Oscar Castro-Neves dies at 73; bossa nova guitarist and orchestrator
Oscar Castro-Neves, a Brazil-born guitarist who helped to create the cool, sensuous rhythms of bossa nova and orchestrated music for movies including “L.A. Story” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” has died. He was 73.
Castro-Neves had cancer and died Friday in Los Angeles, his wife, Lorraine Castro-Neves, said.
Castro-Neves, who was noted for both his virtuosity and his impish sense of humor, toured with jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. For 10 years, he was guitarist, musical director and vocal coach for Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66 and went on to produce albums by luminaries as varied as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz harmonica player Toots Thielemans.
“Oscar was the greatest fountain of music I’ve ever known,” saxophone player Paul Winter told The Times on Sunday. “And he was perpetually funny.”
Born May 15, 1940, in Rio de Janeiro, he was one of eight children in a musical family. With his mother playing guitar and an uncle playing cello, young Oscar took up the cavaquinho, a small, traditional Brazilian guitar, and piano.
“My uncle taught me the hip chords, and I was hooked,” he told jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis in a 2005 PBS interview.
At 16, he was a huge success. After a recording artist heard Castro-Neves play at a party, his composition “Chora Tua Tristeza” (Cry Your Sadness) rocketed to the top of the charts and was widely recorded by others.
“It became the kind of song played at people’s weddings,” his wife said Sunday.
Shortly after the sudden fame, Castro-Neves heard the milkman singing one morning and ran outside in his pajamas.
“Hey, that’s my song!’' he cried. “You’re singing my song!”
“Yeah,” said the milkman, curdlingly skeptical.
One in a set of triplets, Castro-Neves and three of his brothers formed a quartet that would play in the neighborhood and practice in a garage. He asked musician Antonio Carlos Jobim over for a beer, and they soon were part of the emerging bossa nova, a sexy “new beat” that reflected the optimism, albeit passing, of a new Brazil.
“Bossa nova is naive, a little boat, the sun, the sea, the illusions,” he said in an interview years later. “‘I lost my girlfriend but I will get her back tomorrow....’”
At 22, Castro-Neves performed in a landmark bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall. In 1966, he moved permanently to the U.S., where his quick, gentle guitar style and murmuring vocals started receiving rave reviews as he toured with Getz, Frank Sinatra, Lalo Schifrin and others.
“Castro-Neves is incapable of creating a dull moment, but that is an understatement,” wrote critic Leonard Feather. “He is only capable of generating rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic joy.”
With homes in both San Diego and Los Angeles, Castro-Neves wrote the scores for a number of films, including “Blame It on Rio,” a 1984 romantic comedy; and his arranging and orchestrating credits include “Sister Act II” and “He Said, She Said.” He also wrote the music for Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ TV series “Watching Ellie.”
“He was so tuned in to films,” his wife said. “When he was a child, his father used to rent 16-millimeter reels and invite everyone in the neighborhood to come over and watch movies.”
The romance of the movies never left him.
For 15 years, he sent his wife three love notes a month, sometimes commemorating occasions such as their first kiss.
He spoke a number of languages and knew just enough in others to put native speakers at ease. Critically ill in the hospital, he chatted with a doctor in Korean.
In addition to his wife, Castro-Neves is survived by daughters Felicia and Bianca and four grandchildren.
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