Very few musicians are as closely identified with the breakthrough of an entirely new musical style as João Gilberto.
Even the Beatles didn’t do that — they adopted, adapted and developed hugely what had gone before them, taking rock and roll from its original home in the late-night bars of the rural South and elevating it to an art form, but the Fab Four, despite their immense individual and collective talents, did not invent rock and roll.
Rock and roll’s breakthrough artists, depending on who you talk to, were probably either Chuck Berry or Little Richard.
There haven’t been many who achieved this status over the years. James Brown with funk, perhaps. Kurt Cobain with grunge. Johnny Rotten (or, arguably, Malcolm McLaren) with punk. These are rare creatures.
But when it comes to the bossa nova, and “The Girl From Ipanema”…one of the coolest records of the 1960s…João Gilberto is the man we need to tip our hats to.
Of course, João Gilberto didn’t invent the bossa nova, in the same way that Chuck Berry and Little Richard didn’t invent rock and roll. They all built on those who had gone before them. But they were the breakthrough act…the Patient Zero, if you like…for a whole new musical genre.
Like most parents from relatively well-to-do families, I imagine the young João Gilberto’s parents weren’t exactly delighted when he took up the guitar and started playing in the clubs and bars of north-eastern Brazil.
But that’s where he picked up the unique rhythms which fuse together African music and Latin American music at South America’s closest point to the African continent.
As the 1950s approached the 1960s, João Gilberto’s guitar playing became famous throughout Brazil, especially after he moved to Rio de Janeiro and started a long-term collaboration with composer, producer and arranger Antõnio Carlos Jobim.
After many years of success on his home turf in Brazil, João Gilberto’s international breakthrough came in 1963 when, at the instigation of his old friend Antõnio Carlos Jobim, he collaborated with renowned jazz musician Stan Getz to create the album “Getz/Gilberto”.
From the perspective of nearly 60 years later, it’s hard to imagine what a game-changer “Getz/Gilberto” was.
To put it in context, at the 7th Grammy Awards, which recognised the musical high points of 1964, the Beatles won the Best New Artist award. At that point, they were barely a pin-prick in the timeline of musical history (although, to be fair, that would soon change).
“Getz/Gilberto” won 4 awards at that year’s Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year for “The Girl From Ipanema” (credited to Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz).
There is an interesting little wriggle in the story of “The Girl From Ipanema”, though, as the album version of the song isn’t the version of the song you’ll have become familiar with over the years.
The album track…a perfectly decent, and arguably slightly more authentic, song was a duet between João Gilberto and his then-wife Astrud. João didn’t feel his English was up to the task of singing in English, so he sang the Portuguese sections and Astrud sang the English ones.
In another delightful wriggle in the story of “The Girl From Ipanema”, Astrud Gilberto wasn’t even a trained singer. And that played a big part in making the song feel so unusual.
I’m not sure there’s an English word which accurately describes the feeling that Astrud Gilberto brings to “The Girl From Ipanema”.
The best I can come up with is the French word insouciant…that sort of casual disinterest that you see in wealthy girls from good families in black and white French films from the 1950s and 60s, or well-spoken debutantes in British films around the same time.
Astrud Gilberto couldn’t attack the song in the way a professional singer might have done. But, as if often the case, this made what might first appear like a weakness into a strength. Her lead vocal is what makes “The Girl From Ipanema” into a timeless classic.
Astrud Gilberto sings about a guy sat in a beachfront cafe in Rio de Janiero, wishing he could catch the eye of a particular young lady he sees pass through the cafe every day. It seems he wasn’t the only one hoping to strike up a conversation…
Tall and tanned and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes, each one she passes goes, ah
Despite the song originally appearing on the “Getz/Gilberto” album, the international hit single version of “The Girl From Ipanema” removed João Gilberto’s part of the duet in Portuguese and left in only Astrud Gilberto’s slightly breathy, un-forced, somewhat under-sung English verses. (Full original album version here… https://youtu.be/c5QfXjsoNe4 )
The original Portuguese lyrics were by Vinicius Moraes, with music by João Gilberto’s old collaborator Antõnio Carlos Jobim. The English lyrics came courtesy of Norman Gimbel who we mentioned not so long ago around here in the context of his lyrics for Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly”.
João Gilberto wasn’t completely excised from the international hit version, though. That’s his guitar playing you can hear right through the track…together with Stan Getz on sax, obviously.
Sometimes too many cooks spoils the broth…and the history of international music collaborations isn’t always a happy or creatively fulfilling one…but somehow in the mix of skills that came together for “The Girl From Ipanema” the one constant was how everyone involved kept the feel of the song intact.
It captures a particular time and place in a way that not many other songs have ever done. We can all float away in our minds to that beachfront cafe on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro as soon as we hear Astrud Gilberto’s first breathy words, whether or not we’ve ever set foot in the country.
That’s an especially neat trick, and it’s what elevates “The Girl From Ipanema” from a perfectly decent song into a classic.
When we listen to “The Girl From Ipanema”, we feel the sunshine of the tropics briefly dapple our skin as the palm fronds above the table of our beachfront cafe sway to and fro in the gentle on-shore breeze…
When she walks, she’s like a samba
That swings so cool and sways so gentle
That when she passes, each one she passes goes, ah
It wasn’t until several years after I first heard the song that I found out Ipanema is a real place. I thought it was just a made up name which was designed to sound exotic and intriguing.
Finding out that Ipanema is a real place in the south of Rio de Janeiro almost makes the song better. For all the good work “The Girl From Ipanema” does to conjure up a picture in our minds, knowing it’s a real place you can go to visit somehow makes it even more intriguing.
And the song has done wonders for the Brazilian Tourist Board since 1964, I’m sure. “The Girl From Ipanema” wasn’t just a musical success story, it was a tourist industry success story too.
Oh, but he watch 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
At its heart, “The Girl From Ipanema” covers a familiar theme…I’m interested in a girl, but she’s not interested in me…
It’s a story as old as time…thousands, probably millions, of songs have been written over the years on exactly this subject.
It’s a popular musical theme precisely because this is a subject most of us have experienced at some point in our life. Tapping into a timeless theme is another reason “The Girl From Ipanema”, nearly 60 years after its release, still gets plenty of radio airplay today.
We’ve all had the experience, but not all of us have had that experience sitting outside a Brazilian beachfront cafe in the sun as the object of our affection sashays by to the gentle sway of bossa nova music from a cafe further up the beach.
However all is not lost. You might not be there in person, but Astrud Gilberto will take you there instantly in your mind as soon as she starts singing.
It’s impossible to know what the path of 20th century music would have taken without the huge influence of João Gilberto, who passed away last week.
From “Getz/Gilberto”…one of the most important jazz albums of all time and the breakthrough which brought João Gilberto, the bossa nova and the sound of Brazil to the world…it’s Astrud Gilberto with “The Girl From Ipanema”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/4qGfJb2KByjvzrwo8HNibg