Elza Soares, who has died aged 91, was one of the finest, best-loved singers in Brazil, a glamorous, spirited performer who triumphed over personal tragedy and never forgot her hungry childhood in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. She was an exponent of the many different forms of samba, Brazil’s most enduring and ever-evolving style, and constantly on the lookout for new experiments and fusions. And she was a bravely outspoken campaigner for women’s rights, and against racism. As a black musician she experienced racism in the industry first-hand – despite her remarkable talent, record companies were slow to sign her.
Two albums, recorded 54 years apart, demonstrate her extraordinary range. She began recording in the early 1960s, just as João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes were pioneering the cool new fusion of samba cançao, jazz and classical styles known as bossa nova. Soares had very different ideas. On her second album, A Bossa Negra (The Black Bossa, 1961) she matched sensual, delicate and husky vocals against swinging big band brass backing in songs that would suddenly change direction as she switched to furious growled scat singing worthy of Louis Armstrong on Perdäo (Forgiveness), or an ecstatic scream at the end of Beija-Me (Kiss Me). These were fresh, exciting songs to match the optimism of Brazil in the early 60s, and established Soares as a major force.
Spool forward to 2015, and there was a very different Brazilian music scene. São Paulo had now taken over from Rio as the creative music centre, and on the extraordinary A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo (The Woman at the End of the World) she was joined by members of the punk, candomblé and jazz-influenced Méta Méta and Afrobeat-inspired Bixiga 70 for a set that mixed samba with distorted rock and jazz influences. There were edgy, unnerving songs about domestic violence or the death of a crack addict, and Soares dominated the set with her often harsh-edged, powerful vocals. It was the Brazilian album of the year, and rightly won her a Latin Grammy award.
She loved to experiment, but stayed in touch with her musical roots. The samba schools that compete at the Rio carnival with their music and flamboyant costumes are also social centres with strong links with the local community. Soares supported the Mocidade school, in the neighbourhood where she grew up, and on a hot Saturday night in 2007 she gave a thrilling performance there, filmed for the BBC series Brasil, Brasil. She sang from a balcony overlooking the large, packed dancefloor, wearing a short black dress, a black wig with a red flower, looking decades younger than her age. She began with a rousing, emotional tribute to the school, Salve A Mocidade (Save Mocidade), which she had first recorded in the 70s, and told me: “I love this school. I love this community. It’s my heart”.
Soares was born in the Padre Miguel neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro, the daughter of a samba-loving, guitar-playing factory worker, Avelino Gomes, and a washer woman, Rosária Maria da Conceição. When she was 12 her father forced her to marry Lourdes Antônio Soares, and a year later she gave birth to her first child. Desperately poor, but already a music lover, she entered a singing contest hosted by the musician Ary Barroso on the popular station Rádio Tupi, wearing a dress borrowed from her mother. When asked where she came from, the teenager replied “planet hunger”. She won the contest, and money to feed her growing family.
She was inspired to keep singing, but problems continued. Her husband died of tuberculosis when she was 21, and she worked in a soap factory and said she stole food to survive. She was now a widow with five children to support. But she persevered, built up a reputation singing in the Copacabana clubs, and toured Argentina before finally recording her debut album, Se Acaso Você Chegasse (If By Chance You Came), in 1960, introducing scat singing to samba.
She became a bestselling celebrity, travelling to Chile when Brazil played in the Fifa World Cup, meeting Armstrong, and working with the singer Miltinho and the virtuoso percussionist Wilson Das Neves. In 2007 he described her to me as “unprecedented. No-one equals her as a performer.”
But her personal life now brought scandal and yet more tragedy. In 1968 she married the soccer star Manuel Francisco dos Santos, better known by his nickname Mané Garrincha, who was a national hero in Brazil. She was accused of breaking up his earlier marriage, their house was attacked, and for several years the couple were forced to leave Rio for São Paulo and then Italy.
Garrincha was a heavy drinker, and was driving drunk when Soares’ mother was killed in a car crash in 1969. Soares tried to help him, touring the bars trying to stop them serving her husband, but this made her all the more unpopular with his friends. Garrincha died of cirrhosis in 1983, by which time the couple were separated, but she was said to be devastated. Three years later their only son, who was named after his father, was killed in another car accident.
Depressed, Soares left Brazil, travelling to Europe and Los Angeles, trying to start an international career. She returned after encouragement from the Tropicália star Caetano Veloso, who had asked her to sing on his 1984 album, Velô, and gradually regained her success. In 1999 she appeared at the celebrity-packed Since Samba Has Been Samba show at London’s Royal Albert Hall, alongside a cast that included Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque and Georgie Fame.
But her most experimental years were still to come, as she began to explore samba sujo (“dirty samba”), influenced by the hip hop and funk styles that were becoming popular in the favelas. Do Cóccix Até o Pescoço (From Top to Tail, 2002) included a Veloso song and a human beatbox artist and was nominated for a Latin Grammy, while Vivo Feliz (I Live Happily, 2004) included rap and heavy bass lines. Performing the songs at the Jazz Cafe in London that year she bounded on stage making mewing and growling noises before stomping through a new anthem, Rio De Janeiro, with the rapper Anderson Lugão.
Following the groundbreaking A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo she recorded two further highly praised albums, Deus É Mulher (God and Woman) in 2018 and Planeta Fome (Planet Hunger) in 2019. Both were nominated for Latin Grammys, with the title of her final and 35th album providing a reminder of that now-legendary comment she made as a teenager.
She is survived by four of the children from her first marriage, João Carlos, Gerson, Dilma and Sara.
• Elza Soares, singer, born 23 June 1930; died 20 January 2022