The Girl from Ipanema

This morning a friend commented on Facebook that he’d received a treasured gift for Christmas, a re-issued vinyl of the original Getz/Gilberto 1964 album that included the ever-stunning “Girl from Ipanema.” I was immediately sent hurtling back to my high school years in a small Oklahoma town (1964-1966) where, after classes, I worked at a music store and performed various tasks out front as well as teaching guitar lessons to various motivated pupils.

One day while I dusted store shelves, the manager set that particular album on the stereo. When that song came up, I couldn’t move. The music and lyrics filled me with wonder and emotion.

Denele Pitts

So it was that in the late spring of 1966 in preparing for the annual senior event where most of the graduating class were expected to perform in some way or another, this song sprang instantly to my mind. I had hummed it, sang it to myself in the mirror, and couldn’t get it out of my head. I was an experienced vocalist, having performed in the select choir as well as Allstate Choir in addition to a trio of me (on guitar) and two other females (tambourine, banjo) who sang folks ballads of the day for civic luncheons and other similar events.

A collaboration quickly developed between me and my high school sweetheart Bill, a performer in his own right on percussion as well as modern dance. I labored hard and long to transcribe the recording into written music for a piano accompaniment as there was no sheet music available, but the transitions in the piece evaded me entirely, and so I determined to sing acapella with only rhythm instruments. Bill planned to ‘hoof it,’ as he said, making it up as he went along. We rehearsed together once.

Our duet, as it were, presented me in a slim pale blue sheath at one corner of the stage singing my husky rendition of Astrud Gilberto’s song at the microphone while, in black tights and leotard, Bill danced his evocative modern style along the shadowy blue footlights. At the brick back wall where we’d pulled back the curtains, three of our musical classmates, also in black, carried the rhythm of the piece with claves, maracas, and guiro while perched at various position on a tall platform ladder.

A few notes into the song, the packed house became dead silent. They all knew the history of the relationship between me and Bill, a passionate on-again, off-again torment that had been no secret among our 300-odd classmates. We’d been voted “Most Talented” in our graduating class, and that acknowledgement seemed to require that we surpass anything we’d previously accomplished.

And it felt like we did. My naturally low-pitched voice perfectly suited the song, and Bill’s lithely muscled body moved in exact response to the lyrics. We had changed the lyrics to make the song about the ‘boy’ from Ipanema…

Tall and tan and young and handsome
The boy from Ipanema goes walking
And when he passes, each one he passes
Goes “A-a-a-h”
When he walks he’s like a samba
That swings so cool and sways so gentle
That when he passes, each one he passes
Goes “A-a-a-h”
Oh, but I watch him so sadly
How can I tell him I love him
Yes, I would give my heart gladly
But each day as he walks to the sea
He looks straight ahead, not at me
Tall and tan and young and handsome
The boy from Ipanema goes walking
And when he passes, I smile, but he
Doesn’t see. He just doesn’t see
No, he just doesn’t see…

As Bill moved across the stage, strutting and sauntering to fit the lyrics, I whispered my love song as if nothing existed but the two of us. I hit the notes perfectly as his movements gave visual fulfilment of the lyrics. It was, for both of us, a moment of unrestrained joy.

At the last fading breath of my voice, as Bill’s body slowly became immobile in the footlights, a long extended moment of silence filled that auditorium. I thought briefly that somehow we had failed in the execution of our performance, that my voice or his dance had been unworthy of the audience. Then, as if waking from a dream, the applause came thundering down, whistles and shouts and calls that exceeded any response to any of the countless times either of us had given ourselves to a song or dance. We had two curtain calls after which I simply refused to go back out for another.

Bill in “A Chorus Line,” third from front

All these years later, that experience lives on in my memory. I suspect it lives on in Bill’s as well, but within a few years of graduation, he landed in New York where he pursued his talents on Broadway with the fortuitous experience of working with Bob Fosse and performing in The Most Happy FellaA Chorus LineCabaretRags, Dancin’, and Sweet Charity. to name a few. I, on the other hand, left my stage presence behind and ended up a back-to-the-land wife and mother of three in a thirty-year career as a piano tuner/technician, somehow feeling better suited to working behind the scenes.

For me, the song remains a highly emotional experience and a high point in my high school years. Singing in that style suited me whereas all the voice lessons and choral performances had pushed a more operatic style, which I did not enjoy. I’m still proud of myself for stepping outside the expected boundaries of my music education and daring to break new ground. I suspect Bill feels the same in breaking away from tap and ballet. Although we’ve had infrequent contact over the years, we’ve never discussed that event, as if somehow any remembrance would tarnish the glow we both felt.

And that’s perhaps best, since there is nothing either of us could say that would make the memory any more perfect. Just as the song as preserved forever on that slip of black vinyl would not be made any more perfect. It was a moment in time.

Stan Getz, left, and Astrud Gilberto https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVdaFQhS86E&t=126s

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