Herb Alpert: On The Record

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It was no less than Miles Davis who once opined, "You don't have to hear but three notes before you know it's Herb Alpert." True enough, while Alpert's name isn't often mentioned in the same sentence as the other icons of West Coast jazz (many of whom appeared on records produced by his and Jerry Moss' A&M label), his trumpet has one of the most recognizable and iconic voices in postwar instrumental performance. While Latin rhythms had already gotten their foot in America's door, thanks to artists like Tito Puente and Desi Arnaz, as founder and star of The Tijuana Brass in the 1960s, Alpert introduced a whole new sound based in upbeat Mexican mariachi and banda rhythms, crossed with romantic balladry and vibraphonic vocabularies.

On Feb. 7th, 2011, Alpert and his highly accomplished wife, vocalist Lani Hall, released their latest CD on the Concord Records label, I Feel You.The album, driven by Hall's sultry and drivingly authoritative vocal stylings in counterpoint to Herb's mellow yet trenchant horn, feature their reimaginings of vocal jazz standards like "Fever," "There Will Never Be Another You,"and "'Till There Was You," along with pop classics that parallel A&M's golden era.

Before the '60s went psychedelic, Alpert's sound defined the decade, from swinging spy movies to jazz bars and bachelor pads across the country. No self-respecting "Mad Man" in the Don Draper era would have been without an album or two from the TJB, or their equally iconic covers. To this day, perhaps no album cover is as well- remembered—or parodied—as 1965's Whipped Cream and Other Delights (A&M, 1965). Using the TJB's success to build A&M Records into a powerhouse perhaps second only to Motown among the major indie labels of the era, Alpert watched A&M's revenue go from $500,000 in 1964 to nearly $30 million just three years later. The performers who called A&M home during the late 1960s and '70s read like a veritable Who's Who of rock, pop and jazz royalty. From Karen Carpenter, Supertramp, The Police, The We Five, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Billy Preston, the Captain and Tennille, and Peter Frampton to straight-ahead and Latin legends like Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Gato Barbieri, Chuck Mangione, George Benson, Sergio Mendes, and Burt Bacharach—all recorded at A&M's historic studios on La Brea in Hollywood, the former site of Charlie Chaplin's studio lot.

Following a spring mini-tour in support of I Feel You, Alpert returns to his West Coast Habitat in May, with dates scheduled in Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica and Orange County.

AAJ: Your wife, Lani Hall, said that she can see her music in pictures, in a very visual, cinematic sense, and that helps her with her interpretations. Is that the same way with you? When you hear a song in your mind, can you see the sort of music-video imagery that goes along with it?

HA: I don't know if mine is as exact as her's—she's pretty specific of what she sees; she can describe it in minute detail. The first record I recorded for A&M was The Lonely Bull, based on experiences I had in Tijuana in 1962. And when that record became a big hit, I was getting letters from people from every part of the world thanking me for this vicarious trip to Tijuana, which I found very fascinating. And from that point on, I realized that I needed to make visual music, that I needed to make music that stirs or conjures up images, and that's what I always tried to do.

AAJ: A surprising number of singers and musicians also seem to be gifted in painting, drawing, and sculpting. How long have you painted and sculpted, and what led you to transition into visual arts recently?

HA: Well, I transitioned after traveling around the world, playing concerts with the Brass. I'd go to museums and I'd get inspired, and I started painting around 1970, so I've been at it around 40 years. I think there's a connection in all the arts. I've kind of been blessed in that I don't think too hard about it, I don't over-analyze what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. When I paint or sculpt, it's just something that comes out of me, it's just a feel, and when I feel like I'm finished I stop. And if someone likes it, great, but if they don't then, that's all right, too.

AAJ: That sounds an awful lot like the philosophy of jazz improv, of free-form jazz.

HA: Well, that's what jazz is all about. It's all about the moment, and I think that's the thrill of it. The thing that makes it so much fun for me now, with what I'm doing with my wife and this great trio behind us is that every night it's something different. Basically, Lani establishes the song, and then everything that's happening behind her is just pure improv. Given that we know the chord changes and the general plan, everything that the musicians play is just very spontaneous. Night after night, it's a new experience.

AAJ: A&M Records was known for its perfectionism in recording its acts, and for using up-to-the-minute recording technology and special effects. That said, when you're outside the studio and performing live, even if it is funkier and messier, there's that feedback from the performer to the audience, like a stage actor. Do you prefer one to the other? What does each one mean to you?

HA: I actually think there's a little bit of a danger with the technology the way it is today. There's umpteen tracks you can record on, and there's umpteen ways that you can clean up a recording, cleaning up the intonation, cleaning up every little detail, cleaning up whatever you want to. And to me, that sort of takes the heart and soul away from music. Music should be people bouncing off of each other and taking the good with the bad, and that's what we were consciously try to do.

For me, some of the recordings that I hear nowadays are just a little too worked-over, too "perfect." Everything's in just the "right" place. I had this experience with a rock and roll band back at A&M recording at one of our studios, and it was time for them to mix the record for the final stages, and I remember talking to one of the musicians, and I said, "Well, this should be rather easy—you just have four pieces in the group," and he said "Yeah, man, but we have the drums on 30 tracks!" And I said, "What the hell are you gonna do with 30 tracks of drums?" [Laughs] I mean, they had every possibility covered! But in the final analysis, that just makes confusion—you kind of lose perspective if you have that many options.

AAJ: One of the things that the old TV game show and variety/talk show people used to say when the trend went over to pre-taped shows from live, is that you could do a lot more with a show taped in advance—but you lost your spontanaity. Is it sort of like that?

HA: Oh, yeah! Us old timers remember the old Milton Berle and the Sid Caesar shows, and we knew that that was just happening, it was just live, and just whatever happened at that moment was what happened, and there's something really engaging about that.

AAJ: Does performing live, improvising, working without a net still turn you on, does it still give you a thrill?

HA: Oh, it's a definite thrill. There's a feeling of wonder, actually, because sometimes you play things that you didn't even realize you were capable of playing, or you get—it's hard to put it into words, but I get the same feeling when I'm painting and sculpting, sometimes, something happens that's just totally out of my control, and it's really beautiful, and I'm not even sure how I did it, but it's there—and it's to be appreciated, at least by me.

AAJ: Political-incorrectness time. How did a nice Jewish guy from the southern California suburbs become so identified with introducing with bringing iconic Mexican and Latin rhythms like mariachi and banda into the Kennedy-era American mainstream?

HA: I think there was a progression there. I had a great experience working with Sam Cooke in the early days, just watching him, listening to him. He taught me some things when he didn't even really realize he was teaching me anything, but his way of thinking about making music and making records really rubbed off on me. Then, after I left that situation, I recorded for a major company for about a year, and I saw up-close how I was mishandled by them. There was an inhuman aspect to it—the recording studio was very stark, very cold, and they wouldn't even call me "Herb Alpert"—they'd call me "Number 875437A" or whatever. It was like something out of The Prisoner. Those experiences let me know what I didn't want to do if I ever had the chance to own my own record company.

As an escape, I used to go to these bullfights regularly in Tijuana in the springtime. And I was enamored of these little brass bands in the stands that would sort of "announce" the action of each event of the bullfight. People would scream and yell "!Ole!" and so forth, and I got interested in that feeling, and what I tried to do is interpret that feeling. I had never really listened to mariachi before, but I was just trying to interpret the feelings that I felt there and put it onto a record—which was The Lonely Bull, our first hit record.

AAJ: What made you decide, before you were even 30 years old, to strike out with Jerry Moss and form your own record label? How did that come about?

HA: Well, in those days there were a lot of little record companies around. You know, A&M wasn't even the first title for the company—the first was Carnival Records, but we found out there was prior usage of that name, and we wanted to release this Lonely Bull record, so we came up with some other names, and A&M was actually probably about third on the list! We settled on A&M, but were just releasing one record—we didn't have any plans to start up a record company, we didn't have the money to start a record company. We were fortunate that my partner Jerry Moss knew a man named Nate Duroff, who owned Monarch Pressing Plant in Los Angeles, and he extended us an enormous amount of credit in order to press the amount of records we needed to satisfy the demand, and one thing led to another. We had a lucky break, we knew some good people, the timing was right, and we took advantage of it.

AAJ: That was when Motown, and Atlantic, and Sun Records, and a lot of formerly niche labels were really coming out in a big way.

HB: Well, it was, and it was a little daunting because most of our indie distributors told us, "Why don't you just take the money and run?" They thought we had just gotten really lucky being so close to Tijuana, and that we'd have just one hit record and that would be it. But we decided to just hang on for dear life, and we did rather well, and we just kept reinvesting the money into the company.

AAJ: That touches on an interesting point: When A&M started in 1962, there was no counterculture, no Vietnam, no disco, JFK was still president, men were still wearing crew cuts and bow ties—and worst of all, Jim Crow was still alive. And A&M Records really broke open as the '60s and '70s broke open. How did A&M keep "hanging on for dear life" at a time of such massive change in music and the culture?

HA: Well, I think we'd better give credit to Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. We really kept them going, up through about 1967 or '68, with the amount of records we were selling. That sustained us, but little by little, we just kept picking up some great artists along the way. And we weren't interested in just the beat of the week; we weren't interested in getting artists that sounded just like the artists that were on the radio—we were looking for the ones who had what the radio didn't have. We were looking for people who had something special to say in their own way.

AAJ: So many A&M artists—The Carpenters, Supertramp, and Cat Stevens in particular—really stood the test or time. Their stuff still sells, still gets used in movies and TV, and they don't have that embarrassingly dated quality that so much pop music from the '60s and '70s does. How do you account for that?

HA: That's where passion wins out; it wasn't just about making hit records for these people, it was about doing what they really wanted to do. When I signed the Carpenters in 1969, their first album didn't really sell—it just sort of lingered there. And what I was getting from people on my own company was, "Why did you sign these people? They don't really fit in, they're too soft, they don't really fit in." And then I gave "Close to You" to Richard to record, and after that record became a big hit, everyone was looking at me like, "Wow—he's a genius!" It takes time, but if you have an artist who really has something special to say, in their own special way, you have to just let them flag themselves down the runway.

AAJ: Dick Cavett once asked Katherine Hepburn what the essence of "star quality" is, and she famously replied, "I don't know what it is, but I've got it!" As someone who scouted and developed so many recording stars, what do you think gives a jazz or rock performer "star' quality," that special extra something?

HA: That's a good question. With Sam Cooke, I learned a lesson that really carried me to this day. Sam was the first black artist to form his own record company, a company called Sar Records, and he was auditioning this artist, and he wanted me to sit in with him. So I listened to this guy—he was this really good looking guy from the Caribbean, who came in with a box, put his foot up on it and started playing his guitar, and started singing really interesting songs, I thought. This artist was in the studio and Sam and I were in the control room, and Sam asked me what I thought, and I said, "I think he's pretty good, he's a good looking guy, he writes a nice song..." And then Sam told me to turn my back on him for five minutes and see what I thought, and so I turned my back, and I listened—and I got nothing. And that's when Sam said, "Man, it sounded poor, and it doesn't make any difference whether you're black or white, or what kind of echo chamber you're using. What the people are listening to is a cold piece of wax. It either makes it or it don't!"

At the time, I wasn't quite sure what he was driving at, but boy, did I find out what he meant later! And from that point on, after I'd started A&M, whenever I would audition new acts, I used to listen with my eyes closed. I didn't want to be intimidated by their "look" or for them to sell me a bill of goods with their body motions, or whatever. And that's how I picked out artists for the most part.

On the Carpenters' tape, for example, I remember sitting on my couch at A&M, and there were two stereo speakers on the floor about 8 feet in front of me. I had my eyes closed, and it felt like Karen's voice was just sitting next to me on the couch, and that's why I was intrigued to meet them. To be honest, it wasn't really the kind of music that I would have actually gone out of my way to listen to myself, but I liked it, I liked their passion about it. They were making the music that was coming out of them naturally. And Richard seemed to be like a student of the record business, he knew about recording and technology and he just was somebody I felt if he was given a chance, he could really put it together.

AAJ: Do you think Karen Carpenter ever realized just how good she was, especially as a singer? It was always said that she thought of herself first and foremost as a drummer, especially back then.

HA: You're absolutely right. I think if you'd asked her at the time, she thought of herself as a drummer. And this is the sad part for me because I loved her, and I don't think she really realized just how much she touched people deeply. It was so unfortunate, because she was such a lovely, innocent girl.

AAJ: Not that they deserve it, but with some performers—John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, John Belushi, Tupac Shakur— you can sort of see it coming. But when you have a Karen Carpenter, a Gilda Radner, a Natalie Wood, though, you never think that they're going to die young, that it could happen to them.

HA: Oh yeah, it was a major shocker. Especially because she bounced into my office about two weeks before she passed away, and this was after she had spent some time in the hospital trying to work out this problem that wasn't identified at the time at being [anorexia], and she was all excited about getting back in the studio and recording again and getting back with Richard. And then, just two weeks later, she was gone. It was unbelievable.

AAJ: One other A&M question: People today always talk in business-speak about the "brand." When you look back at A&M, what was the A&M brand to you? What did the label stand for, in its glory days?

HA: Well, I never really thought of it as a brand. Jerry and I just wanted to make the best music we could. In the '60s, it seemed like a lot of companies would just get a hit record, and then they'd surround it with 10 other so-so cuts, and we never did that. We always wanted to make sure everyone felt like they were getting their absolute money's worth with an A&M record. And then right after The Lonely Bull, I hired a quality control person who was listening to every master coming out of A&M to make sure that the quality was as good as it could be. And I think people recognized that we were trying to make the records that we would buy ourselves.

AAJ: Going back to the Tijuana Brass, that group had some of the top studio/session musicians in Hollywood—Tonni Kalash, Bob Edmondson, Phil Ceroli, Hal Blaine. How did that come together? How did you recruit them for such a new concept?

HA: Well, I didn't really "recruit" them, they were hired guns. They were professional musicians who were working in Los Angeles—you call 'em and pay 'em—that's about what it amounted to. And when I hit on Hal Blaine, I loved the sound of his drums. He was on most of the recordings—he didn't do The Lonely Bull but he was on everything after the South of the Border album, and he was the one who gave me the idea for that bass drum line in A Taste of Honey. I was just using musicians of my choice, I would sometimes scramble them up. I didn't have a really set group together until after the Whipped Cream and Other Delights album, when I got a traveling group together. Quiet as it's kept, I played all the trumpet parts on all the Tijuana Brass records, so that was the sound. The sound of the Tijuana Brass is the sound of my horn.

AAJ: And the second people hear it, they know it's you. It's certainly one of the most distinctive sounds in popular music.

HA: I think that's what everybody strives to get. You want to find your own personality on your instrument, and if you can do that, then that's a big win.

AAJ: There was a 20/20 (ABC-TV news program) interview, aired in 1980, about how you almost had to give up the trumpet. And there was kind of a gap in there from the last Tijuana Brass album in the early '70s to Rise in 1979 and '80. What was that all about? Was there a health issue?

HA: Yeah, that was earlier, that was back in like 1970, I was going through a divorce, I was emotionally spent, and all of a sudden, I just couldn't seem to play the horn like I used to be able to. I never really thought about how to play it until I ran into major snags, and then it took a while to work that out.

AAJ: Let's talk about today. How did I Feel You and Anything Goes come about? The sound is so different than the familiar riffs and gestures of the Tijuana Brass. And it does represent something of a "comeback" for you, to touring and performing live.

HA: Well, Lani and I said that if we could have some fun playing, and doing some concerts, than let's give it a go. And I was reluctant at first because the Tijuana Brass was so popular, and so associated with me, that I thought we'd go into a concert hall and people would be calling out "Tijuana Taxi" or "Spanish Flea!" But it never happened! So we got a group together, we started doing some concerts, and I got some tremendous feedback and great energy from playing again, live. Lani is a world- class singer, and we thought if we could have some fun doing it, we'd just continue on— so here we go!

AAJ: You and Lani Hall have had one of the most successful marriages—and fruitful collaborations—in both Hollywood and jazz.

HA: Well, she's my muse. I adore this woman, she's fantastic. We just celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary, and she's still the best thing that ever happened in my life.

AAJ: But for every Newman and Woodward, Steve and Eydie, or Louis and Keely, there seem to be 10 high-profile celebrity marriages that crash and burn. When you're both artists, you're both high-profile, how do you keep it fresh, so that you're collaborating with each other, instead of competing against each other—so that you stay each other's muse?

HA: I think just honesty. I want her to be the best Lani Hall—or Lani Hall- Alpert—that she can be. And she feels the same for me. We're just trying to do good things. We have charitable foundations, we're very conscious of giving back. We're just trying to do our part in this crazy world we're living in right now. And to remember to not take this thing called life too seriously.

AAJ: What are your plans for the future—what does tomorrow look like for you?

Herb Alpert



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