Santos was less well-known to American audiences than close friends such as Joao Gilberto, Antonio Jobim and Hermeto Pascoal. Unlike his colleagues, his performance and recording activities were largely restricted to Brazil, and he did not interact with American jazz musicians. Reclusive and averse to interviews, Santos was the only bossa nova performer who did not respond to journalist Ruy Castro when he was researching for his book Chega de Saudade. Indeed, information about Walter Santos is difficult to find, and what follows is based largely on a translation of a Sao Paulo newspaper obituary.
According to the Dicionario Cravo Albin da Musica Brasileira, Santos started his career in the 1940s in Juazeiro, in Bahia. In 1946, he founded, with Joao Gilberto and other friends, the vocal group Enamorados do Ritmo. While still in Juazeiro, he created the group Original Vocal and also participated in the historical LP Cancao do Amor Demais, of Elizeth Cardoso, considered an initial landmark of bossa nova, 50 years ago.
In 1957, Santos moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he lived in the same pension as Joao Gilberto, Luis Carlos Parana and the drummer Guarani. He gave guitar lessons and appeared in night clubs, although he distanced himself from being a purely bossa nova guitarist. In Rio, he met and married the poet Tereza Souza, who was his partner in many songs. (Their daughter, singer Luciana Souza, lives in the USA where she is much better known than her father, having received three Grammy nominations. She was named 2005 "Female Jazz Singer of the Year" by the Jazz Journalists Association.)
Invited by Luis Carlos Parana to sing in a nightclub in Sao Paulo, Santos moved to the city in 1959, working initially beside a Paraguayan duo and a Spanish Flamenco guitarist. In 1960, he recorded a 78 with his song Primavera e Ternurinha, along with Tereza Souza. That same year, he launched another 78, containing his compositions Barracao and E bom chorar por voce, again with his wife Tereza. Also in 1960, he worked on a campaign for Volkswagen, starting a successful career in advertising, working mostly in the studios of Sao Paulo.
In 1962, Santos launched a double recording titled Walter Santos, recording Cade o Amor and O Bolo. Also in that year, he recorded the LP Bossa Nova, for Audio Fidelity. The disc, considered a collector's item by lovers of the genre, was relaunched under a Spanish label and distributed in the US, Japan, and Europe. This was followed, in 1964, by Caminhos a collection of his original compositions. His most emblematic works are Amanha, with Tereza Souza, which became a classic of bossa nova, and Samba pro Pedrinho, which was the first recording by Hermeto Pascoal as a flutist. Unfortunately, many of these recordings are difficult to find in the US.
The list of artists who have recorded Santos' songs is a virtual who's who of Brazilian music. It includes: Alaide Costa, Claudette Soares, Isaurinha Garcia, Walter Wanderley, Hermeto Pascoal, Zimbo Trio, Milton Banana, Dick Farney, Pery Ribeiro, Heraldo do Monte, Lafayette, Dom Salvador e Edison Machado, Brazilian Octopus, Agostinho dos Santos, Jane Duboc, Elis Regina and Jair Rodrigues, Marcia, Luiz Gonzaga, Cesar Camargo Mariano, Marisa Gata Mansa, and others. In addition, his name appears, along with Joao Gilberto and Tom Jobim, on the historic disc Cancao do Amor Demais, by Elizeth Cardoso, on which appeared for the first time Gilberto's distinctive "drum of the guitar" effect which was to become a distinctive feature of later bossa nova recordings.
Between 1961 and 1968, Santos was active in the recording of diverse collections of music festivals and shows at Sao Paulo's Paramount Theater, by such artists as Elis Regina and Jair Rodrigues, and also on the project O Fino da Bossa, again with Regina and Rodrigues. He also participated in many historic shows at the Paramount himself, including two editions of the Festival da Musica Popular Brasileira, in 1966, with his song Marcha de Todo Mundo, interpreted by the vocal group Os Cariocas, and in 1967, with his song O Combatente (with Tereza Souza), interpreted by Jair Rodrigues. He recorded duets with Tereza Souza in records launched by RCA, Audio Fidelity and Fermata, playing with Walter Wanderley, keyboard, Arrudinha, drums, and Azeitona, bass.
Along with Tereza Souza, he created, in 1974, the Nossoestudio, where he realized his work as a producer of jingles. Also with his wife, he founded, in 1981, a label Som da Genta, which has in its catalog 50 LPs dedicated exclusively to instrumental music.
Walter Santos was well known in Brazil, so there is a chance that a record label, in Brazil or elsewhere, will re-issue some of his recordings as a tribute. Let's hope these become available in the United States.