‘He made sure that she got nothing’: The sad story of Astrud Gilberto, the face of bossa nova

The Girl from Ipanema” was one of the seminal songs of the 1960s. It sold more than five million copies worldwide, popularised bossa nova music around the world and made a superstar of the Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, who was only 22 when she recorded the track on 18 March 1963.

Yet what should be an uplifting story – celebrating a singer making an extraordinary mark in her first professional engagement – became a sorry tale of how a shy young woman was exploited, manipulated and left broken by a male-dominated music industry full, as she put it, of “wolves posing as sheep”.

Gilberto, who was born Astrud Evangelina Weinert in Salvador, Bahia, on 29 March 1940, appeared on her debut record completely by chance. She was at the A&R Studios in Manhattan to accompany her husband João Gilberto, the celebrated guitarist who helped create bossa nova. He was recording the Verve Records album Getz/Gilberto, alongside the renowned jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim.

The song “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”) was composed in 1962 by Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, two middle-aged men revelling in their desire for Heloísa Pinheiro, the teenager who used to pass by Veloso, a bar where they drank near Ipanema beach. The Portuguese lyrics, later translated into English by Norman Gimbel, included the memorable opening lines:

“Tall and tanned and young and lovely,

The girl from Ipanema goes walking.

And when she passes, each one she passes goes, ‘ahhh’.”

Gimbel – who went on to write the lyrics for hit “Killing Me Softly with His Song” and to compose the theme tune for the hit television show Happy Days – was present when it was first mooted that his English words be used along with the Portuguese sung by João Gilberto. The acclaimed A&R engineer Phil Ramone was overseeing recording in New York and remembered clearly that it was Astrud Gilberto who offered to sing a duet. “Astrud was in the control room when Norm came in with the English lyrics,” Ramone told JazzWax in 2010. “Producer Creed Taylor said he wanted to get the song done right away and looked around the room. Astrud volunteered, saying she could sing in English. Creed said, ‘Great.’ Astrud wasn’t a professional singer, but she was the only victim sitting there that night.”

Astrud Gilberto wasn’t a complete novice. She grew up steeped in music (her mother Evangelina Neves Lobo Weinert played multiple instruments) and sang regularly with her husband in Brazil, including in a concert at the Faculdade de Arquitetura, part of one of Rio de Janeiro’s top universities. She later admitted she had been “nervous” as she looked at the lyric sheet for “The Girl from Ipanema”, because “this was my professional work”. She concluded it was “a bit of fate” – and her beguiling, whispery voice made all the difference to the song’s appeal, earning a Grammy for song of the year and a nomination for Best Vocal Performance by a female.

As soon as the musicians heard the playback, they knew they had something special on their hands. They were so pleased with Gilberto’s contribution that they asked her to sing on another Jobim track, “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”).

Almost immediately, Taylor and Getz, both more than a decade older than Gilberto, began claiming that it had been their idea to ask the youngster to sing on the record. Taylor, who signed John Coltrane for Impulse! Records, said he knew “The Girl from Ipanema” was going to be an absolute smash “from the moment Astrud came in with her little voice and sang with that accent”.

In a 1964 interview Getz gave to jazz writer Les Tompkins, for the UK magazine Jazz Professional, he claimed he knew that Gilberto’s “innocent and demure” voice would be a sensation, adding: “She was just a housewife then, and I put her on that record because I wanted ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ sung in English – which João couldn’t do. ‘Ipanema’ was a hit and that was a lucky break for her.”

Getz’s bragging, and condescending “housewife” remark, rankled with the singer. “The funny thing is that after my success, stories abound as to Stan Getz or Creed Taylor having ‘discovered me’, when in fact, nothing is further from the truth,” she wrote on her website in 1982. “I guess it made them look important to have been the one that had the ‘wisdom’ to recognise potential in my singing. I suppose I should feel flattered by the importance that they lend to this, but I can’t help but feel annoyed that they resorted to lying.” Her version is backed by her son Marcelo, who told The Independent in an email interview from his home in America: “My father João used to be adamant about the lies talked about her discovery.”

Astrud Gilberto did not merit a single credit on the original vinyl LP pressing of Getz/Gilberto. It was an instant hit after being released in March 1964, staying on the Billboard album charts for 96 weeks, and peaking at No 5. It went on to win four Grammys, including Album of the Year. The most popular track was easily “The Girl from Ipanema”, which has since become the second-most recorded song in popular music, just behind the Beatles’ “Yesterday”, and featured in dozens of movies and television shows, including The Simpsons and The Sopranos.

Taylor, Getz and presumably the Verve executives realised the potential of the track. In May 1964 they released a shorter, seven-inch single version of the song (removing the male vocals from the five-minute album version). When Taylor was asked by JazzWax why they focused on Astrud Gilberto’s voice for the single, he answered: “Guess?” When the interviewer pressed him by asking, “Because it would sell more?”, Taylor replied: “Well, yeah. Look, if you want to get people to spend their cash on something, you’ve got to give them a reason to do so.” In his 2019 book GETZ/GILBERTO, Bryan McCann, professor of Brazilian history at Georgetown University, is clear about the value of her contribution. “It was Astrud Gilberto who made the album a smash hit,” he wrote. “Astrud provided the ineffable allure that made the album irresistible.”

Jazz saxophonist and composer Stan Getz, pictured in 1969

She was, to put it plainly, bilked of her rightful financial rewards. This was partly down to the ruthlessness of Getz, whom even Taylor admitted was “a nasty sort of guy”. Getz served time in a Los Angeles jail in 1954 for heroin possession, following his attempt to hold up a Seattle drugstore, behaviour that prompted the judge to call him “a poor excuse for a man”. Within the jazz world, Getz had a reputation as a bully, one used to riding roughshod over colleagues. London club owner Ronnie Scott used to tell countless funny stories about Getz’s sour character. Fellow musician Bob Brookmeyer, who worked closely with Getz, once responded to the rumour that Getz had had heart surgery with the quip, “Did they put one in?”

Getz often boasted that “he’d made Astrud famous”, but it seems he did his best to make sure she never received her fair share of the royalties. Gene Lees, the editor of DownBeat magazine, who translated “Corcovado” into English, later alleged that Getz intervened as soon as it was clear “The Girl from Ipanema” was going to be a lucrative hit. “Astrud hadn’t been paid a penny for the session and within days, the record was on the charts,” he wrote in Singers and the Song II. “It was at this point that Getz called Creed’s office. Betsy, Creed’s secretary, took the call. Creed was out of the office. When he returned and she told him Stan was anxious to talk with him, Creed thought Stan must be calling to see that Astrud got some share of the royalties. On the contrary, he was calling to make sure that she got nothing.”

The extent of the financial injustice is also made clear in Ruy Castro’s 2003 book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World. Castro details that João Gilberto received $23,000 for his work on the album. Getz got the lion’s share of money for the album, estimated by some to be nearly a million dollars. Getz earned so much from its success that he immediately bought a 23-room “Gone With the Wind-style mansion” in Irvington, New York.

As for poor Astrud Gilberto, she was paid a relative pittance for turning millions of people on to jazz and the rhythms of Brazil. The woman “responsible for the record’s international success” (in Castro’s words) earned only what the American musicians’ syndicate paid for a night of session work: $120.

A post-fame Astrud Gilberto surrounded by reporters

Gilberto pictured again in the recording studio

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