With An Ego as Big as a Basilica, Daniel Serra Pushes His Fab New Recording Artist, Pope John Paul II
Serra, a native Brazilian who has modeled clothes and crooned the bossa nova in nightclubs and cruise-ship lounges, is an odd candidate to collaborate with the Successor of the Chief of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. And, in quintessential fashion, he does overstate the case just a bit. If pressed, Serra will admit that he and John Paul II never jammed together in the studio, trading licks under headphones.
But what Serra did accomplish was equally unprecedented. He convinced the Vatican to grant him an audiotape of a homily John Paul gave in St. Peter's Basilica in March 1983 to mark the opening of a Special Jubilee Holy Year. With the Pontiff's approval, Serra composed a pleasant melody, had it arranged for a small orchestra and mixed it beneath the 7½-minute sermon, which he then marketed to the world as a 45-rpm disc. It's the first time a Pope's voice has ever appeared on a commercial recording. If Serra isn't exactly the Phil Spector of Divine Inspiration, he's the closest thing to it in the nearly 2,000-year history of the Holy See.
Since completing the record in the fall of 1983, Serra's most important piece of equipment has been his shoes. About a month before John Paul departs on one of his papal missions, Serra hops on a plane as self-appointed advance man to promote the record. That took him to Canada last August; Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru last December. Next month he leaves for the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Maintaining no permanent address, Serra flits in and out of hotels, such as the Columbus in Rome, whose main attribute is that it's a few hundred feet from the Vatican. "The travel is exhausting," Serra says. "I'm never really well."
For the South American trip, Serra's first move was to place an article about the record in the Spanish-language edition of the Vatican newspaper. Then, armed with a letter of introduction from each country's ambassador to the Vatican, he called on the local bishop, encouraging him to put out the word. Then he presented himself for interviews at newspapers and radio and TV stations. Says Fritz Hentschel, Director of Special Products for CBS Records International, which is distributing the disc in South America, "Serra probably spends as much time selling himself as the record. But we feel what's good for Daniel Serra is good for the record."
In fact, the South American clergy did not work very hard on Serra's behalf, and according to CBS fewer than 5,000 copies were sold. Says Serra testily, "You can't think of it as you would a record by Michael Jackson or Julio Iglesias."
In the course of his peripatetic career, Serra, 48 and single, has never lacked for self-assurance. Born in São Paulo to an Italian father who was a singer and actor and a Brazilian mother, he became a choirboy at 13. "I loved the mystery of Jesus Christ and the Apostles," he says confidingly, "and I loved the silence of churches." (He says he's still a practicing Catholic.) By 16 he had left school because "I knew more than the teachers." He won first prize in a national radio singing contest and decided his musical talents could earn him a living. After moving to Rio de Janeiro in 1965, Serra composed some songs for the city's 400th birthday. He had a hit record in 1968, singing Paese Mio (My Country), a song he wrote about the homesickness of Italian immigrants in Brazil. It became so popular, Serra says, that the Brazilian Foreign Minister promised to send the singer to perform the hit at Italy's San Remo festival. When the minister "backed out," Serra concocted what he called a "Golden Book," which he permitted wealthy and nostalgic patrons, many of them Brazilians of Italian descent, to sign in return for underwriting his trip.
For the next decade Serra modeled Italian menswear and sang bossa nova. He remarks casually that he played the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center, but admits he only sat in the audience with some casino execs from Las Vegas. Though he often speaks of his desire "to carry my message to the people," Serra generally seeks the company of the well-to-do.
While vacationing and doing some TV work back home in Brazil in 1980, Serra heard about John Paul II's impending visit to the country. He called an old acquaintance, Agnelo Cardinal Rossi, another Brazilian of Italian descent, whose ancestors came from Potenza, the same southern province as Serra's father. Serra thus got himself a piece of the action, helping to decorate the flower-bedecked altar used at Brazil's shrine of Aparecida. He also designed a commemorative medallion (on which he earned a small royalty) and trotted out a variation on his theme—a parchment "Roll of Honor," which Brazil's leading industrialists signed, giving Serra entrée to their ranks.
One day in 1983, Rossi in Rome received a visit from Serra, who had an idea for making a record using the Pope's voice. Rossi was pessimistic, but he passed the request on to the Pope's private secretary, a personal friend of Rossi's.
A few months' silence ensued. "I sometimes heard about priests who resented me," Serra says, "who thought this should be done by someone involved in church music." But finally the phone rang. He had won the personal approval of John Paul, who has made wider use of the media than any other Pope. Serra was given exclusive worldwide rights to the homily for 15 years, with the Holy See receiving a minuscule royalty of 1 percent. Says Rossi proudly of his fellow countryman: "When you have a problem and only someone creative, someone with fantasy will do, call a Brazilian."
The record is not yet available in the U.S., but marketing it elsewhere has taxed even Serra's prodigious powers. The Canadian distributor, he says, made 105,000 copies and then let them "sit in a warehouse. I told him to get 20 boys with 100 records each out there to put them into the stores, but he did not listen."
Serra, however, remains undaunted. He has not been satisfied with the singing of the local tenors hired to perform God Is Love, the tune he wrote that appears on the B side of the Pope's single. So Serra is now learning the lyrics in Dutch and will sing the song himself for the Netherlands edition. "I had thought with this project," he admits, "to emancipate my life. But it is still worth it. The Pope thinks of me often," he says, leaning forward and fixing his listener with an unwavering gaze. "Whenever he says the words 'God is Love,' I know he is thinking of me."