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Herb Alpert: On The Record

Telly Davidson By

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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!"


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