RIO DE JANEIRO — "Tall and tan and young and lovely …" You've heard of her. The Girl From Ipanema.
You might have come across the bossa nova classic 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 (behind The Beatles' "Yesterday").
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.
"I love this music, and had been searching for this place," said Venezuelan tourist Xiomara Castillo, who with her husband was taking pictures inside the bar where the song's authors watched their muse saunter by in the song's eponymous neighborhood. "For me, Rio de Janeiro is this song, is bossa nova; the city has this rhythm, this charm, this sensuality."
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 on piano and Joao Gilberto on guitar, with help from the poet Vinicius de Moraes, who gave "The Girl" her lyrics. Also performing was the vocal group Os Cariocas.
Bossa nova was still young then, somewhat of a novelty even in Rio. The name meant "new trend" or "new way," and that's what it was: a fresh, jazzy take on Brazil's holiest tradition, the samba.
The 1962 show at the club Au Bon Gourmet established bossa nova, wrote Castro in his book about the genre. It didn't just introduce the Jobim-penned "Girl"; other bossa classics, such as "So danco samba" and "Samba da bencao," also were 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.
Severino Filho was there when it happened. As an original member of Os Cariocas, he was one of the first to ever hear the song.
"Tom and Vinicius had just composed it; it was still on a scrap of paper. Only later did they write it out on a clean sheet," he said. "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.
Still, it wasn't until 1964 that "The Girl" came to the U.S., with its English lyrics written by American Norman Gimbel. The words are different from the original Portuguese ones but remain true to their spirit.
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.
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