Norman Gimbel, Oscar-winning lyricist of ‘Happy Days’ theme and ‘Girl From Ipanema,’ dies at 91
For a few weeks in 1964, the upper reaches of the Billboard record charts were occupied not only by the Beatles, Beach Boys, Four Seasons and Rolling Stones, but by a seductive bossa nova number written for a musical comedy about an alien who visits South America.
The musical, “Blimp,” never took off, although its would-be signature song became an international sensation — by some accounts the second-most-recorded song in history, after the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Written by composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and poet Vinicius de Moraes, it neatly filled a major plot hole: What might cause an extraterrestrial guest to linger in Brazil?
The answer, rendered into English by lyricist Norman Gimbel, was a beautiful woman from southern Rio de Janeiro:
“Tall and tan and young and lovely
“The girl from Ipanema goes walking
“And when she passes, each one she passes goes ‘ah!’ ”
With help from Gimbel, “The Girl From Ipanema” went on to drive the bossa nova craze in the United States and beyond, introducing millions of listeners to Brazil’s “new wave” fusion of samba and jazz.
Alternately celebrated and mocked, with its ubiquitous instrumental covers derided as innocuous Muzak, versions of the song were used as elevator music in a scene from “The Blues Brothers” and as a soundtrack to the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Yet the tune was just one of many hits for Gimbel, an Oscar- and Grammy-winning lyricist who co-wrote the theme songs to “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” as well as the chart-topping ballad “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”
He was 91 when he died Dec. 19 at his home in Montecito, Calif. His son, Tony Gimbel, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.
A Bronx-born songwriter who studied under Frank Loesser, the celebrated composer of “Guys and Dolls,” Gimbel co-wrote a pair of Broadway musicals and several 1950s pop hits, including the Andy Williams single “Canadian Sunset,” before adapting foreign songs for English-language listeners.
While he was best known for “The Girl From Ipanema,” released as a 1964 single by Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto and American saxophonist Stan Getz, he also added lyrics to bossa nova tunes such as “Summer Samba,” popularized by Walter Wanderley, and “Meditation,” performed by singers including Williams and Frank Sinatra.
Gimbel also adapted songs in Spanish — including the Dean Martin hit “Sway,” from Mexican composer Luis Demetrio’s “¿Quién Será?” — and in French, most notably from the 1964 movie musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” starring Catherine Deneuve.
“Norman was an extraordinary lyricist,” said composer Charles Fox, with whom he wrote more than 150 songs, beginning with the score to the 1970 children’s movie “Pufnstuf.”
“His words were beautiful, sensitive. He never used an extra word in expressing his feelings or describing the human condition.”
The duo’s most commercially successful song, “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” rose to No. 1 when recorded by Roberta Flack in 1973, and was later covered by the hip-hop group the Fugees. The tune earned Flack two Grammys, for record of the year and best female pop vocal performance, while Gimbel and Fox shared the Grammy for song of the year.
But the origins of the ballad, first recorded by folk singer Lori Lieberman — for whom Gimbel and Fox served as producers, managers and publishers in the 1970s — remained the subject of occasional dispute. According to Fox, he and Gimbel had recorded nine songs with Lieberman when Capitol Records told them, about 1972, that it wanted to release an album as soon as possible, leaving the songwriters scrambling to come up with one last tune.
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“Norman had a book with some titles and thoughts of lyrics and he had this title, ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song,’ ” Fox told the Los Angeles Times. “He wrote the lyric that day, called me at the end of the day and read me the lyric over the phone. I wrote the music that night and the next day we got together with Lori and she loved it.”
Lieberman, however, often said that the song was based on a poem she had written after a Don McLean concert. She told the New York Times that Gimbel studied her diaries and letters, in an effort to make their songs sound more authentic, and added that he and Fox “were very, very controlling.”
“I felt like I was pushed onstage, and I was singing other people’s material, although that material was based on my private diaries,” she said. “I felt victimized for most of my early career.”
Gimbel and Fox also wrote the Top 10 hit “I Got a Name” for the Jeff Bridges film “The Last American Hero” — it was recorded by Jim Croce and released as a single shortly after his death in a plane crash in September 1973 — and created the themes for shows such as “Happy Days,” inspired by the early rock-and-roll record “Rock Around the Clock.”
Their theme for the “Happy Days” spinoff “Laverne & Shirley,” “Making Our Dreams Come True,” was originally titled “Hoping Our Dreams Will Come True,” until the show’s producers told them, “Our girls will make their dreams come true” and had them tweak the song, according to Fox.
Other Fox-Gimbel collaborations included the theme songs to TV series such as “The Paper Chase” and “Wonder Woman.” They also received Oscar nominations for the songs “Richard’s Window,” performed by Olivia Newton-John for “The Other Side of the Mountain,” and “Ready to Take a Chance Again,” sung by Barry Manilow in “Foul Play.”
Gimbel finally received the best original song honor in 1980, with composer David Shire for “It Goes Like It Goes,” a ballad sung by Jennifer Warnes for “Norma Rae.”
At the close of the 20th century, when performing rights organization BMI announced which songs had been played the most on radio and television in the past 100 years, three of his tunes were ranked in the top 100: “Girl From Ipanema” at No. 58, “Canadian Sunset” at No. 35 and “Killing Me Softly” at No. 11.
Norman Gimbel was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 16, 1927, and studied at Baruch College and Columbia University.
He found early success as a lyricist with songs such as “Ricochet,” recorded by Teresa Brewer in 1953, and beginning in the late 1950s collaborated with composer Moose Charlap on a pair of short-lived Broadway musicals: “Whoop-Up,” a comedy set near an Indian reservation in Montana, and “The Conquering Hero,” which featured a book by “M*A*S*H” creator Larry Gelbart, based on the Preston Sturges film farce “Hail the Conquering Hero.”
Gimbel moved to the Los Angeles area in 1967 and began collaborating on film and TV scores with composers including Burt Bacharach, Elmer Bernstein, Bill Conti, Quincy Jones and Lalo Schifrin. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984.
His marriages to Elinor Rowley and Victoria Carver ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Tony Gimbel and Nelly Gimbel; two children from his second marriage, Peter Gimbel and Hannah Gimbel Dal Pozzo; and four grandchildren.
In 2012, 50 years after Jobim and De Moraes wrote “Girl From Ipanema,” Gimbel was asked to explain the song’s enduring appeal. Why, out of all the bossa nova numbers that had come out of Brazil in those years, had this song about a girl who walks “like a samba” become so popular?
“It’s the oldest story in the world,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “The beautiful girl goes by, and men pop out of manholes and fall out of trees and are whistling and going nuts, and she just keeps going by. That’s universal.”
Smith writes for the Washington Post.
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