Sergio and Serendipity

January 18, 2023 |

Sergio Mendes attributes much in his life to serendipity.

“My whole life has been a series of encounters that I never planned but that opened incredible doors for me,” he said.

When he was just three, he came down with osteomyelitis. Thankfully his father was. a doctor, so they could get penicillin to save his leg. But he was in a body cast until he was 6, and when it finally came off, he couldn’t run around and play, so his mom got him a piano. “It was like, ‘Here is your new life,’” Mendes recalled.

He started out by learning classical music (studying at the Conservatory of Music in Rio de Janeiro), but then, in his early teens, he heard Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” and jazz had a major impact on his future as a musician.

When he was 18, he was invited to play at the Bottles Bar in Rio. Bossa nova was just getting started, and he got to jam with João Gilberto. From that, he put together a sextet that recorded an album, did well, and soon they were performing in Carnegie Hall.

One night on tour, in a club in Chicago, he met Lani Hall. Then, back in LA (where he had moved with his wife and child in 1964, on the heels of a military coup) he met a Brazilian, Bibi Vogel, who could sing in English. He brought Hall and Vogel together as the sultry singers of his new group, and Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss walked in on a rehearsal one day. The next thing you know, Mendes’ band was touring with Herb Alpert, who produced Mendes's first big album, Brasil 66, which included the massive hit "Mas que Nada." Eventually, Brasil 66 went platinum. (Hall later married Alpert, so the serendipity spread…)

Mendes’ serendipitous star soared into the stratosphere in 1968, when he performed the Oscar-nominated song, "The Look of Love" on the Academy Awards telecast. His band's version of the song shot into the top 10, eclipsing Dusty Springfield's version from Casino Royale soundtrack.

A series of top 10 and top 20 hits followed in 1968, with "The Fool on the Hill" and "Scarborough Fair." The surge made Mendes arguably the biggest Brazilian star in the world, and he even performed at the White House twice, for presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Mendes’ music has been featured in several films, from The Graduate to the animated films Rio and Rio2 (for which he garnered an Oscar nomination), to Austin Powers, The Brothers Grimsby, and Over Her Dead Body. He was the producer of Lani Hall’s vocals on the title song for the Bond film Never Say Never Again. And, in 1984, his song “Olympia” was the official song of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles that year.

In his long career, Mendes has been nominated for 15 Grammy Awards and won three. 

When asked what it is he feels that has made bossa nova so wildly successful, Mendes said “I think there are several components… The melodies are haunting and catchy. Great harmonies, great chords. Then, the sensuality of the music. That’s what inspired so many North American musicians like Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, and Frank Sinatra to go to that repertoire. It’s very romantic but also quite sophisticated at the same time.”

Sergio Mendes returns to Festival Boca exactly six years after his first performance, closing out this year’s festival with a concert on March 12. Tickets are still available here, but hurry: the show is expected to sell out!

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