Astrud Gilberto, The 'Girl From Ipanema' Bossa Nova Singer, Then And Now
Jazz singer Astrud Gilberto poses for a portrait backstage at Birdland on the day they recorded the live album Getz Au Go Go on August 19, 1964 in New York, New York. (Photo by PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Astrud Gilberto’s 1964 song "The Girl From Ipanema" brought Brazilian bossa nova and samba music to America and sold more than 27 million copies. Her late husband, João Gilberto, was considered the "father of bossa nova," and he was a key figure in Astrud's somewhat accidental success. Though "The Girl From Ipanema" is the massive hit that defined her career and captured the American audience, Astrud Gilberto had numerous other memorable songs that became familiar to the easy listening and jazz audience -- "Tristeza," "Corcovado," "Dindi," "Agua De Beber" are all classics suitable for groovy cocktail parties and swingin' bachelor pads. Gilberto's music -- along with the jazz of Antonio Carlos Jobim, the vocal pop of Sergio Mendes, and other "exotic" sounds of the day by the likes of Herb Alpert, Esquivel, Martin Denny and Les Baxter -- was very popular at the time, though today it is overshadowed by the rock of the Beatles, the folk poetry of Bob Dylan and the soul of Motown artists.
Pop music of the '60s was a much broader spectrum than we sometimes remember -- there are many artists who sold crate-loads of records but whose sound did not prove to be as durable as something like classic rock. One generation's smoldering chillout groove is another's elevator music -- that proved to be the case with "The Girl From Ipanema."
Incredibly, the adorable woman from South America never aspired to become a world-renowned singer. The daughter of a linguistics professor, Gilberto grew up speaking Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. Learning all of those languages as a youth unknowingly prepared her for life as an international musician and more importantly, for the singular moment in a recording studio that changed her life forever.
Falling In With The Right Crowd
After moving to Rio de Janeiro at an early age, Astrud Evangelina Weinert met João Gilberto who would go on to become one of the most famed Brazilian artists of the century. “In my mid-teens I was part of a gang of youngsters who were involved with music," she recalled. "Through them, I met João Gilberto, who invented the concept of Bossa Nova. We were married, and I sang at home with João and did a couple of college concerts with him as a special guest.”
In March of 1963, she traveled with her husband to New York where he was to record with acclaimed jazz saxophonist Stan Getz at A&R Studios in Manhattan. At that time, American jazz musicians were waking up to the bossa nova style pioneered by João Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and others in the late '50s, and were eager to collaborate. During that trip, an innocuous decision wildly changed the musical genre, and changed Astrud's life in ways she never would have imagined.
During João Gilberto’s recording session with Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto sang, ''The Girl From Ipanema'' in English. The impetus for her joining the recording session remains in question. According to Getz, she was featured on the track because he “wanted ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ sung in English — which João couldn’t do.” Astrud has said that her husband invited her to record the song as a duet.
On the other hand, recording engineer Phil Ramone claimed Astrud herself volunteered to sing the English version. Whatever the reason, Astrud’s saudade, a Portuguese term used to describe nostalgia and longing, popped in a way no one could have anticipated. That hint of her enormous talent led to an appearance at Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village along with Getz. The rest as they say is history.
An Immortal Error In Grammar
The version on Getz/Gilberto begins with João Gilberto singing four verses of lyrics in Portuguese, then switches to Astrud's part, which begins:
Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes
Each one she passes goes, "Ah"
João Gilberto didn't sing in English, but Astrud's command of the language wasn't flawless, which results in the curious line at the end of the bridge:
Oh, but he watches her so sadly
How can he tell her he loves her?
Yes, he would give his heart gladly
But each day, when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at he
Grammatically speaking, that line should be, of course, "She looks straight ahead, not at him." Many English-language artists who've covered the song -- which is believed to be the second-most covered pop song, behind The Beatles' "Yesterday" -- have delivered the line "She looks straight ahead, not at me," to preserve the rhyme.
An Overnight Success
The album Getz/Gilberto that featured "The Girl From Ipanema," immediately shot to number two on Billboard album chart, and stayed on the chart for an outrageous 96 weeks. It also won Grammy awards for Album Of The Year, Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual Or Group and Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical. Most notably for Astrud, “The Girl From Ipanema” also took home Record Of The Year. Before Astrud, bossa nova was barely a known quantity in America; after her you couldn’t miss it, although competition from the younger, more raucous sound of The Beatles and Motown artists like The Supremes would soon come to dominate the pop chart.
As producer Creed Taylor remembered, “The surprise was when Astrud came in with her little voice and sang with that accent. I knew the song was going to be an absolute smash.” Seemingly overnight, Astrud went from singing with musicians at home to appearing alongside The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, and jazz organ great Jimmy Smith in the 1964 MGM film Get Yourself A College Girl.
Finding Her Footing
Of course, with no background in business, Astrud went along for the ride but couldn’t help feeling taken advantage of. ''There was a problem about collecting what was mine," she said. "Money. Credit. Without realizing it, I was doing a great deal of producing my own albums. It was natural for me to choose the songs and the musicians. I didn't realize that I was producing the records. I got no credit. I was young and inexperienced and in a foreign country. I lacked guidance.''
When Getz referred to her as "just a housewife," Astrud felt used. “The funny thing is that after my success, stories abound as to Stan Getz or Creed Taylor having 'discovered me,' when in fact, nothing is further from the truth. I suppose I should feel flattered by the importance that they lend to this, but I can’t help but feel annoyed at the fact that they resorted to lying!” It further rankled her that many jealous Brazilian artists referred to her as lucky rather than talented.
While her solo album The Astrud Gilberto Album in 1965 barely missed the top 40, she never quite recaptured the heights of "The Girl From Ipanema.” However, she did perform in Japan and Europe for many years before overcoming her shyness and started playing clubs in America. She called playing with legend Chet Baker in San Francisco, “a highlight of my career.”
Tags: Astrud Gilberto | Bossa Nova | Brazil | Easy Listening | Jazz | Remember This?... | Samba | What Did She Do?...
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