Iconográfica: How the World Fell in Love With Astrud Gilberto and “The Girl from Ipanema”

During the 1960s, the fusion of bossa nova and jazz reached its mainstream peak with the joint album of saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist João Gilberto, aptly named Getz/Gilberto. The record’s primary composer was the prolific songwriter Antônio Carlos Jobim. It is now a must-have record for Latin jazz enthusiasts, but if you haven’t heard it at your local Starbucks, then you’ve definitely heard its standout track “Garota de Ipanema,” or “The Girl from Ipanema.” In its five minutes and twenty-five seconds, the song oozes with saudade, a Portuguese and Brazilian term used to explain a feeling of nostalgic longing for something you love or care for. The track comes to a crescendo with the appearance of Astrud Gilberto, João’s then wife, who delivers the English lyrics in a honeyed yet slightly unenthused tone. It became the key song in Astrud Gilberto’s career, catapulting her into crossover success in the form of 16 studio albums. And with that success, a cloak of mystery covered the elusive cantora and the story of the song that started it all, “The Girl from Ipanema.”

In 1962, Jobim and composer Vinicius de Moraes were having drinks at Ipanema beach when a young woman named Heloísa Pinheiro caught their eye. Soon enough, this girl inspired enough longing to create the saudade anthem, “Garota de Ipanema.” Most listeners don’t think of Pinheiro’s voice, but rather Astrud’s verses in the Getz/Gilberto classic. Her voice was raw, similar to Nico’s, but with a tone that exuded the longing and eroticism of the lyrics.

How her verse came to fruition depends on who you ask. Getz once said that she was featured on the track because he “wanted ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ sung in English — which João couldn’t do.” Astrud claims that her husband invited her to record the song as a duet. According to recording engineer Phil Ramone, Astrud happened to be in the room and volunteered to sing the English lyrics, freshly translated by Norm Gimbel. Jazz icon Sarah Vaughn was slated to sing those verses, but it never happened. Ramone explains that the recording we all know and love is actually a demo – a historic demo nonetheless.

After the rocket success of “The Girl From Ipanema,” Astrud signed to Verve Records, where she clamored after the same acclaim as her debut. She divorced João Gilberto (allegedly due to her affair with Getz, which happened during the recording of “Ipanema”) and explored new musical directions in pop. Her repertoire includes some of Brazil’s finest works, and with her delicate and soothing voice, she evokes the melancholia of the streets of 1960s Ipanema. Her take on songs like “So Nice (Summer Samba)” and “Água de Beber” cemented her legacy and status as a Brazilian icon.

Nowadays, Astrud is as elusive as ever, having released her last album Jungle 14 years ago. She’s skipped out on interviews ever since. It’s rumored that she lives in Philadelphia, where she spends her time advocating for animals and painting. While fans miss her evocative performances, her essence is forever preserved in her work. Just close your eyes, play track one from Getz/Gilberto, and transport yourself to the beach of Ipanema with Astrud.