The key moment in the career of the best-selling Latin American artist of all time came when he was persuaded to sing in another language. No, not English — Spanish. In 1965, Brazilian singer-songwriter Roberto Carlos — already a big Portugese-language star despite coming from the more remote province of Cachoeiro de Itapemirim, six hours northeast of Rio de Janeiro — was approached by A&R directors of Brazil and Argentina from CBS Records, the international arm of Columbia Records. In 1965, the now 72-year-old singer says, “they decided to launch me in the Hispanic market through Argentina. I believe the first [Spanish] song was ‘Mi Cacharrito,’ and I was so excited at the opportunity. I thought, ‘My God, I come from Cachoeiro, and now I’m going to record in another language?”
The session would prove a pivotal moment in both Carlos’ career and the history of Latin music. Although few Brazilian acts have found success rerecording their work for Spanish-language audiences, Carlos’ soulful voice and romantic songs easily crossed over, and his music became a ubiquitous part of the lives of Latin Americans who came of age in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
On April 30, the singer will be honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Billboard Latin Music Awards, but he continues to release albums almost yearly and consistently tops the Brazilian sales chart.
“He is the artist that all of Latin America — Spanish and Portuguese speakers alike — grew up singing,” says Jorge Mejia, senior vp Latin America and U.S. Latin for Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which represents Carlos.
His culture-straddling popularity has translated to sales of 120 million albums, making him the best-selling Latin American artist of all time, according to his longtime label Sony Music, and earning him the nickname of “O Rei” (The King) in Brazil. Despite getting around on a prosthetic right leg — the result of being hit by a train at the age of 6 — his concerts are two-hour marathons that leave his fans’ voices ragged from singing along. And whether he has performed for 70,000 at Maracaná Stadium in Rio de Janeiro or 6,000 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, his shows inevitably end with the singer handing out red roses to the women who flock to the stage. (Carlos is a widower whose third wife, Maria Rita, died of cancer in 1999 at age 38.)
“Above all else, I’m a romantic singer and composer who talks about love,” says Carlos, who nonetheless declines to divulge further details of his family or private life.
“He is the solo act who has sold the most CDs in Brazil,” Paulo Rosa, president of the country’s Association of Record Producers, told Billboard in 2014. “In sheer market terms, he’s one of the most important — if not the most important — artists in Brazil.”
Carlos and Sony are celebrating his 50th year recording in Spanish with a live album recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London, among other projects (see story, right), but the artist points out that “the first time I sang on the radio [at 9 years old], I did it in Spanish.” He adds that “once I saw the results of recording in Spanish, I made an effort to plan a well-thought-out career in that language, like the one I had in Brazil. It was simply a question of time management.”
The son of a watchmaker and a seamstress, Carlos took piano and guitar lessons from an early age and moved, at age 17, to Rio de Janeiro, where he sang nightly and immersed himself in the rock’n’roll music of Elvis Presley and other genres that were filtering into Brazil.
“My voice is not something I worked at. I never thought about it. I just sang in the way that came naturally to me,” says Carlos. “With time, I learned technique, of course. But my style was very natural.”
By the early ’60s, Carlos had signed to Columbia Records and, boosted by appearances on the TV show Jovem Guarda (Young Guard), he came to personify the rock-influenced musical movement that took its name from the program.
“At Columbia, I recorded some covers — songs by The Beatles and stuff like that — and I started to sing what in those days we called ‘ye-ye-ye’ — our rock’n’roll. But when I recorded my very first long play, that’s when I started to compose. I wrote what was youth music for the time, and with very romantic lyrics. I wrote my first full song, melody and lyrics, but I didn’t dare record it. And then, I wrote ‘Susie.’ That was the first track of mine that I recorded for an album.”
Carlos eventually began writing with his childhood friend and former bandmate Erasmo Carlos (no relation), who remains his primary collaborator to this day. Instead of opting for bossa nova, the sophisticated genre that suits Roberto’s smooth voice, the songwriting partners zeroed in on romantic pop, penning some of the most enduring compositions in the Latin American songbook. Translated to Spanish, such songs as “Amigo,” “Detalles,” “Cachivache” and “Qué Sera de Tí” became anthems for generations of listeners and are considered classics today.
“We sit down, with the piano and guitar, and compose together, always,” says Carlos of Erasmo, for whom he wrote “Amigo.” “And we stay there until it jells. It used to be that we would hammer out songs in a few hours, but nowadays we’re far more demanding,” and a writing session can take two or three days at Carlos’ home studio in Rio de Janeiro’s upscale Urca neighborhood.
Carlos admits that in recent years that catering to his Hispanic fans took a backseat to such new businesses as a yearly Roberto Carlos luxury cruise, Emocoes em Alto Mar. But after his EP Esse Cara Sou Eu became the top-selling album in Brazil in 2012, Carlos released a Spanish version as well, under the title Ese Tipo Soy Yo (I’m That Guy), and toured the United States and Latin America for the first time in years.
Looking back on his 52-year career in music, the artist says it’s all about how fans respond to his songs. “The key is that they identify with what they’ll hear,” says Carlos. “That they feel what the words say. That they move to the rhythm.”