More than Nothing
By Jay S. Jacobs
With a musical career spanning about 60 years now, Sergio Mendes is as responsible as just about anyone (with the possible exception of Antonio Carlos Jobim) for bringing Brazilian music to the world. Many of the highs of his fascinating career are explored in the new documentary film Sergio Mendes and Friends: A Celebration.
Despite the title, which sounds sort of like a tribute concert, the doc shows Mendes’ musical evolution from a little-known Brazilian pianist and bandleader to one of the biggest hitmakers of the 1960s, a man who helped to define the bossa nova sound which swept the country. A talented and smart purveyor of talent, he made many obscure Brazilian songs – like Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada” – into international classics.
He also had a real talent for taking the hits of the day – like The Beatles’ “Fool on a Hill,” Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “The Look of Love,” Little Anthony’s “Going Out of My Head” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” – and gave them a swaying tropical vibe. The sound of Mendes and his band Brasil 66 (later changed to Brasil 77) was unmistakable, lush female vocals, tropical beats and Mendes’ distinctive jazzy piano.
In the years since, Mendes has reinvented his music often, having smash hit singles in the 1980s with the slightly more middle of the road “Never Gonna Let You Go” and “Alibis.” In 1997, he recorded his aptly titled Timeless, in which he collaborated with younger R&B and hip-hop artists like The Black Eyed Peas, John Legend, Stevie Wonder, Justin Timberlake and India.Arie.
Right before the PBS debut of Sergio Mendes and Friends: A Celebration, we were able to catch up with Mendes and discuss his movie and his music.
What was it like to revisit your life and your career in the documentary?
It was a wonderful experience, because John Scheinfeld, the director, and producer [is a] very, very sensitive guy, very musical. He put it together, an hour and a half of my whole life. We spent about two years. We went to Brazil. He interviewed a lot of people. He got wonderful footage that I didn’t even know that existed. I only saw [it] in the end when he finished the first cut. I saw and I was very emotional. I cried when I saw a lot of those things that I didn’t remember. I think he did an incredible job. I’m very happy with it.
You could have stayed in Brazil and had a long, successful career at home, but you decided you wanted to work in the States, which was obviously a bigger risk, but turned out to be the right call. When did you know you wanted to stay in the US?
After the first time I came in. As you’ve seen on the documentary it was the bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall in November 1962. I met all the great musicians. Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and I did an album with Cannonball Adderley. Then I went back to Brazil. I said, “Listen, I have to go back. I have to go to the United States because I love the place.” It was an intuition, kind of a feeling. It felt so right being here.
In 1964, we had a military coup in Brazil. [It] was very, very bad times, actually horrible times. So I said, “Maybe this is the time for me to go.” I had a son that was born April 4, of 1964. That’s like the date of the coup d’état. I had a friend in the Foreign Office in Brazil. [He] was my best man for my wedding. I told him, “Listen, you’re going to help me. I want to go to the States. I want to live there. Get me some airline tickets.” He looked at me said, “You’re crazy. Where you going to go? Do you know anybody?” No, I don’t, but I want to go.
Quite a chance you took.
That was pretty much the way it was. He gave me the airline tickets, both ways. (laughs) I came in November of ‘64. I stayed here since then, I started playing clubs here in LA, jazz clubs. Then in ‘65, I met Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. A&M Records was just starting. They signed me to the label. Then we had the first big hit “Mas Que Nada,” and many others after that. So that was the beginning. That’s when I said, yeah, I love it here.
As you said in the documentary, your first album Brasil ’65 barely got noticed. However like you just said, you did get noticed by Herb Alpert, who became a collaborator as well as running your long-time label. How did you first get contacted by him, and what was that long relationship like for your music?
It was great. He was very supportive. He let me do my thing. Of course, he would make suggestions here and there. but he really embraced the sound. A&M was just an amazing company.
Early on in your career, you were able to work with some classic musicians like you mentioned, you did an album with Cannonball Adderly, as well as playing with Herbie Mann and Antonio Carlos Jobim. As a young player, how incredible was that experience?
It was very incredible. (laughs) When Cannonball invited me to do the album with him, I said wow! I couldn’t believe that was happening. As you see the documentary, I use a lot the word serendipity. It happened many times in my life. That was one of those moments with Cannonball.
You’ve had some incredible luck in finding terrific lead singers, first Lani Hall and later your wife, both of whom were integral parts of the group’s sound. How did you know that each of them was the right fit?
Lani, I met her in Chicago. She was singing in a small club. I invited her to join the band because I loved her sound. I thought it was a very unique sound and beautiful. I had to ask her parents’ permission to bring her to California. She was the first sound of Brazil 66.I had many other singers through the years. My wife [Gracinha Leporace]… we’ve been married for 50 years now. She’s the lead singer of the band, yes. Great singer also.
One thing with “Mas Que Nada” and many of your other songs over the years is that you had hit singles all over the world with songs that were sung in Brazil’s native language of Portuguese – which many of the fans of the songs could not understand. How exciting was it to bring the native tongue and the bossa nova sound from home to a whole new audience?
It was very. “Mas Que Nada” was very exciting, because, like you said, it was all inPortuguese. I played those songs when I was playing in clubs in Rio, in Brazil. When my record came out and I first heard it on the radio, here in LA, I couldn’t believe it. Then was a hit all over the world. And then again, in 2006, with The Black-Eyed Peas, with will.i.am.
You have also taken on a great many classic songs over the years like The Beatles’ “Fool on a Hill” and Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love.” How do you decide on a song to record and how do you go about making them your own?
I think it’s a question of instincts and intuition. I love melodies. Besides, like Antonio Carlos Jobim was our best writer. He was incredible. I started listening to songs by Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach and [Paul} McCartney. The melody for me was what’s the most important thing.
Well, speaking of melody, in the 1980s, you had a huge comeback hit with “Never Gonna Let You Go.”
It was not exactly the type of song you were known for, but it was a terrific song, and it took you back to the top of the charts. What was it about that song that made you feel it could become a hit?
Again, the melody. Someone sent me a demo. I heard [it] and I said I’m going to need a male singer. I met this kid from Youngstown, Ohio, named joe Pizzulo. I had a singer in the band named Leeza Miller. It just felt like was a duet. The song just became a huge hit all over the world again. The melody, you can’t forget that kind of thing.
You’ve always been very fluid in your musical styles, mixing jazz and bossa nova and pop and in recent years you have mixed in some hip hop. How important is it for you as an artist to keep on top of what is going on?
I’m very curious. I’ve always liked… loved actually… to play new songs. Try new things. Not because they’re trendy just because some things I love. When I when I met will.i.am, for instance, the idea of adding rap to some of the older songs I recorded before – so the songs had a totally new reinterpretation – it was very creative. Very adventurous and disrupting, whatever you want to use. I like that. I like to try new things. It’s my curiosity. I love that. I get bored doing the same thing.
Speaking of the hip hop music, as the documentary shows, a lot of younger artists – like will.i.am, Common and John Legend – turn out to be huge fans of your work and to be excited for the opportunity to work with you. How does it feel to know your music has inspired a new generation of artists, and what are they like to work with?
Those experiences were wonderful. In some cases, I was surprised because I didn’t know. When will.I.am came to my house, he had all my old vinyls, old CDs. He said to me, “I grew up here in LA, listening to your music. I know every song you’ve ever recorded. I couldn’t believe it. Wow. That’s when we decided to do the project together. Same thing with some of the other guests on my album [Timeless]. John Legend is an amazing singer and writer. We wrote a song together. I just liked the freshness of it. It’s something fresh, something unique. Doesn’t fit any mold, was not prefab, or anything like that. [It] comes from the heart.
A few times in the documentary you say that one of your favorite words is “serendipity” and you said it in our talk as well. How do you feel that your life and career have been serendipitous?
Very much so. That’s why I use it a few times on the documentary because how am I going to justify? You can use the word fate, or destiny, but I love the word serendipity. We don’t have [a similar word] in Portuguese.
On a more personal note, the whole world has just gone through a strange and tragic year. How did you deal with the whole shelter-at-home lifestyle?
Like everybody else, we were confined here for almost a year and a half. We’re just starting to go out for the past two weeks. We both are vaccinated here in the house. But it was a scary moment. Very, very. In Brazil, it’s still very bad. But I think with the vaccine now and everybody being vaccinated, I see light on the end of the tunnel. It was a very somber moment for humanity, the way they handled the whole thing. Now you see India is still very bad, but I think here, things are getting much better. Luckily, I have my first my first gig in August after a year and a half of not working. We’re going to do a show at the Hollywood Bowl, August 15. I’m really looking forward to that. (laughs)
That was another thing I was going to ask… now that things are finally starting to slowly get back to normal what are you most looking forward to?
We have another show in September, in San Diego with the San Diego Symphony. So I’m really looking forward, but I think things will start rolling. Everybody wants to work next year, I think. I hope.
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 6, 2021.
Photos ©1967-2021. Courtesy of PBS Television. All rights reserved.