Born in Niterói, near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1941, Sergio Mendes was in a prime position to catch the imported sounds of American jazz during the 1950s, as well as Rio’s bossa boom shortly afterwards. In thrall to this new music, Mendes dropped out of his classical music studies and learned how to play the vibrant new music by ear.
His first successful band was the Bossa Rio Sextet, which played “a form of samba jazz…like Art Blakey meeting bossa nova,” Mendes says. The sextet played everywhere, giving Mendes the chance to interact with a wide range of visiting jazz luminaries and bossa virtuosos such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, who became Mendes’s friend and mentor.
Mendes was still only 19 when he entered the studio to record his first album, Dance Moderno, for Atlantic, alongside Jobim. After moving to New York, Mendes formed Brasil ’65 and signed to Capitol; a year later he signed to A&M and founded the much more successful Brasil ’66 with vocalist Lani Hall, a band that offered the perfect balance of light jazz, bossa and international pop that Mendes was to become famous for.
Brasil ’66 dominated the North American pop charts, first with their cover of Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada,” then with hits from their Equinox album, and the superlative Look Around.
During the second half of the ’60s, Mendes was the top-selling Brazilian artist in the United States, though he lost his commercial edge at the turn of the decade.
Mendes and his group moved to the Bell Records label in ’73, before Mendes jumped to Elektra for his debut solo album. He re-launched his recording and bandleader career two years later with Brasil ’77, then retired for a few years before returning to A&M again in the ’80s.
His 1983 comeback album, Sergio Mendes, his first Top 40 album in nearly a decade and a half, was accompanied by his biggest chart single ever, “Never Gonna Let You Go.” During the ’90s Mendes recorded the Grammy-winning (but non-charting) world music album Brasileiro. “I think the climate for world music these days is much better,” he states. “There is more awareness.”
Mendes’s latest project is Timeless (Concord/Starbucks Hear Music), a collaboration with Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am. The album reworks the classic Brazilian songbook from an urban/hip-hop perspective. Mendes’ own hits (“Mas Que Nada,” “The Frog,” etc.) are included, alongside new tracks and classics such as Baden Powell’s “Berimbau” and “Samba De Bencao” and Joao Donato’s “Bananeira.” The album includes collaborations with a host of urban stars and starlets, including Justin Timberlake, Erykah Badu, Q Tip and others.
"will just turned up at my house,” says Mendes. “He walked in with some old vinyl of mine, instrumental records from before Brasil ’66, and told me he fell in love with my music and that it changed his life. I was scared at first, but it’s worked out well. It’s not forced; it’s not something some guy has put together. It’s a new chapter for me, a way of bringing Brazilian music to a new generation."