Lyndon Pike re-imagines the life of singer Astrud Gilberto who died on 5 June this year.
83-year-old Astrud Gilberto gazes out of the window of her residence at the Society Hill Towers overlooking the Derwent River in Philadelphia; one of her cats lazily stretches on a rug, dappled by sunlight beaming in between the open curtains. On the walls of her home hang several paintings she has recently made, while photos of her two sons, João Marcelo and Gregory, standing with their wives and her grandchildren, enjoy pride of place on the mantle.
As Astrud surveys the whorls and eddies of the river, she allows memories that she has long chosen to push aside to enter the room. She recalls a vibrant spring day some sixty years earlier that saw her step into the A&R Recording Studios in New York City, utterly unaware that her life was about to change completely, for good, and indeed for worse.
She recalls her beloved husband, João Gilberto, her musical confidant and sometime singing partner, a man she loved deeply. Hers was a love she shared with many millions of other Brazilians; in awe of his brilliance, proud and enamoured of the gift of the Bossa Nova sound he was instrumental in creating; a sound which had a mutual kinship with the cool West Coast jazz scene popular at the time.
On that day in 1963, João was set to record a landmark album with saxophonist Stan Getz. Astrud accompanied her husband to the studio. The producer on board was Creed Taylor; both men looked at Astrud with a passing glance that suggested her presence wasn’t particularly welcomed. She recalls the bullish, gruff attitude that Stan Getz exhibited, and how it had made her uneasy.
Thankfully, also attending the session was pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim. Antonio was an affable and good-natured man who, two years earlier, had written a song with his drinking buddy Vinícius de Moraes, at a Rio bar called Veloso. Inspiration for the song came from a local girl named Heloísa Pinheiro, who would walk along the promenade sporting a daring two-piece bikini to buy cigarettes for her mother. The song was The Girl from Ipanema.
Astrud remembers the talk around the studio was that jazz singer Sarah Vaughan would be attending to sing the female lead on the Ipanema track, however Creed Taylor liked to work fast, and studio time was expensive. He decided he didn’t have time to wait for the arrangements with Sarah Vaughn to be made. Astrud spoke up, suggesting she could accompany her husband on vocals, as she could sing in English. She also could have sung in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese if required, but Astrud was not one to boast.
In the control booth, listening to the playback of the song, both Taylor and Getz were visibly excited. Getz hears her breathy, languid take on the song, and tells her she is going to be a star. For Astrud, this unexpected appearance on her husband’s recording, her first professional session in a studio, did indeed make her a star, but at a cost.
She recalls the excitement of receiving an advance copy of the album, Getz/Gilberto, holding it in her hands, excited for both her and her husband. She admires the cover art and pores over the liner notes. But something is missing. Where is her name? She scans the credits again, assuming she’s missed something, but her name is nowhere to be found on the sleeve.
That summer in 1964, the single version of Girl from Ipanema is released minus the Portuguese vocal track João had sung on the album version, focusing instead on Astrud’s soft and sensual voice. She learns later that it has become the second-most recorded song in popular music, just behind the Beatles’ Yesterday. A sad half-smile etches its way across her face when she recalls her total payment for the song: $120 – the standard studio session rate of the day.
Astrud had never wanted to be a businesswoman. She loved animals, music, and had a trust in others that was in line with her gentle nature. It was a mystery to her why people could brazenly take advantage of, and betray her so cruelly. Refilling her cats’ water bowl, the words of Stan Getz come back to her for the first time in years: “She was just a housewife then, and I put her on that record because I wanted The Girl from Ipanema sung in English – which João couldn’t do. Ipanema was a hit, and that was a lucky break for her.”
She recalls these words with a detachment she has forced herself to maintain. Both Getz and Taylor had tried to take credit for her inclusion on the record, but she knows it was her suggestion that day in the studio to sing for them that made it what it became. Let it go. Let it go. But letting go isn’t so easy when she recalls returning to Brazil and embarking on a European tour which sees her husband betray her by having an affair with the singer known as Miúcha.
Astrud isn’t usually one for regrets, but with no money, broken and desperate, returning to the US where she naively takes up residence on a tour with her former tormentor, Stan Getz, was clearly a mistake. She has become terrified of the stage, totally disillusioned with the business, and feels completely alone in a world of men determined to sexualise her and take advantage of her financially. But she needs a job, and she isn’t going to let her children go without, so it makes sense to capitalise on the popularity she is afforded on the back of the hit single.
Over the following years, she manages to carve out a respectable musical career for herself, recording eight solo albums between 1965 and 1971. Briefly, she fantasises about the direction her life may have taken had she had insight into publishing and recording rights and contracts. But what good is fantasy? If she wallows in the dreams of what was rightfully hers, the bitterness might just eat her up, and that isn’t an emotion she should allow to define her.
Instead, in these final days of her life, she chooses to recall the good times, working with brilliant men such as Quincy Jones and Walter Wanderley, her idol Chet Baker, with whom she recorded in 1977, and the effervescent George Michael, who coaxed her out of ‘retirement’ to accompany him on a recording for an AIDS charity album in the 1980s.
It has been a rich life in many respects, but a lonely one; ultimately rejected by men she loved, the industry, and even her beloved Brazil, the nation whose press treated her so badly after her success abroad, which was regarded jealously at the time. She had gone back to visit Brazil, not as a performer but as a tourist, incognito. But all that is past.
Now, tired but content in her chosen solitude, Astrud finds peace in the knowledge that her work, whether perceived as good, bad, or indifferent, speaks for itself. A legacy of love, with the music the ultimate victor, of summer warmth that will live on, even though her autumn has finally come.