The Brazilian-Portuguese talent, Sergio Mendes has brought to the music industry a series of bass nova style influences into the music genres of funk and jazz for six decades to a worldwide audience, especially in the United States. He, along with his wife, Gracinha Leporace, have been performing and touring, as well as collaborating with many artists throughout the years. Prior to earning his fame in the industry, he attended the local conservatory in his homeland of Brazil in hopes to become a classical pianist. However, as his interest in jazz grew, he began to play in nightclubs by the late 1950s with a bass-nova, which is a jazz alternative to samba.
Mendes has played with and been mentored by many American jazz musicians who toured Brazil before Mendes recorded his first record, Dance Moderno, in 1961. He’s also recorded albums with Cannonball Adderley and Herbie Mann, as well as played in Carnegie Hall. In 1964, at the age of twenty-three years old, he moved to the U.S. and cut two albums under the stage identity of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’65.
From Slow Start to Stardom
When Sergio Mendes was signed with Atlantic Records at the start of his recording career, jazz album sales were low. Richard Adler, who was his full-time partner at the time, suggested he and the group sing in both English and Portuguese languages, which is what Mendes wanted to do in the first place. Adler also suggested to Mendes in order for the English to be sung properly, finding two American female singers would be to his advantage. It would be during this time frame Mendes signed up with A&M Records, now under a new stage identity of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66.
This formula through A&M Records resulted in his first album with this label achieving the needed success that had eluded him. Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 became a platinum-certified selling album by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) when it was released in 1966. At the time, the lineup for Brasil ’66 was Mendes on piano, with Lani Hall and Sylvia Dulce Kleiner as the American female vocalists. There was also Bob Matthews on bass, Jose Soares as the band’s percussionist, Joao Palma on drums, and John Pisano on guitar.
This would be the same lineup that would record two additional albums between 1966 and 1968, namely Equinox in 1967 and the best-selling Look Around in 1968. However, by the time the fourth album, 1968’s Fool on the Hill was recorded and released, there was a major lineup change that saw Kleiner replaced by Janis Hansen, who was then replaced by Karen Philipp. Drummers Dom Um Romao and Rubens Bassini took over from Soares in percussion. In 1969, Claudio Slon became the group’s drummer and stuck with Mendes for nearly a decade.
Sebastiao Neto replaced Bob Matthews as bassist, along with Oscar Castro-Neves taking over guitar from John Pisano. Now with this particular lineup, the group had a more orchestral sound than previous. This would be the lineup that performed at the World Expo in Osaka, Japan in June 1970. Then in 1971, Lani Hall left Mendes and the group to pursue a solo career as well as marrying Herb Alpert.
The 1970s and Beyond
The popularity of Sergio Mendes was immense, becoming one of the biggest Brazilian-based stars in the world. He also performed in concert at the White House for two different U.S. presidents, namely Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. However, the career of Sergio Mendes came to a stall during the mid-1970s within the U.S. but his popularity remained high among his fellow South Americans and the Japanese. Along the way, he forged new music directions into the soul music genre after working with collaborators such as Stevie Wonder.
In 1983, after releasing through the labels of Bell Records and Elektra, Sergio Mendes returned to Alpert’s A&M Records. This is where his popularity with the American audience would pick up steam again after recording and releasing albums that received a considerable amount of adult contemporary airplay. During this time frame, the vocalists featured Joe Pizzulo and Leeza Miller.
In 1992, Sergio Mendes released his Grammy Award-winning album, Brasileiro through the label, Elektra. In 1993, the Grammy Award it received was Best World Music Album. The revived lounge music scene during the latter half of the 1990s credited Mendes and his masterful pop-jazz style of play, both his classics from the late 1960s, as well as his 1980s and 1990s material.
With the Latin Grammy Awards, in 2005 Sergio Mendes received a Lifetime Achievement Award, which was then followed in 2010 with a Best Brazilian Contemporary Pop Album Award.
In 2006, the tribute album, Timeless, featured an array of alternative hip-hop and neo-soul music that saw the collaboration of many guest artists that paid tribute to Sergio Mendes and the inspirational influence his music served as key influences that saw the likes of Black Scott, Chali 2na, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, John Legend, Jurassic 5, Justin Timberlake, Pharoahe Monch, Stevie Wonder, and The Black Eyed Peas. These are the artists that offered cover versions to the Sergio Mendes originals. The 2006 version of “Mas que Nada” was performed by The Black Eyed Peas, along with additional vocals provided by Mendes’ wife, Gracinha Leporace. This song became the theme song for one of Brazil’s local television channels.
#10 – Night and Day
“Night and Day” first earned its popularity after it was performed by Cole Porter in the 1932 musical, Gay Divorce. Since then, it has been covered by numerous musicians throughout the years. First, Fred Astaire made it a popular stage performance, which he then recorded with the Leo Reisman Orchestra. It was a top ten hit at the time for ten weeks. It was performed again in 1934 for the film version of the movie, now renamed as The Gay Divorcee. For Astaire, it became one of his signature songs.
The inspiration of “Night and Day,” for Porter, came from an Islamic prayer he heard while he was in Morocco, as well as architectural influences that are Moorish and Mosaic in nature. This song was also associated with Porter during the 1946 film of his life story, simply titled Night and Day. For Sergio Mendes, his trademark bossa nova, mixed with jazz, saw “Night and Day” climb as high as number eight on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart after its 1967 release. It’s also featured on the album released that same year, Equinox.
#9 – (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay
While nobody can sing “Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” like Otis Redding’s twice-recorded 1967 performance can, Sergio Mendes does the next best thing, which is to turn it into a bossa nova, Brazilian-jazzed version that would peak his version of the song at number twelve on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart in 1969. It also charted at number sixty-six on the US Billboard Hot 100.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is a timeless classic that, deservedly, became one of the most beloved songs of all time. Many artists, aside from Mendes, have recorded their own versions of this iconic classic. Sadly for Redding, he died three days after recording this classic the second time when his plane crashed on December 10, 1967. When the song was first released in 1968, it became the first posthumous single to top the charts in the US.
#8 – Real in Rio
In 2011, “Real in Rio” earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, but lost out to Man or Muppet, which was the song featured in The Muppets’ self-titled musical comedy. “Real in Rio” was recorded for the soundtrack of the animated film, Rio: Music from the Motion Picture, which was released in the U.S. on March 29, 2011. The music was first released as a digital download, then as a CD shortly afterward.
#7 – Alibis
“Alibis” was one of the hit singles from Sergio Mendes’ 1984 album, Confetti. On the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, it peaked as high as number four, and on the US Billboard Hot 100, at number twenty-nine. This served as the final time Mendes would realize a top ten hit on among the easy-listening chart, as well as the final hit to appear on the Billboard Hot 100. On the Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary chart, “Alibis” was at its most popular as it peaked at number three.
#6 – Olympia
From his 1984 album, Confetti, the hit single, “Olympia” was originally written and performed as a theme song for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games that were held in Los Angeles, California. This surged the song’s popularity only after it had already peaked at number eighteen on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and at number fifty-eight on the US Billboard Hot 100. Anthemic-style by nature, the lyricists who performed this song were Joe Puzzilo and Gracinha Leporace. Since then, it has also been used as the theme song for Olympia Sports Camp, located in Ontario, Canada. It’s also been used for the World’s Strongest Tag Determination League in All Japan Pro Wrestling.
#5 – Never Gonna Let You Go
With Joe Pizzulo and Leeza Miller as the lead vocalists, “Never Gonna Let You Go” saw Sergio Mendes break into the top ten of the US Billboard Hot 100 when it peaked as high as number four. It also spent four weeks on top of the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. “Never Gonna Let You Go” is also charted at number twenty-eight on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and was a top forty charted hit among the nations of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, and South Africa.
It also charted at number-forty five on the UK Singles Chart. “Never Gonna Let You Go” was originally recorded by Dionne Warwick for her 1982 album, Friends in Love. The most popular rendition of the single came from Mendes when it was featured on his 1983 self-titled album. For Mendes, it served as a ballad to balance out his album that was otherwise festive. This song became so popular in Brazil that it began to play on one of its soap opera series, Final Feliz.
#4 – Mas que Nada (1966 and 2006 versions) (2006 version featuring Black Eyed Peas and Gracinha Leporace)
“Mas que Nada” was the first breakthrough hit for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 needed to finally kick his music career into a forward motion that launched him into stardom. The English-Portuguese formula was instrumental in the album, Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, to earn platinum-selling success with the RIAA. On the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, it peaked as high as number four and was a number forty-seven hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. Originally, “Mas que Nada” was performed in 1963 by Jorge Ben for his debut album, Samba Esquema Novo.
For Mendes, this became one of his signature songs and was voted by the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone Magazine as the fifth-greatest Brazilian song. Also, in 2013, it was inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame 2013. In the Brazilian language, Mas que Nada means “just nothing,” which is used when there is a disagreement. However, the title of this recording had been mistakenly altered as Mais que Nada, which in Portuguese, means “more than nothing.” In Spanish, Mas que Nada means “more than anything.” The original inspiration behind “Mas que Nada” came from the 1958 Brazilian recording, “Nana Imboro,” by José Prates.
It featured underlying melodies and vocalizations that were featured in Jorge’s song. With Sergio Mendes’ version, the motif expressions were even further highlighted, which made this become a jazzed up, heavier popping Latino classic become a cultural favorite worldwide, especially in America. In 2006, it was recorded between himself and the Black Eyed Peas. This version also featured sample music from the group’s song, Hey Mama, as well as the vocal talent of Mendes’ wife, Gracinha Leporace. This version earned the greatest amount of chart recognitions, and sales, as well as accolades at a global level.
This version topped the music charts belonging to the nations of Hungary and the Netherlands and was a number two hit on the UK R&B Singles chart, and a number-four hit on its Official Singles Chart. On the US Billboard Dance Music/Club Play Singles chart, “Mas que Nada” peaked at number thirteen and was a number seven hit on the Eurochart Hot 100. In Brazil and Germany, this single became certified gold. The popularity of this song has seen it featured in the 1998 Nike advertisement, portraying the Brazilian national football team, and as a song featured during Mickey’s Jammin Jungle Parade, which is held at the Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida.
#3 – Scarborough Fair
In 1968, “Scarborough Fair” became a number two hit for Sergio Mendes on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart. Released as the second single from his album, The Fool on the Hill, this Brazilian jazz-fused ballad also became a number sixteen hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. On Australia’s Kent Music Report, “Scarborough Fair” became a number eight hit, which served as the second occasion Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 earned such an honor. Before the Latino influence, “Scarborough Fair” started out as a traditional English ballad that was inspired by Scotland’s folk classic, The Elfin Knight, which has its origins date as far back as the 1600s.
The most common English variant of “Scarborough Fair” can be found in the Yorkshire region, as well as Northumbria. Among its culture, there is considerable reference to different spices and herbs that are traditional, UK favorites. Since the start of the twentieth century, “Scarborough Fair” has been recorded many times over, and among many different genre styles of music. As folk-rock, it was performed by Simon & Garfunkel and also shared billboard chart success as Mendes when it peaked as high as number eleven on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1968.
#2 – The Fool on the Hill
Originally, “The Fool on the Hill” was a song recorded by the English rock legends, The Beatles, which was featured on their 1967 EP and album, Magical Mystery Tour. In the lyrics, the fool mentioned was a figure that was misunderstood by people who didn’t know any better, despite the fact he was wiser than he appeared. McCartney, who wrote and sang this powerful ballad, was inspired by the tarot card imagery and description of the Fool.
In 1968, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 installed his jazzy-pop Latino influence into the song that turned it into a top ten hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 at number six, on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart at number one, and on Australia’s Kent Music Report, at number fourteen. It was the first of two singles released from the album, which was also titled The Fool on the Hill.
#1 – The Look of Love
“The Look of Love” was first lyrically performed by Dusty Springfield for the 1967 spoof movie soundtrack to Casino Royale. When this song was first written, it was intended to be an inspirational piece only, which had already been recorded by Stan Getz in 1966 for the album, What the World Needs Now: Stan Getz Plays Burt Bacharach and Hal David. However, lyrics were added to it after its melody was inspired by watching the performance of actress Ursula Andress during an earlier cut of the film.
When Sergio Mendes covered this song in 1968 for his album, Look Around, “The Look of Love’s” popularity surged even higher than Springfield’s already popularized hit. When Mendes covered this song at the Academy Awards in April 1968, it served as a powerful mainstream intro for Sergio Mendes. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it became a number four hit and it was a number two hit on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. Over the years, “The Look of Love” has been covered many times over by a number of artists, but it’s still Mendes’ hit version that has remained as the best-recognized so far.
Top 10 Sergio Mendes Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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