She was the face of bossa nova, but not at home.
by Marshall Bowden
Astrud Gilberto was the dulcet-toned, flip-haired, exotic beauty who represented, as much as any woman, the Madmen-era, Playboy philosophy idea of mod sixties femininity. Yet that was a male construct of that era as much as anything, and it covered a reality in which the singer was serially abused and ripped off by men and the music business that they represented. In truth she was a shy performer, an interpretive singer who understood the limits of her vocal range and technique who knew intuitively how to make her ‘weaknesses’ into strengths.
Astrud was born in Salvador, in the state of Bahia, in Brazil, and raised in Rio de Janiero. Born in 1940, she was the perfect age for the arrival of the bossa nova music craze in the late fifties. She was part of a loose knit group of singers, songwriters, and intellectuals who were part of the stylistic revolution that bossa represented. These included Carlos Lyra, Oscar Castro Neves, Roberto Menescal and Ronaldo Boscoli. She was close friends with singer Nara Laeo, who rose to popularity before essentially being exiled for her increasingly political music by the Brazilian military dictatorship that rose to power in 1964. As the musical culture of Brazil morphed into the more class conscious and political Tropicalia, Astrud found herself ignored and denigrated in Brazil because of her phenomenal success in the United States and other parts of the world as bossa increasingly came to be seen as aligned with the former capitalist government’s ideas of modernization for the country by leftist intellectuals. Following a 1965 concert she never performed in her homeland again.
But in 1959, bossa was on the rise, and at the age of nineteen Astrud married the older João Gilberto, who, along with Tom Jobim, was central to the movement. That same year Gilberto released his first album, Chenga de Saudade, featuring his distinctive guitar playing that emphasized the weak beats in the traditional samba, a major part of the new bossa sound. Together with a gentle rhythm section, some strings or piano twinkling in the background, the poetic lyrics were sung by a voice that was soft and gentle, producing music that was intimate and invited the listener closer. In 1960 Astrud performed publicly with João at a famous concert at Faculdade de Arquitetura do Rio de Janeiro. It was a historic concert that cemented the developing society of modern Brazil, which would take its place among the large, developed countries of the world.
In 1963 she accompanied her husband on a trip to New York where he was to record the sessions with American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz that would become Getz/Gilberto. Getz had had success with his Jazz Samba album, featuring himself and guitarist Charlie Byrd with a rhythm section performing songs by Jobim and others. At the sessions with Gilberto, there was an idea that there should be an English translation of the lyrics and it should be a duet. According to Astrud herself, it was João ‘s idea and he encouraged her and got her to sing the verse in English. Both Getz and producer Creed Taylor took credit for her appearance in subsequent interviews through the years, but she has never changed her story. On her official website she states that “Stan said to me, with a very dramatic expression: ‘This song is going to make you famous'”. He may well have resented her sudden success, supported by his contention, in interviews, that she was a ‘housewife’ who essentially got lucky, which sounds a lot like he wanted the success that comes with chart topping pop, but still saw it as beneath him.
Getz couldn’t do anything about Astrud’s fame, but he certainly could do something about the money. Astrud’s name was conspicuously absent from the original pressing of the Verve Getz/Gilberto album. Of course, it was obvious that everyone would demand to know who she was once the record was a hit. But she never received a share of the royalties. In a piece in The Independent published in 2022, Martin Chilton writes:
The extent of the financial injustice is also made clear in Ruy Castro’s 2003 book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World. Castro details that João Gilberto received $23,000 for his work on the album. Getz got the lion’s share of money for the album, estimated by some to be nearly a million dollars. Getz earned so much from its success that he immediately bought a 23-room “Gone With the Wind-style mansion” in Irvington, New York.
As for poor Astrud Gilberto, she was paid a relative pittance for turning millions of people on to jazz and the rhythms of Brazil. The woman “responsible for the record’s international success” (in Castro’s words) earned only what the American musicians’ syndicate paid for a night of session work: $120.
It’s quite clear that the folks at Verve understood the reason that the record was a hit: they released a shorter seven-inch single version of “Girl From Ipanema” that stripped out her husband’s vocals, leaving only her English language vocals and Getz’ saxophone. The enormous hit record gave her leverage she would never have had otherwise, and she was able to parlay that into a recording career that carried her through the rest of the decade.
It would be difficult to imagine going wrong with The Astrud Gilberto Album‘s mix of Marty Paich’s string arrangements, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s guitar creating an authentic bossa rhythm, and Astrud’s soft, yielding voice on a program of Brazilian bossa songs, many of them by Jobim himself. In addition we get the contributions of such amazing studio performers as pianist João Donato and woodwind master Bud Shank on flute. Gilberto shines in this setting, with a repertoire that is well suited to her voice and her approach. On “Girl From Ipanema” she sounded to listeners in the U.S. and Europe like an unfinished singer, an ingenue. The other song she sang on Getz/Gilberto, “Corcovado” sounded more like a vocalist who is simply comfortable with her material, and that carries over onto The Astrud Gilberto Album.
Her eight albums at Verve gave Astrud the chance to work with an array of musicians and arrangers, including Claus Ogerman, Don Sebesky, Gil Evans, Al Cohn, Ron Carter, Toots Thielmans, Walter Wanderly, Eumir Deodato, and Alber Gorgoni. Their success is generally judged by the extent to which Verve pushed her to record current pop and rock songs. Some of her renditions were given high ironic status in a kitsch obsessed culture, but there is some reassessment in the wake of numerous uses of samples from Gilberto’s Verve recordings. For example, her final Verve release, titled September 16, 1969 features this solid performance of Chicago’s hit “Beginnings”:
Astrud has always contended that she did more than simply show up and sing on these records and that she deserved a co-producer credit:
“I did a lot of co-producer work in all of my early albums, but unfortunately did not get credit or payment for it. I was too unassertive and too “non-materialistic” to complain and demand payment or credit for the producing work I was doing. So, you know, someone else got full credit as producer. I was doing an important part of a producer’s work, such as choosing the songs, the arrangers, and often even some of the musicians. I did put my “two cents” in everything! I used to go to the arrangers’ house, or spend hours on the phone with them, discussing all of the details of the arrangements, and of course, making contributions to the treatment of each song. By contrast, the “official” producer was often not even aware of what songs we were recording…”
The sixties and early seventies were the time when the idea of the interpretive singer, which had long been the model of popular solo vocal music, was supplanted by the songwriter of original material and, frequently, the singer/songwriter. The idea permeated pop music that serious performers needed to write their own songs, either exclusively, or mixed with cover material. Performers such as Astrud Gilberto were effectively squeezed out of the pop market, their work marginalized despite helping to define various pop music styles through the decades. Indeed, the constant appearance of compilations of her work, many of which were unlicensed and for which she received no royalties, was proof positive of her ongoing influence in popular music and culture.
In 1971 Gilberto released Astrud Gilberto with Stanley Turrentine on the CTI label. While it’s a first class album that showcases her strongest talents, it was apparently not that much of a pleasure to make because of working with Creed Taylor once again. Still, the material is solid, the musicians incredible, and the production first rate.
A bit less first rate, but still rather fun is her 1977 album That Girl From Ipanema, where she tackles a disco version of her famous hit. But the most interesting track is her duet with Chet Baker on a tune she cowrote entitled “Faraway.” Chet duets with her vocally and contributes some of his signature trumpet to it as well. Astrud had considered the soft-spoken trumpet player to be a kindred spirit and musical influence. She recounted meeting Baker in the sixties:
“I met Chet right at the beginning of my career, at the time when I was on tour with the Stan Getz Quartet. Our engagement had ended, at some Jazz Club in San Francisco, and I had a couple of days off before the next engagement. I knew that Chet (one of my idols, since my teens) was going to be performing in town, actually at the same club, so I stayed in San Francisco an extra night, and went to listen to him. I sat by myself, at a very discreet table towards the back of the room. At some point, Chet made an announcement: -“I’d like to acknowledge the presence here of a celebrity, a very special young lady” … I, along with everybody else in the audience, started to look around to see who was this celebrity. Then, Chet says: -” Ms. Gilberto, would you care to join us for a song?” What??? ME? LITTLE ME? Oh, my God!… I thought my knees were going to let me down. I was terrified and, as much as I was flattered, would have given anything to be able to run away and hide… But, that would have been impolite and unacceptable… So, I walked on stage. Quickly, it went through my mind: “what could I possibly sing?”, “of course they are not going to know any of my Brazilian repertoire…” So, real quickly, God inspired me: “I know what! I’ll say “Fly me to the Moon”; I know the lyrics and I’m sure they’ll know the music”. So, I said, meekly, to Chet: -“Can we do Fly me to the Moon?” He said:
-“Sure”!…” I said: -“Can we do it in bossa-nova?” He consulted with the drummer, then said “Yes”. So, we did it! Only God knows what came out, as I was overwhelmed with nervousness, stemming not only from the already familiar “regular” stage fright, but also from the ultimate intimidation – to sing with my long time idol!!! So, that’s how I met Chet.”
There were a couple more recordings and appearances, but the many years of never having the people working on her records listen to her, of being seen as untalented and of simply having been in the right place at the right time took their toll. Astrud gravitated away from the music business and became more private, submersing herself in painting, in her animal welfare work, and in studying philosophy. In short, of living her own life without worrying or caring about the judgement of others–frequently men–who proffered to have her best interest at heart but somehow never did.
Astrud Gilberto never chose to be a professional singer and performer. It was thrust upon her, but when João Gilberto had an affair that resulted in the couple’s divorce she used her power as a performer to create a successful career. After dealing with duplicity and misogyny for many years she chose to leave her musical career behind. She wasn’t the first woman to do so–Bobbie Gentry comes to mind, and there are others. Like many female singers of the day, she found it difficult to make her creative ideas heard when she was surrounded by male figures who sought to control and take credit for every aspect of her success: husbands, songwriters, producers, arrangers, label executives, and even some of the musicians with whom she worked.
She’ll always be remembered, though, for bringing the bossa nova craze to the United States and helping to popularize it around the world.