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Sérgio Mendes: The Genius Who Changed Music

Sérgio Santos Mendes is the man who brought Bossa Nova, Samba and Musica Popular Brasileira to the world. But this is only the simple version of a story that started exactly 80 years ago.

On February 11th, 1941, a baby boy was born in Niterói, a small town in Rio de Janeiro province. Sérgio Mendes received an education as a classical pianist, while his interest in Jazz and Brazilian genres grew more and more over the years. In the early 1960s, when Bossa Nova was exploding all over his country, he headed the Sexteto Bossa Rio, a successful group. They even toured France and Italy before hitting Japan in 1964.

Bold Novelty

After the tour, Sérgio Mendes, a good friend of Bossa Nova hero Antonio Carlos Jobim who also played with Cannonball Adderley and Herbie Mann, settled in the United States of America, where he signed a deal with A&M Records, Herb Alpert’s label. In 1966, his interpretation of Jorge Ben’s ‘Mas Que Nada’ became his big hit. Over the years, he recorded several versions.

At that moment, Mendes had arrived in more than one way. Indeed, he spread Brazil’s stunning sounds in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. And he mixed it with Pop music, Funk and Jazz improvisation. At that time, this kind of approach was a rather bold novelty.

From 66 to 88

In the beginning, with his group Brasil 66, the genius pianist, composer, arranger and producer Sérgio Mendes loved covering Beatles hits such as ‘Fool on the Hill’ , which he converted by adding a good dose of Brazilian flavor. A decade later, he called his new band Brasil 77. The concept remained the same, while the sound was more modern and partially even funky. But Mendes always presented pure Brazilian tunes too.

During the times of Brasil 77, he married Gracinha Leporace, a vocalist he had cooperated with extensively. By the time his group name had changed again, this time to Brasil 88, Sérgio Mendes also delivered brilliant AOR hits sung in English. One stunning example, ‘Never Gonna Let You Go’, reached the 4th place in the U.S. charts.

‘The Sound of One Song’

Another brilliant example for Mendes’ Pop tunes was ‘Let’s Give a Little More This Time’, recorded with vocalist Joe Pizzulo in 1984. The same album, ‘Confetti’, contained another very special tune recorded with a children’s choir: ‘The Sound of One Song’ became one of the most beautiful tunes ever, but most of the world did not seem to notice this particular one.

A million more albums followed, too many to mention. But there is one we will not be able to ignore here. It was recorded in 1992. The title: ‘Brasilieiro’. This one got him a Grammy Award for the “Best World Music Album”. And the jury was absolutely right, but he should have gotten far more Grammy Awards. ‘Brasilieiro’ contains it all, from Brazilian-African rhythms via sambaresque sounds all the way to tunes mixed with Rap. This album is like a book about Brazilian music and mirrors the lifetime achievement of the artist.

New Generation of Fans

Later on, Sérgio Mendes cooperated with The Black Eyed Peas and other much younger groups, including rappers who would join him on tours. A smart move. That way, he reached a new generation of people, many of whom would become fans.

Sérgio Mendes still tours. Gracinha Leporace often joins him on stage, along with some of the greatest session musicians ever. The sounds and sights he presents on stage resemble everything he ever did, since the days of Brasil 66.

Six Decades Later

One former member of Mendes’ band needs to be mentioned here: Oscar Castro-Neves, a genius guitarist and one of the big masters of Bossa Nova, played with Sérgio Mendes for a long time, while recording solo albums too, until he died in 2013. Oscar Castro-Neves was one of the best.

One thing is certain: Six decades after it all began, Sergio Mendes’ influence on Pop music and his involvement in bringing Brazilian tunes to the world should never be underestimated. Nor should his energy. In 2019, at age 78, he did yet another European tour. His latest album, ‘The the Key of Joy’, was released last year and celebrates six decades of music delivered by none other than Sérgio Mendes. A happy and funky birthday to you!