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