For youngsters of the ’60s, the term “easy listening” denoted music for the square and old. It meant Andy Williams, the Lettermen, doctors’ waiting rooms, and the Zenith Stereo Console in the family den.
But Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 made easy listening hip. Led by a young, bearded pianist from the state of Rio de Janeiro, the instrumental and vocal sextet fused Brazilian jazz with breezy sunshine pop. The music seemed designed to pour from an open-topped convertible as it whizzed toward Laguna Beach. Hits from Brazil took their place next to “The Fool on the Hill,” “Goin’ Out of My Head,” and “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Everything pulsed with bossa rhythms and brimmed with tunefulness.
“The sound of Brasil ’66,” to quote Mendes, was the cool, cloudless voice of lead singer Lani Hall. A Chicago girl in her early twenties, Hall sang in phonetic Portuguese as well as English. In a 1968 TV appearance, she stands nearly a head shorter than her vocal cohort, Karen Philipp, a swaying, statuesque blonde who later posed in Playboy. But Hall draws the attention. In orange bell-bottoms, with brown hair spilling past her shoulders, she looks like an introverted, wistful college girl. Her singing is unadorned, almost vibrato-free, quietly sexy, and mysterious; one could project onto her whatever fantasy one wished.
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Brasil ’66 remains iconic; Craft Recordings has just reissued the group’s Greatest Hits on vinyl. It includes Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada,” which Mendes launched as an eternal dance hit. But Hall’s solo career has been sporadic. After leaving Mendes in January 1971, she made a series of albums for A&M, produced by the label’s co-founder, trumpeter Herb Alpert, Hall’s husband and one of the music industry’s towering masterminds. With his Mexican-flavored band, the Tijuana Brass, Alpert created one of the most influential sounds of the ’60s. Yet despite a Grammy, Hall’s records made her more of a cult figure than a star. On three occasions she has withdrawn from the business for years.
Since 2007, however, she and Alpert have toured the world with a trio. Though somewhat in his shadow, Hall is deeply respected. Maureen McGovern, the classic-pop songbird whose voice has been compared to a Stradivarius, calls her “a singer’s singer.” In 1967, Hall delighted the renowned Brazilian songwriter and musician Dori Caymmi when she sang lead on the Brasil ’66 version of his song, “Like a Lover.” It became a standard. “For us Brazilian composers at the time, like Edu Lobo, Milton Nascimento, and I, Brasil ’66 was great exposure,” Caymmi says. “Lani was an incredible part of this moment. We are very thankful to her because she performed our music in a beautiful way.” Hall’s own English lyrics for “Empty Faces” (Nascimento) and Lobo’s “Crystal Illusions” and “To Say Goodbye” gave those songs American lives.