The biggest-selling American recording artist of the culturally-conflicted 1960s wasn’t a long-haired rock ‘n’ roller from Laurel Canyon or San Francisco, nor was he part of Detroit’s groundbreaking Motown scene.
He wasn’t even a singer, even though he managed to score a No. 1 hit with the first song he ever laid a vocal on (“This Guy’s in Love With You,” 1968).
With more than 72 million records sold, the musician with the magic touch was Herb Alpert, 30 years old at the peak of his success. And could he have been less hip, at least on paper? The guy played trumpet, for crying out loud.
Yet the truth is that Herb Alpert, the California-born son of Ukranian immigrants, dominated the record charts as the charismatic frontman of a clean-cut group called the Tijuana Brass. Fifteen gold albums, and five of them topped the charts.
In 1966, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass outsold both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
And he (there wasn’t really a full-time band) did it with catchy, finger-poppin’ instrumental tunes like “A Taste of Honey,” “Tijuana Taxi,” “Spanish Flea,” “Never on Sunday” and “Zorba the Greek” – with trumpets playing both melody and harmony, they sounded great on the radio, they sounded great on TV (several TJB tunes were used as themes for the popular Dating Game show). They weren’t jazz like Louis Armstrong records, they weren’t middle-of-the-road or Dixieland like Al Hirt records.
No, Herb Alpert’s trumpet was a horn o’plenty. The public, young and old, embraced him.
The Catalyst spoke with Alpert, 87, at the start of the cross-country tour that brings him and his wife, singer Lani Hall, to Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre Saturday night.
Hall was the lead singer with Sergio Mendes & Brazil ’66, one of the first non-Tijuana Brass acts Alpert signed to A&M Records, the independent label he’d started with Jerry Moss in 1962 to issue the first TJB single, “The Lonely Bull.” She recorded several successful solo albums in the 1970s.
In some ways, the legacy of A&M (Alpert and Moss) Records is even greater than that of the TJB. In addition to the dozens of hit-making American acts they signed – the Carpenters, first and foremost – Herb and Jerry made licensing deals with British record labels, allowing A&M to bring an incredible roster of game-changing artists to this country including Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Procol Harum, Humble Pie, Peter Frampton, Supertramp, the Police and Joe Jackson.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, and given the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2013.
St. Pete Catalyst: I understand that the horns-in-harmony thing was the result of you overdubbing your own trumpet, rather than playing with another musician in the studio …
Herb Alpert: Yeah, that was the genesis of it. When I first started fooling around with sound I bought an Ampex tape recorder, and then I bought another tape recorder and started recording on it … I would go from machine to machine, overdubbing my trumpet on both machines. There were some pop artists who had records out with double voices. And Les Paul used to stack his guitars on. So I just tried that on the horn, as just a look-see.
And then when I hit on that sound, it was like ‘Mm .. that sounds pretty good. I like that.’
So the Tijuana Brass was a “sound,” not an actual band?
That’s accurate. There was no Tijuana Brass until after I did the Whipped Cream and Other Delights album. Everyone was trying to convince me to get a band together, and I was reluctant because I didn’t think I’d be able to create the same sound. Because the trumpet sound was mine, and it was that double trumpet sound. But it all worked out. People responded. I had a good time playing. I have no complaints, you know? I’m grateful for what happened, and it’s still happening, ‘cause people are responding and we’re playing sold-out concerts all over the country.
I was curious about the name Tijuana Brass. There was a lot of mariachi-flavored pop music, of course, but you played many different kinds of music too. Did you feel that the name might have inhibited you in some way?
In retrospect, it didn’t. But I did at the time. I wasn’t crazy about the name. My partner, Jerry Moss, came up with it. We used to go to bullfights, and I was enamored with this little group at the arena there – it wasn’t a mariachi band, but it was a band that was playing all the fanfares for the different events.
So I got onto that. And when I had this tune, ‘The Lonely Bull’ – it was called ‘Twinkle Star’ originally – I recorded that, and my partner came up with this idea for the Tijuana Brass. And I was kind of hemming and hawing about it, but … obviously it worked out.
The big question in my mind would be, would it have been as successful without that name? And did the name mean anything to it?
You were all over TV in those days. Were you a reluctant pop star, or did you embrace it?
It was a confusing time for me, because I’m an introvert. I’m a card-carrying introvert. So that kind of exposure kinda threw me for a loop for a moment. I didn’t know quite how to react to it. And then when people were saying ‘He’s a nice-looking guy, that’s why the music is good,’ that threw me too because I just wanted to make music that felt good for me, and I didn’t want to compromise.
I could’ve made the ‘Lonely Bull’ record sideways and then done a couple variations on that, but I didn’t. I wanted to see how far I could take the sound.
There were all kinds of different styles of music – pop, easy listening and jazz, and Eastern European – on the Tijuana Brass albums …
Well, I was playing all different styles before the Tijuana Brass. I used to play wedding parties, Greek weddings and Armenian weddings and Jewish weddings and all sorts of things! So I heard all different types of music, and I don’t have perfect pitch but I’ve got good relative pitch so if I hear a song on the radio, I can just play it right back at you, because I got that gift. So I was familiar with a lot of different songs, and a lot of different grooves, and I came up as a classically-trained musician.
And then I got into listening to jazz. Listening to Louis Armstrong and Miles and the boys, and I started wanting to do that. Because I wanted to just play the music that came out of me. I wanted to be free.
And I think that’s what’s so beautiful about jazz, and music in general. It really tests your freedom – that’s what you want to do. You want to be free as an artist, and express yourself in the most honest way, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. And I’ve been very fortunate that some people respond to that.
At the end of the ‘60s and into the early ‘70s, you took a couple of years off. Why?
I was having a huge problem playing the trumpet. I was going through a divorce. Emotionally, I was not able to get the note out properly. I couldn’t get the first note out for stuttering through the horn.
And then I started taking lessons from a gentleman in New York; his name was Carmine Caruso; he had a reputation as being ‘The Troubleshooter,’ so he would treat musicians from all over the world that were having problems.
When I met him I said ‘Man, should I change my mouthpiece? Should I change the trumpet, what’s happening here?’ He says ‘Lemme tell you something, kid. You’re the trumpet. The music comes from within you. The trumpet’s just a megaphone. It’s just an amplifier.’ That was a very important moment for me.
That hadn’t occurred to you before?
Never thought about it that way. I thought, you learn how to play the instrument, you’ve got three valves and how do you make music out of that? It never occurred to me that I was the music.
I know the Tijuana Brass continued for a while, but was there a thought in you then that ‘I’m a little tired of this. Maybe it’s time to change things up’?
Oh yeah, definitely that was happening. And I had the biggest record of my career with ‘Rise’ in 1979, without the Tijuana Brass. So I knew it wasn’t the Brass that made those records feel good, it was my ability to make a good record.
And here’s the odd part of it all: I don’t make music for anybody else. I make it for myself. When I feel good about a song, or something I recorded, that’s all I need. If somebody else likes it, lovely. I like that feeling too. But I’m my first critic, you know? And I just like to make records that make me feel good.
Did you and Jerry start A&M specifically as a vehicle for the Tijuana Brass records?
Yeah, ‘Lonely Bull’ was the first record we released on A&M. It took off like a rocket ship, and the distributors that we finally got collected wanted to have an album, so we did the Lonely Bull album. And then a few of them said ‘Why don’t you guys just take the money and run? You got lucky with that record.’ Which really piqued my interest, because I knew we were lucky, but I thought I had more in me. And I liked some of the songs I did on the Lonely Bull album.
And so I started just pursuing that sound, and seeing how far I could take it, little by little. And then the door opened really wide with the Whipped Cream and Other Delights album.
I remember sitting on top of the console at Gold Star Recording and listening to the entire album after I’d finished it, before it was released. And I got goosebumps thinking that ‘Man, this is good. This is really good. I hope some people appreciate it.’ That was the catalyst. That album sold upward of 14 million copies.
Let’s talk about the Carpenters. That’s another thing you, and A&M, gave to the public. How did they come into your orbit?
Somebody sent me a tape, and out of curiosity I listened to it. Like I did most tapes that were floating around. There were a lot of artists and record producers that didn’t have a company, and they were looking for somebody to distribute their music.
I heard this tape and I was like ‘Whoa, that’s interesting. That girl has a lovely voice.’ It reminded me of some of the artists I liked in high school. So I met with them … and I realized they were making music that was completely theirs. They had a unique way of doing it. And Richard is an excellent artist and wonderful arranger and piano player. And the two of them combined just, I thought, made great music.
So I signed them. It was no big deal – it was just my partner and myself, it’s not like I had to ask 10 people if they liked their music. I just signed them.
The first couple records they put out were a little light, and the people in my own company were ‘Ehh, why’d you sign these kids? They’re a little too cute. They don’t really fit on radio.’
I gave them the song ‘Close to You.’ They recorded it once with Karen playing drums, and it was a little too light. She was a lovely drummer, an excellent musician, but it just didn’t feel like a radio record. So they re-recorded it and re-recorded it.
I think it was the third time. And the third time was the charm. That was the record that not only opened the door wide for them, they were the biggest-selling A&M artist, period.
I marvel at record people who can hear one of many takes and go ‘That one; that’s the one.’
I once turned down ‘Louie Louie.’ I said this record is too long, it’s out of tune. And I’ve heard better versions of the song. Me, the wonderful record producer, passed on ‘Louie Louie’! So, nobody knows. It’s a mystery.
So you’ve been trying to live that one down for all these years?
No, I haven’t lived it down because I still don’t like the record. I just go with my gut feeling, and that’s the way I’ve been operating.
Frankly, your legend is secure and you have money. You don’t need to work any more. Why do you still create?
Aw man, good question. It gives me energy. It gets me excited about waking up every morning: I got things to do. Records to produce and things to play. I paint and I sculpt – I have a professional career doing that.
I’m a right-brained guy, and this is what gives me energy. And I wish more people would have that feeling of being able to wake up in the morning and being excited about what they’re going to do the rest of the day. ‘Cause I am.
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall at the Capitol Theatre, Clearwater Saturday, Dec. 3. Details and tickets are here.