In August, all eyes with be on Rio and Brazil as it hosts the 2016 Summer Olympics. Before we visit our next Olympic showcase, though, let’s travel back in time to Brasil ‘66.
For the “in crowd”, Brazilian music had been a U.S. sex symbol for years. Beginning in the 1933 with the Fred Astaire film Flying Down To Rio, it was employed in movie party scenes, played in swank nightclubs, and a staple in the record collections of the single set. Need an amorous mood? Cue samba.
But bossa nova went further than samba ever did. The genre—which means “new beat”— was the innovation of guitarist-vocalist João Gilberto and composer Antônio Carlos Jobim. It featured a suffusion of syncopated riffs atop a foundation of samba. In Brazil, bossa nova became the sound of the upscale population. Unlike samba, with its harmonic layers and shading, bossa nova narrowed the beat to Gilberto’s catchy guitar—a day pared down to nocturnal breezes. Gilberto juxtaposed his languid instrumental riffs, with a poetic vocal style free of vibrato. He mixed classical influences with the cool jazz which was the rage in the U.S.
(Click here for Paste’s list of the top 10 bossa nova tracks of all time.)
Bossa nova’s height in Brazil coincided with a U.S. listener shift from impersonal bebop to the cool jazz of Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. That year, Gilberto’s track “Manhã de Carnaval” was a hit on the soundtrack album for the film Orfeu Negro, marketed stateside as Black Orpheus. College jazz deejays and audiences took note. But, the first bossa nova album in the U.S., João Gilberto’s 1961 release O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor (sold as Brazil’s Brilliant João Gilberto in the States), was a flop.
Through President John F. Kennedy’s Good Neighbor program, U.S. acts toured Latin America. Jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd heard bossa nova for the first time while touring Brazil in 1961. Byrd, his drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt and bassist Keter Betts bought Gilberto’s first two albums, and began “woodshedding” the style. When they returned to Washington, The Charlie Byrd Trio played bossa nova tunes at the Showboat Lounge. Betts begged Byrd to record a bossa nova album. The leader relented. On February 13, 1962, the combo, led by tenor saxophone star Stan Getz, cut Jazz Samba at D.C.’s All Souls Unitarian Church.
Where Gilberto’s first disc had failed with U.S. buyers, the Getz-led single “Desafinado” reached the Billboard pop charts for 16 weeks, charting as high as number 15. In an erasure of the companion artists, Getz won a “Best Solo Jazz Performance” Grammy for the single.
Jazz Samba is the only jazz album to go number one on Billboard’s pop chart. Major record labels rushed to emulate it. Herb Alpert, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, and Elvis Presley all recorded bossa nova songs. Eydie Gormé’s smash Blame it on the Bossa Nova launched another fad—bossa nova as a dance. In early 1963, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, whose 1959 album Time Out was the first million-selling jazz album in the U.S., released Bossa Nova U.S.A. in 1963. The album spent 15 weeks on Billboard’s charts.
Sergio Mendes was a pianist. He played with Antônio Carlos Jobim, Cannonball Adderley and Herbie Mann. In 1961, his Sexteto Bossa Rio recorded Dance Moderno. Mendes moved to the U.S., where he cut two albums for Atlantic Records with a band named Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘65. Like Gilberto’s first U.S. efforts, the records failed. U.S. producer Richard Adler got Mendes’ group an audition for trumpeter Herb Alpert, who had founded A&M Records after the success of his own Latin act, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Adler suggested Mendes hire two women vocalists who could sing in English and Portuguese, and that they cover U.S. hit records. Mendes got out of his Atlantic contract by updating the name of the group to Brasil ‘66, and A&M signed them to a deal.
Alpert produced the newly aligned band’s first single, “Mas Que Nada.” Their first album on A&M was titled Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66. Through Adler and Alpert’s considerable connections, Brasil ‘66 was booked on the leading U.S. variety shows. The debut album peaked at number four on the pop charts; radio airplay was ubiquitous. They performed at both the Johnson and Nixon White Houses. Brasil ‘66’s soothing sound became synonymous in the U.S. with romantic comedies, spy films, soft drink and cigarette ads, and easy living. By this time, “The Girl From Ipanema by Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz, was a global sensation recorded by or performed live by myriad stars, including Frank Sinatra. Today, music historians and critics consider it the most widely covered song in the world—second only to the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”
Bijan C. Bayne is a cultural critic and the author of Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball. He is @bijancbayne on Twitter