AstrudGold500

AS BOSSA-nova scholars know, there really was a Girl from Ipanema—and at this writing, she runs a dress shop in São Paulo, Brazil. Her name is Heloísa Pinheiro, and in the early ’60s she used to pass by Veloso, a bar near Ipanema beach. She captivated two Veloso regulars, Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, the songwriting team who had helped create the bossa nova. Heloísa’s sexy stride reminded de Moraes of the rhythm of the samba, and with Jobim he penned “Garôta de Ipanema” in her honor.

But to millions of record buyers, the Girl from Ipanema was Astrud Gilberto, the 24-year-old seductress who made that song an international hit in 1964. It gave the unknown amateur singer a forty-year career, and brought worldwide acclaim to Jobim and to Astrud’s then-husband, João Gilberto, who joined her on the record. Jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, who led the group, gained crossover pop celebrity from that single, which did more than any other recording to make the bossa nova a household word.

Astrud’s eight solo albums on Verve (1964-1969) spotlighted the phenomenon of a girl with the right sound at the right time, not to mention the right connections. Her languid, affectless voice floated as lazily as a leaf on the Carioca breeze; one could almost hear the surf breaking and the seagulls crying as she sang. Her doe-eyed, vacant stare, set off by girlish brown bangs, evoked every straight man’s daydream of an exotic, submissive woman in a bikini. Technically, her singing left much to be desired – and though she spoke English fairly well, she sang it as tentatively as though she’d learned the words phonetically—making one wonder what, if anything, was going through her head.

But her shortcomings worked for her. Gilberto sounded like a child of nature, vulnerable yet unworldly. “When I first heard Astrud,” said Getz in 1964 to British writer Les Tompkins, “I thought there was something innocent and demure in her voice—such an opposite to these chesty-voiced girls singing rock ’n’ roll. It was like a breath of fresh air.”

Gilberto’s own country rejected her, though, and not without cause. In the ’60s, Brazil spawned a wealth of female singers
including Nara Leão, Wanda Sá and Gal Costawith similarly winsome sounds plus all the musicality Astrud lacked. Admittedly, Brazil had shown a harsh disdain for some of its own artistsespecially Carmen Mirandawho found stardom elsewhere. In 1965, Gilberto performed in São Paulo and was reportedly booed. She denied it later, but never sang in Brazil again. In other countries, she won a base of fans that still finds her enchanting. Basia wrote and recorded a song called “Astrud”; George Michael and a French pop star of equal renown, Etienne Daho, sought her out to record duets with them. And the reissues, such as this entry in Verve’s Gold series, keep coming.

She was born Astrud Evangelina Weinert on March 29, 1940, to a bourgeois family in Salvador, Bahia. Her mother was Brazilian, her father German and a language professor. They moved to Rio, and there, around 1957, Astrud entered a group of mostly well-to-do, musical youngsters. That circle of friends
which included Leão, guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, and songwriters Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescalexperimented with combining the spare, restrained style of American cool jazz with samba, and their efforts helped birth the bossa nova. Astrud sang a little, but in that gifted company she wasn’t much noticed.

Her ambitions seemed to lie elsewhere. She idolized guitarist-singer João Gilberto, whose feathery syncopations would define the new style. Leão introduced them; within months they were married. Astrud might have tried to parlay their union into a career, but apparently João didn’t encourage it. Before “The Girl from Ipanema,” her friends’ parties—and a 1960 college concert in which she sat in with João—were the sum total of her singing experience

That changed in 1963, when she accompanied him to New York. There he was set to make an album with Getz and Jobim.
Getz/Gilberto would include “The Girl from Ipanema.” Astrud “was just a housewife then,” said Getz to Les Tompkins, “and I put her on that record because I wanted ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ sung in English — which João couldn't do.”
Since Getz’s death in 1991, Astrud has denied that story, claiming that João, in fact, had insisted she be included. Yet according to Getz biographer Donald Maggin, neither João nor Jobim wanted that. Tension was in the air—accelerated, wrote Maggin, by an affair that developed between Stan and Astrud. In 1965, João would divorce her to marry Miúcha, another Brazilian.

By then Verve had released
Getz/Gilberto and a single of “The Girl from Ipanema.” The album zoomed to number two while the single made the top five and earned a Grammy® as Record of the Year. Getz embarked upon a six-month promotional tour. João wouldn’t go, but the saxophonist hired Astrud, who sang two or three songs at the end of each set. Getz understood her limitations. “I know how long to keep her on,” he explained. “I always leave them at the point where they’ve heard what she can do—and she comes off looking good, getting a nice round of applause.”

Their relationship soured in that time, and she later complained of being underpaid and exploited. But the tour—which yielded a live album,
Getz Au Go-Go—helped lay the ground for Gilberto’s Verve contract, which began in late 1964.

The Astrud Gilberto Album appeared the next April. Lush bossa mood music, it featured the hazy string arrangements of Claus Ogerman, one of Jobim’s arrangers, and the cool one-finger piano of the composer himself. On that LP—which earned an Album of the Year Grammy® nomination—Astrud proved herself a greater ambassador for modern Brazilian song than almost any other singer. Many of the tunes, including Jobim’s “Dindi” and “Photograph,” became bossa classics.

The Shadow Of Your Smile, issued in September, reached out to other composers—notably Luiz Bonfá, the Rio-born guitarist who wrote moody compositions for the celebrated Brazilian film Black Orpheus (1959). “Manhã de Carnaval” (Carnaval Morning) was one. “The Gentle Rain” comes from his score for a film about a mute architect in Rio. Although Bonfá claimed that Tony Bennett was the first to record this hypnotic ballad (with words by Matt Dubey), Gilberto’s version, done in June 1965, predates Bennett’s by six months.

That year Gilberto mused to her producer, Creed Taylor, about how much she admired Gil Evans and his groundbreaking partnership with Miles Davis. Taylor managed to hire the arranger for her next album,
Look To The Rainbow. If Ogerman had bathed her gauzy voice in late-summer sunlight, Evans challenged her with his steely jabs of brass and a harmonic sense of vast color and daring. Gilberto held her own—especially in “Berimbau,” an homage (by Vinícius de Moraes and a master guitarist and composer, Baden Powell) to a bowlike Afro-Brazilian instrument made of a gourd, a long stick, and one string.

A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness (1966) teamed Gilberto with fellow Verve artist Walter Wanderley, a Brazilian pianist and organist whose bossa-lounge trio was a favorite of musicians. He and the singer recalled her birthplace in “Você já Foi à Bahia?” (Have You Ever Been to Bahia?). Singer Maria Bethânia, who was born there, called the song’s author, Dorival Caymmi, “the greatest Baiano of them all”—a grinning, guitar-playing songwriter in a striped shirt whose work glorified his home state. “So Nice (Summer Samba)” was penned by Marcos Valle, a blond beach boy who straddled bossa nova, pop-rock, and later on, electronic music. Wanderley’s instrumental version reached the American top forty.

Verve tried to find Gilberto another hit of her own, to no avail. Several of her obscure singles are here, along with a vocal she recorded for
The Deadly Affair (1966), a spy thriller directed by Sidney Lumet. With the album Beach Samba (1967), Verve looked to broaden Gilberto’s scope. The program ranged from such bossa-friendly pop songs as “Misty Roses,” a new ballad by Verve’s folk-singing discovery Tim Hardin, to “The Face I Love,” an airy, spinning waltz of Valle’s.

By now the American pop world had driven bossa into the ground, commercializing it to the level of elevator music. On her last three Verve albums—
Windy, I Haven’t Got Anything Better To Do and September 17, 1969 – Gilberto turned to the singer-songwriters of the day: Harry Nilsson, Jimmy Webb, the Bee Gees. But her style never changed, and already it seemed like nostalgia. Thereafter she recorded only sporadically. Stung by what she deemed unkind views of her and her singing, she resisted interviews, which only enhanced her mystique. In 1987, fans welcomed a new Verve release by Gilberto and bandleader James Last, a German pop sensation. It showed that she had actually gained in vocal security. She toured for fifteen more years, then, at age 62, she stopped performing—to spend time with her family, she claimed, and to paint.

Her old records remain instant mood-setters, as soundtrack producers know. “Agua de Beber” was used on
Six Feet Under, “So Nice” in Something’s Gotta Give, “Once I Loved” in Juno. Gilberto herself may have vanished from sight, but on record she still coaxes listeners to the Brazilian beach of their dreams.

—James Gavin

James Gavin, author of Deep In A Dream: The Long Night Of Chet Baker, is completing a biography of Lena Horne; please visit jamesgavin.com