Sergio Mendes: Bringing ‘Joy’ to Screens and Vinyl

Celebrating Sergio Mendes on his 80th birthday with a look back at our conversation from last year with the boss nova superstar.Ed.

Six decades after the rise of bossa nova, and more than a half century since the heyday of Brasil ’66, the music of Sergio Mendes is poised for another serge in popularity with the release of a new documentary and album.

John Scheinfeld’s new documentary Sergio Mendes: In the Key of Joy premieres Saturday, January 18 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Next month it will be accompanied by a new album of the same name, In the Key of Joy on Concord Records, with a slate of new songs with guests stars that include Common, Hermeto Pascoal, and Joe Pizzulo among others.

“One aspect of Sergio’s long and impressive career that has impressed me is how he has successfully navigated the career peaks and valleys encountered by most artists,” says Scheinfeld, whose previous films include The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? and Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. “Amazingly, he has found a way to push the envelope and transform his sound from decade to decade while always remaining relevant and staying true to his musical roots.”

A three-time Grammy winner, Mendes has released dozens of albums over the years, had some top 10 singles with remakes of “The Look of Love” and “The Fool on the Hill” in 1968, and returned with a hit 15 years later with another Top 5 hit, “Never Gonna Let You Go.” He remade his “Mas Que Nada” with Black Eyed Peas in 2006 and earned an Oscar nomination for a song in the 2012 animated Rio. We caught up with Mendes, 78, this week over the phone in a call from his home in Woodland Hills, California.

How long did it take to put the documentary together?

Two years. John Scheinfeld did the John Coltrane documentary and Harry Nilsson. He’s a great guy, very musical. We went to Brazil, we interviewed a lot of people down there, we got a lot of old, great footage. And it’s just great. I’m very, very happy about it.

And you recorded a new album to come about the same time?

Yes, It’s got a lot of young artists—newcomers—and a lot of new songs, no covers. And of course vinyl, which I love. I have a 26-year-old, he buys two records a week. And his deck, you know, the turntables…the other day I had dinner with my friend, the great engineer Bernie Grundman, and he was talking all about the resurgence of vinyl. We are all very happy about it.

It’s part of your legacy too, with those great albums of the ’60s and their great artwork. You don’t get that impact in smaller formats.

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Or streaming—you hear one thing and throw it away. It’s kind of weird for me.

You’ve never taken a break, have you? You’ve been performing pretty consistently for six decades?

As long as God allows me to do it and gives me the health, I’m there and ready.

What do you think makes your music sounding fresh all of these years?

I think my curiosity. I like to try new things, working with new musicians and new singers. Always looking for something unique and special that I can get excited about. I don’t like to redo the same thing, I’m very proud of my career and everything else. But the challenge to me is to look at it like— calls me, says let’s do something. On my new album I have Common, I have Joe Pizzula singing “Never Going to Let You Go.” So I like the new, I like the fresh.

You’ve been working with your wife, the singer Gracinha Mendes, almost the entirety of your career.

That’s right. It’s very important. We travel together and it’s a great thing to have her in the band. People love her sound. It is great. That’s another reason why I’m still excited about it.

I understand that some of the footage in the film includes work with Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder. Tell me about those times.

That was an amazing experience in my life. I met my agent, I’m talking about 1966 now… and he looked at me and said, “You’re going to go out with Frank.” I said, “Frank who?” He says, “Sinatra.” I said, “No shit!” So that kind of thing. That kind of encounter was so beautiful. And then he invited me again in the ’80s. We toured; when we went to Europe, did a tour in Europe, and he was a very good friend. I was always in awe just watching him singing and performing. You talk about a genius now.

How about Stevie Wonder?

Another one! Brilliant! Another one of my favorites of all times. And so unique. You know, we met in Brazil, and then when he came back here, he had a song he was crazy about, a song called “Pretty World” that I recorded with Brasil ’66. He had a guitar player in his group called Michael Sembello, who wrote “Maniac.” And Michael Sembello, his girlfriend was one of my singers, Marietta. That whole kind of serendipity, you know. When I met Stevie he wrote this song for me [“Bird of Beauty”], and he asked me to write Portuguese lyrics for him. Which I did, and it was the first time, I guess the only time, he sang in Portuguese. But is he another unique artist, and it’s such an honor to have worked with him.

Back in the day, you rode the crest of the bossa nova craze that you helped create 60 years ago.

I was part of the movement. I was there in 1959 working in little clubs in Brazil with Antonio Carlos Jobim, who was the main composer who wrote all those fantastic songs. And then American jazz musicians fell in love with it, like Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others. Then we came to 1962, there was a bossa nova concert in Carnegie Hall. This is before Brasil ’66 and I had a quintet, and I met all those guys I just mentioned, George Shearing and Dizzy and Stan Getz. Then I was invited to make a record with Cannonball Adderley for the old Riverside Records—on vinyl of course. Yeah, it was great. Bossa nova; I still love those songs and they were from the most important time of Brazilian music.

People still love it too. Are you feeling gratified it’s carrying on to new generations?

I do, I do, I do. I think it all has to do with those memorable melodies that Jobim wrote. Those melodies stay with you. They’re not just loops they’re real melodies, like the great songwriters—like Cole Porter or Mancini or Irving Berlin. I like melodies, I’m a melody freak.

You had big hits adding bossa nova to popular melodies of the 1960s in songs like “The Look of Love” and “Fool on a Hill.” Did you ever hear back from Burt Bacharach or Paul McCartney about how you handled their tunes?

I got a letter from McCartney. He said it was the best version of his song. And of course Burt, we’re friends, and “The Look of Love” became a hit. He loved my version. The song was a kind of mild hit for Dusty Springfield. That’s when I heard the song, and I said maybe I can make this sound a little Brazilian, with the arrangement, the rhythm, so it was different from the original. And I guess that’s what they like about when I rearrange and reinterpret the song in a different way.

You’ve said working with of Black Eyed Peas helped reinvigorate your career.

Yeah, he’s great. He came to my house. He had my own records, actually, showing to me that he grew up with them. He’s very curious like me, and said let’s do something together. We sent to the studio, it was a time for us, it was a great experience. And he brought his friends like John Legend, Justin Timberlake, India.Arie, and what a joy for me to be able to do that.

You’re touring all this year as well?

Yes. My agent is working on it.

So you’re not looking to slow down anytime soon?

No. Not as God helps me to be in good health, I’ll be there.

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