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Sergio Mendes gets "Real" about Oscar race

Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes poses at the 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year tribute honoring Paul McCartney in Los Angeles
Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes poses at the 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year tribute honoring Paul McCartney in Los Angeles

By Jordan Riefe

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - At age 71, in a long career with a string of hit songs and movie music behind him, one might think legendary Brazilian composer Sergio Mendes has it all, but he's missing one thing: an Oscar. This year, he might just take one home.

Mendes' song "Real in Rio," which he wrote for animated movie "Rio," has been nominated for one of the film industry's top honors, and odds are good he could win on February 26 when the honors are given out because his category includes only one other entry.

The morning nominations were announced in January, Mendes was awakened by a call from the movie's director, Carlos Saldahna, asking him if he had his tuxedo pressed and ready.

"I couldn't believe it," said Mendes. "I'm still kind of pinching myself. What a wonderful moment of my life."

Mendes has numerous wonderful events to look back on. As a young musician he worked the clubs of Rio de Janeiro and was mentored by the legendary Antonio Carlos Jobim. Later mentors included Herb Alpert who signed Mendes to A&M records.

But writing "Real in Rio" was a special experience for the native of the Brazilian city known for its nightlife, beaches and buoyant human spirit. He said he felt honored to work on it.

"They asked me to write a song that would open the movie," said Mendes. "It kind of goes through the whole movie and at the end it explodes in the Carnival parade. So that's 'Real in Rio."

Mendes moved to the United States in the early 1960s and recorded some music, but it wasn't until he teamed up with star musician Alpert that Mendes' career took off. His first big album was "Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66," which featured the hit single "Mas Que Nada."

"He was not only a mentor, he was a friend. I worship his music still today," Mendes said about Alpert, recalling "the way he approached the harmonies, his voicings, the orchestration."

KEEPING IT FRESH

"Mas Que Nada," which means more than nothing, was the first Brazilian song in Portuguese to become a smash hit all over the world, he said. He reinterpreted it in a 2006 collaboration with Will.i.am of Black-Eyed Peas, who produced Mendes' "Timeless."

"If you do the song in a totally different way than I did in '66, I enjoyed doing that," said Mendes. "This was a whole new generation that never heard that song in the '60s and they were introducing it as a brand new song."

After "Mas Que Nada" came other hits such as "Fool on the Hill" and "Look of Love," and Brasil '66 began touring with Alpert and his Tijuana Brass, which Mendes proudly notes was "the hottest instrumental band in the world" at the time.

Despite over 50 years in music, Mendes hasn't lost his love of performing. Celebrating his 71st birthday last week, he played "Fool on the Hill" at an event honoring Paul McCartney.

At the Oscars, "Real in Rio" is competing against only "Man or Muppet" by Bret McKenzie from "The Muppets." And while the odds of winning are 50/50, Mendes, a veteran of awards shows, knows anything can happen.

"I'm going to be praying," Mendes said.

The lack of many nominees results from recent changes designed to counter criticism too subpar songs were being nominated. As a result, songs from the likes of Madonna, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Alan Menken and Mary J. Blige were overlooked, prompting some criticism within the industry.

But Mendes said he didn't know much about the rules or changes, commenting only that "I wish it would be more songs."

Mendes did lament the fact that Oscar organizers have decided not to include musical performances in the awards' TV broadcast. "It's such a happy song," he said of "Real in Rio." "It would be a really incredible vibe for everybody."

(Reporting by Jordan Riefe, Editing By Bob Tourtellotte)

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