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World Music Legends

Amália Rodrigues

By Chris Nickson
Published March 2005


The new wave of young singers from Portugal, names like Cristina Branco, Misia and Mariza, have raised the global profile of the aching style known as fado (literally fate, or lament). But good as they all are, they owe almost everything to the real mother of fado, Amália Rodrigues. She brought distinction to the style, taking it from the backstreets of Lisbon to concert halls around the world, and became its definitive voice.

Born in July 1920, she grew up poor in Lisbon’s Alfama district, the area where fado had been born a century before, with Maria Severa as its greatest (but unrecorded) 19th century exponent. She was one of 10 children, abandoned by their mother and raised by their grandmother. Amália’s first public performance was at the age of nine, in elementary school. Shortly thereafter, given the family’s lack of money, she left school, working variously as an embroiderer, cake decorator, shop assistant and fruit seller.

However, she hadn’t given up on singing, and in 1935 made her proper public debut, at the Alcântara Parade benefit, accompanied by a guitarist. It was a major steppingstone for her as a performer, and within four years she was starting to win recognition as a fadista (in the meantime, against her family’s wishes, she’d appeared as a tango dancer). But her big break would come in 1940, when she took part in the revue Ora Vai Tu! (Listen You Go!), at Lisbon’s Maria Vitório Theater. She became an instant star in Lisbon, filling clubs all over the city, even during wartime.

In 1943 she appeared in Spain, at the personal request of the Portuguese ambassador, then sailed to Brazil, drawing massive crowds at Rio’s Copacabana Casino, and making her first recording in Rio in 1945. But that would be her only record until 1951—and not just because she concentrated on a film career for a few years, starring in Capas Negras (1947) and Fado, História De Uma Cantadeir (1948, for which she won Best Actress Award)—because her manager believed no one would come to hear her sing if they had her records.

            Obviously, that wasn’t the case; if anything, her remarkable popularity soared, and after her first “real” discs, she undertook a world tour, including Africa, before finishing with 14 weeks as a headliner in New York, no small feat for someone who hadn’t released a record in the U.S. and didn’t sing in English (her first LP, with an English title, would appear in 1954). Throughout the ’50s and early ’60s she continued to make films, while scoring hit after hit in Portugal, and even an international smash with “Coimbra” in 1955.

            Even the slowly diminishing popularity of fado during the ’60s didn’t seem to affect her. She was impervious to fashion, a national institution, a voice that summed up the Portuguese people. It wasn’t until the revolution of 1974 that things began to change. One month after the old regime was toppled, she released “Meu Amor É Marinheiro,” dedicated to the revolution, but in November of that year there were attacks against her in print, calling her “a disguised supporter of the fascist regi

Recommended Recordings


The Art Of Amália (Blue Note)

First Recordings (EPM)

Amália/Vinicius (EMI)