Sergio Mendes Interview: The Making of a Music Maestro
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Musicians
Image attributed to Sergio Mendes
One of the most internationally successful Brazilian artists of all time, Sergio Mendes remains as vital and relevant today as when he exploded on the scene in the 1960s with his group Brasil ’66. Mendes played a huge role in popularizing Brazilian music around the world, and at the same time he created his own genre by fusing Brazilian music with American pop.
Mendes is a three-time Grammy Award winner with some 35 albums, many gold or platinum, in addition to the critically acclaimed Timeless, produced by will.i.am. Hit singles include “Mas Que Nada,” “The Look of Love,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Night and Day,” “Never Gonna Let You Go” and “Fool on the Hill.”
"A&M was such a great company. Both Herb (Alpert) and Jerry (Moss) were very open minded, and they said to do just what you like and have fun with it, that kind of thing. There were no restrictions."
Sergio Mendes & Friends: A Celebration features the musician telling much of his story in his own words. He is joined in the documentary by such friends and collaborators as Herb Alpert, Common, Lani Hall (lead singer of Brasil ’66), Quincy Jones, John Legend, Gracinha Mendes, Jerry Moss, Carlos Saldanha and will.i.am. The film premieres as part of special programming on PBS stations during the month of June 2021 and is derived from the feature documentary Sergio Mendes: In the Key of Joy by filmmaker John Scheinfeld (The US vs. John Lennon, Herb Alpert Is…).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sergio, how are you doing in California with the pandemic still going on?
Sergio Mendes: Well, we’re all vaccinated here at the house, so that’s a great start, I think. I wish everybody also would get vaccinated as soon as possible. After one and a half years of confinement at home, I got my first gig on August 15 at the Hollywood Bowl, which is a wonderful venue, and I’m so happy to be there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That is great. I thought the documentary for PBS was very well done. When you were first approached to do it, were you hesitant at all?
Sergio Mendes: You know, I guess when I first had the opportunity and the offer, I was a little hesitant. But after I saw the two other documentaries that John Scheinfeld did, the one with John Coltrane and the one with Harry Nilsson, and I met him, I really liked him. He’s very musical and funny. So I said, “Okay. Let’s do it.”
It’s like diving into your past. It was a very good experience for me. I didn’t see anything until he put it together in the end. He got a lot of footage from older shows, and I didn’t see any of the interviews. So when I saw the whole thing, it was a wonderful emotional experience for me to see my life in front of me. It’s very, very unique and very moving.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You spoke about your grandfather being Black and that you had Portuguese ancestry on your mother’s side. Did you have a relationship with them?
Sergio Mendes: I have vague memories because I was very young when my grandfather died. But I vaguely remember him. I have pictures of him and very faint memories. I’m very proud of his roots.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And on your mother’s side?
Sergio Mendes: Portuguese. Her name was Santos, so I think there was some Brazilian Indian and Portuguese. You have the Iberian Peninsula of Portugal and Africa, and I think it’s a good combination.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were your family members interested in music?
Sergio Mendes: My father loved music. He was a doctor. He loved music, and my mom did, too. I got the piano lessons because of her.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: However, your parents did not support your choice to pursue a professional music career?
Sergio Mendes: That is correct. In those days in Brazil, the son of a doctor was not supposed to be a musician. You’re supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer, that kind of thing, you know. In those days, being a musician was not a career unless you were a classical musician. Being a pop musician was not a great thing. I’m glad I did what I felt and stuck with my dream and my passion.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You didn’t dream at all of becoming a classical pianist even though that was your early training?
Sergio Mendes: Not really, no. The piano came in because I had the bone disease in my leg, so I couldn’t play the soccer and ride the bicycle. So the piano was kind of a substitute for it. I enjoyed learning classical music, but I never thought of becoming a classical musician. I really got interested in music after I heard some great American jazz musicians.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you ever wanted to become a vocalist?
Sergio Mendes: No (laughs). I have the best vocalist in the world, my wife. I’m much more interested in composing, writing songs. But because I’ve worked with so many great singers, I’ve been so fortunate, lucky and blessed. I love the human voice, but I don’t think I have those attributes. I stay with my piano.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When did you learn to speak English?
Sergio Mendes: In Brazil, I was taking piano lessons and English classes. I had an English teacher. I like languages. Then you start hearing the songs, you know, the classics, the Sinatras and Ella Fitzgeralds, and you go see the movies. Some kids loved to do it, and some weren’t interested. But I was always very interested in languages. I speak a little French, Spanish, Italian.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You played Carnegie Hall in 1962, and then you returned to Brazil.
Sergio Mendes. Correct.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you decide to emigrate to America a couple of years later?
Sergio Mendes: Carnegie Hall was a one-shot kind of thing. They had the huge bossa nova concert, and I was invited to participate. Then I met so many great musicians, some of my idols like Dizzy Gillespie, and I did an album with Cannonball Adderley. Then we had to go back home to Brazil because we came on not a permanent visa. We came for one engagement. But being back home, we had a kind of revolution, a military coup in 1964 with the army and all of that, and I said, “I’m going back to the United States.” So a friend of mine helped me come in and gave me some airline tickets and some money to start our life in the United States. I came to the United States in November of ’64 and have been here ever since. I go back to Brazil every year to see family.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I understand that Brazil is pretty laid back, so the hustle and bustle of New York City must’ve been a cultural shock for you.
Sergio Mendes: I liked that because a lot of the music I was listening to at the time was by my idols like Sinatra, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. So I wanted to be around that. I’m so glad I did come.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How would you describe your sound, Sergio?
Sergio Mendes: Well, I don’t really describe. I think you just listen to the record. It’s such an individual thing, you know. Music is such a great thing for the world, for humanity, and I think when you appreciate music, it just gives you something more spiritual and gorgeous. For me, it’s joy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There is an infectious spirit of joy in your music. Does that come from your own personality or from the Portuguese culture?
Sergio Mendes: Oh, I think it’s a combination of where you’re born and the music you’ve heard as a kid. Brazil is a very musical country. There’s a big musical diversity, and music is in the hearts of everybody there. They have carnivals, and they like to celebrate things.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was your first thought when you heard Lani Hall (soon to be your lead vocalist) sing?
Sergio Mendes: Oh, it was in Chicago in 1965. She was singing in a little club there. She was a folksinger and was 17 years old. We’re very dear friends even today. We talk to each other every other week, to her and Herb.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, I think Lani and Herb Alpert have been married for almost 50 years. We recently interviewed him about his documentary.
Sergio Mendes: Yeah! I introduced him to John Scheinfeld. That’s how it happened because Herb saw my documentary and loved it, and he asked me who did it. So I introduced the two of them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you consider signing with A&M Records and working with Herb Alpert your first real taste of success?
Sergio Mendes: Absolutely. A&M was such a great company. Both Herb and Jerry (Moss) were very open minded, and they said to do just what you like and have fun with it, that kind of thing. There were no restrictions.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: “Mas Que Nada” was inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013 and is considered your signature song. Is it true that the title literally means to disagree with someone?
Sergio Mendes: It’s kind of an expression that means like “Never mind.” Mostly it’s a sounding good kind of a thing, you know. People ask me if I ever thought of writing English lyrics for “Mas Que Nada,” and I say, “No way. That would really ruin the song. It sounds great because it’s in Portuguese, and it sounds so beautiful.” It’s a wonderfully catchy chant.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In 2006, you collaborated with will.i.am on another recording of “Mas Que Nada.”
Sergio Mendes: That’s my second recording 40 years later. It became a hit collaboration. Working with Will was great, and I had a wonderful time.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You and will.i.am seemed pretty comfortable with each other in the studio. Are you similar in how you work?
Sergio Mendes: Will is very curious like me, and he’s willing to try new things musically. Let’s do it, what do you think, that kind of thing. It was a wonderful dialogue throughout the making of the record. He’s very musical and very open minded.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was your experience like with Frank Sinatra?
Sergio Mendes: I guess I was in awe of him all the time. Talk about a genius now. He had that voice, that gift that was amazing. He had that personal charisma. We became very good friends. What was amazing was that anywhere in the world, he’d walk in and open his mouth to sing. I love all of his records.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You opened for Frank Sinatra in 1980.
Sergio Mendes: Yeah. We actually did two tours, one in 1967 and the other in 1980. We did Europe and the United States twice. It was a great experience.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is it true that the songwriters of “Never Gonna Let You Go” originally submitted the song to Earth, Wind & Fire, but they passed on it?
Sergio Mendes: I have no idea. I never heard that, but who knows? The publisher may have sent it to 100 people. I was lucky. In those days, people sent me songs in the mail. I heard it and said, “Wow! What a beautiful song this would be.” I treated it as a kind of romantic bossa nova type of thing. Then I met this young singer named Joe Pizzulo. It was the first time I used a male singer, and the whole thing came together beautifully. I thought his voice was so unique.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I understand you played for two presidents in the White House.
Sergio Mendes: We did. We were invited to play in the White House twice. The first time was Nixon and the visit of the then King of Spain, Juan Carlos. The second time was several years later. It was an honor to play in the White House.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any thoughts about American politics over the years?
Sergio Mendes: (laughs) You don’t want to get into that, do you? (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) Only if you do.
Sergio Mendes: Listen, I miss Barack Obama! What else can I tell you? I don’t know if you’re on the other side of the planet, but I miss him. He was the most eloquent man I’ve ever seen. I’m a big fan. Let’s see if Biden inherits some good genes from him and will do great things, I hope.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How long have you and your wife been together, Sergio?
Sergio Mendes: 50.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: 50 years?
Sergio Mendes: Yes. How blessed is that? I know.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’ve seen photos of your beautiful family, and you’ve said you will never retire, but does your wife, Gracinha, think otherwise?
Sergio Mendes: Not really. She’s a great singer. We want to go back on the road as long as God allows me the good health to do it. It could be very boring, but I love it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But you two could relax in a tropical resort somewhere, you know?
Sergio Mendes: (laughs) No. I’m an eternal gypsy. I want to keep moving as long as I can. Absolutely.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Okay, but when you’re not playing music or thinking about playing music, what do you enjoy doing?
Sergio Mendes: I enjoy soccer. I’m a big fan. I grew up with that. For the last year and a half being confined at home, I see a lot of old movies again. I have a beautiful new granddaughter, Rafaela, so that keeps me busy. It’s just a joy when I see her smile.
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