— 2013 — Mar 18

The Girl From Ipanema (at 50)

by Anton Schwartz

Fifty years ago, composer/pianist Anton Carlos Jobim and vocalist/guitarist João Gilberto convened at A&R Studios in New York and tenorman Stan Getz to create the definitive recording of “The Girl From Ipanema.” It was not the first recording of the song, Getz/Gilberto which has already seen success in Brazil as “Garota de Ipanema,” sung by Pery Ribeiro. Nor was it, by any means the last—according to Performing Songwriter magazine, it is the second most recorded pop tune in history. The All Music Guide lists 3,600 versions, by artists such as Lou Rawls, Charles Mingus, Kenny G, Amy Winehouse, Placido Domingo, Erroll Garner and Cher. (Don’t miss this brilliant rendition by Archie Shepp.)

But the Getz/Gilberto recording dwarfs all others. The album won multiple Grammy awards including Album of the Year, and the “Girl from Ipanema” track won the award for Record of the Year in 1965—the first time ever for a jazz album, and the only time up until Herbie Hancock won it in 2008. (The competition was stiff, too. The other nominees included Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly” and the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand”.) The recording quickly worked its way into the ears and the hearts of all America.

So why do jazz musicians hate “The Girl From Ipanema” so much?!?

I’m guessing the reasons are, in more or less this order:

  1. Because it’s so corny.
  2. Because it’s been butchered by so many singers.
    Q: How many bad vocalists does it take to sing The Girl From Ipanema?
    A: All of them, evidently.
  3. Because people request it so much.

Of those three reasons the song can’t be blamed for the last two—only for its corniness. And for me the corniness isn’t at all a part of the original song—just of the English version that Astrud Gilberto sings on the recording… and thousands of other English language versions that have followed.

When Norman Gimbel wrote the English lyric he changed the rhythm of the original melody and, in my opinion, ruined it. Which is not to say that anyone could have done much better, putting to English a melody that is so perfectly suited to the sensuous cadences of Brazilian Portuguese. (Conversely, how do you think “I Want to Hold Your Hand” would sound in Portuguese?)

Listen to João Gilberto’s rendition of the Portuguese melody at 0:08, and compare it with his wife Astrud’s English rendition at 1:22.

After the curvaceous, lilting rhythm of the Portuguese, the English version comes off as flat-footed and cloying. Here are the beginnings of the two versions notated musically:

I’ve indicated the phrases with horizontal arrows, and the emphasis at the beginning of each new phrase with a vertical arrow. Notice how the Portuguese version cascades across the bar lines, whereas the English version falls squarely inside them.

For me, the effect is compounded by Astrud Gilberto’s iffy pitch and sing-songy delivery. (About Astrud: she had no professional experience; she came to the studio that day only as João Gilberto’s wife. But they decided to do an English language version, and she was selected to sing because of all the Brazilians she was the only one who spoke English.)

There may be musicians who dislike the song for reasons unrelated to the English version. But I’m guessing most just haven’t really looked beyond it. For me, the track has all the makings of greatness: a brilliant composition by one of the greatest popular songwriters of all time… guitar and (male) vocals by the supreme master of intimate delivery… a gorgeous, sensuous saxophone solo by one of the most melodic sax players in the history of jazz… and perfect chemistry tying them all together. I’d gladly lose the English version in the middle of the song, but The American public didn’t seem to mind it one bit. After all, it told a sexy story with a timeless plot, in a language they could understand. And we have to keep in mind that this is the same American public that made “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head” a huge number one hit a few years later.

In any case, I think the genius that those musicians captured in the studio fifty years ago far outweighs the song’s faults, and I’m delighted to be able to play the song now and then. For musicians who can’t get to that place, my advice is: listen to João’s version until you can easily summon it in your head, in place of all the others that might be haunting you. Instrumentalists can play the original rhythm and phrasing rather than the English language version, to produce a much hipper song. Vocalists, I’m afraid, will have to learn the Portuguese. But what a beautiful language to train yourself to sing!

8 Responses

  1. Merrilee Trost says:

    When this sensuous bossa nova hit the U.S. 50 years ago we were mesmerized. We had never heard anything like it. So sexy and rhythmic. Soft waves of sound washing over us. Astrud Gilberto’s untrained, shy and unpretentious voice, with its hint of an accent, was actually part of the charm. Joao Gilberto’s warm guitar. Stan Getz’s melodic sax came in for the kill. How could a show-bizzy, booming song like “Hello, Dolly” or a rinky-tink “I Want to Hold Your Hand” even begin to compete with it? We were hooked!

    Sure, 50 years later, it sounds trite and dated. Way too over-exposed by now. No other singer could ever capture the magic. But it is iconic. It was a milestone in American music. It opened the door for the flood of bossas and other Brazilian music to follow. Antonio Carlos Jobim became a name to be revered.

    You’ve written a very thoughtful and interesting blog here, Anton. And I agree that the real secret to this song is the Portuguese. The Portuguese lyrics and Brazilian rhythms. Play on.

    • Jaimeslp says:

      Agree!

    • Mike Harper says:

      “Astrud Gilberto’s untrained, shy and unpretentious voice, with its hint of an accent, was actually part of the charm”. Agree entirely.

    • What a beautiful account of the the effect of the bossa nova when it arrived, Merrilee!! Thank you!!!
      And I’m glad you mention the disarming appeal of Astrud Gilberto’s carefree, untrained delivery. I’m not able to appreciate it much (other stuff gets in the way), but there sure are many who love it. And I adore João’s English language singing, which has a similar quality.

  2. Tim says:

    Anton,
    This is great. One slightly internationalist detail that is worth adding: I’ve spent some time with the Portuguese lyrics, and they are much more subtle and, in fact, philosophical, than Norman Gimbel’s flat English version. (Gimbel and Gene Lees have a lot to answer for for what they did to Vinicius de Moraes’s lyrics on a whole bunch of Jobim tunes–which may be why Jobim finally started writing his own lyrics in English). The whole point of the song in Portuguese is not that the girl doesn’t notice or love the singer. It’s that her beauty and grace make the world a more beautiful place. The world is infused with beauty when she walks by. The last verse would be something like, “Ah, if she only knew that when she walks by the world smiles and becomes more beautiful because of love.” The song isn’t some Brazilian version of “Mr. Lonely.” The lyrical idea is worthy of Plato, not Steve and Edie, alas.

    • Well spoken, Tim. I couldn’t agree more. I resonate with your word “flat.” The Brazilian version is so much more three-dimensional, both in rhythm and in message. Even so, the English version still manages to convey the “sweet” side of the bittersweet story, implicitly in the story if not explicitly in the lyric. I doubt it would have been such a hit otherwise.

  3. Yes I agree, all Americans should learn Portuguese and learn to read charts or it’s just not worth it.

    • Of course I wasn’t implying any of those things, Stanley—I’m sorry that’s your takeaway. (For starters, I don’t speak Portuguese.) I hope that you can hear that the rhythm of the Portuguese version is different from the English… and imagine how it sounds different when an instrument emulates one as opposed to the other.

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