“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 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 beach side 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 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.
This girl who “swings so cool and sways so gently” first stepped out in public in August 1962, in a 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.
Bossa nova was 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 rhythm was the same, but where samba was cathartic, communal and built on drums and powerful voices, bossa was intimate and contemplative, just a singer and a song.
The 1962 show at the club Au Bon Gourmet established bossa nova, Ruy Castro, a writer and journalist who has chronicled the city, its music and its nightlife, wrote in his book on the genre
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. It was a hit that remained on the Billboard charts for 70 weeks.
After that, everyone wanted a bit of Brazil. Jazz greats Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald made bossa-inspired recordings.
It wasn’t until 1964 that “The Girl” came to the United States, with its English lyrics written by American Norman Gimbel. The words were different from the original Portuguese ones but remained true to their spirit. Astrud Gilberto, Joao Gilberto’s then-wife, sang the English words in the album “Getz/Gilberto,” which eventually won the 1965 Grammy for best album of the year. Suddenly, everyone was talking about “The Girl.”
Except the girl herself. Because there was a girl: Heloisa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto, then 17 years old, known among her friends as Helo. Her 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 her 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 had inspired the lyrics.
Finally, in 1965, Moraes offered the definitive proof, writing in a magazine that Helo was the beauty behind the song.
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, then husband, she turned down invitations to do films and shows on TV.
“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 TV 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.”