DESPERATELY SEEKING ASTRUD GILBERTO

A FAN'S JOURNEY TO THE EDGE OF CONTACT AND BACK.

By Joey Sweeney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 31 | Posted Jun. 5, 2002

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Astrud Gilberto was living as a kept woman on the Main Line. (Untrue.) Astrud Gilberto was at Fergie's one night. (Oddly, true.) Astrud Gilberto was recording an album in South Philly. (Weirder still, very true.)

Rumors would fling this way and that, and nailing them down was dicey, for all information came in a brown wrapper of a subtext that was the one thing everyone knew for sure: Astrud Gilberto, having altered the entire landscape of pop music--having, for better or worse, made herself an archetype by which all women singers in her wake would at least have to consider, was a recluse. She hadn't given an interview in about 20 years, and as such, readily available information on her was, to put it mildly, sparse.

But somewhere along the line my fandom got the better of me. While the cognitive part of me knew and respected Astrud Gilberto's retreat from public life--in this media age, who wouldn't sympathize?--another part of me, the creepy fanboy, wanted to at least connect with that reclusive nature, to see what made it tick, to see how much of that I could consume and relate to.

So, knowing that here was a woman with stage fright so bad that not even a stint at the Actor's Studio could cure it, knowing that her no-interviews policy was an unshakable terra firma, I set out to interview her. Just to see what would happen.

Under the guise of writing about her new album, I got in touch with a go- between who I knew could put me in touch with the person who would invariably say "no" to my interview request.

"Look," I said to the go-between, "I'm going to write about her whether she wants to be interviewed or not. And it's not that I won't respect her wishes--scout's honor, I will--it's just that ..." I paused, trying to say that this is one of the greatest pop singers who's ever lived, and as someone who's lucky enough to get to write about these people, I'd be damned if wasn't going to try to write about this one, knowing now, as I did, that she was living but a few blocks from me.

Instead, I just stammered. Later that day I received an email from Astrud's manager, which read, in part:

"I can assure you that Astrud is very flattered by your interest. However, it has been her policy, for nearly two decades, not to grant interviews of any kind. Please appreciate that she does not single out any particular journalist or publication to say 'no' to, as this was a conscious decision on her part as to how she wishes to conduct herself/her career."

He made no bones about that pretty much being the end of the discussion. A few days later Astrud's new album, Jungle, arrived in the mail. Knowing what I know about people who go away for years at a time between albums, I expected nothing like Jungle. It wasn't mired down in present-day production styles, nor did it seem to have any trace of comeback-desperation anywhere on it. In fact, it was a record equally as at ease as anything she's ever done--maybe even more so.

At the center of it, of course, was Gilberto's singular voice, and hearing that voice in a new recording was startling in its clarity. Time, fame, her reclusive reaction to it and whatever else has done absolutely nothing to alter the quality of her voice.

In her vocals--whether it's a reading of a standard like Bacharach and David's "The Look of Love," or one of the many tropicalia-influenced originals in the set--she's still ageless, almost timeless, the girl standing at the edge of the world disaffectedly singing something that can beguile anyone who stands still long enough to feel everything stirring within her, everything she's trying not to give away.

Murderers, artists and heroes all share one thing: The experience of how what you do over a day or two can alter the course of your entire life. On March 18 and 19, 1963, Astrud Gilberto was in a New York City recording studio with her then-husband, Jo�o Gilberto, along with Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and a handful of engineers and session musicians. They were there to record what would become Getz/Gilberto, one of the best-selling jazz recordings of all time.

The record was anchored by a song that became an instant standard, a towering piece of bewitching tunefulness that would cast its shadow, in one form or another, on the pop world right up to this very day, and beyond. "The Girl From Ipanema" was the first Latino crossover, the first bilingual sensation--it made bossa nova a commonplace in the musical vocabulary--and Astrud Gilberto was the first global pop ingenue, doe-eyed, sexy and otherworldly all at once.

In the wake of its appearance on Getz/Gilberto, "The Girl From Ipanema" was recorded an incalculable number of times by a range of artists from Frank Sinatra to the Living Strings. It was a staple of the '60s--perhaps one of the last songs of that golden age where there were songs everyone knew the words to.

At a certain point people may have stopped recording versions of the song, content to finally let the original ascend to its proper place in the pop pantheon, but people have never stopped purchasing, listening to or singing the song. And it has almost everything to do with Astrud Gilberto. Everyone who's ever heard her has, at least for one shining subconscious moment, wanted to be her.

There is a whole lore surrounding the day (and the way in which) Astrud Gilberto came to sing on "The Girl From Ipanema." By most counts, it wasn't something that was supposed to happen at all.

"The Girl From Ipanema" was written by pals and bossa nova originators Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes after a long summer spent drinking beer and watching the same 15-year-old girl come into the beach bar to buy cigarettes for her mother day after day.

By the time they had gotten around to composing the song, the entire world was beginning to feel a bossa nova buzz, thanks in large part to the film Black Orpheus and its accompanying score. After American jazz musicians got wind of this and other records, it was only a matter of time before a few made the trip down to Brazil with crossover in their hearts.

Looking at the rough historical data, the marriage of Astrud Weinert to Jo�o Gilberto in the late '50s was a match made for the movies. By the time he was in his thirties, Gilberto had been institutionalized briefly for depression. He was a chronic drug user, and, as often as not, homeless, cruising from couch to couch for as many as 10 years.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 31 of 31
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1. An eternal fan said... on Jul 19, 2008 at 02:16PM

“Wow. I know you wrote this six years ago, but wow. Thank you. You said much, very much... I envy you that you would follow the song in your heart like this. Thank you for taking me there with your writing.”

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2. e.c. said... on Jan 2, 2009 at 11:12PM

“I can definitely confirm that Astrud lived on the Main line for a time. I was in first grade with her son, and they lived around the corner from me. I was friendly with her son and spent time at the house, having no idea who she was, being only a 6 year old, but knew enough to know she was unlike any other main line mommy! ”

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3. jonhansen100 (Youtube handle) said... on Aug 5, 2009 at 10:22AM

“To Author, Thanks so much for your insights to Astrud Gilberto. She must have made a deep impression on my pre-adolescent brain as this impression has lurked somewhere in the dream-state of my unconcious for or - 50 years. Since the advent of Youtube I've been able to indulge my musical curiosities with some abandon. Learning , thru your article, of your subject's "no interview policy" only makes her more interesting to those of us who need to know more. How or what do you ever say to someone like Astrud Gilberto to communicate the feelings drawn out by her art. Maybe there are no words. As life allows me the time, I will continue to study her and encourage the rest of the world to do the same. God bless you Astrud.”

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4. Phillip Storey - Sydney Australia said... on Aug 22, 2009 at 12:50AM

“I had the honour of meeting and seeing her everynight for a week at the Catalina NightClub in Hollywood in 1990................Such a beautiful lady and entertainer.....................AH MEMORIES!!!!
Luvs Ya,”

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5. Joe Lex, Philadelphia said... on Apr 8, 2010 at 01:47PM

“I read this when it first was published in 2002, and go back to it every year or so. It's still one of the best things I have ever read about a singer that I love. It is similar to the writing of Arthur Phillips about another Brazilian singer, Elis Regina, on his blog and in his novel The Song Is You. I currently feel this way about a Polish singer named Aga Zaryan - take a handful of Carmen McRae and Shirley Horn, add a dash of Abbey Lincoln and Elis Regina, with a pinch of Susannah McCorkle. Alas, she lives in Warsaw so I can't wistfully stand under her window and wonder...”

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6. M.G. said... on Apr 25, 2010 at 09:59AM

“She lived in Wynnewood in the 1970's, down the street from my family, and my sister used to babysit her kids. My mother and aunt were huge fans of hers in the 1960's and when my sister told my mom who she was babysitting for, I think my mom nearly passed out! Can you imagine being a huge fan of someone and then finding out that they were living on your street?”

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7. Bruce said... on Apr 27, 2010 at 05:36PM

“If I am not mistaken, Astrud Gilberto lives aright around Socirty Hill, I think the 200 block of Locust or Pine Street.”

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8. jack divers said... on May 17, 2010 at 07:32PM

“I feel in love with Astrud in 1963 when I first heard "The Girl From Ipanema". I was aboard the USS Hancock in the South China Sea preparing to drop bombs on North Vietnam. I have never been the same after hearing her voice.”

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9. Dan said... on Oct 1, 2010 at 08:30AM

“Beautifully written. It takes the feelings of many of us about Astrud and puts them into perfect words.”

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10. emanuel said... on Mar 30, 2011 at 10:16PM

“I've been a a great Astrud's fan since I heard "La chica de Ipanema" in 1963......I have almost all his records and really enjoy listening her with her softly and sweet voice since then...I'm 60 and live in a place with all the Gulf of México in the front...Veracruz, a place with a very special feeling for music and dances...with people who likes to live happy all the time....people who likes good music and all kind of dancing....I'd really like to write to Astrud personally to tell her besides my admiration for her in almost all my life...some experiencies that I have with her music...her voice...with all my friends that they met her for me....my wife and my daughter and son.......It would be something fantastic for me to be able to make contact with her.....
Thanks for accept my comments.....and all for... "esa chica bella de cuerpo dorado...del sol de Ipanema....la chica más linda que he visto pasar".....”

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11. Mr Nick said... on Jun 1, 2011 at 02:53PM

“I have only become obsessed recently.”

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12. NDW said... on Jul 15, 2011 at 08:32AM

“I have been obsessed with Astrud Gilberto for about 7 years. I was born in 1970 and remember on occassion hearing Girl From Impanema; I was too young to appreciate the beauty of that song. As I got older, I would continue to hear Girl From Impanema and I come to love it. Around 2004, I was in a bookstore and came across the CD, Astrud Gilberto's Finest Hour and became enamored of her and the music. Her style of singing is so sexy, mysterious, sensual, and beautiful. When you listen to it, one's mind automatically goes to warm, balmy days on a sandswept beach. Ms. Gilberto's music definitely plays a major part in my listening pleasure. She has earned the title of "icon."”

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13. ted decerchio said... on Aug 23, 2011 at 06:46PM

“I met Astrud in 1976 @ lankenau when she was visiting a patient-friend that I was taking care of, before her Greta Garbo days.Her friend visiting with her asked me if I knew who "The girl From ipanema" was? I had bought the Getz-Gilberto LP because of the abstract artwork cover years before so I said "you're Astrud Gilberto?" She asked me for her BP to be taken, I said in exchange for her autograph, which is "To Teddy, It was nice meeting you. Astrud Gilberto." Her BP was a little elevated.”

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14. Shoshanna said... on Sep 13, 2011 at 03:08PM

“Oh...I am one of those who wished she were she.
I play on my guitar, sing The Girl From Ipanema...and dream.
Lovely.”

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15. Marc Johnson said... on Sep 26, 2011 at 11:14AM

“I have to say, this article is a beautiful work of art. He so wonderfully portrays the longing we have to "know" someone whose work we have only seen or heard. I love the ham sandwich story. I had a similar happiest moment of my life when I was 19, listening to Maria Muldaur while scrubbing floors in US Navy bootcamp. I did get to meet her, at a concert a few years ago, and I simply stammered my thanks to her for all her work...”

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16. Chuckz said... on Jul 20, 2012 at 03:23PM

“WTF? Astrud has been (or was) in town this whole time?!?!? I wouldn't chase her down, but I would peek into every corner in Philly just for a chance to tell her how indescribably awesome "Berimbau" or "She's a Carioca" are and how she makes me giddy with delight. Or I would just buy her an espresso or whatever classy, timeless ladies from Brazil drink.”

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17. Alan said... on Jul 26, 2012 at 05:54PM

“beautiful story and beautifully written”

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18. Claire said... on Oct 16, 2012 at 08:04PM

“I travel to Philly for work every now and then. I admit I've looked for Astrud on each trip. I'm terrible at recognizing celebrities on the street, and I never approach them when I do. But it's one of my dreams to see beautiful Astrud in person one day and tell her how much joy she's brought to my life. Amazing article - thank you.”

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19. Frank M said... on Jan 13, 2013 at 03:11AM

“"perfectly written"

Thank you

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20. DJ said... on Mar 13, 2013 at 04:23PM

“Named our daughter after her in the early '90s!”

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21. DaddyDale said... on May 21, 2013 at 10:49AM

“I'm a Sergio Mendes fan from the late 60's who's just discovering all his music since my wife got me his new two disc treasury album. Due to that I've been taking side trips to the other artists he worked with. I remember well when "The Girl From Ipanema" came out (got into a fight with my father about it). Of course the thing I remember most is THAT VOICE! This was a really interesting article, and I'm glad I came across it. At age 61 it's good to discover the music I loved when I was young.”

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22. DaddyDale said... on May 21, 2013 at 10:49AM

“I'm a Sergio Mendes fan from the late 60's who's just discovering all his music since my wife got me his new two disc treasury album. Due to that I've been taking side trips to the other artists he worked with. I remember well when "The Girl From Ipanema" came out (got into a fight with my father about it). Of course the thing I remember most is THAT VOICE! This was a really interesting article, and I'm glad I came across it. At age 61 it's good to discover the music I loved when I was young.”

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23. Perico said... on Jul 6, 2013 at 12:43AM

“Astrud is unreachable as all goddesses are. Sad being unable to tell her in person how much I adore her, and the extreme pleasure she has given to my life during 40 years.
I wish I could retribute in the same quality.
Hope to read her memoirs some day.
Thanks for the article.

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24. Mark said... on Nov 19, 2013 at 08:28PM

“Beautiful story. I have recently become re acquainted with Astrud's music. I remember in the early 60s hearing my Dad playing this on the record player. I was 4 or five. so I searched it out on a music web site and fount her album Finest Hour purchased it and now cant stop playing it. I remember four songs that my Dad played like it was yesterday. When I listen to her music I am taken somewhere else and to a different time. Life was simpler there and then.She has a voice like an angel.”

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25. sambista said... on Feb 15, 2014 at 12:18PM

“What a wonderful piece, thank you. The music lives on. Washington DC band, Veronneau, recently did a wonderful album celebrating bossa nova, called the Jazz Samba Project. There's also a week long festival in June 2014 at the Strathmore Music Center with Sergio Mendez, Eliane Elias, and many more, including the premiere of a movie about bossa nova and an exhibition from the Felix Grant Jazz Archive, Felix having been the DJ who broke bossa nova in the US.”

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26. Len said... on Mar 7, 2014 at 12:08AM

“The bossa nova sound is credibly beautiful. I simply love Gilberto / Jobim music. I am now sixty, while my friends were going wild over the Mid sixties sounds the Beatles and the rest, I fell in love with boss a nova and the Girl from Ipanema. Astrud your beautiful voice will forever be the voice the boss a nova. As a Philadelphian it is even more incredible to come to learn that you are part of our community.

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27. VinnyG said... on Mar 19, 2014 at 05:54AM

“Wow! One of the best articles I've read in a long time. Peripheral to the subject, Stan Getz was a Philly boy. I wonder if he might have introduced her to the city during any of the live performances (I'm assuming there was a tour associated with GFI, really don't know) and if that might have had anything to do with Ms. Gilberto's choice of residence.

-VG”

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28. tramy said... on Mar 30, 2014 at 07:30AM

“yesterday was Astrud's bday and thank to the internet i discover this article. Astrud's fan since 5 years ago when i was 20, my love for jazz and bossa nova still growing strong. All the best from Vietnam :)”

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29. Terry said... on Apr 1, 2014 at 01:29PM

“Thank you for a wonderful article. Although I love Astrud's music too, your sentiments uncannily describe the way Doris Day's music has touched me. I too struggle with the frustration of wanting to tell her personally how she has affected me and thank her for her gift of music. I grew up in the sixties seeing some of her movies of the period. But I re-discovered her a few years back and come to adore her songs from the forties. I have resigned myself to knowing I can never talk to her, a sad feeling, but one of the ironies of life. April the 3rd 2014 she will be 90 years old. Funny how someone you have never met will always have special place in your heart.”

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30. Lee Magri said... on Apr 6, 2014 at 04:44PM

“She was born in 1940, she is far from being 90 years old..She has her reasons for not granting interviews..they do mis-quote you, & much has been said about her..
Read her page, & you know more of how she feels,& her likes, & dislikes..she is quite candid..Her collaboration in the 60's was the best think which happened in the U.S.. I was in New York City then, & that recording was the best which hit the charts.
I have it on L.P., & C.D. Thanks Atrud for bringing us such great music, & memories!”

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31. Raluca said... on Apr 19, 2014 at 10:54PM

“Beautiful article about a beautiful songstress and incredibly soulful lady. We were neighbors in the late '90s and she was kind and generous with her time and wisdom. I wish her the best and thank her for the memories and for the music.”

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