Written with soul giant Leon Ware, the opening track of Marcos Valle’s 1983 album is about so much more than abs, bums and beaches. It speaks of Valle’s irrepressible enthusiasm and captures the mood of a country emerging from two decades of military dictatorship.
Marcos Valle could feel it. This groove had the makings of a hit. Producer Lincoln Olivetti was blown away. Max Pierre, musical director of record label Som Livre, couldn’t wait to get it out. There was a buzz around the whole project. After eight years abroad, Marcos Valle was back in Brazil with a new haircut and a fresh sound. ‘Estrelar’ was to be his anthem.
However, following a month in the studio, Max Pierre was becoming impatient. He gave Valle three days to write some lyrics, or it wouldn’t make the cut.
“I told my brother, ‘Come to the studio, we are going to sleep here tonight,’” Valle remembers. His brother Paulo Sérgio had been his lyricist since day one, and with Olivetti, they started to bat ideas around. “Let's play the track at high volume, let's listen and let's see what we have.”
He hums the bass line over a video call from his home in Rio de Janeiro.
Um, dois e três, é sem parar, mais uma vez...
“Suddenly, a word came into the studio. I don’t remember if it was me, if it was my brother or if it was Lincoln,” Valle says, his eyes alight. “Energy!”
“Energy… Exercise… Movement... Sports!” The words started flowing. “Take care of your health. Be ready for the summer time.” His pulse racing. “That’s it, that’s the idea.”
In a flash, ‘Estrelar’ was born - a paean to good health and better days to come. It would be Valle’s biggest selling single, the centre-piece of his self-titled 1983 album, and a track that has endured on dance floors across the world for almost forty years.
If there is a word that sums up Marcos Valle, it might also be ‘energy’. Even on screen, he has a charisma that is both compelling and generous. At times he leans in to tell a story as if in a bar with a friend. Now 77 years old, when says he has a young and happy soul, it is impossible to disagree.
Valle grew up in Rio de Janeiro, with a mother who insisted he learn the piano and a father who loved sports. “He always liked the beach and the sea,” Valle remembers, “and he was very interested that me and my brother exercised all the time. Football, volleyball, basketball, swimming, surfing… everything.”
More than just a place to work out, the beach assumed an almost spiritual significance. “I believe in God, but my church is out there,” he says, gesturing towards an imagined horizon. “I like to walk by the beach, and that's the time that I pray.” In lockdown, as in life, it has been both his saviour and inspiration.
“When I walk, then I can be in touch. I start to look to the mountains, to the sea, and then I look at the people.” He catches snippets of conversations - one of love, another of sadness - and snatches of songs carried on the breeze from a nearby bar. He breaks off to hum a samba. His heart quickens. And suddenly - “Oh my God!” - all the rhythms of Rio seem to overflow in one ecstatic expression of abundant life. “So many people with so many different lives, so many different interests, and everything is so important.” More often that not, he’ll return home and note down a new melody that came to him outside.
A clean-shaven bossa nova singer in a pressed white shirt, Valle released his debut album in 1963, a year before the military dictatorship took power in Brazil. Over the course of the next eleven years he released thirteen albums and established himself as a formidable voice in Brazilian music, versatile enough to edge towards jazz on one record and psychedelia on another.
The last album of this prolific period was released in 1974. It was his second self-titled LP in four years, but the mood had changed. The ominous cover featured a surrealist painting of a keyboard floating above a desolate shoreline, Valle’s eye suspended among the darkening clouds. On the inner sleeve, he appeared wearing a ragged top-hat, looking tired and unconvincing. Something wasn’t quite right.
“I started to become very sad and afraid with the government we had in Brazil at that time,” he says, recalling an afternoon where he and fellow musicians Chico Buarque and Egberto Gismonti were interrogated by the police about the perceived subversive “intentions” of their songs. “I did not want to sing any more, I did not want to go on stage.” For a self-confessed optimist, this amounted to nothing short of what he calls “a psychological situation”.
Valle felt he had no option but to leave Brazil, first for New York, where he hooked up with friend and fellow Brazilian musician Eumir Deodato, and then on to Los Angeles, where the Pacific Ocean called. “That’s why I came to California,” he says, with a smile.
Needless to say, he quickly made himself at home. Valle bought a motorbike and rented an apartment. He became friends with Toto, and played tennis with Chicago. He was invited by legendary arranger Marty Paich and his son David to record an album of Beatles covers with Sarah Vaughan. Their lilting duet on ‘Something’ featured Portuguese lyrics and remains an unforgettable experience for Valle. He was making good on a lifelong passion for rock, jazz and soul, and it was only going to get better.
“One of my big influences when I was growing up was Marvin Gaye,” Valle says, “but I didn’t know that Leon Ware was the partner of Marvin Gaye on I Want You.” In 1979, Valle was asked by Chicago’s Robert Lamm to write a melody and some lyrics for a track that would become ‘Love Is A Simple Thing’, first recorded by Leon Ware later that year. Invited to the session, Valle fell in love with Ware’s version of the song and the two quickly became great friends.
“In order to work with somebody else like this you have to really admire them. Not only as a musician or an artist, but also as a person,” Valle describes. The two had an intuitive connection, to the point where Valle can no longer remember who wrote what. “We were so comfortable writing and recording together, because I think that the roots of Brazilian music like samba and American rhythm and blues are the same.”
First came Rockin’ You Eternally, Ware’s 1981 album, to which Valle contributed ‘Baby Don’t Stop Me’, ‘Got To Be Loved’ and the album’s iconic title track.
“We went to the studio of A&M Records,” Valle remembers, more than a little starstruck that Gene Page would be conducting. Sat at the Fender Rhodes, he describes the moment the tape rolled for the first time: “When the orchestra came in, my heart just went. I said, ‘Marcos, control yourself - if you want to cry, cry, but pull yourself together.’”
He draws breath: “That was absolutely emotional for us. When we finished we were in ecstasy, orgasm, you know? It was incredible.”
For a man with Rio in his veins, five years in California was enough to make the reinvigorated Marcos Valle long for home. A call from Som Livre’s Max Pierre with the promise of two new albums was enough to tempt him back.
The first was Vontade De Rever Você, released in 1981. It featured several tracks with Chicago and provided a bridge between Valle’s acoustic work and the West Coast funk sheen that Olivetti would bring to the following record. Like all of Valle’s work, it also spoke of something personal and true. Vontade De Rever Você, or ‘the will to see you again’. “We are talking about a women, we are talking about Rio De Janeiro, we are talking about Brazil.”
Although still three years before the dictatorship was finally dismantled, the country Valle returned to was already changing, and he could sense a lightness in the air: “We were so happy and with a lot of hope,” Valle enthuses. Squinting into the sunlight, the Carioca were ready to party, and this blonde-locked boogie troubadour was the right man to make it happen. “Everything started with one song that would be named ‘Estrelar’.”
Valle hums the bass line once more. “I did that,” he grins cheekily. “My god, I love that groove.”
Although recorded at SIGLA Studios in Rio De Janeiro, that groove stems from a demo that Leon Ware and Marcos Valle first cut with Ware’s band at A&M Records in Los Angeles. Its combination of American funk and the baião syncopation of Northeastern Brazil is what Valle believes has given the music a timeless, universal appeal.
For the final session in Rio, Max Pierre brought Valle together with a hip young producer and arranger called Lincoln Olivetti. Over several weeks, they worked tirelessly alongside a band of close to forty musicians to get the album into shape.
“The soul of my music is the Fender Rhodes and the bass,” Valle explains, describing how he would perfect the core of each song before thinking about orchestration or lyrics. “If that's no good, even if you put a symphony on top, I will not be happy.” That’s not to say Valle doesn’t like a good horn stab, and Olivetti’s heraldic contribution to the beginning of ‘Estrelar’ is about as confident an opening to an album as you’re likely to hear.
“Lincoln and his musicians would really start to work hard on the recording at two in the morning, which was very strange to me, because the session had to start at 8pm,” Valle remembers. “They would arrive at 1am, they would ask for some pizza and then, at two o’clock, they were ready.”
For an album sold on getting fit, did Valle eat the pizza too? “I had to be in the same emotion as the group. So if they are eating pizza, then OK. Maybe not the meat, because it is so heavy. Sometimes they would bring pizza with sausage. I said ‘no, no, no, bring me chicken!’”
Som Livre released ‘Estrelar’ as a single in late 1982, featuring a trim Marcos Valle leaning over a set of chrome barbells, his hair still as long as the day he left California. A music video of lycra-clad ladies and beach-side aerobics followed. Valle was in the resort town of Búzios when news came through that ‘Estrelar’ was indeed the song of the summer. Had he been walking down to the beach to pray, he would have heard it spilling out of taxis, restaurants and bars all along the Copacabana.
“All of the gyms were playing it too,” Valle laughs, admitting he sometimes works out to the track himself. “So many people said, ‘Marcos, you made me exercise, thank you very much.’”
Where ‘Estrelar' led, the album’s other tracks followed: ‘Fogo Do Sol’, a sultry vision of sunsets and tanned skin; ‘Samba De Verao’, first recorded in 1964 as the dictatorship took hold; ‘Dia D’ and ‘Mais Que Amor’, co-written by Leon Ware in Los Angeles; and ‘Tapo No Real’, the Portuguese version of ‘Love Is A Simple Thing’ that Ware had recorded in 1979, accompanied by its own poolside montage of fruit juice, sexual fantasy, and a white-suited Valle paddling a rubber dingy through a turquoise waterfall.
At Max Pierre’s behest, the album cover was geared towards re-introducing this lithe 40-year-old to a new generation of aspirational youngsters embracing the freedom and sexuality of the new era. To do so, Valle would have to cut his hair. “That was the idea. Of health, of the juice, of Marcos Valle - he is older now but he is very in shape.”
Dressed in a loose-fitting pink v-neck, a touch of grey in his trimmed beard, Valle is looking straight down the lens. If it feels a little staged, that’s because it was. Pierre had sat his star behind a table of multi-coloured fruit juices and told him not to touch anything. “It was so difficult, because you couldn't have any smudge on the glasses. ‘Comb your hair, leave the glass, try not to smudge it.’” If he looks a little weary, that’s because it took a whole day to perfect the look.
Almost forty years on and Valle remains not only in shape, but as energetic as ever. He enjoys listening to his previous records for inspiration - a selection frames his once-again flowing locks on the video call - but refuses to dwell on their success. He holds himself to a high standard, yet is disarmingly unpretentious about his work. The last two years have born three records and he is currently in the process of finishing a fourth, written remotely during lockdown. He relishes the sense of fun and liberation ‘Estrelar’ has come to represent, and is amused by the crowds of European fans that sing along without knowing the words.
You have to run, you have sweat, you have to work out…
More than anything, it’s clear that music is still as vital for his well-being as exercise. There are moments where he can barely control his hands as they pat out another rhythm, or contain his voice as he sings another tune. Sometimes words don’t even suffice. “And I just love music,” he breaks off. “I love to play… I love it.” You could say he is a glass-half-full kinda guy. No album captures this joy quite like 1983’s Marcos Valle.
“I will say one thing,” he concludes, once again smiling mischievously. “I am a very bad dancer on the outside, but inside I’m the best. I’m always looking to feel this groove."
Feature written by Anton Spice for Mr Bongo. Interview conducted by Anton with Marcos Valle, May 2021.
Photos contained in this feature come courtesy of Marcos Valle.
Marcos Valle 'Marcos Valle', the Mr Bongo reissue is available on vinyl (standard / coloured / half-speed), CD and tape.