In 1966, rock and soul dominated American pop music charts. But there was room for the infectiously swinging “Mas Que Nada”—the first international hit song in Portuguese. If Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto opened the door with “The Girl From Ipanema,” Sergio Mendes put an authentic Brazilian band, Brazil 66, into entertainment’s top tiers.
Also making Mendes a household name was his fruitful association with A&M Records. The band gave American pop a reliable adult-music hit machine—with two pretty singers in mini dresses, and a cooking Brazilian rhythm section.
Mendes brings his band and singers to UCLA Royce Hall on Saturday, November 16. Opening is the sensual Brazilian chanteuse, Bebel Gilberto, daughter of bossa nova giant Joao Gilberto.
“There’s an English word with no Portuguese translation,” says Mendes, a composer, pianist and bandleader. “Serendipity. And that’s what my whole career in the United States has been—serendipity.” He’s speaking from his home in the San Fernando Valley, where he’s lived for 55 years.
“I first came to New York in 1962 to play at Carnegie Hill—with Stan Getz, George Shearing and Dizzy Gillespie—on that big bossa nova concert. The next night I went to Birdland, and Cannonball Adderley asked me to sit in. Then we did an album together. I couldn’t believe all those things were happening to me.”
Mendes was an ideal fit for Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’s nascent A&M recording label. “We were perfect for each other,” says Mendes. “Jerry and Herb were creative, sincere, and very art-oriented. Herb was an innovative musician; business came in third place.” Before he signed, Mendes had recorded in Rio with jazz flutist Herbie Mann and was still under contract to Atlantic Records. The cultured Atlantic partner, Nesuhi Ertegun, released Mendes with his blessing: “Nesuhi collected surrealist art and he knew all of the best music. He said, ‘I wish I could do for you what they’re going to do for you. Go ahead.’”
The Brazil 66 format—two alto singers and four rhythm players—was new to Mendes. “In Brazil, I only had instrumental bands,” he says. “The two voices weren’t planned. But Lani Hall and Gracinha Leporace were both so musical that I could write almost anything for them.” (The former is Mrs. Herb Alpert and the latter is Mendes’s wife of longstanding.) The band had big hits with “Fool on the Hill” and several Burt Bacharach songs. “I’m a melody guy,” he says. “Lennon & McCartney, Burt and Jobim—they’re all great melodists. When I have a great melody, then I can change the rhythm and the harmonies a little bit, and I can do beautiful things with it.”
A documentary about Sergio Mendes and his life, In the Key of Joy—featuring John Legend, Quincy Jones and will i am—is in production. “I’m going to have a rapper onstage with me at Royce,” Mendes says,” but all of my music is in the key of joy.”
Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.
Sergio Mendes & Babel Gilberto: The 60th Anniversary of Bossa Nova | CAP UCLA Royce Hall | Nov 16