As the world’s greatest Bossa Nova anthem, “Girl from Ipanema” is emblematic of a unique moment before the ’60s became “the ’60s.” A moment when music took a vacation from itself, spoke Portuguese, got sand between its toes, then floated away on a breeze, leaving the listener with an aftertaste of paradise, and a desire to play the song again. To hear the song again. And play it again. And again.
And they played it, millions of times, until it became a dreadful cliché, and no one wanted to play it anymore. Then it got rediscovered, and played some more. Then forgotten again. Then played some more. Then forgotten again. The question (that no one is asking, but I am going to answer anyway) is, what happened?
Garota de Ipanema‘s vocals were first recorded in Portuguese, gained popularity, then recorded a shorter, more radio-friendly version, in English, as The Girl from Ipanema. Then it really began climbing the charts. It brushed up against I Want To Hold Your Hand, sold two million copies, and became a worldwide hit. It won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1965. It’s been recorded over 600 times, and is now the second-most recorded song in history, behind The Beatles’ Yesterday.
Despite being swept into a genre of ‘easy listening’ – not altogether untrue – it found new life as new generations discovered it.
I rediscovered it myself in the 1990s, when David Byrne’s collected Brazil Classics, Vol. 1: ‘Beleza Tropical’ introduced contemporary Brazilian music to American listeners. The lounge music revival made vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim popular again, along with oxford shirts, skinny ties, cocktails, and cigars. Space Age Bachelor Pad music was cool again. Tropical music and instrumental jazz – which some of us never abandoned in the first place – were cool again. A friend gave me a cassette tape of Beleza Tropical, which rekindled my affection for Brazilian music, led me back to the enchanting sound of Astrud Gilberto’s voice, and all the way back to Ipanema.
For reasons that we’ll explore, I believe The Girl from Ipanema has been celebrated, misunderstood, dipped in amber, washed in sentiment, mocked, forgotten, then restored, mythologized, and reanimated, in repeating cycles, for over half a century.
Why this song? Who was that girl, the ‘Girl from Ipanema’?
The song’s creation story has remained fairly uncorrupted. It starts with a girl.
In this photograph, at Heloísa’s feet, we see her essential beach accessories. A basket with her hat resting on it, her striped cotton shirt, a pair of sunglasses, an issue of Europa magazine, and Heloísa’s portable transistor radio.
As the story goes, Helô would walk to and from school, attracting admiring gazes. And to the Veloso Bar, a block from the beach at Ipanema, to buy packs of cigarettes for her mom. It was on these walks that Helô’s graceful figure and fresh erotic beauty captivated the imagination, and libido, of two friends, composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and poet Vinícius de Moraes.
In Veloso Bar, the two men would drink Brahma beer and discuss their latest musical collaboration. Vinícius and Antonio were married, of course – this isn’t a tale of sexual conquest, but of harmless fantasy – and Helô’s distractingly beautiful figure, her gently swaying hips, were like a fresh breeze at the Veloso Bar, and along the beaches of Ipanema.
Jobim and Moraes weren’t alone in their admiration. We can imagine Helô was the object of the admiring glances of every man with heartbeat and a pair of eyeballs within a half mile of Ipanema. This is Rio de Janeiro, in the summer. Girl-watching is a national sport And Heloísa’s way of walking was, in the words of de Moraes, “sheer poetry.”
In Revelação: a verdadeira Garota de Ipanema (“Revealed: The Real Girl from Ipanema“) Moraes wrote that Helô was:
“…the paradigm of the young carioca; a golden teenage girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace, the sight of whom is also sad, in that she carries with her, on her route to the sea, the feeling of youth that fades, of the beauty that is not ours alone—it is a gift of life in its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow.”
Here is a rare photo of Vinícius de Moraes standing next to Heloísa in the mid-1960s.
Legend was that – inspired by Helô’s compelling beauty – The Girl from Ipanema lyrics were written on bar napkins, and recorded later that summer, right there in Rio. That’s the version of the story we want to believe.
In reality, the melody and lyrics for the song were already written, save for a few incomplete verses. Following the success of the 1959 film Black Orpheus, Jobim and de Moraes were now involved in a musical comedy project called Blimp. The duo were working on a science fiction element of the story, involving a Martian who lands in Rio during the height of Carnaval. Blimp never saw the light of day. But the song about the girl endured.
Also, the song wasn’t recorded in Brazil. It was recored in a studio in New York. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Who would have imagined that The Girl from Ipanema was born out of a science fiction fantasy about a Martian landing?
Writing verses of “Menina que Passa” – “The Girl Who Passes By” – Jobim and de Moraes needed a long tall dash of sexual inspiration, something to arouse the passions of the fictional alien Carnival visitor from Mars. A beautiful earth girl, in a bikini, perhaps? Enter Heloísa.
Conjuring up the vision of their favorite hip-swaying distraction, they poured out all their secret longing and lust into the newly titled ‘Garota da Ipanema.”
Though Blimp never got off the ground, the tune became not only a hit in Brazil, but the international calling card for a style of music that charmed the world—bossa nova.
Garota de Ipanema was first performed at a concert in Nightclub Bon Gourmet, in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, in August, 1962. Few could imagine those opening chords would permanently change the course of the lives of the men who composed the song, Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, the singers who sang it, Astrud and João Gilberto, the saxophonist Stan Getz, and the girl it was written about, Heloisa.
This recording from Bon Gourmet Nightclub Copacabana, 02/08/1962 – claims to be the first time Garota de Ipanema was performed in public.
For more about the real woman, Heloisa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto Pinheiro, visit her website. The story of Heloisa‘s life after the 1960s, as an accidental global celebrity and unofficial ambassador of Rio de Janeiro, is a legend in its own that we might explore more in a future essay.
But for now, there’s another woman we should talk about.
Who is Astrud Gilberto?
There’s also been a bit of mythologizing about Astrud Gilberto being ‘discovered’ in the studio one day, that she wasn’t a singer, but simply the wife of João Gilberto, with no professional experience, but a pleasing voice. Though this isn’t completely fiction (Astrud had professional singing experience, she just wasn’t famous) the following description is understood to be closer to what happened in the studio that day:
…Astrud Gilberto was just the wife of singing star João Gilberto when she entered a NYC studio in March 1963. João and Jobim were making a record with tenor saxman Stan Getz. The idea of cutting a verse on “Ipanema” in English came up, and Astrud was the only one of the Brazilians who spoke more than phrasebook English.
Astrud’s child-like vocal … was the perfect foil for her husband’s soft bumblebee voice …. Getz blew a creamy smooth tenor. Four minutes of magic went to tape.
What I find remarkable about Astrud’s Gilberto’s natural singing voice – what made me fall in love with her voice – was the unmannered, direct intimacy of it. No vibrato. Pure, straight, tinted only with her delicate Portuguese-accented vowels, and soft, unwavering spoken word-like cadences. But none of the familiar professional techniques we associate with pop singers. It goes straight to the heart.
There are many, many videos and audio versions of The Girl From Ipanema on YouTube, this one is notable because unlike most early 196os-era footage, the color video transfer quality is unusually good. (most Astrud Gilberto tapes on YouTube from this era are in poor-quality black & white) And the setting it’s performed in makes a nice presentation, a nostalgic, endlessly celebrated period of middle-American mid-century interior design. Here’s the clip, and a description:
Get Yourself a College Girl is a 1964 Metrocolor film comedy in the style of a beach party movie. The plot involves a college co-ed who tries to balance her time writing songs and dealing with her publisher who tries to pursue her. It was directed by Sidney Miller and written by Robert E. Kent, and filmed at Sun Valley, Idaho,USA.
Turner Classic Movies critic Mel Neuhaus calls it “A curious 1964 hybrid of teen movie musical with pre-feminist overtones as well as a parody of moralistic anti-rock message films.” It is notable for the appearance of Astrud Gilberto, the Brazilian singer who sang the international hit song “The Girl From Ipanema”, appearing as herself in the film.
Astrud Gilberto’s singing voice has been compared to things like silk, or velvet, or described as buttery; variations of warm and smooth. But for me, it’s more like fine sandpaper. It arouses, then gently scratches an itch. A charming little itch of longing that her singing creates, then soothes.
It’s a cliche to compare voices to things like beverages and textures, but indulge me: it’s hard to resist rhapsodizing about Astrud’s voice. If the tonal quality of a singer’s voice could be compared to beverages, some singers would be like gin, or whiskey; some like sparkling champagne, some like a sweet soft drink, and so on. Each with its own texture, flavor, and character.
Astrid Gilberto’s voice? Water. Natural, fresh, clear water. From a fountain, or a spring. In one particular live recording I have of Astrid Gilberto, performing in Rio, it’s as if she’s in the room, holding a microphone, ten feet away. It kills me. Even though the band’s timing is off, and some instruments are out of tune, it’s the best recording I have of Corcovado, and Girl from Ipanema. Her voice is so present. Played on a good stereo, with good speakers, it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. My pulse races. Astrud Gilberto is the most intimate, most direct, most charming female vocalist I’ve ever heard.
Even in the original recording of Girl from Ipanema – for hi-fi enthusiasts it’s right up there with the Brubeck Quartet’s Take Five, as a sonic equipment test – Astrud’s voice is extraordinary. Blended with Getz’s sublime tenor sax, Jobim’s piano, and Gilberto’s warm vocal style, this original recording is four minutes of perfectly-crafted music history.
Bossa Nova had its day in the sun. By the end of the ‘60s the The Girl from Ipanema unfortunately had become an overplayed cliche. Younger baby boomers, embracing the wilder, louder, more sexually-liberated elements of post-Elvis rock & roll, likely associated Bossa Nova lounge music with their square parents’ generation. By 1968, it was as considered as stale as Dean Martin and Doris Day.
Here’s an example of an instrumental classical ‘muzak’-style version – 10 hours of it – archived on YouTube.
Girl from Ipanema had been recorded so many times, by so many artists, eventually working its way into supermarkets and elevators, it would become almost impossible for contemporary listeners to imagine how lovely and intoxicating the original song was, when it was a brand new.
Imagine hearing it the way it was heard by listeners at the time. When Hi-Fi was still a relatively novel but increasingly affordable thing – and the role it played in popularizing Brazilian jazz and pop. And how much of the culture was influenced by it, for that moment: the Bossa Nova craze, contributing to the sales of millions of copies of the album, and similar albums. Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes capitalized on the Bossa Nova wave, forming the group Brazil 66 and, for a short time, was a regular on U.S. television variety shows. Even Lennon & McCartney’s songwriting touched on Bossa Nova. (And I Love Her) This new kind of sweet, escapist, ‘mood’ music was in the air. It lasted for a few years. It was a global phenomenon. It was on the radio. It was everywhere. And its long-term affect on the careers of figures like Stan Getz, both grateful, and perhaps a little resentful, for being permanently associated with the song.
In short, this song became a victim of its own success. It was too good! It got played to death. Then it became a joke.
The first time (I’m are of) that the muzak version was used as a gag in a big-budget Hollywood movie, was in the original Blues Brothers, with John Belushi and Dan Akryod, as Jake and Elwood.
A similar gag is used in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with Brad Pitt & Angela Jolie, in a brief scene depicting a comical interruption of violent gunfire, the two of them temporarily standing quietly in an elevator. It references the The Blues Brothers scene, using a similar muzak version of The Girl from Ipanema.
What does it take to really hear this song, liberated from all that burdensome history? The song is as delicate as a butterfly, as fragile as a first kiss, as elusive as capricious infatuation.
Perhaps the way to really hear it is to include it into a playlist of classic Astrud Gilberto/Stan Getz songs, and notice how seamlessly it fits into the flow of jazz-influenced Brazilian pop songs with similar lyrical charm. It Might as Well Be Spring, One Note Samba, Corcovado, among others.
It requires stripping away years of haze, myth, overuse, misuse, and distortion, to get back to this original moment, and appreciate the song as a pure and beautiful thing all its own.
Girl from Ipanema is one of the best songs of the “forgotten ‘60s.” A hybrid of Brazilian pop and American west coast jazz, it was fusion before fusion was a thing, and multicultural before multiculturalism was a thing.
The romantic, voyeuristic, quietly sexual longing expressed in the music and lyrics of “The Girl from Ipanema” place it among the most exquisite songs ever written about idealized female beauty.
What really should have been just another sandals-and-shorts radio song to enjoy with a glass of iced tea on a hot summer afternoon, instead became a lasting success. As well as a genuine masterwork of pop craftsmanship. For hi-fi enthusiasts and transistor-radio listeners alike, those four minutes contained layer after layer of ephemeral goodness, beneath which are deep human fixations. The spark of life itself. “Girl from Ipanema” isn’t just a song. It’s one of the 20th century’s most perfect expressions of erotic longing.
Though in its time Bossa Nova was “new”, the real roots of the song are ancient. The archetype of the male gaze and female object of desire are among the oldest themes in human history; in literature, poetry, art, sculpture, and music. Delivered with minimalistic, impressionistic perfection, in what was the relevant commercial medium of the time: the radio pop song.