Pioneer Profile | Sérgio Mendes

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The Pinoeer Profile series is back! This time round, it's the bossa nova behemoth Sérgio Mendes.

As a composer, producer, keyboardist and vocalist, Sergio Mendes helped pioneer the bossa nova movement and popularise Brazilian music globally with his band, Brasil 66. In a career that has spanned over six decades, Mendes has been one of the most explorative collaborators in world music, working with the Black Eyed Peas to fellow jazz pioneer, Cannonball Adderley. 

Sérgio Santos Mendes was born in Niterói, Brazil in 1941. The son of a physician, he attended the local conservatory with hopes of becoming a classical pianist. As his interest in jazz grew, he started playing in nightclubs in the late 1950s just as bossa nova, a jazz-inflected derivative of samba, was on the rise. Mendes played with Antônio Carlos Jobim and a collection of American musicians who were touring Brazil.

In 1961, Mendes formed the Sexteto Bossa Rio and toured Europe and the United States. Mendes became full partners with Richard Adler, who helped form a group of Brazilian performers to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963. The Musicians Union only allowed this group to appear on one TV show and make one club appearance before ordering them to leave the U.S. When the new group Brasil ’65 was formed, Shelly ManneBud Shank and other West Coast musicians got Mendes and the others into the local musicians union. 

Mendes eventually moved to the U.S. in 1964 and cut two albums under the Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’65 banner with Capitol and Atlantic Records. After Adler and Mendes formed Brasil ’65, which consisted of Wanda Sá, Rosinha de Valença and the Sergio Mendes Trio, Mendes went on to record albums with Cannonball Adderley and Herbie Mann and played shows at Carnegie Hall.

Mendes was the pianist on “Connonball’s Bossa Nova” released in 1963.

Adler suggested that Mendes and the group sing in English. Mendes agreed, but demanded that the music should also be performed in Portuguese. Adler sought new English-based material such as “Goin’ Out of My Head” by Tedd Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein. Adler called his friend Jerry Dennon, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, and arranged for an audition for Mendes’ new group, which was dubbed Brasil ’66.

Alpert and Moss, founders of A&M Records, signed the group to the label shortly after. They then went to the Ertegun Brothers at Atlantic Records, where they negotiated Mendes’ release from his Atlantic Jazz contract. Ahmet agreed to allow him to record albums under the name “Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66” with A&M, Alpert took over as producer for these album releases, and the group became a huge overnight success with their very first single, “Mas que Nada”, written by Jorge Ben.

The first album, Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, went platinum based largely on the success of this single.

“Mas Que Nada” introduced by Eartha Kitt on Something Special, 1967.

Over the years Mendes often changed the lineup, which led to the groups’ sound eventually becoming more orchestral. Though his early singles with Brasil ’66 (most notably “Mas que Nada”) met with some success, Mendes really burst into mainstream prominence when he performed the Oscar-nominated “The Look of Love” on the Academy Awards telecast in April 1968. Brasil ’66’s version of the song quickly shot into the top 10, peaking at No. 4 and eclipsing Dusty Springfield’s version from the soundtrack of the movie Casino Royale.  From 1968 on, Mendes was arguably the biggest Brazilian star in the world and enjoyed immense popularity worldwide.

Mendes’ career stalled somewhat in the mid-70s, but he remained popular in his native South America as well as Japan. His two albums with Bell Records in 1973 and 1974 followed by several for Elektra from 1975 on, found Mendes continuing to mine the best in American pop music and post-Bossa writers of his native Brazil, while forging new directions in soul with collaborators like Stevie Wonder, who wrote Mendes’ R&B-inflected “The Real Thing”.

Sergio Mendes & The New Brazil 77 – The Real Thing

In 1983, he rejoined Alpert’s A&M records and enjoyed success with a self-titled album and several follow-up albums. By the time Mendes released his Grammy-winning Elektra album Brasileiro in 1992, he was the undisputed master of pop-inflected Brazilian jazz. The late-1990s lounge music revival brought retrospection and respect to Mendes’ oeuvre, particularly the classic Brasil ’66 albums.

in 2006, Mendes release the album Timeless on Concord Records, which features a wide array of contemporary guest artists, including The Black Eyed PeasErykah BaduBlack Thought of The RootsJill ScottChali 2na of Jurassic 5India.ArieJohn LegendJustin TimberlakeQ-TipPharoahe Monch and his old friend, Stevie Wonder.

Almost 60 years after the release of his first album, Mendes released In the Key of Joy in 2020 at the age of 78. The record features the international range of collaborators that has become typical of his work: from the rapper Common to Colombian pop stars like Cali y El Dandee.

Sergio Mendes – Sabor Do Rio (feat. Common)

Feature image: Michael Ochs Archive

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