RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil: “Tall and tan and young and lovely ... ” You’ve heard of her. You might have come across “The Girl From Ipanema” while on hold on the phone, during a long elevator ride, or in a cafe in Beirut or Bangkok – but you’ve heard it.
It’s been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Amy Winehouse, and survived bad lounge singers and Muzak incarnations to become, according to Performing Songwriter magazine, the second most recorded song in the world.
The quintessential bossa nova tune, inspired by a young woman who passed the songwriters in a beachside bar on her way to the sea, introduced Rio de Janeiro to the world.
Now, it’s turning 50, and to its legions of fans, the decades have only heightened its allure, adding a wash of nostalgia to this hymn to passing youth and beauty.
Indeed, the song carries within its chords and lyrics an image of a city that’s light and easy, palm trees and blue sky, a sun-kissed life without care.
Rio is in “the levity of the song, its absolute elegance, the way it doesn’t take itself seriously,” said Ruy Castro, a writer and journalist who has chronicled the city, its music and its nightlife.
This girl who “swings so cool and sways so gently” first stepped out in public on August 1962, in a cramped Copacabana nightclub.
On stage together, for the first and only time, were the architects of bossa nova: Tom Jobim, who wrote the tune, on piano and Joao Gilberto on guitar, with help from the poet Vinicius de Moraes, who gave “The Girl” her lyrics.
Bossa nova was still young then, something of a novelty even in Rio. The name means “new trend” or “new way,” and that’s what it was – a fresh, jazzy take on Brazil’s holiest tradition, the samba.
The rhythm was the same but where samba was cathartic, communal, built on drums and powerful voices, bossa was intimate, contemplative, just a singer and a song. The melody, on guitar or piano, stepped up to the front. Percussion receded, played sometimes with brushes for a softer texture reminiscent of surf washing on the sand.
In his book about the genre, Castro wrote that the 1962 show at the club Au Bon Gourmet established bossa nova. It didn’t just introduce the “Girl.” Other bossa classics like “So danco samba” and “Samba da bencao,” were also played publicly for the first time.
The small club – 20 by 130 feet – sold out every night as patrons realized something extraordinary was happening on the cramped little stage.
Musician Severino Filho was there when it happened.
“Tom and Vinicius had just composed it,” he said. “It was still on a scrap of paper. Only later did they write it out on a clean sheet. At first, people in the audience just listened. But they’d come back, and would start to sing along. After that, bossa nova just exploded.”
That was also the year most Americans first heard bossa nova. The 1962 record “Jazz Samba,” by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, took the sound of Brazil and filtered it through the sensibility of American musicians, making it palatable to the country’s listeners. Although an instrumental jazz album, it remained on the Billboard charts for 70 weeks.
After that, everyone wanted a bit of Brazil. Jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald made bossa-inspired recordings.
Still, it wasn’t until 1964 that “The Girl” came to the U.S. It could have been a dud.
Astrud Gilberto, Joao Gilberto’s then-wife, sang the English words in the album “Getz/Gilberto.” It was her first professional gig. Her voice is young, breathy, but there’s a little hesitation; she trips over her English oh-so-lightly.
As it turns out, she was perfect – exotic but accessible, at once sultry and innocent. Like the girl in the song, Astrud’s voice suggested a beauty that was enticing but just out of reach: “Each day, when she walks to the sea, she looks straight ahead, not at he.”
The “Getz/Gilberto” album eventually won the 1965 Grammy for best album of the year, and suddenly, everyone was talking about “The Girl.”
The girl herself wasn’t. Then 17 years old, Heloisa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto.
Known among her friends as Helo, the teenager’s days were spent between home, school and the beach, a path that often took her by the bar where de Moraes and Jobim spent long hours nursing their drinks. Their eyes would follow Helo when she passed, entranced with her glowing skin and long dark hair.
Helo had no idea. When she first heard the hit on the radio, she liked it. She’d whistle it sometimes but she never suspected she’d inspired the lyrics.
There were rumors from the guys at the bar, but she wouldn’t believe them. Finally, in 1965, Moraes offered the definitive proof, writing in a magazine that Helo was the beauty behind the song, “the golden girl, mix of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace, but whose sight is also sad because it carries within it, on the way to the sea, the sense of youth that passes, of beauty that doesn’t belong only to us.”
In spite of the stir she created, Helo had a traditional upbringing, and the song did little to change that, she said. Between her strict parents and her fiance, she turned down invitations to do films and shows on television.
“I was flattered, of course. But it left me wondering, do I really deserve all this?” she said. “It was a weight, trying to please everyone, to show these characteristics that the song called for.”
Her fiance, who had been her high-school boyfriend, pushed for a quick wedding, and she spent the next decade as a housewife. Now, at 68, she’s far more comfortable with her notoriety, doing two television shows and planning to launch a book in English about her past.
“Back then, I never thought I’d get old,” she said. “But youth passes. We have to live each moment.”