Over the past century, no one musical style has entranced multiple cultures of fans quite like bossa nova.
Influenced by the swing of American jazz and saunter of Brazilian Samba, the music has entranced fans worldwide with its seductive syncopation. And since the ground-swell of bossa nova began to take hold back in the late ’50s in Brazil and then into the U.S., there has been no name more synonymous with the musical art form than bossa nova legend Sergio Mendes.
In his 55th year as a recording artist, the three-time Grammy Award winner is not slowing down. His unquenchable passion for collaborations with new, younger artists and mixing of other musical genres into the ever-growing melting pot of bossa nova is keeping him young at heart.
“I’m still here. I’m still doing what I love to do, which is to perform, make records,” Mendes says quite plainly. “I feel very lucky and very blessed that I’m still doing it. Next year will be 50 years of [Mendes' band] Brazil 66. You can never think about the future; I never did, anyway.”
And certainly Mendes was not thinking about the future, but trying to earn his chops when he first set foot on the foreign U.S. soil some 53 years ago. After a half-dozen releases on Philips and Atlantic labels, a fateful audition for the young A&M Record label changed everything for not only the budding star musician, but for popular music in general.
Brazil 66 was the name of his band, and the group’s debut album Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 would put Mendes on the charts for the first of many times. American trumpet and band legend Herb Alpert and business partner Jerry Moss had started their own short-lived record label Carnival in 1961 and by 1962 changed it to A&M Records. They auditioned the young Mendes ensemble and the rest was history.
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The album was pioneering in that its anchor hit song “Mas Que Nada,” written by fellow Brazilian Jorge Ben, would be the first hit sung in its native Portuguese to become a hit in the U.S. It would reach 47 on the Billboard chart and No. 4 on the Easy Listening chart.
“When I heard that song in 1963, and I said, 'What a great melody,’ and then I had my band Bossa Rio Sextet and we played that song, and then I came to the States and when I formed Brasil ’66, we played that song and recorded, it was a big success. It’s one of the songs, one of those melodies that stay with you, and people love to sing along with it. It’s the power of the chant; it’s a universal chant.”
"Mas Que Nada" became the gift song that keeps giving, and in 2006 it helped give Mendes a second surge of worldwide popularity when he remixed it and co-produced with Will.I.Am of the Black-Eyed Peas.
The remake was the anchor single for in which Mendes he created a new boss a nova hybrid with hip-hop. Not only did he worked with Will.I.AM on his 2006 Timeless album, he added Erykah Badu, John Legend, Justin Timberlake, Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder and India Arie to the album’s other cuts. Timeless furthered the Mendes style. It not only added hip-hop but also reggaeton, often using vocals not only lyrically, but as percussion.
In 2013 "Mas Que Nada" was inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame, and it was one of several awards that reaffirmed for Mendes his place in music history.
“There were several moments [when Mendes realized he had arrived] — when you hear your song on the radio, that’s a big emotion, playing with Sinatra, playing at the Academy Awards. All of those were great moments that you realize people like what you are doing,” he says.
Mendes was born and raised in Niterói, Brazil, and took up classical piano, learning the orchestral works of Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky among others during the late ’40s and early ’50s. He was far from the night club scene that was developing bossa nova.
“It was a Dave Brubeck record," he recalls. "I heard 'Take Five' and I said, ‘What is that? That’s beautiful.’ So, I had a few friends in Brazil that had some records. It was very hard to get records in those days. We would get together every weekend and listen to those records, and I became fascinated by that new language."
At the same time his passion for jazz was growing, the seed of bossa nova music was also being rooted and nurtured. Fellow Brazilian legends Antonia Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto were credited for breaking the genre into mass markets.
“When I started playing and bossa nova started happening, with Jobim, the great harmonies and melodies," he says. "It was a new combination of new worlds for me. I loved Ravel and Stravinsky, but that encounter with the world of jazz, and then the bossa nova, was a great one.
Upon his first visit to the US, Mendes would experience the first of many of what he would call several “magical encounters” when he arrived in the US in ’62. He rubbed elbows with the likes of such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz in New York. He performed his new-found menagerie of jazz-samba at the Bossa Nova concert at Carnegie Hall in 1962, and even recorded an album with hard bop alto sax jazz great Cannonball Adderley.
“I also think ... when Stan Getz and Dizzy, when they heard that music [bossa nova], it was like 'wow' for them, too," Mendes says. "For them it was a whole new source of inspiration. So I think it was sort of a mutual admiration. I mean, we all loved Cole Porter and [George] Gershwin, and at the same time Americans had Sinatra and Ella [Fitzgerald] falling in love with Brazilian songwriting.”
Like "Mas Que Nada," Mendes has reworked countless other popular standards on many of his 39 studio albums. And like "Mas Que Nada," the impetus was the same — the curiosity to give popular songs the Mendes touch.
In his 1968 release Look Around, Mendes and his original group took Burt Bacharach’s “Look of Love” to No. 4 on the Billboard charts, helped by his band’s performance of the song at the Academy Awards that year.
His most popular collaborations in the mid-’70s was with Stevie Wonder, whom he worked with on his Vintage 74 record.
“I have no formula. I go by my instinct, my musical instincts," Mendes says. "I’ve loved to work with different people. And having the chance to work with so many different musicians in my life has been a great experience for me.”
By returning in 1993 to his more traditional Brazilian roots himself over the years, Mendes would work with Carlinhos Brown, who had helped revolutionize the music of street percussion ensembles. The output was Brasiliero, which garnered Mendes a Grammy Award for Bast World Music Album that year.
“There was a poet in Brazil, who said, life is the art of the encounter. And I put the word magic in there because I think it's magical. Magical encounters in life are about people we never thought we'd meet," Mendes says. "[They are] things that we don’t plan, and all of a sudden here you are with that person who you never thought you’d meet. Could be a friend, could be a song, could be a place.”
Working with young people and having an affinity for covering their work or working with younger upcoming talent is a process that not only keeps Mendes young at 74, but has given a sense of coming full circle.
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“In the beginning, it was the opposite. I was working with much older people than me. So, to come to the part of your life where you reverse the roles as the old man, it’s wonderful," he says. "I have a very young band, and my wife is a singer in the band, which is great, she is a great singer. All of that makes it even better.”
Mendes also worked with fellow countrymen, film director Carlos Saldanha and fellow Brazilian native Carlinhos Brown and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song at the 84th Academy Awards for “Real in Rio” on the Rio movie soundtrack. His most recent album, Magic, garnered Mendes an Academy Award nomination for Best World Album in 2014.
While the talents that have brought fame and fortune to Mendes make him a legend, it is his graciousness and humble nature that make him even more popular with fans and fellow musicians alike.
“I am an enjoy-every-day kind of person. I have my family and my friends and my music,” says Mendes, adding, “You can never envision that you are going to have a long career. I am very thankful and very lucky that I have that.”