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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Singer Elis Regina was so loved in her native Brazil that when she died in 1982, 100,000 people filled the stadium for her memorial.

Critic Tom Moon makes his case for why her voice is the latest in our yearlong series 50 Great Voices.

TOM MOON: To really appreciate Elis Regina, start with the lowly half-step. It's the penny of the music world; the smallest interval on the piano.

(Soundbite of music)

MOON: Some vocalists treat half-steps as annoying afterthoughts. They smush them together into a blur. Elis Regina's art happens inside the half-steps, the tiny increments that make up a melody.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELIS REGINA (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

MOON: When Elis Regina sings, half-steps seem to expand. Partly, that's a reflection of her exacting technique. When she wants to, she can nail the most challenging intervals. Her lazy, endlessly sloping phrases magnify the hidden shades of meaning in a lyric. She's the rare singer who can conjure an ocean of love trouble in the space between C and C-sharp.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. REGINA: (Singing in foreign language)

MOON: Regina grew up in Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil. She began singing professionally as a young teen, and rose to prominence after a 1965 appearance at a big music festival. Like so many Brazilians, she learned her craft interpreting the intricate half-step rich songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim.

One of her career milestones, recorded in the early 1970s, is an intimate duet with the great composer, entitled "Elis and Tom." Jobim backs Regina on piano for the stunning lament about a lost romance.

(Soundbite of song, "Elis and Tom")

Ms. REGINA: (Singing in foreign language)

MOON: The song talks about how when you're missing a lover, even the beauty of nature can seem meaningless. Check out Regina's delivery, so calm, so pensive. Each thought seems to still the air.

(Soundbite of song, "Elis and Tom")

Ms. REGINA: (Singing in foreign language)

MOON: Regina brought a mischievous streak and a jazz singer's taste for adventure to everything she did. She reimagined samba and bossa nova classics. And in the late '60s, became a champion of the young Brazilian songwriters who were integrating elements of British and American rock. Her interpretations of songs like this one by Milton Nascimento, helped bring attention to this new generation of talent.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. REGINA: (Singing in foreign language)

MOON: Today, young performers talk about being intimidated when they attempt songs Regina made famous. There's good reason for that. But at the same time, Elis Regina is totally approachable. She just slinks along in her quiet way, calmly attending to the details. She's the essence of poise, mulling the big questions about life and romance one magnificent half-step at a time.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. REGINA: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: That's music critic Tom Moon, a member of our 50 Great Voices panel.

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