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Sérgio Mendes: 1941—: Musician Biography

Sérgio Mendes: 1941—: Musician.

From the Bossa Nova craze of 1950s Brazil to the explosion of interest in Latin music on a global basis, Sérgio Mendes has been a constant presence on the contemporary music stage. While best known in the United States for a series of hit albums that helped popularize Latin-influenced, soft-jazz sounds in the 1960s, Mendes's work included a diverse range of Brazilian, African, and American styles. The winner of a 1992 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for his release Brasileiro, Mendes has also earned the respect of his peers for a career that remains prolific over forty years after his first recorded output.

Sérgio Mendes was born on February 11, 1941 into a prosperous family in Niterói, Brazil. His father was a physician who was strict with his son; when Mendes did poorly in school, his father shaved his head as a punishment. Mendes also suffered from a crippling bout with scoliosis that forced him to wear a body cast during much of his childhood. His primary consolation was music: even while in a cast, the budding musician propped himself up at the piano, where he would play for hours at a time.

Mendes was not encouraged by his parents to think of music as a potential profession, although they paid for his training as a classical pianist at a local conservatory. Despite their disapproval, he formed his first jazz combos while a teenager with a friend from Niterói, Tião Neto, on the bass; the group was rounded out with several different drummers. Mendes's trio landed a number of paying gigs around Niterói, even though they could not play very many of the dance tunes that were popular at the time. Mendes supplemented this training with trips across Guanabara Bay on the ferry from Niterói to Rio de Janeiro, historically the center of Brazil's musical life. Mendes became a regular at the Lojas Murray club, where he soaked up the latest jazz and contemporary sounds. The camaraderie of Rio's music scene was also helpful; on more than one occasion, the audience at Lojas Murray took up collections to pay for Mendes's ferry ride back home.

Mendes made his first professional mark on the Rio scene while still a teenager. In 1960 he started playing on Sunday afternoons at the Little Club, located in Rio's premier beachfront entertainment district, the Copacabana. While Mendes was not paid for the appearances, he was allowed the freedom to experiment with various jazz and Latin rhythms, including the bossa nova, which was reaching the height of its popularity in Brazil. Bossa nova, or "new wave," came on the scene in 1957 with the João Gilberto recording of Tom Jobim's "Desafinado" ("Out of Tune"). Bossa nova songs typically featured a seemingly simple, syncopated rhythm with unadorned vocals; often the singer was accompanied only by a guitar. The result was a strikingly modern form of music that soon replaced the samba as Brazil's best-known cultural export.

At a Glance . . .

Born Sérgio Mendes on February 11, 1941 in Niterói, Brazil. Education: Completed secondary education in Niterói and trained as classical pianist. Religion: Roman Catholic.

Career: Recording artist: Dance Moderno, 1961; Quiet Nights, 1963; The Swinger from Rio, 1964; Sérgio Mendes and Bossa Rio, 1964; In the Brazilian Bag, 1965; The Great Arrival, 1966; Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '66, 1966; The Beat of Brazil, 1967; Equinox, 1967; Sérgio Mendes' Favorite Things, 1968; Look Around, 1968; Fool on the Hill, 1968; Crystal Illusions, 1969; Bossa New York, 1969; Stillness, 1971; País Tropical, 1971; Primal Roots, 1972; Love Music, 1973; Vintage '74, 1974; Home Cooking, 1976; Sérgio Mendes and the New Brasil '77, 1977; Pele, 1977; Brasil '78, 1978; Magic Lady, 1979; Sérgio Mendes, 1983; Brasil '86, 1986; Arara, 1989; Brasileiro, 1992; Oceano, 1996; Mais Que Nada, 1999; In Person at El Matador, 1999.

Awards: Recording Industry Association of America, Gold Album, Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, 1967, Gold Album, Look Around, 1968, Gold Album, Fool on the Hill, 1969, Gold Album, Equinox, 1969; Grammy Award, Best World Music Album, Brasileiro, 1992.

In addition to his afternoon gigs at the Little Club, Mendes also played the piano at Bottles, another club in the Copacabana. Appearing on stage as an accompanist to the "Pocket Shows" put on by cabaret performers, Mendes soon formed his own regular lineup, the Sérgio Mendes Sextet. After 1961 Mendes, along with other groups appearing in the Copacabana, added stronger percussion to the bossa nova, creating a harder sound that bridged the gap between bossa nova and the samba. Mendes also made his first record in 1961, Dance Moderno, which appeared on the Philips label. The following year Mendes traveled to New York City to appear with his Sextet at the Birdland Ballroom. A chance encounter with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley led to Mendes's appearance with the jazz legend on the 1962 album Quiet Nights. Mendes also participated in a pivotal bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall on November 21, 1962. The concert was a major critical and commercial success and confirmed the popularity of Brazilian music in the United States.

Mendes had ridden the bossa nova craze during a time of optimism in Brazil's history. The civilian governments of the late 1950s and early 1960s promised to transform the country into an economic powerhouse, and the construction of the new capital at Brasilia symbolized their hopes. When inflation and corruption got out of hand in 1964, however, armed forces took over the government in a military coup. For the next twenty-five years the military ruled Brazil with a repressive hand; while musicians offered critiques of the military regime through the sly lyrics of melodramatic "tropicalismo" songs, they suffered along with the rest of the country during these repressive years.

Like many others in Brazil's artistic community, Mendes chose to leave his homeland in 1964. He discovered a musical community in New York City that rivaled the talent in Rio de Janeiro, and Mendes's recording career took off immediately. For the rest of the decade he released at least one full-length album every year, and sometimes as many as three. Signed to Capitol Records, Mendes's albums did not at first generate impressive sales. Released at the height of the British invasion, records such as 1964's The Swinger from Rio and Sérgio Mendes and Bossa Rio and 1965's In the Brazilian Bag were out of step with mainstream trends. In 1966 Mendes put together a new group under the name Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '66 and signed a contract with A&M Records, best known as the home of its cofounder, Herb Alpert, and his group the Tijuana Brass.

It was Mendes's releases with Brasil '66 that made him into a household name in the United States. The group's first A&M release, Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '66 went into the top ten on Billboard's album chart and eventually earned a gold record for sales of over 500,000 copies in the United States. The track "Mais Que Nada"—later included on the soundtrack to the movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery in 1997—also brought the group airplay on top forty radio stations. The 1967 release Equinox continued Mendes's trend toward light, pop-oriented Latin beats, but the 1968 album Look Around gave the group its biggest pop hit with a cover version of the Beatles' song "Fool on the Hill." Like Equinox, Look Around earned Mendes and Brasil '66 gold records, as did the 1968 album Fool on the Hill.

With a string of four gold albums, Mendes was the biggest selling Brazilian artist in the United States in the 1960s. Although some critics applauded his genre-expanding attempts to fuse Brazilian rhythms with contemporary pop sounds, others accused him of pandering to mainstream tastes. Along with Herb Alpert's albums with the Tijuana Brass, Mendes's work was often categorized as easy listening "elevator" music by purists who derided his 1960's output.

Mendes experimented with folk, jazz, and traditional Brazilian music on the 1973 album Primal Roots and his popularity declined in the United States, although he remained a popular recording and concert performer in Europe, Japan, and Latin America throughout the 1970s. In 1983 he staged a commercial comeback in the United States with the album Sérgio Mendes, which featured the top ten single "Never Gonna Let You Go." In 1992 Mendes released the critically acclaimed Brasilero, which won the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. Although he was now a permanent resident of Los Angeles, California, Mendes spent five months in Brazil working on the album, which drew inspiration from the Afro-Brazilian rhythms of the Bahía region.

With his explorations of Brazilian, African, and western sounds on albums such as 1996's Oceano and 1999's Mais Que Nada, Mendes has continued a prolific recording career that spans over forty years. With his Grammy Award and enduring popularity, Mendes has been a major force in bringing world music to diverse audiences around the globe.

Selected discography

Dance Moderno, Philips Records, 1961.

Quiet Nights, Philips Records, 1963.

The Swinger from Rio, Atlantic Records, 1964.

Sérgio Mendes and Bossa Rio, Philips Records, 1964.

In the Brazilian Bag, Tower Records, 1965.

The Great Arrival, Atlantic Records, 1966.

Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '66, A&M Records, 1966.

The Beat of Brazil, Atlantic Records, 1967.

Equinox, A&M Records, 1967.

Sérgio Mendes' Favorite Things, Atlantic Records, 1968.

Look Around, A&M Records, 1968.

Fool on the Hill, A&M Records, 1968.

Crystal Illusions, A&M Records, 1969.

Stillness, A&M Records, 1971

País Tropical, A&M Records, 1971.

Primal Roots, A&M Records, 1972.

Love Music, Bell Records, 1973.

Vintage '74, Bell Records, 1974.

Home Cooking, Elektra Records, 1976.

Sérgio Mendes and the New Brasil '77, Elektra Records, 1977.

Pele, Atlantic Records, 1977.

Brasil '78, RCA Records, 1978.

Magic Lady, Elektra Records, 1979.

Sérgio Mendes, A&M Records, 1983.

Brasil '86, A&M Records, 1986.

Arara, A&M Records, 1989.

Brasileiro, Elektra Records, 1992.

Oceano, Polygram Records, 1996.

Mais Que Nada, Polygram Records, 1999.

In Person at El Matador, WEA Records, 1999.



Castro, Ruy, Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World, A Capella Books, 2000, pp. 214-215.

McGowan, Chris and Ricardo Pessanha, The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil, Billboard Books, 1991, p. 69.

World Music: The Rough Guide Volume 2, Rough Guides, 2000, pp. 336-337.


Americas, May/June 1999, p. 56.

Billboard, June 17, 1995, p. 34.

Q, April 1996; November 1997.

—Timothy Borden

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Barbara Barbieri McGrath (1953–) Biography - Personal to Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) Biography