DESPERATELY SEEKING ASTRUD GILBERTO

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

By Joey Sweeney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 32 | Posted Jun. 5, 2002

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They say he had a thing for talking to cats.

What he did have going for him, though, was that he was a charmer, and throughout these years, his solace was playing guitar and writing songs. He'd stay up all night in the bathroom--he became enamored of the acoustic slapback sound of the tiles--deconstructing the rhythms and the chords of the American big-band sound he grew up adoring.

By the time the woman who would be Astrud Gilberto came into his life, Jo�o had come over the hump. He had engineered his own sound, paring down the rhythms in his head to the most elemental forms of what would be bossa nova, and he'd written the first bossa nova song, "Bim-Bom," whose lyrics consisted of little more than the song's title, repeated over and over.

When his old friend Jobim heard what Gilberto was up to, he rallied at his day job, as a producer for Odeon, to commit Gilberto's sound to a 78. Even with his rough times behind him, the thread of difficulty that would run through Gilberto's life again evidenced itself--a record that should have taken an afternoon to record instead took four days.

By the time Jo�o Gilberto teamed up with Stan Getz--who had, along with guitarist Charlie Byrd, already given bossa nova its first stateside hit with the Jazz Samba album--that difficulty had reached legendary proportions. A story circulated around jazz circles that one day the Gilbertos' cat jumped out a window. Jo�o left the studio to pick it up in a taxi and speed away to the nearest veterinarian, but alas, the cat had already died. The joke Gilberto's fellow musicians liked to make was that the cat committed suicide after hearing Jo�o practice "O Pato" one time too many.

In the fateful days of the Getz/Gilberto sessions, it was decided that a tune the band had been cooking up deserved to be sung at least partly in English. Against a spate of crowing by Jobim himself as well as Jo�o, Astrud was pushed in front of the mic, and in turn, the legend goes, paid the princely sum of $110.

Whatever the charms of "The Girl From Ipanema"--and they are many, from Getz's sauntering sax to the seductive flutter of the melody itself--Astrud Gilberto was the something the bossa nova enterprise needed to go overground in a big way.

By July 1964, "The Girl From Ipanema" chuffed everyone and sat at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. No. 1 was by some band called the Beatles.

And if the winds of pop had a choice at that impasse--go for the stylized melancholic cool of bossa nova or the hysteria that would come to earmark '60s rock--the choice, at the time, seemed like a no-brainer. Bossa nova became the idiom of choice for the blandest entertainers America could bear. And rock 'n' roll became, once again, the definitive voice of youth.

By the time the late '60s came around, bossa nova had, for the most part, evolved into tropicalia, the music most closely associated with protest and revolution both political and cultural in Brazil. What remained of the musical process was left mostly in the hands of Americans, and what was an inherently melancholy, bohemian and sophisticated form, left to the devices of stock music houses and hack bands, became Muzak, easy listening. Both Gilbertos by this time had cut back on their musical output. Astrud's 1967 album, Beach Samba, despite its title, was comprised of a fair share of Broadway tunes.

And though she continued on with a musical career, Astrud Gilberto, after the turbulent '60s had finally ebbed, eventually settled into the same hermetic, uneasily famous lifestyle as her first husband. She continued to release albums and even make public appearances here and there, but for all intents and purposes, she'd dropped off the pop culture radar almost as easily as she'd popped on.

She became the Girl From Ipanema: She passed by. The bossa nova moment may have been just that, but in the space of just a year or two, Astrud Gilberto had become an accidental icon with few rivals in the spectrum of 20th-century pop music.

But even before all that--as early as the end of the summer of '63, just six months after "The Girl From Ipanema" had been forever committed to tape--Astrud grew weary of Jo�o's tortured-artist lifestyle.

One summer afternoon, Jo�o returned home from a series of tour dates to find Astrud gone. She left two things: A note and a new cat.

The interview might have been a definite no-go, but spurred on by Jungle, I only had more questions: How was it that Astrud Gilberto, the Girl From Ipanema, made a new record this good, and so far as I could see, had no booking agent, no proper publicist and, crazier even still, no record label? (As of this writing, the album is for sale only at www. astrudgilberto.com.)

That said nothing of the most basic question: How did Astrud Gilberto wind up living here, of all the places in the world, in Philadelphia? The go-between wasn't saying, Astrud certainly didn't want to talk about it, and it seemed like nobody else knew. I wrote back to her manager, wondering if, given the general nature of my questions, he could answer a few for me. Within hours came the response:

"As for your inquiry, an interview with me in lieu of or about Astrud Gilberto, is not a viable option. We appreciate your understanding in that regard, as well."

So much for that idea. But he did offer me something else:

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 32 of 32
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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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32. Niels Petter Solberg said... on Apr 26, 2014 at 08:54AM

“Thank you for an great article on Astrud Gilberto. I am a big fan of her music and her cause for animal protection rights. Astrud is a singer I never grow tired of listening to, her music selection and voice has such soul, originalty and clearity that you almost depend on it :) The exotic rhytm of Astruds music, sad or happy, always soothing and calming. Her last cd "Jungle" is a discovery many should make and I hope there will be a new album soon. Astrud Gilberto is not an artist that lives for the past, but push forward and use her creative energy, also for the causes she relates and believe in, great respect for that. And to the rhytm of "The Girl from Ipanema" or "Samba d sonho" she always gives you the feeling of happiness, hope and wonder. It is what music is all about for me and I am sure there will be many new fans in the future of Astruds unique talents as a performer and storyteller.

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