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Astrud Gilberto, 83, dies; shot to fame with ‘The Girl From Ipanema’

By Jim Farber New York Times

Astrud Gilberto, whose soft and sexy vocal performance on “The Girl From Ipanema,” the first song she ever recorded, helped make the sway of Brazilian bossa nova a hit sound in the United States in the 1960s, died Monday. She was 83.

Paul Ricci, a musician and a family friend, announced on Facebook that Gilberto’s son Marcelo said she had died and “asked for this to be posted.” He provided no further details.

Gilberto enjoyed a four-decade recording career, cutting albums with celebrated musicians such as Gil Evans, Stanley Turrentine and James Last, as well as working with George Michael and others. But her biggest success came with “The Girl From Ipanema,” written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa (with English lyrics by Norman Gimbel).

When Gilberto recorded that song, she was married to João Gilberto, the Brazilian singer and guitarist often referred to as the father of the bossa nova. In 1963, the two of them traveled from Rio de Janeiro to New York City, where he was set to record a joint album with jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, who had already released three albums that mixed jazz with samba and bossa nova.

Exactly who had the idea to involve Gilberto, an untested singer, on the album, later released as “Getz/Gilberto,” is unclear Some credit its producer, Creed Taylor; others credit Astrud Gilberto. The singer herself credited her husband.

“While rehearsing with Stan in the song ‘The Girl From Ipanema,’ João casually asked me to join in and sing a chorus in English after he had just sung the first chorus in Portuguese,” Gilberto said in a 2002 interview for her official website. “Stan was very receptive. I’ll never forget that while we were listening back to the just recorded version, Stan said to me, ‘This song is going to make you famous.’”

It helped that the version of the song released as a single in 1964 featured only Gilberto’s vocal and not her husband’s. With her sweetly wistful voice to guide it, the record shot to No 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and went on to sell more than 1 million copies. It won the Grammy Award for record of the year, and the album that contained it, which included one other vocal track from Gilberto, snagged three Grammys, including album of the year. It was the first album by a jazz artist to earn that distinction and one of only two to ever do so. (Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters,” more than 40 years later, was the second.)

“The Girl From Ipanema” reportedly became the second-most-covered song in pop history, after the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” It has been featured in more than 50 films, many of them using the original Getz-Gilberto version.

Gilberto’s whispery voice, although limited in range and power, had a genuine ache and mystery to it, as well as the ability to evoke images of summers imagined or lost. “Her languid, affectless voice floated as lazily as a leaf on the Carioca breeze,” journalist and author James Gavin wrote in the liner notes for the 2001 collection “Astrud Gilberto Gold.” “One could almost hear the surf breaking and the sea gulls crying as she sang.”

Getz understood her appeal immediately. “When I first heard Astrud,” he told a British journalist in 1964, “I thought there was something innocent and demure in her voice — such an opposite to these chesty-voiced girls singing rock ’n’ roll.”

Her breathy brand of singing influenced scores of later artists, among them Sade, Tracey Thorn, of the duo Everything but the Girl, and Basia, who acknowledged that influence by writing a song titled “Astrud.”

Astrud Evangelina Weinert was born March 29, 1940, in Bahia, Brazil, to a German father, Fritz Weinert, a language professor, and a Brazilian mother, Evangelina Weinert, who was also an educator.

When Astrud was a girl, her family moved to Rio. There, during her teenage years, she befriended a group of young musicians who later became celebrated in Brazil, among them singer Nara Leão and songwriter Roberto Menescal. She met João Gilberto when she was 19, and they married several months later.

She began singing in private with her musical circle of friends, which grew to include more established names like Bonfa and Vinicius de Moraes. It was Moraes who wrote the original lyrics for “The Girl From Ipanema,” named after a beachside neighborhood in Rio where he and Jobim used to watch a beautiful woman they pined for walk by.

After the song became a smash, Getz and Taylor, the producer, described Gilberto in the press as a housewife they had discovered — a characterization that angered her, given the years she had spent privately singing with her friends and her husband. “I can’t help but to feel annoyed at the fact that they resorted to lying,” she is quoted as saying on her website.

She was also experiencing tension in her marriage and soon began a brief, fraught affair with Getz. (She and her husband divorced shortly after.) She toured the United States with Getz, billed as a guest singer; the resulting live album, “Getz Au Go Go,” featured her on five tracks.

The success of that album led to a solo contract with Verve Records, Getz’s label, which released “The Astrud Gilberto Album” in 1965. Although it just missed Billboard’s pop Top 40, it was nominated for a Grammy for album of the year. For her third album, “Look to the Rainbow,” she expanded her sound by working with arranger Gil Evans, best known for his work with Miles Davis.

While her music was respectfully received by American pop critics, Gilberto never earned a parallel response from critics in Brazil, who felt she had lucked into her career. As a result, Gilberto, who had immigrated to America in the mid-1960s, performed in her native country only once.

(Nevertheless, “The Girl From Ipanema” was popular enough in Brazil that it was performed at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro by Daniel Jobim, the composer’s grandson, as model Gisele Bündchen walked across the stage and the audience sang along.)

She also complained of being treated poorly by her record company. “There was a problem collecting what was mine,” she told The New York Times in 1981. “I was doing a great deal of producing of my own albums. I got no credit.”

After releasing eight albums for Verve, Gilberto signed in 1971 with Creed Taylor’s label, CTI Records, and recorded an album with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine.

In the 1980s, she recorded with the James Last Orchestra and began to expand her scope by writing her own material. In 1992, she received a lifetime achievement award from Latin Jazz USA. Four years later, she sang a duet with George Michael on “Desafinado” for the “Red Hot Rio” album, whose profits went to benefit AIDS-related causes. In 2002, she released her final album, “Jungle,” and retired from public performances.

In addition to Marcelo Gilberto, her son from her first marriage, Gilberto is survived by another son, Gregory Lasorsa, from her second marriage, to Nicholas Lasorsa, which ended in divorce, and two granddaughters. Both her sons are musicians who often worked with her. João Gilberto died in 2019.

In an interview included in the liner notes for a reissue of “Getz/Gilberto” in 1996, Gilberto marveled at the impact her first recording had in the United States. “Americans are generally not very curious about the styles of other countries,” she said. “But our music was Brazilian music in a modern form.”

She added that she thought the timing also had something to do with the song’s breakthrough, just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“People needed some romance,” she said, “something dreamy for distraction.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.