically and socially, and his influence can still be found in Brazilian culture and music, via a wide range of contemporary Brazilian artists, from Seu Jorge to Marcelo D2. Over 20 years following his death, Maia remains one of the few artists in the world to hit charts across three different decades, with his sound touching young and old, poor and rich, sick and healthy, equally. To this day, playing any Tim Maia song is guaranteed to fill up most dance floors – and isn’t this the best legacy for someone like Tim?

Tim Maia, a true rock and roll star