Herb Alpert Still Loves What He Does
There can be few sounds in pop music over the last fifty years as instantly recognizable as the smooth trumpet and playful, Latin-tinged tunes of Herb Alpert—trumpeter, composer, bandleader, record company co-founder, visual artist, philanthropist... and as I kidded him in a phone conversation we had a few weeks ago, “chief bottle washer.” “Gardener... I also take out the garbage... I’m in charge of a lot of stuff!” adds Alpert with a laugh.
With the Tijuana Brass, Herb Alpert recorded songs in the 1960s such as “A Taste of Honey,” “Tijuana Taxi,” “The Lonely Bull,” and the title song from the soundtrack of the Peter Sellers version of Casino Royale. Now 81 years old, he’s still at it, recording and touring nationally with his wife Lani Hall, who was involved with another iconic 1960s group as one of the lead vocalists for Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. Alpert and Hall will bring their national tour to the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield on Saturday September 30 at 8:00pm.
Herb Alpert is a native of Los Angeles, and credits the L.A. public school system with sparking his interest in music generally and the trumpet specifically. “I was very fortunate. When I was eight years old there was a music class at my grammar school, and in that class they had a table filled with various instruments. And I happened to pick up the trumpet—and couldn’t make a sound out of it at first! But when I finally did, the trumpet was ‘talking’ for me, because I was very shy. And I’m still very shy. But that trumpet was making the noise that I couldn’t get out of my mouth. And obviously it had a profound effect on my life.
“Then I started studying privately, and I had some great teachers. I was listening to all my favorites like Harry James and Louis Armstrong... and then it was Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. And I was trying to emulate those players, only to realize at some point—I had this ‘Ah-HA!’, you know, ‘who wants to hear a copy of them? They’ve already done it!’ So I was looking for my own voice, and I finally found it around 1958 or so. I heard the record by Les Paul and Mary Ford, ‘How High the Moon.’ And Les was layering his guitar on the recording.” Alpert was fascinated by the early multi-track/overdubbing recording techniques pioneered by Les Ford, that gave his guitar sound not only more brilliance, but also sounded like multiple players at once. “And I tried doing that with my trumpet. I had two tape machines, and I went from one machine to the other and I got this sound. And the minute I heard that sound it was like ‘I think I’m onto something!’ And that was the genesis of the ‘Tijuana Brass’ sound.
And then of course I recorded ‘The Lonely Bull,’ which was the first record that was released on A&M—a result of going to bullfights for about three springs in Tijuana.” Alpert was influenced by the sounds of the Mexican music ensembles he heard there. “I recorded the song and it took off like a rocket ship.
“And I got a letter from a lady in Germany, and she said ‘Dear Mr. Alpert: thank you for sending me on this vicarious trip to Tijuana.’ I chuckled when I read it—then I thought, ‘Wow, man! That music was so visual, it transported her!’ So that’s the music I’ve always tried to make, music that takes you someplace.”
Around the time he recorded ‘The Lonely Bull’ in 1962, Herb Alpert and business partner Jerry Moss formed the A&M Records label (for “Alpert” and “Moss”), at first to market the newly-popular Tijuana Brass sound. Not that there was actually a working band by that name yet; Alpert was overdubbing his own trumpet playing and utilizing studio musicians. Within a few years, though, he put together a team of top-flight session musicians to be his permanent band. Throughout the 1960s they issued one or two LPs every year, and received tremendous exposure on the popular network-TV variety shows of the period. “We started doing the major shows,” says Alpert. “Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, and all those shows. So we got all that great visibility.”
But A&M Records wasn’t just about the Tijuana Brass—far from it. Alpert and Moss were determined to add more and more musical acts to their catalog. They weren’t alone by any means: the early 1960s saw any number of small independent record company start-ups. “Well, you got that right,” says Herb Alpert. “There were little companies operating out of the trunks of their cars in that period. We didn’t have aspirations of starting a ‘major’ label—we just wanted to put out a record. After ‘The Lonely Bull’ was a big hit, some of the distributors we had said, ‘Why don’t you guys just take the money and run?’ And that kind of sparked us into thinking, ‘Hey, we’re gonna hold onto this and see how long we can ride this baby!’ And that’s what we did. The Tijuana Brass records were selling and supporting the company, and little by little we picked up some artists.
“In 1964, I think it was, we picked up Waylon Jennings. I produced some of Waylon’s records—I did this record with Waylon called ‘Four Strong Winds’ that was written by Bobby Bare. Chet Atkins happened to hear it—Chet was head honcho at RCA in Nashville. At that time I wanted to take Waylon a little bit more pop, but Waylon wanted to be a country artist. And he was excited about Chet’s interest in him, and I talked it over with my partner Jerry Moss. And we let Waylon out of his contract. We thought it would be in his best interest to go with Chet Atkins (at RCA Nashville). When my partner and I signed the release from the contract—we had about three more years left with Waylon—I looked at Jerry and I said, ‘This guy’s gonna be a big star.’ And Jerry said, ‘I know it.’ And from that point on I said, ‘If we can be that honest with our artists and look at our company from the artists’ point of view, we’re going to be very successful.’”
And they were. Among the many artists who recorded for A&M from the 1960s to about 1990 were The Carpenters; Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66; The Captain and Tennille; Procol Harum; Cat Stevens; Styx; Supertramp; and The Police. Alpert simply says, “Well, we kinda spread out. We had this image of being an ‘easy-listening’ company for a while. And then my partner took a trip to London, and that opened it up for us. We heard ‘Roxanne’ (The Police’s first major single) and felt crazy about that. (“Roxanne” ended up on The Police’s debut album for A&M, “Outlandos d’Amour”, in 1978.) “When we both saw The Police it was like, ‘Wow! Bingo! That’s a group!’ Three guys sounded like 20 guys playing! So it’s been a great ride. And I think we’ve always treated the artists right.”
Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss sold A&M Records to the giant music-and-entertainment conglomerate Polygram (now Universal Music Group) in 1989 for around half a billion (with a “b”) dollars. Since then Alpert has stayed busy with touring, recording, and various other pursuits.
Asked what keeps him on the road and in the recording studio at age 81, Alpert says, “I love what I’m doing. I’m passionate about it. I’m not trying to ‘keep my name up in lights.’ I record music because it’s one of my real, major pleasures in life.” He’s also a visual artist—an abstract-Expressionist painter and sculptor whose works have been displayed in numerous solo and group gallery shows around the country. “I sculpt and I paint. I’m a right-brained guy. So I’m going to do this as long as I’m capable of doing it! We’ve been playing concerts for the last eleven and a half years with the same group, my wife and I. And I know we’re making an enormous amount of people happy with our music. And that’s what I love to do.”
Alpert has just released a new CD called “Herb Alpert: Music Vol. 1,” featuring standards and other songs. He produced a delightful video, which can be seen on YouTube here, to accompany one of the CD’s songs, “I’m Yours.”
“The spark,” says Alpert, “was my nephew, who’s our manager—Randy ‘Badazz’ Alpert. He wanted to do something that had something to do with love, and got some very special people involved, and one thing led to another. That’s the vibe I wanted to put out, because there’s kind of a strange energy going on in this country at the moment. And I wanted to put out a CD that had that positive energy and made you feel good when you heard it. I just like to make music that makes you feel good. I always felt that if it’s fun for me to play, it’s going to be fun for a certain amount of people to listen to. And that’s how I approach it.”
Alpert has also devoted a major part of his life—and no little amount of his financial resources—in recent years to “giving back” to various educational institutions and initiatives to help new generations of kids to discover not just music, but their creative artistic spark in general.
“Oh, absolutely,” declares Alpert. “I think we all should be doing that. I’ve been blessed way beyond my dreams, and I get pleasure out of helping kids. I think it’s an important ingredient for kids to have a creative experience at an early age. Whether it’s playing an instrument or writing or sculpting, dancing, acting... it doesn’t really matter as long as they can express themselves and feel good about that. If they get reasonably good at it, they get to appreciate their own uniqueness—and then, fingers crossed, maybe they can appreciate the uniqueness in others. And I think we need a lot more of that in this world.”
At their Gillioz Theatre concert in Springfield on September 30, Alpert says he and Lani Hall will offer a mix of old and new. “I know that people like to hear some Tijuana Brass music, and I will play a medley of Tijuana Brass songs; and Lani will do some Brasil ’66 songs. But surrounding that it’s going to be pretty open. It’s going to be songs of our choice—a lot of them will be familiar. And it’s going to be very spontaneous. It’s not going to be something we do night after night exactly the same way. That’s why it’s fun for me to do.”
Looking at the sheer number of dates they’re playing across the country, I suggest to Alpert they would have to mix it up in each concert to avoid going crazy. Alpert laughs at the thought. “Oh, I’m far from crazy... unless you know something I don’t! No, I tell you, you get hooked on music. I love to play. I love to play with the musicians we have, and I look forward to it. I DON’T look forward to packing and unpacking... but other than that, I like the process a lot.”
Tickets for Herb Alpert and Lani Hall range from $36.50 to $50.00 and are available by calling the Gillioz box office at (417) 863-9491 or at the Gillioz website.