Astrud Gilberto, RIP

Her first professional recording became a career-defining global hit, changed the culture, and helped make bossa nova a worldwide phenomenon. but there's a dark side to the success of "The Girl From Ipanema," which followed the Brazilian chanteuse until her recent death.

In 1966, French rock star Serge Gainsbourg, a party-hearty lothario, asked a teenage protégé named France Gall to sing a new song he had written. "Les Sucettes" was ostensibly about lollipops, but the lyrics contained multiple heavy innuendos. One line claimed that "lollipop juice" flowing down a girl's throat could transport her to paradise. Gall was only 18 and not particularly worldly. After the recording and the associated video began to gain public attention, someone finally clued her in. She was so mortified she hid for weeks. She never spoke to Gainsbourg again and declared later that she'd felt "betrayed by the adults around me."

In the recording industry, women have often received the short end of the stick. John Lennon cribbed most of the lyrics for "Imagine" from a Yoko Ono poem but declined to give her a songwriting credit; this didn't get corrected until 2017. In 1996, the Los Angeles Times reported that the three young members of TLC—whose second album, CrazySexyCool, went platinum four times over—received less than 1% of the $175 million revenue their music had generated. The trio declared bankruptcy.

And then there's Astrud Gilberto.

The male gaze
On March 18, 1963, Astrud Gilberto accompanied her husband, pioneering bossa nova guitarist and singer João Gilberto, to the A&R studio in midtown Manhattan. João, nine years her senior, was well-loved in their native Brazil, but Astrud, at 22, was unknown. João's music, sung quietly in his native Portuguese, had drawn the attention of Stan Getz, whose lyrical, mellow tenor-sax style was an excellent match for the emerging Brazilian genre. Samba-derived but not percussion-heavy, Getz's seductive bossa nova interpretations solidified his reputation as a jazz titan.

American audiences had begun to develop a taste for bossa's soft, soothing beats and textures after 1959's soundtrack to the movie Black Orpheus, performed by Luiz Bonfá and seminal bossa nova composer Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim. The album Jazz Samba, a Getz-and–Charlie Byrd collaboration from 1962, fanned the flames. Jazz Samba included Jobim's hit "Desafinado"; the single sold more than a million copies.

But that was nothing compared to the runaway success that Getz and the Gilbertos would reap with the tune they were about to record, "Garota de Ipanema"—"The Girl From Ipanema" in English. Languorous and laid-back, with music by Jobim and lyrics by poet Vinícius de Moraes, the song was all about the male gaze. De Moraes, who was almost 50 when he wrote the two verses, later said that he'd had a particular dark-haired, green-eyed 17-year-old in mind—a girl he used to watch as she ran errands for her mother. "A golden teenager," he said wistfully, "a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace." The sight of her inspired his yearning as well as a touch of middle-aged sadness, all captured perfectly in João Gilberto's quietly percussive chords and the song's dreamy, woeful melody. "The Girl From Ipanema" conveys "the feeling of youth that fades," De Moraes explained, adding that he aimed to write about life "in its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow."

A shy, searching voice
Songsmith Norman Gimbel supplied English-language lyrics, but even on the day of the recording, no one yet knew who would sing them. João spoke very little English. He, Stan Getz, and producer Creed Taylor would later all claim that the idea to ask Astrud to sing had been theirs. (Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan.)

Astrud often sang at home. João liked her shy, searching voice, and soon she found herself in front of the microphone, trying out the English parts; her husband sang the Portuguese verses. Astrud's involvement seems odd considering that "The Girl From Ipanema" is written from the viewpoint of a man making sheep's eyes at a girl. But, no question, her vocal makes the tune better. If there was anything lecherous or inappropriate about the song (footnote 1), turning it into a duet between husband and wife made it more wholesome.

And the appeal of her tenuous, vibrato-less delivery is unmistakable. It didn't matter that her English wasn't perfect—in fact, it might have added charm. (She accidentally sang "she looks straight ahead not at he" instead of "not at me," an uncorrected flub that drove Gimbel up the wall but probably annoyed no one else.)

By the time engineer Phil Ramone stopped the tape, everyone in the studio knew they'd created something that would go far. In May 1964, shortly after the album Getz/Gilberto began to notch robust sales and rack up awards, Verve released a shortened version of "Ipanema" with João's Portuguese part excised. Now the vocals were all Astrud's. The single sold almost five million copies worldwide, won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, and was nominated for the Grammy for Best Vocal Performance by a Female.

Astrud Gilberto had reason to celebrate: Her very first official recording had become a global phenomenon. The future seemed bright.

Disappointment and upheaval
"The Girl From Ipanema," one of the 20th century's great love songs, didn't engender much love among the recording's creators.

Back in the studio, João had become frustrated with one of Getz's parts. He turned to his friend Jobim at the piano: "Tell this gringo he's an idiot!" Jobim knew better and instead said to Getz: "Stan, João is saying that his dream always was to record with you."

The Gilbertos' marriage ended before the year was out, perhaps in part because João resented that Astrud was eclipsing him commercially.

After the album became a success, Stan Getz, in an interview with British magazine Jazz Professional, referred to Astrud as "just a housewife" whom he'd magnanimously lifted to stardom. "I put her on that record because I wanted 'The Girl from Ipanema' sung in English—which João couldn't do. 'Ipanema' was a hit, and that was a lucky break for her."

At the time, Astrud was too pliant and demure to protest, but she conceded later that it had bothered her to see the session's principals take credit for her performance. "Stories abound as to Stan Getz or Creed Taylor having discovered me," she said in a piece that appeared on her website years later. "I guess it made them look important to have been the one that had the 'wisdom' to recognize potential in my singing. I suppose I should feel flattered by the importance that they lend to this, but I can't help but feel annoyed that they resorted to lying."

It also troubled her that she wasn't credited on the original vinyl release of Getz/Gilberto (footnote 2). Getz, she soon discovered, didn't like to share the limelight, especially with a woman. (When told the sax player had undergone a heart operation, trombonist and pianist Bob Brookmeyer, who'd worked with Getz, quipped, "Did they put one in?")

Despite Getz's character issues, he and Astrud reportedly had an affair. She toured with him and his band. So it must have hit her especially hard when she learned that he'd personally seen to it that all she received for the "Ipanema" studio work was the standard $120 session fee. Gene Lees, a prominent liner-note author and music journalist, wrote in his 1998 book Singers and the Song II that "Astrud hadn't been paid a penny for the session and within days, the record was on the charts. It was at this point that Getz called [producer] Creed's office. ... Creed thought Stan must be calling to see that Astrud got some share of the royalties. On the contrary, he was calling to make sure that she got nothing."

At the beginning of her recording career, Astrud often got bilked of what was rightfully hers, she said. "Money. Credit. Without realizing it, I was doing a great deal of producing of 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."

Footnote 1: Not that these things seemed much on people's minds during the Mad Men era. It would be some years before it became outré for Maurice Chevalier to croon "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," for Muddy Waters to belt "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," and for Ringo Starr to serenade a teenager in "You're Sixteen."

Footnote 2: The second name was always understood to refer to João, not Astrud. Astrud reportedly was at peace with that—acknowledging that she'd contributed vocals to only two tracks, "Ipanema" and "Corcovado."


bhkat's picture

RIP. Brought enjoyment to millions of people throughout the world.
I always thought that it seemed odd for someone who sang "Imagine no possessions" to own 5 apartments in NY. Makes a little more sense knowing that most of the lyrics are from a Yoko Ono poem.

Indydan's picture

Thank you Rogier for writing this wonderful article! I am a big fan of Bossa Nova (especially Jobim) and I learned a great many things from reading your article.

Poor Audiophile's picture

my comment was removed. Not sure why. Oh well.