The unforgettable baritone of a samba icon

The phrase “golden age” is used a lot these days, but there seems to be little other way to describe the Brazilian music scene of the 1960s. At a time of great political unrest and conflict in Brazil, the country’s art and music scene witnessed a vibrant explosion. As traditional styles of samba and bossa nova collided brilliantly with modern styles of Western rock and psychedelia, a variety of incredible new sounds dominated the airwaves. In all the chaos, it would be easy to forget certain artists, but no one could ever forget the distinctive voice of Noriel Vilela.

Hailing from the poor Lins de Vasconcelos neighborhood in northern Rio de Janeiro, Vilela initially pursued a career as a lathe operator before joining the singing group Nilo Amaro and his Cantores de Ébano. Within this MPB group, Vilela quickly gained a reputation for his incredibly deep baritone vocals, which stood out against the pop optimism of many other Brazilian MPB groups at the time. The singer remained with the group throughout the first half of the 1960s, witnessing some success with songs such as ‘Leva eu ​​​​saudade’.

Despite the relative success of Cantores de Ébano, Noriel Vilela’s vocal talents demanded their own attention. Inevitably, therefore, it was only a matter of time before the Rio native embarked on a solo tour. In 1969, the singer unveiled his first – and ultimately his only – solo studio album. Eis oh Uncleas an album, made Vilela potentially the biggest owner of samba rock in all of Brazil.

Released by Copacabana Records, the album has since become a highly sought-after record for vinyl obsessives. Ultimately, it’s easy to see why Vilela’s album has such lasting power and influence. Although his music is characteristic of the wider Brazilian samba rock scene of the late 1960s, his vocal performance has a timeless quality; you could very easily mistake him for a modern artist upon first listens.

Although his debut studio album did not enjoy the same commercial success as some of his contemporaries, few samba records from the same period have enjoyed the same lasting legacy as Eis oh Uncle. In many ways, however, the album was overshadowed by Vilela’s 1971 single ’16 Toneladas’, which would become his epitaph. The song itself is a cover or reinterpretation of the classic Tennessee Ernie Ford song ’16 Tons’, an iconic song that describes the daily struggles of the working class.

For his version, Vilela infused the somewhat melancholic song with a distinctly Brazilian sense of vibrancy and optimism, breathing new life into the old folk tune. His deep vocals made him the obvious choice to cover Ford’s song, but the resulting cover might even rival the original version.

Tragically, the samba king’s life would be cut short when Vilela passed away in 1975 at the age of just 38. Depending on who you ask, the singer died due to leukemia or an allergic reaction to dental surgery. The samba master’s sudden death left Brazilian music fans with a plethora of unanswered questions about how his work would evolve in the 1970s as more modern influences and experiments crept into the samba scene. But as is the case with any artist worth their salt, the singer certainly lives on through his impeccable body of work.

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