Sérgio Mendes, Brazil’s Greatest
By David Curry
Hello-Alo-Hi-Oi Sr. Rubin:
I own a substantial amount of Brasilian music from the 60s, 70s and 80s, with a little contemporary BossaCucaNova thrown in. I’ve often asked myself, who is the greatest Brasilian musician? It’s difficult to pick one over many from the great talent pool of Brasil. But if I had to make a choice, and this may come as a shock to you, I would say it is Sergio Mendes. No, I’m not kidding.
Mendes, like many other Brasilian artists of the 40s, 50s and 60s was a pioneer of the essential sound of Brasil. Carmen Miranda was another genius. So is Charo, not necessarily Brasilian, but the Hoochie Coochie Girl, the Murcian Spanish Sexpot, who is actually rated as one of the top Flamenco guitarists in the world. That is before any of these true artists were introduced to the American market, where they rapidly became over-worn clichés, fodder for ridicule and late-night snarkyism, at least in the unfortunate minds of many Americans.
Focusing on Mendes: he created a trio in 1965 and recorded an album for his Brasil ’65 series. I used to frequent a Japanese restaurant in New York City, Jinbei, on First Avenue and 52nd Street, around the corner from my apartment on 53rd St. The sushi chef used to play this album on their stereo system in the early 80s and slice fish to the subtle Bossa Nova beats. I borrowed it one night and made a cassette tape of it. When I later opened my graphic design office, I used to play this tape constantly. In the early 90s, I moved to SoHo but the tape did not. I don’t know what happened to it. (This was around the time you came down to the loft on Wooster Street.) Every time I went to Tower Records on Broadway, I would look for it on CD but could never find it. It is a true rarity. I finally discovered it in the late 90s on CD.
The recording features the Sergio Mendes Trio, plus two 17-year-old Brasilian girls, and North American jazz musician Bud Shank. One of the girls is Wanda de Sah, who they say is literally the Girl from Ipanema, and who is the vocalist. The other teenager is Rosinha de Valenca, guitarist, who at 17 was rated one of the finest guitarists in “all the world” as the liner notes declare. Both women lived into their late 50s. Sah is listed online still as one of the great undiscovered talents of Rio. De Valenca died in 2004 after a heart attack. At 17, they shined on this recording like brilliant diamonds.
I went to a yard sale in Venice Beach here in Los Angeles not long ago where they were selling a vintage 80s Jaguar for $4,000, which was a steal, and I would have loved to buy it for my wife, Marjorie, as it’s her all-time favorite car, but I’d left my cash at home. Way at home. I thought there must have been something wrong with the car to drop it for so little. The beach dudes throwing the sale had a few boxes of LPs that were being picked through by a number of aggressive collectors. One has to act quickly in such situations. I grabbed a box and picked out about 30 classic 70s disco LPs, all gems still wrapped in cellophane and in mint condition. All purchased for a buck apiece. I threw them in a box and lugged them home. A few months or so later, I got around to listening to them and totally surprising to me, I had purchased a pristine copy of the Sergio Mendes Brasil ’65 album “So Nice”. It is still resplendent in its original translucent wrapper with the loungey psychedelic cover art pulsating.
This album is truly remarkable, and it is perfection. Wanda’s singing, youthful but sophisticated in a tonality that is hauntingly beautiful; Valencia’s sensual pitch perfect guitar rifts; and Mendes’ hauntingly beautiful piano are unparalleled. De Sah sings in English with that remarkable light nasal Brasilian accent on some songs and seamlessly in a whispering Portuguese on others. She was a guitar teacher in her early teens. The story saddens further to read about Mendes’ capitulation to the American music machine, how he had to replace his Brazilian born vocalist and guitarist to become a tepid light jazz popular artist performing Beatles’ tunes to a Brasilian beat. How a year later, he became a popular North American recording artist with Brasil ’66 and how ’65 and the deep Brasilian roots were to be long forgotten.
Brasil ’66 includes vocalists Janis Hansen and Lani Hall. Hansen is an American singer, producer and writer. Lani Hall is an American singer from Chicago and the wife of Herb Alpert, the “A” of A&M Records. Mendes heard her perform while tour in Chicago in 1966. His group, Brasil ’65, was disbanding, and he invited Hall to come to Los Angeles and be a part of his new project, Sérgio Mendes & Brasil ’66. She agreed, and the group rehearsed in LA, eventually signing a contract with A&M Records. A series of popular interpretations followed, including their recherché takes on The Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill” and “Day Tripper”. Unlike the previous incarnation, Brasil ’66 was an instant success.
You know the story because you were smart enough to leave America and move to the South American land of “Brazilliance” — where the music is a sensation and not only entertainment but a way of life. Today’s critical re-assessment of Mendes’ significance as a world music innovator is long overdue. His sound is no longer criticized by hipsters as frothy lightweight easy-listening fare. Sergio Mendes’ visionary fusion of Brazilian, popular and jazz music anticipated the rise of global-beat music by almost 20 years. A recent boxed set released on the history of Bossa Nova features none other than Sergio Mendes on the cover, chosen as the one among hundreds of notable talents.
The original Brasil ’65 “So Nice” recording has been repackaged and re-released as “Best of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’65″. Unlike the original, it comes in a rather plain, generic looking cover with a yellow and black color scheme and a photo of the three men in the trio. The women are nowhere to be seen. The packaging does little to hint at the musical gems that it holds. I have seen it selling for as little as $1.00 in the dustbins of recorded music history. There is no substitution for the original vinyl LP.
I hope in your travels you come across this album, preferably on vinyl, for it is a true treasure. I believe it is the perfect addition to any remarkable collection.
Additional information on the vinyl cover art:
(Photo 1: color)
Sergio Mendes (center) is the pianist and leader of the ’65 trio. His sidemen are bassist Sebastião Neto (left), formally a player with João Gilberto’s famed group, and a drummer who goes by the name of Chico Batera, or, translated into English, Chico “The Drummer” (right). Wanda de Sah and Rosinha de Valença are not pictured.
(Photo 2: b&w)
Sérgio Mendes & Brasil ‘66 includes Mendes (piano), vocalists Lani Hall and Janis Hansen, Bob Matthews (bass), Jose Soares (percussion), and Joao Palma (drums). John Pisano guested as guitarist. From the album “Equinox”.
[All photo images are copyrighted by their respective copyright owners]
David Curry is an American designer, photographer, author, and music aficionado living in Los Angeles. He has traveled throughout Brasil extensively.
©2011 David Curry