Transcript: Transcript Sergio Mendes: A 60-Year Journey of Serendipity and Unbelievable Success

Hi, and welcome to the show. I’m really pleased you could join me. Well actually I’m really pleased you could join me for every show, especially for this one, because my next guest is an absolute icon. He’s a pianist, producer, songwriter, and bandleader, as well as being a Grammy winner and an Oscar nominee. Sergio Mendes is arguably the best known Brazilian musician of all time. He was a founding father of bossa nova, the Brazilian pop jazz movement that became a worldwide craze in the 1960s. And he’s inspired countless musicians and songwriters ever since. Sergio has reinvented himself continually over the course of a 60 year career, during which he has played and partied with people like Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Herb, Albert Quincy Jones and other pop music royalty. It was a recent album and documentary about his life, both titled in the key of joy that brought us together. Sergio Mendes, thank
Speaker 2
you so much for talking with me again, we chatted before the pandemic. And it’s terrific to catch up with you again. How have you been?
Speaker 3
Good? Good. Luckily, we didn’t have COVID We had all the shots so far. We’re good. Avoided.
Speaker 2
That’s amazing. Yes. And you’re still I know that it’s your birthday coming up pretty soon. Still so active. Yes. I had a look at the documentary that takes you back through your childhood and growing up. What was that like for you to walk through that?
Speaker 3
Was it a great a great experience? Because, sure, John scheinfeld, the producer, and the directed and he’s a great guy. Very musical, very sensitive. So we spent two years together, we went to Brazil, and he earned it was, was really a great experience. You know, he did a great job putting it together. And yeah, it was very, very, very good experience for me to, to review wildlife. And we had some good footage, he was able to get some great footage from different shows and different places. So yeah, it was great.
Speaker 2
musta been a bag of mixed emotions for you. Was it?
Speaker 3
Yes, absolutely. Yeah. I didn’t see it until it was finished. You know, he didn’t want me to see it. And I didn’t want to see it. Where I didn’t. I didn’t see any of the interviews. either. I came on the end. And because he didn’t want to, you know, get the surprise. That was great. was wonderful. Yeah. And it’s very well accepted all over the world.
Speaker 2
It’s like, this is your life. Two hours of This Is Your Life, Sergio Mendes. And there’s, it’s got so many fabulous insights into who you are, and, and how your life has panned out. It’s an incredible story. Everybody should definitely see it. Sergio The one thing I really took from that, well, I took many things from the documentary, but one of them was how you’ve managed to stay so relevant, and almost alter yourself like a chameleon over the times to keep your music relevant as music has changed over the decades.
Speaker 3
Well, I use actually an overused word, an English word, as a document, which is serendipity, which is a beautiful word I think it describes exactly being in the right place at the right time. But all of that you know, not only that, but you know your your look your destiny or whatever you want to call it, but I’m very curious. And I always like to do different things. Since I was started as a musician, you know, to play with different people and to, you know, like may turn around, you know, left turns and do something different and unique and fresh. And I still like that
Speaker 2
and everybody wants to play with you so you’re able to make that happen.
Speaker 1
Sergio Mendez with please baby don’t featuring John Legend. Over the years Sergio has collaborated with a wide array of Neo Soul and alternative hip hop artists.
Speaker 2
Can we go back to where it all started? Do you mind walking me through an abridged version of your life to?
Speaker 3
Well, it started with the piano coming at coming into my life when I was, I think seven years old and start taking classical music. And then around 12 years old 13 I listened to jazz for the first time. And I fell in love with the language and stop putting together your trios and quartets and 5859 bossa nova starts in Brazil
Speaker 3
great music and Antonio color’s your beam and I was working on a small club in Rio de Copacabana, the bottles bar, so again, had different bands different in bossa nova was just exploding all over the world. They had a bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall in November of 62. And I came with my band. And she’ll be games yours, your bad, too. And then I met all of the greats. No,
Speaker 2
we’re really caught up in music from a very early age. And there was never any doubt that that was what you were going to do with your life. But I kind of your father, who was a physician, Was he happy about that? Or did he have dreams of you following in his footsteps?
Speaker 3
He had mixed feelings he didn’t. He didn’t realize then that because you know, being musicians in those days in Brazil was not something that would, you know, give you a great future or anything like that. So he was my mother was very supportive from the beginning. Yes.
Speaker 2
And where did you take your musical talent from? Do you think
were? Yeah, from home? Or?

I don’t know, neither of your parents were musical. Were they none
Speaker 3
of them? No, no, be in Brazil, you know, around this wonderful music and the rhythms and, you know, just, I don’t know.
Speaker 2
So when the bug beat you, and that was all you were going to do? You were really determined that you were going to climb the ranks and make it to the top won’t you
Speaker 3
never thought about the top? You know, I was sure that that’s what I love to do it. That was my passion, period. And I embrace that. And I said, That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. But not thinking ever about the money and success
Speaker 3
are things have a way to, you know, to happen or not happen, you know, and that’s that’s the way it is in music and in anything in life, I guess.
Speaker 2
Right? So you made your first recording in 1961 that was called Dance Moderna you’re already off and running that early.

On by running I was off often walking off and working and yeah, that was my first
Speaker 3
then we did the put together this the Bossa Rio sextet. And then they came to after Carnegie Hall, I went back to Brazil, and decided to come to United States because we had a coup d’etat in Brazil, you know, military, you know, taking over and it was very complicated at times. So I decided to come to United States, which I did put together a band and start rehearsing and auditioning here in LA, for somebody a couple of jazz gloves, and we played there and then record people would come and listen to different labels. And one of the leaves was a&m, Albert and moss, Jerry moss and Herb Alpert, they came and they loved the band and they assigned me to a&m was a perfect time because Tijuana Brass was just taking off and huge success and that was a great experience working at a&m

Speaker 2
How different was it, trying to make it happen in Los Angeles, as opposed to having been in Brazil,
Speaker 3
oh Brazil in those days was very complicated to do because now they call it the revolution. So, they were arresting people, they are just terrible. And the military kind of trying to take over and the soldiers have very, very dark period for music. And, you know, and I thought was great and been here before, having been here before in New York, and meeting all the great jazz musicians. And I said, that’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to come to America. And I want to start a career here. So I know that then I’m very glad I did.
Speaker 2
The rest is history really, isn’t it? I would love you to tell me a little bit about the song The Girl from Ipanema that was I think 1964 was in it. And I remember when I was producing radio for a while, I actually found that Girl from Ipanema, can you tell me a little bit about it from your perspective?
Speaker 3
He was my mentor and teacher and you know, friend, and we spent a lot of time together. And he was just an amazing composer. Like, you know, like Gershwin, like Cole Porter, like those guys, you know, he wrote, I don’t know, 800, maybe 1000 incredible songs, and every song that he wrote was a gem. So the American jazz musicians get really, you know, very, very influenced by that. That’s when Stan gets recorded to go from Ipanema in which is a beautiful as I recorded later on, and yeah, it’s a great melody, but not only that one, but I mean, you name it, you San Antonio, color’s your beam, it’s like wow, you know, amazing composer.
Speaker 4
And, again, lovely The girl from a bunny thing and she passes it when she passes goes when she walks is like a samba that swing so so gently that when she passes it she goes Oh buddy watch her so sadly

Speaker 3
I had a wonderful time because he, he wrote songs for me, he produced the album, the Bossa Rio sextet. And he spent a lot of time here in LA also,
Speaker 2
by 1966, you had already established Brazil 66. And that really took off with audiences right around the world. It hadn’t when you will call something else once you change the name to Brazil 66. You just started to be on fire? Where it
Speaker 3
was? No, I mean, people asking me why a very simple reason. The year was 1966. I’m from Brazil. So nothing more obvious than that. But there’s a lot of stories that people say, Oh, I know why you call Brazil 66. So really, and the why and people, some people will say, Well, how many letters on your name sir Joe? Oh, six. I mean, the letter in your last name. menders. Oh, six, how many letters on your country? Brazil? Six. What year was that? 66. And how many people in the band sick. So it became kind of a it’s fun. It was the great coincidence, you know, was just a natural thing to call
Speaker 2
it. But changing the name from Brazil 65 to 66 seemed to make a real difference to audience.
Speaker 3
No, no, no, I think the know was it was you know, I had the song. I had the band. And the timing was right period.
Speaker 1
His timing sure was right. Sergio was on the precipice of creating a career that would gain him international stardom, and last more than 60 years. Stay tuned as he continues his story.
Speaker 1
Thanks for hanging in. Sergio has been talking about the incredible success he found initially with his band Brasil. 66
Speaker 3
I think the thing is, you know, the right timing, you know, you have the great song, and the great band and that’s it. Later on. I even called I remember the booth 77 and 88 and I got tired of that stuff. Enough numbers.
Speaker 2
So serendipity again in Brazil 66 Because the song was Mas Canada

Speaker 3
Yeah, that was a song I mean, like such an infectious song all over the world and the interesting thing also I think it was the first time there was a song in Portuguese being international hit I think the only time because you can go for me in my head English lyrics and you know all those other hits after that, but Marsh Canada I’m pm I mean until today, you know, I have to play it and I love to play it and I go to you know Japan you name it you know, Korea, Australia. Mark and other people can sing along and feel good about it

Speaker 1
Mas Canada became known as one of Sergio;s signature songs, it was voted by the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone as the fifth greatest Brazilian song ever, and was inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013.
Speaker 2
It’s become part of the culture in every language. Yes, yes. What do you think it was about that song? Just the, the
Speaker 3
melody, the melody is so catchy, because people don’t know what it was saying. The lyrics don’t mean much either. You know, it’s like, it’s like, you know, it’s just a sounding good thing. But there’s no deep meaning like, go for it whenever there’s a storm, but not on Marsh Grenada. But I think the melody, and then the arrangement of the song. And the way it was sung so beautifully by you know, the girls singing You know, you know, it was a very simple thing, you know, when it became very catchy and
Speaker 2
do you think that’s the key to a lot of successful songs is in the simplicity?
Speaker 3
Oh, yeah, yeah. Oh, look at the Beatles and all their songs of this. What a simple simple I mean, I’m talking about harmonically and but the line that you can remember you know, that you can sing alone and then remember and the so that’s what I mean by simple is not it’s not like Stravinsky, which is not simple.
Speaker 2
Yeah, I hear you and it wasn’t long before you had your second album equinox and that yielded a number of hits too but the third album look around you had covered a couple of The Beatles songs Yeah. Why did you decide to do that?
Speaker 3
Because exactly because of the beautiful melodies

Speaker 3
They were wonderful melodiest you know, McCartney and Lennon. I mean, they were fascinating. And I said, you know if I can, if I can add instead of just covering the song, If I get put into a Brazilian touch to it, like a bossa nova vibe or something that feels you know, arrangement wise that feels different. And that’s why I did it. And you absolutely fool on the hill. And with the little help from my friends and incredible melodies incredible and they worked

Speaker 3
and I kept recording after that, you know, when I heard the look of Love was the same thing was worked backwards. The song was was a hit by Dusty Springfield. But it melody was so beautiful when the harmonies so you know, I said that thing on the arrangements, the harmonies you put in the concept of the arrangement and make it sound resilient I think

The Look of Love was composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, full of sensuality, and that relaxed bossa nova rhythm. No one at all was surprised when it found its way into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Speaker 3
A song can come from anywhere, could come from Brazil, from Australia from, you know, you name it from England. But as long as that for me, I love melody and melody.
Speaker 2
Giving it that Brazilian touch is a bit like taking a nice dish of food and adding the spices isn’t it? What what is what’s, what’s the Brazilian spice? What is that Brazilian touch that you talk about?
Speaker 3
I think spontaneity I think depends on the song, you know? And again, the arrangement and then how is the song? How’s the song performed? You know, is there a vocals that are instrumental? And there’s no really formulas, just, you know, something that sticks with you. And you say, oh, man, I love that I can get that song out of my ear, you know, that kind of thing.
Speaker 2
That’s why you chose the song in the first place. Right? But when you when you Brazilian it up, for instance, with Scarborough affair,
Speaker 3
which is in my blood, you know, I was born there. So all those rhythms, you know, the samba, the bossa nova. The other thing is something I was born around. So it’s very normal to me to feel that that beat into to try to play with that kind of beat behind you know,
Speaker 2
you unique in that, aren’t you? Nobody else is putting the flavor of their country onto music. Most musicians have tried to emulate the American sound and keep that going. And you’ve brought the Brazilian spice to whatever song it is that you’ve touched. Yes. Were you surprised that the world took to those songs?
Speaker 3
Oh, yeah, very much. So. We every, every time? Oh, absolutely. Because you don’t plan that to be what became you know, and all of a sudden you hear that on the radio and you see record companies calling and sell your song? Oh, it’s number one or number three, whatever. It’s a great feeling. Yeah. And, and then when you perform that lives in the Philippines or Brazil, or Australia, and people sing along with it. It’s a wonderful thing. Just singing in Portuguese for this talk about mush Canada. No. But she got along in the language that they don’t speak, which is even more, you know, amazing.
Speaker 2
Even when you did Scarborough affair, the Simon and Garfunkel song and you put your own flavors and colors into that. That’s in the
Speaker 3
arrangement, being babied by people people being swelling, the intro is great. Sometimes when a few interest, sometimes they become the head because people know what’s coming after. Right. You know, if there’s a lot of there was a Beatles. And Burt Bacharach and even Stevie Wonder which I love. Everyone is a great songwriter that I love is my neighbor. He lives very close by and I haven’t seen him lately, but he’s me. One of them. My favorite composers of all time.
Speaker 2
It was 1969 when you did a version of Otis Redding sitting on the dock of the bay to again, putting the the Sergio Mendes touch on it. Yes. Watch it. Why did you choose that one?
Speaker 3
Melody again, Melody and then can I do something different than the original? Can I create a cover that’s different than the original? Can I do something to innovate meaning, you know, taking the song to another place. That doesn’t sound like the rich, I like to do that. I like that. I mean, sometimes I can write a song I wrote a few songs in my life. But in case of recording other people’s songs, I want to be sure that I can sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t work, you know, not all the time.
Speaker 2
So what would you say is your greatest strength as an artist,
Speaker 3
you know, I, I play those roles, meaning I’m an arranger, I’m a composer. I’m a producer and a songwriter. So all those components are there you know when I get a song and I tried to let me see what I can do he was the song and it’s Evers the arrangement and the different roles you know, but again you know that I must say it’s so important the the vocals of the girls you know starting with Lonnie Hall and many others like my wife Good to see you know that sounded Sue I love that sounds very simple but I like it a lot.

Which role gives you the greatest pleasure
Speaker 3
playing I love playing performing. I love playing the keyboards very much with a bad so wonderful feeling that the
Speaker 2
personal appearances and you still doing those today?
Speaker 3
person appears? Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Speaker 2
It certainly I mean does. It was 1983 when you made a comeback album. It was your first in nearly a decade and a half. And that one brought about your biggest chart single lever which was called never gonna let you go. Tell us a little bit about that one.
Speaker 3
I love melodies. So I receive a demo with that song and say, Wow, what a beautiful song. So I was looking for a male singer, which I never used before. And I met here in LA, this young singer named Joe Zulu, Barry Mann and Cynthia while they wrote the song became a huge song, great melody. And now it’s part of my repertoire.
Speaker 1
You spent 10 weeks at number one in 1983. It had originally been offered to Earth Wind and Fire, but they turned it down. We’ll be back in a sec with more from Sergio Mendez. Welcome back. I hope you’re enjoying the chat with music legend Sergio Mendes. We’ve been talking about how he manages to stay relevant. And the answer he says is with his collaborations. The album in Kanto from 2008 is a great example. Honored Sergio who has recorded for seminal Antonio Carlos Jobim tracks, and given them a hip hop flavor. He also made use of the vocal talents of singer songwriter Natalie Cole on this track somewhere in the Hills.

Speaker 3
Well, I’ve had many, many singers through the years, of course, and they they change you know, they get married, they leave they go do other things. And so it’s it’s a combination of word of mouth. And then we meet them and my wife that I’ve seen. She’s the she’s the boss, you know. So now it’s true because she, most of them don’t speak Portuguese. And 80% of our repertoire is in Portuguese. So si cheats teaches them Portuguese singing in Portuguese. It takes a long time because they learn phonetically you know syllable by syllable. And I’ve been very lucky to have had I mean amazing singers like Diana Reeves she was my singer. Saira Garrett’s was my singer too and many others. I have now this girl Katie Hampton fantastic so yeah, it takes it takes a time to to try and make that song that thing sound really authentic?
Speaker 3
Yeah authentic that sounds right.
that was the real thing with Katy Hampton on vocals. It was a song that Stevie Wonder wrote specifically for Sergio. During a period when the two first became close. We became
Speaker 3
friends. And he asked me to write a lyric in Portuguese for him, which I did this song called birdie of beauty. And he recorded a few verses in Portuguese and he presented me with a gold rapid for doing that. In those days. We saw each other a lot you would finish recording would come to my house. My wife would cook Brazilian food for him.
Speaker 2
I think I recall from the last time we spoke that you had actually met your wife. She was a backup singer for you
Speaker 3
know, she was 17 years old. She was singing with a band in Brazil. And I saw her singing and say, Okay, let’s go. We’ve been together for 50 years now.
Speaker 2
That’s wonderful. And she’s been your right hand ever since.

Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
Speaker 2
I’m chatting with Sergio Mendes. sudio there’s a story that I’d love you to share about the TV show Seinfeld? I don’t know you don’t know about that story. I’ll have to tell you because in one of the episodes, they were doing a little bit of comedy about you and how popular you were in the whole of the world. Because you really have touched people all over the world have a good
Speaker 3
I feel wonderful, humbly. happy about it.
Speaker 1
As a native Brazilian. Sergio is understandably a huge soccer fan. In 2014 you did the FIFA World Cup official album? Yes, I love it
Do you still have to pinch yourself sometimes to realize what you’ve contributed to music that it’s not just a dream? Or do you put it down to just passion and hard work?
Speaker 3
passion and hard work? There you go. Yeah. And perseverance.

So your advice to anybody
Speaker 3
and work and having the right band because I’ve always had a bad so I’m not a singer that goes there and have an orchestra behind me I have a great band right now. You know, the young guys and they all play amazing great drummer bass player. Guitar percussion yeah
Speaker 10
yes, summertime little group a little bit a little while we feel a good nap in the hood. Now Rio de Janeiro understood now coming from Chicago. This is common. I’m in the place with my man Sergio. This is how to worse go. This is how we rockin in the circle universal.
Speaker 1
2020s in the key of joy was the first new album from Sergio Mendes in five years, it featured an array of guest artists that track suborder reo.
Speaker 2
Can we just talk a minute about Will i am and from the black IPs, yes. Just before the pandemic, you issued that studio album called in the key of joy. And that of course, went in conjunction with the documentary, you started to work with people that were in hip hop, what went through your mind
Speaker 3
is all about what I told you grab curiosity. I always love to work with different musicians from different cultures, different ages. And so that’s part of my life. And so we all came to my house. And he brought in all my old records. He lives here in LA and said he was a fan and blah, blah, blah. And he said out man, let’s make a record together as a sure let’s do it. It was a wonderful experience because it’s so spontaneous. Everything because he’s he has that same thing that I have the curiosity when he likes to do something things different. And so it was a great encounter working with him. We went to the studio and everything just flew beautifully. And then he invited his friend John Legend and, and Carmen and we had a great time. So the mash Canada hit again four years later, was a totally different version and gave me a lot of pleasure. And to him as well. So we’re both kind of a it’s great, you know, that musical experience, you know, to to try something new to try something. You know, how can I redo a song that was a hit, you know? So I think he brought in his, his own thing to it and make the song sound fresh and new, which I think It’s fantastic
And we love the end result of that songs that have come out of your collaborations too.