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Sergio Mendes' group, Brasil '66, created some of the best jet set pop ever heard. For much of the last thirty years, Brasil '66 albums gathered dust in thrift store racks along side several million copies of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass' Whipped Cream and Other Delights. Then, in the mid-1990s, the lounge music movement and compilations like In Flight Entertainment reminded us what wonderful sounds were locked up in these forgotten records.
Trained at the local conservatory in Niteroi, Mendes became a versatile pianist. Starting out as a professional musician just as the roots of bossa nova were beginning to emerge, Mendes embraced the hybrid of jazz and Latin music and was soon appearing alongside Jobim and Gilberto at Rio clubs. Leading a group known as the Bossa Nova Trio, he toured Europe in 1963, playing at numerous jazz festivals. With the huge interest in bossa nova in the U.S., Mendes moved to New York in 1964 and worked with Art Farmer, Bud Shank, vocalist Wanda de Sah, Jobim, and others on bossa nova recordings.
He formed the group, Brasil '66, in late 1965, combining veteran Latin percussionists Jose Soares and Joao Palma, Bob Matthews on bass, Mendes on piano, and singer Lani Hall (who later married of Herb Alpert). (This was an entirely different group from the instrumental combo, Brasil '65, with whom he recorded albums for Atlantic and Capitol, by the way.)
Leading off their first album for A&M, their explosive cover of Jorge Ben's "Mais Que Nada" (which roughly translates to, "It's nothing") became their first hit. Hall (who was double-tracked on the album) and Janis Hansen (who joined when Alpert hired the group to open for the Tijuana Brass road tour) learned the lyrics phonetically, but no one needed to understand what they were singing--the upbeat rhythm and lively vocal harmonies were enough to hook American listeners. "Mais Que Nada" soon became one of the favorite cover tunes of the period, and other Brasil '66 tunes such as "Look Around," "Fool on the Hill," and "Constant Rain" climbed up the Top 40 charts.
The group toured alongside the Tijuana Brass and fellow label-mates the Baja Marimba Band, and was all over U.S. television variety shows. Hall eventually left the group to pursue her own solo career. Mendes slacked off the arranging chores and turned most over to Dave Grusin. The group attempted to mutate to adapt to the changing fashions and tastes, going from pop material like "Going Out of My Head" and Bacharach's "The Look of Love" (one of the best covers ever of that great tune) to Joanie Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning" and Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay."
It's clear the group's work had become half-hearted and audiences could tell. In 1971, Mendes updated the group once again, to Brasil '77. By then, Janis Hansen had also left, being replaced by Gracinha Leoporace (who later married Mendes). The group did moderately well on Elektra, but disappeared from pop singles charts.
In 1982, leading a "New" Brasil '77, Mendes re-signed with A&M and recorded several albums, garnering a Top 10 hit in 1983 with "Never Let You Go." He wasn't able to keep that streak going, however, and his contract lapsed after two albums.
In the early 1990s, he started yet another group, this time called Brasil '99, moving more and more into a non-pop oriented blend of funk, jazz, and Brazilian music.
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