Music
5:00 pm
Sun July 8, 2012

Who Is She? Just One Of The Most Popular Songs Ever

Originally published on Sun July 8, 2012 5:57 pm

Amy Winehouse. Ella Fitzgerald. Sammy Davis Jr. The Yale Whiffenpoofs. Mike Tyson.

All of these artists — and non-artists — are members of a big club. They're among many who've crooned the second-most recorded pop song ever, according to a count by Performing Songwriter magazine.

That song is "The Girl From Ipanema." (The first is The Beatles' "Yesterday.")

Why?

"It is a seductive song," Thomas Vinciguerra, who wrote about the tune for The Wall Street Journal, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "The sentiment is universal: unattainable beauty."

The song was born five decades ago in Brazil, Vinciguerra says, when Antonio Carlos Jobim and poet Vinicius de Moraes were stalled on a number for a musical called Blimp.

"They needed some sort of inspiration, so they went down to a bar in the Ipanema district of Rio," Vinciguerra says. "And according to myth, a lovely young woman passed by and inspired them to write a whole new song on cocktail napkins."

That woman is a real person: Helo Pinheiro, who is now 66.

Pinheiro didn't sing the tune, of course. That task fell to Astrud Gilberto, whose Portuguese husband, Joao Gilberto, also sings on the famous track, accompanied by Stan Getz on saxophone. She had never sung professionally before.

"It's her very lack of professionalism that makes the song so appealing," Vinciguerra says. "It sounds exotic — out of reach, like the girl herself."

To hear Vinciguerra's full conversation with Raz, as well as a diverse selection of "Ipanema" performances, click the audio link on this page.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Here is the second most recorded song in pop history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

RAZ: The first, incidentally, is "Yesterday" by The Beatles, but the second one, this one, it's been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Tall and tan and young and lovely...

RAZ: ...to Amy Winehouse...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) ...the girl from Ipanema goes walking and...

RAZ: ...to Michael Bolton...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

MICHAEL BOLTON: (Singing) When she passes, each one she passes goes ah.

RAZ: ...and many, many more. Here's writer Tom Vinciguerra.

THOMAS VINCIGUERRA: Diana Krall, the Yale Whiffenpoofs. And I see that Mike Tyson recently had his version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

MIKE TYSON: (Singing) When she passes, each one she passes say ah.

RAZ: Iron Mike Tyson on a Brazilian variety show. The song, of course, is "Girl from Ipanema." It was written 50 years ago this summer in 1962. Tom Vinciguerra recently wrote about the song's strange endurance, and the story behind this one, the original.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

JOAO GILBERTO: (Singing in foreign language)

VINCIGUERRA: The story is actually fairly straightforward. The composers, Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes were working on a musical called "Blimp," of all things, in Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

GILBERTO: (Singing in foreign language)

VINCIGUERRA: And they were stuck on a song and needed some sort of inspiration, so they went down to a bar in the Ipanema district of Rio. According to myth, a lovely young woman passed by and inspired them to write a whole new song on cocktail napkins. They knew this woman by sight. She used to come to the bar often to buy cigarettes for her mother...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

GILBERTO: (Singing in foreign language)

...or just on her way to the sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

GILBERTO: (Singing in foreign language)

And that set the song in a whole new direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

GILBERTO: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: This is the Brazilian singer Joao Gilberto. Now, you don't hear this in many versions of the song. It's because an American music publisher, Lou Levy, wanted to release the song in the U.S., and so he asked that it include English language lyrics. But then, the finished version was too long.

VINCIGUERRA: He basically lopped off Gilberto's Portuguese, leaving just the English by Gilberto's wife, Astrud.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

ASTRUD GILBERTO: (Singing) Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking and when she passes, each one she passes goes ah.

RAZ: She, Astrud, had - was apparently, like, she was barely experienced as a singer. And some people didn't think that she actually sounded right, but somehow, it was perfect. It was this perfect voice to sing the song.

VINCIGUERRA: I agree. It's her very lack of professionalism that makes the song so appealing because it sounds exotic, as I put it, out of reach, like the girl herself...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

GILBERTO: (Singing) ...she looks straight ahead, not at me.

VINCIGUERRA: ...out of the touch of mortal man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

GILBERTO: (Singing) Tall and thin and young and lovely...

RAZ: You know what else I love about this song?

VINCIGUERRA: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: That it's this great song that is enduring, and then it's a great elevator music.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Like, who can forget that scene in "Blues Brothers"?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BLUES BROTHERS")

VINCIGUERRA: Yes. Looking back at the clip, there are Ackroyd and Belushi while about 500 cops, state troopers, firemen, peace officers are on their tail trying to nail them, and they're very calmly ascending...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BLUES BROTHERS")

VINCIGUERRA: ...as "The Girl from Ipanema" is softly playing in the background.

RAZ: It's actually a perfect moment.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: It's like that perfect moment.

VINCIGUERRA: It is.

RAZ: You know, as we mentioned, this has been sung by everybody. I mean, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis and Ella Fitzgerald.

Mm.

What explains its endurance? What explains the fact that this is the second most recorded pop song of all time?

VINCIGUERRA: You know, it's a seductive song. It instantly conjures up peace, tranquility, and, frankly, sex. Somehow, it transcends those elements to become even more universal than just its components.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

GILBERTO: (Singing) Tall and tan and young and lovely...

RAZ: That's Tom Vinciguerra. He wrote about "The Girl from Ipanema" for The Wall Street Journal this week. And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALDEIRAO DO HUCK")

LUCIANO HUCK: (Foreign language spoken)

TYSON: Yes.

HUCK: (Foreign language spoken) Mike Tyson "Garota de Ipanema," "The Girl from Ipanema." Up to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

TYSON: One, two, one, two, three, four. (Singing) Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking. And when she passes, each one she passes go ah. When she walks, she's like a samba that swings so cool and swings so gentle that when she passes each one she passes say ah. Oh, but I watch her so sadly... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.