Tim Maia, Brazil's Iconic Soul Man

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Why you should care

You can’t burn out if you’re not on fire.

On any given Saturday night, in the heart of Rio de Janeiro’s downtown Lapa district, up some rickety stairs in a colonial corner building, Tim Maia lives. There, backed by a horn section, a cover band rips loose the Maia catalog, and, bouncing with arms in the air, the crowd eats it up: They know every word of every song. Sandro Black, the lead singer, describes the sensation when he plays a Tim Maia song to a packed crowd as “collective catharsis.”

It’s true: Maia’s songs have left an unmistakable mark on Brazilian music and his hometown of Rio. And although some gringos have called his music “cult,” it is in fact as mainstream as can be, played during Carnaval and every other day across the country, in neighborhoods of all classes and colors. Find a beachside bar and you’ll find a man and a guitar and the romantically tragic words of Maia’s songs: “I fear the future and the solitariness that knocks on my door.

I don’t want money. I just want to love.

Like Chris Farley, who had died just a couple months earlier, or Elvis or other oversize spirits of modern life, Maia was killed by his own excess on March 15, 1998.

His sound — a thick voice brightened by poppy brass — has been compared to Sly and the Family Stone, Wilson Pickett, even James Brown. Rolling Stone called him the greatest voice in the history of Brazilian music. “Tim will always be remembered as the soul man of Brazilian music,” said Maia’s former writing partner Michael Sullivan. “This title will always be his, for all of posterity.”

That posterity, though, has been complicated by resurrections of the soul man’s life. First, years ago, came a thorough biography by Nelson Motta, It Was All Worth It — The Sound and the Fury of Tim Maia. Told as a backstage pass to his life, the book chronicles the escalation of Maia’s excess — drugs, alcohol, food and more food — with a sly tenderness: The chapters are titled with his weight at the time, a number that increases until the end.

More recently, over the past four years, a moment of common cultural reminiscence has spawned a musical, a movie and a miniseries. The dramatizations have drawn criticism for inaccuracies and melodrama that rope in other Brazilian music icons — ironic critiques for stories of a life chock-full of misfires and melodrama. In short order, Maia went to New York to learn English and soul, only to promptly get deported for drugs and theft, burn up the tapes of a recording session with James Brown’s band and convert to a cult religion.

“He sinned by sincerity,” one critic said. Maia said as much himself in one of those songs you’ll hear on any visit to Brazil, if you can catch the words as the bouncing crowd chants them: “I don’t want money. I just want to love.

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