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Session Musician Spotlight: Paulinho Da Costa

The percussionist has played on thousands of records, including hits by Bonnie Raitt, Michael Jackson, and Madonna.

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Paulinho Da Costa Sunrise album cover
Cover: Courtesy of Fantasy Records

What do Donny Osmond, Dizzy Gillespie, Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers, and Tori Amos all have in common? Paulinho Da Costa.

This Rio de Janeiro-born percussionist joined his first band at the age of five. After joining Sérgio Mendes’ group, Brasil ‘77 at the age of 25, though, he moved his family to Los Angeles. An appearance on The Miracles’ #1 hit “Love Machine” in 1975 jump-started his career as a session musician.

Since that inaugural session in 1975, he’s brought his distinct fusion of Brazilian, Mexican, Cuban, African, and Latin sounds to platinum-selling albums and songs that have won Grammys, Oscars, and Golden Globes. He’s, quite simply, one of the most prolific session players ever. But, as he once told author Josh Kun, “I always felt like I was invited to be a part of a project. I never felt like a musician sitting in a corner because they treated me with so much respect. I felt like I was collaborating.”

Da Costa has over 1700 recordings to his credit, but he also has four critically-acclaimed solo albums, three of which he produced. Additionally, he produced the 1981 tribute album that jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald made, celebrating the songs of Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.

To get a better sense of this music great, we picked out just a few of Paulinho Da Costa’s finest moments.

Joe Sample – Rainbow Seeker

When Joe Sample began work on his first solo album, Paulinho Da Costa was in the mix. His presence is particularly felt on the album’s title track where he augments the tightness of the band with what critic Max Bell described as “percussive oomph.”

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Peter Allen – Fly Away

Recorded at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound, Allen captured the magic of the crème de la crème of LA’s early 80s session players. On “Fly Away,” Paulinho Da Costa’s subtleties prove the adage “less is more” to be true. It’s unthinkable to imagine the song without his touch.

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Michael Jackson – Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

After playing on the soundtrack to The Wiz in 1978, Paulinho Da Costa became a part of Quincy Jones’ core unit of session players, so seeing his name in the credits on Michael Jackson’s blockbuster, Thriller, is no surprise. Critic Mitchell Cohen called this a “curtain-raising sizzler” and Paulinho fans the flames.

Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'

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Debarge – Rhythm of the Night

Featured in the Motown-produced film The Last Dragon, this Diane Warren-penned tune peaked at #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1985. Paulinho’s unmistakable presence in the mix fused Brazilian rhythms with pop and made audiences dance in the street.

Rhythm Of The Night

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Bonnie Raitt – Nick of Time

Paulinho Da Costa’s nuances are woven throughout Nick of Time, Raitt’s commercial breakthrough, which sold five million copies, won three Grammy Awards, and is preserved in the National Recording Registry. On the title track, Paulinho sets the rhythm on congas.

Bonnie Raitt - Nick Of Time (Official Music Video)

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Paulinho Da Costa – I’m Going to Rio

Paulinho Da Costa brought a cast of session player royalty together for his third solo album, Sunrise. On “I’m Going to Rio,” Nathan East, Randy Waldman, Clarence Charles, John Robinson, and vocalist Carl Carwell converge to create an explosive celebration of his hometown that puts Paulinho’s craftsmanship and heritage centerstage.

I'm Going To Rio (Vocal)

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Looking for more? Check out our series of articles on the greatest sessions musicians ever.

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