The singer behind one of the most recorded songs in history has died.
With her breathy vocals, Astrud Gilberto helped make the breezy and sensual “The Girl From Ipanema” into a global sensation. Her death on Monday night was confirmed by her son, bassist Marcelo Gilberto. She was 83.
The story of exactly who asked Gilberto to perform the song’s breakthrough English-language version has many variations. But according to the woman herself, it was her husband — the bossa nova icon João Gilberto — who suggested it in 1963, at a recording session in New York with jazz great Stan Getz for an album called Getz/Gilberto.
“I had fun doing it, and I enjoy being a part of it,” she explained in a 1978 interview with WHYY’s Fresh Air. “But I have never envisioned it as becoming an important thing in my life, or the beginning of a career, or anything like it.”
“The Girl From Ipanema” catapulted both Gilberto and Brazil’s bossa nova music onto the American music scene. Getz/Gilberto won four Grammys, including record of the year for its breakout song. After splitting with her husband, Gilberto embarked on a solo career, recording dozens of albums and collaborating with the likes of Quincy Jones and Chet Baker. In 2008, the Latin Recording Academy honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Guitarist Paul Ricci, a close friend, says Gilberto was a champion of the New York 1960s and ’70s jazz scene. “Astrud was the first pop radio voice to sing in that soft, intimate, sensual fashion that engineered everything,” he says. Her soulful sound would become a major influence on countless other artists, including Karen Carpenter and Sade.
While Gilberto was a hit in the U.S., where she would eventually live, journalist and bossa nova historian Ruy Castro says the same wasn’t true back home. “Brazil was cruel to her and didn’t accept her success,” he says, speaking through an interpreter. But she wisely never looked back, and made her life and career in the U.S.”
These days, Brazilians and tourists alike fondly remember her and her song. Perhaps especially so in the namesake Ipanema neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, where on Tuesday, buskers could be heard performing it near the restaurant where songwriters Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes first wrote the tune for a particular teen they liked to watch walk by.
There was a sadness in the air, of course. But as Gilberto herself used to say when talking about the song’s initial success, people need romance, and something dreamy for distraction. Some 60 years later, that’s still true.
The Brazilian crooner whose detached, almost observational singing style imbued “The Girl From Ipanema” with inherent cool, died Monday. Her friend, musician Paul Ricci, posted the news to Facebook but did not reveal her cause of death.
Gilberto had never performed in public when she recorded “The Girl From Ipanema” with her husband, guitarist João Gilberto and saxophonist Stan Getz, in 1963. Only 22 at the time, the singer — who was born Astrud Evangelina Weinert to a linguistics professor father and singer-violinist mother in Salvador, Brazil on March 29, 1940, according to The Associated Press and The Independent — relaxed her voice and sang behind the beat giving the tune an effortless cool. Her reedy voice and Brazilian accent vivified Norman Gimbel’s English translation of “Garota de Ipanema” (written by Antônio Carlos Jobim) as she describes a beautiful woman who ignores all the adoring men who pine for her.
The recording resounded around the world, popularizing the bossa nova genre and making her an overnight star; The New York Times reported in 1981 the single (whose B side “Corcovado” is also worth a spin) had sold 27 million copies. The song, which reached Number Five on Billboard’s Hot 100, won Record of the Year at the 1965 Grammys. The AP reports the song is the second most covered song of all time, just behind “Yesterday.”
She sang on another Getz album, Getz Au Go Go, in 1964 and appeared with him at a notable Newport Jazz Festival performance before releasing her solo debut, The Astrud Gilberto Album, in 1965. She duetted with Jobim, who wrote or cowrote all but two songs on the LP, on “Água de Beber.” The album made it up to Number 41 on the Billboard 200. She kept busy, releasing another album (The Shadow of Your Smile) that year, and five more before the decade was up. In 1965, she recorded a version of “Fly Me to the Moon” a year after Sinatra, and in 1967, he collaborated with Jobim on a cover of “Ipanema.” Her album September 17, 1969 (the date it was recorded) featured covers of songs by the Beatles (a breathy “Here, There and Everywhere”) and the Doors (a jazzy “Light My Fire”). By this time, her diffident singing and cucumber-cool delivery became her calling card.
Her output would slow after that, releasing only seven more albums in her lifetime. The jazzy Gilberto With Turrentine album, with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, is notable for her cover of the themes from Love Story, titled “Historia de Amor.” And in 1998, she recorded a new version of the Jobim composition “Desafinado” with George Michael.
She divorced João, her husband since 1959, in the middle of the Sixties and eventually married an American, raising two sons — João Marcelo Gilberto and Gregory Lasorsa — outside of Philadelphia. They separated by the end of the Seventies. She subsequently relocated to New York City.
For most of her career, she felt the people behind the scenes in the music industry were taking advantage of her talent. “There was a problem collecting what was mine,” she told the Times in 1981. “Money. Credit. Without realizing it, I was doing a great deal of producing on my own albums … I got no credit. I was young, inexperienced and in a foreign country. I lacked guidance.” (She continued to work with Getz and João intermittently into the Nineties, though her son Marcelo told The Independent she made only $120 from “Ipanema.”)
That shyness defined her performances for much of her life. She told the Times in 1981 she avoided playing in clubs because the intimacy was too much for her. “Being so close to the public was frightening,” she said. “It still is, but I realize now that I am capable of handling it.”
Although her breakthrough albums featured jazz musicians, Gilberto shrugged off the title of “jazz singer” throughout her life. “What is a jazz singer?” she asked the Times. “Somebody who improvises