Singer Bonnie Bowden has an interesting background. Today she performs with jazz groups and swing bands on the West Coast. But from 1972 onward into the 1980s, she was a member of Sergio Mendes' "Brasil" groups, which specialized in uplifting, samba-soaked versions of contemporary and bossa nova hits. During this period Bonnie had studio interactions with a range of celebrated artists and composers, including Stevie Wonder and Antonio Carlos Jobim. [Pictured above: Bonnie Bowden today]
In my conversation with Bonnie, she talked about her Mendes years...
JazzWax: What was your role on Stevie Wonder’s Bird of Beauty?
Bonnie Bowden: A few months before the release of Stevie’s Fulfillingness' First Finale album in July 1974, I received a call from Sergio Mendes, who was vacationing in Brazil. We had talked earlier about the verse to Bird Of Beauty that Stevie had wanted him to write in Portuguese. Since Sergio was out of the country, he asked if I would get together with Stevie and teach him the verse.
JW: Did your jaw drop?
BB: It did. Sergio said I should expect a call from Stevie’s office.
JW: After they asked you to come to the studio, what happened?
BB: As I was driving over to the Record Plant in Hollywood, I was so excited. What an all-time thrill to meet Stevie Wonder. I had admired and enjoyed his music for years. I wondered what kind of person he would be.
JW: Were you nervous?
BB: A little. Weighing heavily on my mind, though, was Stevie's auto accident the previous August, when he suffered a serious head injury. The accident was so bad that he was in a coma afterward. I was worried he might not be fully recovered. [Pictured above: Bonnie Bowden with Stevie Wonder]
JW: What happened when you arrived?
BB: I was escorted into the studio by members of Stevie’s staff. They told me he was still suffering from periodic migraine headaches due to his head injury, so he would be arriving a little late. I waited patiently with the engineer and others. Everyone was friendly and cool.
JW: What were they doing?
BB: Listening to some of the album’s songs on playback. The tracks were so loud and clear, coming through state-of-the-art speakers. Finally, Stevie arrived. He was very courteous and apologetic for being late. [Pictured above: Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Bowden and Sergio Mendes backstage at Hollywood's Troubadour.
JW: What happened next?
BB: He went immediately to the piano and asked me to sit next to him. After I spoke a few words, he recognized me. He said, “You’re the one who sang the solo with Sergio Mendes on my song If You Really Love Me. I loved it. Your voice was so clear and pure.” That was the moment when I became speechless.
JW: Did you teach him the Portuguese lyrics phonetically?
BB: No, I’ve always stored song lyrics in my head, even foreign-language lyrics. He asked me to stay while he recorded the vocal and to correct him if he made any mistakes. To hear Stevie Wonder asking me if he sounded OK? Wow, that was just too much. I was so charmed by his “American” accent on the Portuguese. [Pictured above: Singers Gracinha Leporace, left, and Bonnie Bowden with Stevie Wonder]
JW: Were the lyrics written out for him in braille?
BB: No, nothing was written out. He listened intently to my Portuguese and repeated it line-by-line as I sang it right in his ear. He picked it up instantly. He was very soft-spoken and kind. One of the great moments of my life.
JW: You must have encountered quite a few songwriters.
BB: One afternoon in 1974, I went to a rehearsal at Sergio’s home studio in Encino, Calif. When I walked in, there was Antonio Carlos Jobim [pictured above] sitting at the piano. I almost fainted. No one told me he was going to be there.
JW: What was he like?
BB: He was charming, sweet and engaging. He told me that Sergio wanted to record his new song—The Waters Of March, also known as Águas de Março—with Brasil 77. He said he wanted to teach me the lyrics in Portuguese and English.
JW: How did he do this?
BB: There was a portable cassette recorder on top of the piano. I sat next to him on the piano bench and listened to the song. There were so many lyrics. Sergio decided that we would record it in English, but when we performed it live, especially in Brazil, we sang it in Portuguese.
JW: What were you doing before joining Sergio Mendes?
BB: I was singing six nights a week with the Sound Castle Ltd., a top-40 band on the Sound Castle Stage in Tomorrowland at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
JW: How did you wind up auditioning for Mendes?
BB: A friend of Sergio’s who knew that he was looking for a replacement for Lani Hall heard me one night at Disneyland. Sergio called me the next day, and I went to his home in Encino. I was only 19 years old so it was very exciting. [Pictured above: Sergio Mendes]
JW: How did you get the job?
BB: Sergio, his road manager, his secretary and Gracinha Leporace, his wife and the group's other female singer, were all present at my audition. Sergio played the piano, and he seemed very pleased that I knew all of his hits. I had been a fan of Brasil 66 since I was teen back in Texas. For the audition I sang The Look Of Love, Going Out Of My Head and Mais Que Nada.
JW: Was not knowing Portuguese a drawback?
BB: It’s funny, Sergio never asked me if I spoke Portuguese. I had heard Mais Que Nada on the radio many times, so I already knew the lyrics. Sergio was very surprised at that.
JW: But you must have had to learn Portuguese phonetically?
BB: Yes, but fortunately for me it came easily. I just listened to tapes and memorized the lyrics. I had sung opera in school, so I had already performed in other languages and understood the emphasis and inflections needed.
JW: How did you and the other singer rehearse?
BB: In the first few years it was just myself and Brazilian singer Gracinha. We rehearsed in Sergio’s home recording studio. [Pictured above: Gracinha and Sergio Mendes]
JW: What was your first performance with the group?
BB: It was at Caesars Palace in the main room, known as Circus Maximus. It was thrilling. I had been there many times before with my husband, David Amaro, when he played guitar with Andy Williams. I had always dreamed of singing on that stage someday. Opening night was a thrill. My parents drove out from Texas, and Elvis Presley, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, and Paul Anka were in the audience.
JW: How did the vocal harmonizing work?
BB: Bob Alcivar [pictured] arranged the vocals, and Gracinha and I went to Bob’s home to rehearse.
JW: What was your first recording?
BB: When I joined the group they had already changed its name to Brasil 77. My first recording was an album called Love Music in 1972, produced by the great Bones Howe. It was recorded on Bell Records at Wally Heider Studios in Hollywood. My first recorded solo was on the title song, Love Music. The first time I heard the record on KGIL Los Angeles, legendary radio host Chuck Southcott said my name. That was very cool.
JW: What were your biggest hits with Mendes?
BB: The group had had its biggest his in the ‘60s, before I joined. Unfortunately we didn’t have any big ones while I was with them. But we sang all of the group’s big hits every night, whenever we performed here and abroad. They included The Look Of Love, Mais Que Nada, Going Out Of My Head, Fool On The Hill, Pretty World, Chove Chuva and so on.
JW: Did you sing soprano?
BB: Yes. I was the lead singer for all the years I was with the group, so I had many solos on our recordings. Some of the most notable ones are on The Trouble With Hello Is Goodbye by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Dave Grusin; Double Rainbow by Antonio Carlos Jobim; Put A Little Love Away by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter; All in Love Is Fair, Looking for Another Pure Love and If You Really Love Me by Stevie Wonder; and Love Music by Lambert and Potter.
JW: What was you first TV appearance?
BB: Believe it or not, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. I have always been very fortunate never to feel nervous. However, I do get extremely excited—elated, really—whenever I’m about to sing, even to this day.
JW: What was your favorite Brasil 77 song?
BB: Pra Dizer Adeus (To Say Goodbye) by Brazilian composer Edu Lobo. It’s a hauntingly beautiful ballad.
JW: Why did you leave the group?
BB: We were on the road constantly—six weeks in Asia, four weeks in Brazil and so on. Every year, we went on the same tours and lived out of suitcases. That’s the way it was for all the groups back in those days. Some people love life on the road. I needed a sense of home.
JazzWax tracks: My favorite albums featuring Bonnie Bowden with Sergio Mendes include Love Music, Vintage '74 (also known in Europe as Waiting for Love), Homecooking and Sergio Mendes and Magic Lady, found on a single CD.
JazzWax clips: Here's Bonnie and Sergio Mendes in Japan in 1974 singing a duet, Pra Dizer Adeus (To Say Goodbye)...
And here's Bonnie Bowden singing Where Is the Love with Gracinha Leporace, Sergio Mendes' wife, and the Brasil 77 off of Love Music...