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The Girl From Ipanema

| January 25, 2014 | 15 Comments

Summer 1962. Rio de Janeiro. At the Veloso Bar, a block from the beach at Ipanema, two friends—the composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and the poet Vinícius de Moraes—are drinking Brahma beer and musing about their latest song collaboration.

The duo favor the place for the good brew and the even better girl-watching opportunities. Though both are married men, they’re not above a little ogling. Especially when it comes to a neighborhood girl nicknamed Helô. Eighteen-year-old Heloisa Eneida Menezes Pais Pinto is a Carioca—a native of Rio. She’s tall and tan, with emerald green eyes and long, dark wavy hair. They’ve seen her passing by, as she’s heading to the beach or coming home from school. She has a way of walking that de Moraes calls “sheer poetry.”

Legend has it that Jobim and de Moraes were so inspired by this shapely coed, they wrote a song for her right on the bar napkins. It’s a good story, but it’s not quite true.

Following their success composing songs for the 1959 film Black Orpheus, the writers began work on a musical comedy. Conceived by de Moraes, it was called Blimp and concerned a Martian who arrives in Rio during the height of Carnaval. And what might impress a little green man the most about our planet? A beautiful girl in a bikini, of course.

Jobim and de Moraes were stalled two verses in on the song they called “Menina que Passa” (“The Girl Who Passes By”). They needed a fresh breeze of inspiration, something vivid to stir their alien visitor’s blood. Conjuring up the vision of their favorite hip-swaying distraction, they poured out all their secret longing and lust into the newly titled “Garota da Ipanema.”

Though Blimp never got off the ground, the tune became not only a hit in Brazil, but the international calling card for a style of music that charmed the world—bossa nova.

While Helô inspired the song, it was another Carioca who carried it beyond Rio. Astrud Gilberto was just the wife of singing star João Gilberto when she entered a NYC studio in March 1963. João and Jobim were making a record with tenor saxman Stan Getz. The idea of cutting a verse on “Ipanema” in English came up, and Astrud was the only one of the Brazilians who spoke more than phrasebook English.

Astrud’s child-like vocal, devoid of vibrato and singerly mannerisms, was the perfect foil for her husband’s soft bumblebee voice. Jobim tinkled piano. Getz blew a creamy smooth tenor. Four minutes of magic went to tape.

A year later, the song was casting its quiet spell of sea and sand on the charts, washing past the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” It peaked in mid-June at No. 5, selling over two million copies.

“The Girl From Ipanema” went on to become the second-most recorded popular song in history, behind “Yesterday.” Covered by an A-Z gamut of performers, it’s become the ultimate cliché of elevator music—shorthand for the entire lounge revival of the ’90s.

Over the years, Helô Pinheiro (her married name) enjoyed country-wide fame, ranking with Pelé as one of the goodwill ambassadors of Brazil. She never settled on an occupation, dabbling in acting, then running a modeling agency. In 1987, she posed nude for Playboy (and again in 2003, with her daughter Ticiane). In 2001, Helô opened the Girl From Ipanema clothing boutique in a Rio shopping center.

Shortly after, the heirs of Jobim (who died in 1994) and de Moraes (who died in 1980) filed a lawsuit, claiming Helô was only inadvertently involved in the song’s creation and didn’t have the right to use it for commercial purposes.

Helô says, “I never made a cent from ‘The Girl From Ipanema,’ nor do I claim that I should. Yet now that I’m using a legally registered trademark, they want to prohibit me from being the girl from Ipanema. I’m sure that Antonio and Vinícius would never question the use of the name.”

After much ugliness in and out of court, Helô was able to keep the name for her boutique. Today, she reflects on the early ’60s in Ipanema with nostalgia. “I like the time when everything was prettier because of love, as it says in the Portuguese version of the song. I am still touched when somebody plays the song in my honor.”

—By Bill DeMain

From Performing Songwriter Issue 98, December 2006

Category: Behind The Song

Comments (15)

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  1. handsome jim says:

    How sad that such a beautiful and iconic piece of music should be marred by avaricious minds.
    However, their inability to appreciate the honest simple pleasures that art offers us, is adequate punishment.
    Pity them, and enjoy…………..

  2. I always loved this song and her beautiful singing voice. I first heard it when I was young, in my first year of high school and in my parents house.

  3. Jane says:

    I can’t believe the cheap greedy heirs of the rights to that song would be so selfish to deny the real Girl from Impanema to use the title of the song that is about her. These creepy relatives never contributed a thing to that song. You think Kim Carnes would get pissed if Betty Davis put out an eye makeup line and called it Betty Davis Eyes? Get a job Morons.

  4. Harry C. says:

    In January 1964 I was celebrating our honeymoon. We went to Basin Street West in New York and bill cosby was the opening act, not bad for a young kid. Then came out Jobim and the “Girl From Ipanema”she sang the song and it mesmerized me, one time and I knew every word and it made the honeymoon even better.
    I had never heard the song before and soon after it was on every radio with music. It is still one of my favorite songs and it never gets tiring to listen.
    Many thanks

  5. I remember the first time I ever heard The Girl From Ipanema I was in the college bar & grill. I was sitting by my self reading a book of love, then all of sudden I heard this lovely music (Astrud Gilberto)and I was so overwhelmed with love and tears and the passion I felt for Brazilian Jazz took me over. I now listen to Brazilian Music when I make love it inflames my body with love and tears and so much passion.

  6. Chuck Clowdis says:

    Would still love to meet her after all these years!!!

  7. Ben Cooper says:

    This is one of my all-time favorite songs. Love hearing the story of how it came about!

    Ben
    thesongbirdproject.com

  8. Mimi says:

    Thank you for sharing the history of the collaboration of Antonio Carlos Jobim Vinícius de Moraes. The Girl From Ipanema is still one of the most gorgeous, sensuous, lovely songs ever written and Brazilian jazz will forever be one of my favorite music genres, especially in the 60s when I was a teen and young adult.

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