Sergio Mendes began his career as a jazz and bossa nova pianist making a decent living in Brazil. After a trip to New York, where he performed with some of his jazz heroes, everything changed.
"There was a bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall in November 1962," recalls Mendes. "That’s the first time I came to the United States and met Dizzy [Gillespie] and Stan Getz and that’s when I did my album with Cannonball Adderley, and that’s when I said I want to come back here!”
After he relocated to the states in 1964, Mendes made a handful of poor-selling albums for the Atlantic record label. Then he moved to A&M Records and became an overnight sensation with the hit single “Mas Que Nada,” featuring an infectious Brazilian beat and vocalists singing in Portuguese.
Mendes and his newly minted group Brasil '66 continued to refine their sound, scoring hits with covers of pop tunes like “Fool on the Hill,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “The Look of Love.”
Another hit recorded in 1969 was “Pretty World.” The tune has a certain kind of magic with its lush arrangement featuring flutes, female voices and positive lyrics. More than any of his other hits of the time, this one seems to really sum up Mendes' approach. And it resonated with other popular artists.
"You know, it’s funny, Stevie Wonder, it’s one of his favorite songs, he told me. We still play that. We’re going to play that in Sacramento," says Mendes.
Having two female vocalists in the front line, including Lani Hall and Janis Hanson, helped to define his signature sound.
"That was just totally random, just having the girls singing," explains Mendes. "Before that, I had totally instrumental bands, you know. Now we can sing lyrics. And I still love that sound!"
“The Look of Love” had already been a hit for vocalist Dusty Springfield. As to whether Mendes heard her version before he recorded his...
"Absolutely, and I loved the melody," he explains. "And I thought, you know, I could come up with an arrangement that would, you know, make the song different, make it more Brazilian, whatever, you know. The melody was there, so it was just a question of the arrangement, but I did hear her version."
While Mendes handled all the arrangements of his chart-topping tunes, he did get some help from fellow arranger Dave Grusin, well known today as a successful film composer.
"I asked him, 'can you please put some strings and horns?' So he did the orchestral arrangement. In those days we used to call that 'sweetening.'”
In the decades following his auspicious start, Mendes has continually explored new musical terrain, most recently with contemporary stars like John Legend and will.i.am. But Sergio Mendes will always be associated with the sound he introduced some 50 years ago. You can call it mid-60’s cool, or you can call it timeless.
Sergio Mendes and Brasil 2017 perform Saturday, January 28 at the Harris Center for the Arts in Folsom.