Brazil's most successful musical export during the 1960s, Sergio Mendes was a songwriter, musician and bandleader who merged the gentle sway of bossa nova with glossy American pop for a series of easy listening classics, including "Mas Que Nada," "Constant Rain," "The Fool on the Hill" and "The Look of Love." Having spent his formative years in his native Brazil playing with the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Mendes rode the bossa nova's wave of popularity to the United States, where he struck gold in the mid-1960s with his group, Brasil '66. Their high-gloss, cocktail party-friendly sound made them instant favorites of aspiring social climbers and middle class listeners alike until the early 1970s, when changing musical tastes rendered Mendes' music unhip. He spent much of the next two decades parlaying his sound to large audiences outside of America, which eventually reignited an interest in his work during the lounge music revival in the early '90s. He returned to the charts in 2006 with a new version of "Mas Que Nada," featuring the Black Eyed Peas, which led to more celebrity collaborations and an Oscar nod for "Real in Rio" from the animated film "Rio" (2012). Throughout the tumult of his career, Mendes remained dedicated to the smooth, sexy and timeless rhythm of bossa nova, like his music, never quite went out of style.
Born Sergio Santos Mendes on Feb. 11, 1941 in Niterói, a city in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, he began studying classical piano as a boy, but soon found his true passion in bossa nova during its rise in popularity during the early 1950s. By his teenaged years, Mendes was performing at jazz clubs in Rio alongside such bossa nova legends as Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto, as well as visiting American jazz players like Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. He formed his own group, the Sexteto Bossa Rio, with which he recorded his first album, Dance Moderno, in 1961. The international bossa craze brought him to the United States, where he played the famed Birdland club in New York on a bill with jazz great Cannonball Adderley. Noting the appreciation for all things bossa nova in America, Mendes relocated to New York in 1964, where he initially worked as a sideman on records by Jobim and Art Farmer.
The following year, he launched a new group, Brasil '65, which landed a contract with Capitol Records. However, sales for their initial Capitol offerings were weak, prompting a lineup change within Mendes' group. After replacing singer Wanda de Sá with American vocalist Lani Hall, the new group, dubbed Brasil '66, rocketed into the American Top 10 on the strength of "Mas Que Nada," a bossa with elements of light jazz and American pop, for A&M Records. Mendes and Brasil '66 would enjoy several more Top 5 hits between 1966 and 1969, including lightly Latin takes on American pop and rock hits like the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair." A performance at the 1968 Academy Awards of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's gorgeous "The Look of Love," from the "Casino Royale" (1967) soundtrack, elevated them to superstardom, minting Mendes as the most popular proponent of Brazilian music in the world. In 1969, Mendes altered the Brasil '66 lineup while moving their sound into big band territory. The results were less successful, with covers of "Wichita Lineman" and Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning" lacking the intimacy of their earlier hits. By 1973, Mendes was recording for Bell Records and later Elektra, where he recorded his solo debut I Believe in 1975. By this point, performers like Barry Manilow and Neil Sedaka had overtaken the easy listening market with original material, rendering Mendes' airy, polished interpretations not only moot but in the minds of many listeners, quite square. He briefly revived the group format with Brasil '77 before taking a lengthy sabbatical from the recording industry.
In 1983, he reunited with A&M to release another solo album titled Sergio Mendes, though with greater response than the previous effort. Buoyed by the Top 5 hit "Never Gonna Let You Go," it briefly sparked American interest in Mendes' career, though subsequent releases did not match the success of his initial comeback. Mendes would remain busy throughout the 1980s, though his star continued to shine brightest outside the United States. But interest in lounge/easy listening music in the early '90s brought Mendes back into the spotlight, where he scored a Grammy for Best World Music Album with his 1992 release Brasileiro. He soon revived the group format with Brasil '99, which found him integrating hip-hop into his subsequent releases.
In 2006, Mendes recorded a new version of "Mas Que Nada" with The Black Eyed Peas, who had openly championed Mendes' work for much of the second, more popular phase of their career. The single, which featured additional vocals by Mendes' wife, Gracinha Leporace, was a Top 10 hit throughout Europe, while its accompanying album, Timeless (2006), featured collaborations with celebrated admirers like Stevie Wonder, who penned a minor hit, "The Real Thing," for Mendes in the 1970s, as well as John Legend, India.Arie, Erykah Badu and Black Thought of the Roots. Its follow-up, 2008's Encanto, also featured the Peas' will.i.am as co-producer as well as an all-star lineup of guests, including Natalie Cole, Fergie and Juanes. His revival continued in 2012 with an Oscar nomination for the song "Real in Rio" from the animated feature "Rio."
By Paul Gaita