Astrud Gilberto, the singer behind the most popular version of “The Girl from Ipanema,” has died at age 83. Known for her dream-like vocals, she is credited with helping Brazilian music reach a worldwide audience.
It was Paul Ricci, a fellow recording artist and family friend, who broke the news. “I just got word from her son Marcelo that we have lost Astrud Gilberto,” he wrote on Facebook. “He asked for this to be posted. She was an important part of ALL that is Brazilian music in the world and she changed many lives with her energy.”
“The Girl from Ipanema” is widely considered the second-most covered song in history, with the top spot going to “Yesterday” by The Beatles. It was written in 1962 by Antônio Carlos Jobim featuring original Portuguese lyrics by Vinícius de Moraes. The well-known English lyrics were later written by American songwriter Norman Gimbel. Although it was first recorded by Pery Ribeiro, it was Gilberto's voice that turned it into the most famous bossa nova song in the world, as well as a symbol of Brazilian culture.
Gilberto was born in Bahía, Brazil, in 1940. She was then raised in Rio de Janeiro, where she befriended a group of up and coming musicians. While she enjoyed singing with her closest circle—which included de Moraes–she had never thought to do it professionally. “I had fun doing it, and I enjoy being a part of it,” she said 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.” At age 19, she met João Gilberto, regarded by many as the father of bossa nova, who she married sometime later.
Her star-making turn took place during a trip to New York. She had joined her husband on a studio session, where he was to record with Jobim and jazz musician Stan Getz. Hoping to introduce “The Girl from Ipanema” to the U.S. audience, the session producer wanted a version featuring the English lyrics. It is unclear whose idea it was, but with Astrud being the person in the room with the best English, she ended up singing it despite not having previous recording experience.
According to Gilberto herself in an interview sourced by The New York Times, it was her husband who suggested it. “While rehearsing with Stan, João casually asked me to join in and sing a chorus in English after he had just sung the first chorus in Portuguese.” The duet was then included in the album Getz/Gilberto (1963), but the singer wasn't even credited and was only paid a $120 fee. Fortunately, a year later, the song was re-edited and released with her English vocals alone. Her version became a hit, reaching #5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, earning the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, and selling more than a million copies.
After divorcing Gilberto and going on tour with Getz, the singer went on to record The Astrud Gilberto Album, her solo debut album, released in 1965. It was her whispery voice, present in other hits such as “Agua de Beber” and “Corcovado,” that would set the standard for emerging bossa nova singers.
Almost 60 years after it was originally released, “The Girl from Ipanema” remains one of the most well known songs in the world. During the Rio 2016 opening ceremony, it was performed by Daniel Jobim, grandson of the original composer, as supermodel Gisele Bündchen crossed the stage. As for Gilberto herself, in 2008, she received a Latin Grammy for lifetime achievement.
Despite never having another hit the size of “The Girl from Ipanema,” her rendition changed music history forever. Not only did the song spark a bossa nova phenomenon in the United States in the 1960s, but it also drew the world's ears to Brazilian music—all by making everyone daydream of bittersweet summers under the sun in the charming Rio neighborhood of Ipanema.