A new documentary and box set aims to remind music fans about the importance of an artist whose albums you’ll always find in the vinyl section of your local Goodwill
For someone who says, “I’m not a guy that likes to live in the past,” Herb Alpert has been spending a lot of time lately looking back.
In addition to the documentary, Herb Alpert Is…, which premiered on October 1, he’s also released a box set of the same name covering his impressive music career.
The 63-track box set opens with “The Lonely Bull,” the 1962 instrumental inspired by bullfights he’d witnessed in Tijuana. “They had this brass band in the stands,” he recalls. “They weren’t playing music, they were just announcing the different events, with fanfares, and the bull would come out. I was intrigued with that; the whole feeling was exciting for me, because I’d never seen anything like that before. And I tried to translate the feeling that I got from those afternoons to a song that I had, that a friend of mine had written.”
VIDEO: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass “The Lonely Bull”
“The Lonely Bull” gave Alpert his first Top 10 hit, and its Latin-influenced sound was dubbed “Ameriachi.” His 1965 hit, “A Taste of Honey,” broke things wide open, and Alpert and his group, the Tijuana Brass, enjoyed a string of hits through the rest of the decade, making Alpert the best-known trumpet player in the world. The box covers his post-Brass career as well, spotlighting successes like “Rise,” “Rotation,” “Fandango,” and “Diamonds” (the latter with Janet Jackson).
At the same time he was releasing hit records, Alpert was helping other artists make their own, as the co-founder (with Jerry Moss) of A&M Records. He continues performing and recording today; his last studio album was 2019’s Over the Rainbow, and he’s recently released a new digital single, the classic “Smile” (the melody written by Charlie Chaplin for his 1936 movie Modern Times; John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics in 1954).
He spoke to Rock and Roll Globe about the new box, his career in music, and more.
The documentary mentions your brief singing career [when Alpert released singles under the name “Dore Alpert”]. Was there a time when you thought you’d go into singing and not be a trumpet player?
No, I never thought of being a singer. I knew I had something on the trumpet, but I had to work my way through it. Because I started emulating trumpet players that I liked, like Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong and Harry James and the like. And I finally came to the realization — who wants to hear a duplicate of what somebody’s already done? Not that I could duplicate them, but I thought that was the key. I was still looking for my own voice.
Then I heard some of the artists of the day who were stacking their voice, recording on top of themselves, like Les Paul did with “How High the Moon.” I tried that with my trumpet in my little studio in my garage at home, and I hit on the sound. And the minute I heard it myself, I said, ‘Bingo! I think I got something.’ So that was the genesis of the Tijuana Brass sound.
“The Lonely Bull” — the single and album — were the first records credited to the Tijuana Brass. But there was no such band at the start, was there?
The truth of it all was—and I’m sure it’s public knowledge—there was no “Tijuana Brass.” I was just making records with musicians that I liked. And then after I recorded the Whipped Cream & Other Delights album — which was the biggest album, that sold, I think, 14 million copies — that’s when I got a group together. It was only after that, that I formed the Tijuana Brass group.
AUDIO: Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass “Whipped Cream”
You’ve said the breakthrough moment came in Seattle.
Yeah, I did this single called “3rd Man Theme” [theme of the film of the same name] and “A Taste of Honey” was the B-side. So I got a group together, and one of the first places we played outside of Los Angeles was the Edgewater Inn in Seattle, up on the top floor there. And every time we played that “Taste of Honey,” people loved it. Sometimes I played it two times in a row!
So I called my partner, and I said, “Jerry, we’re on the wrong side. It’s ‘A Taste of Honey.’” And he said, “Nah, you can’t dance to it. It’s too long, it stops in the middle twice. It’s not good for radio.” I said, “I don’t know if it’s good for radio or not, but there’s a focus group up here that’s telling me it’s ‘Taste of Honey’! Let’s turn that record over.”
So we finally did, and two months later it was a huge success. And it finally opened the door for the Tijuana Brass. From that point on we were doing all the major variety shows; Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Danny Kaye, The Tonight Show. So that just opened the door wide open for me.
And of course the Whipped Cream album had a very memorable cover.
We had an art director at A&M, Peter Whorf, that was his brainchild. We gave him the idea for a cover, the idea being food titles, and he took the “whipped cream” and really took it out to the edge! [laughs] It did make a lot of noise. I don’t think people bought it exactly just for the cover — at least I hope not! But it stirred up a lot of interest. In fact, when he first showed it to us, to Jerry and I, we were a little reluctant. We thought maybe it was pushing the envelope a little bit too much. And that was in 1965. That was way racy then. Now it doesn’t even qualify.
What was it about that era that made it more receptive to instrumentals? I don’t think there’s been an instrumental hit on the Billboard charts since Kenny G.
Yeah, that’s true. The record business, it’s a cyclical business, and every now and then a bunch of instrumentals would pop up. I guess timing played a crucial part in it; we were lucky to be in the right time at the right place.
And radio was completely different. Radio was more liberal; they were able to play records that they liked. And there were disc jockeys, disc jockeys that played records, and if they happened to like it personally, they would hawk it a bit after they played the record. So there was an advantage for the listener. Today’s world, when you listen to music, you’re lucky if they even give you a clue as to who the artist was. So it was just a different time, different world. A digital world of zeros and ones are now in vogue. And when I started, there was an old tape machine. Remember those things?
Yeah, it’s amazing to see the diversity of artists in the Top 10 in the ’60s. Musicals, the Beatles, you, Bob Dylan, and Frank Sinatra — all in the Top 10 or Top 20, and they’re all very different.
Right. And I think that’s the way it should be. I remember when we played in London, I was listening to one of the channels on the BBC, and the guy was playing Coltrane to Mozart. It was beautiful. He was just playing music that he enjoyed. And there was an audience for it. It was beautiful. It’s a bottom line business now.
You were also running A&M Records at the same time.
When we started A&M, what we wanted to do was, instead of just taking a hit record and then putting in nine or ten or 11 other so-so cuts for an album, we wanted every cut of an album to be special. Frankly, I don’t think we had a vision! We were just trying to put out good records. And we kind of had this reputation as this middle of the road, smooth label. And then little by little, we got Brazil 66, and then Joe Cocker came in, and Leon Russell and the gang, and we started picking up some records from the UK. Of course the Police opened a whole new door for us. And then we branched out into jazz; we had some great jazz musicians recording for us. We were just thinking of putting out good music, whatever genre it happened to be.
What were some of your most memorable signings?
Well, I guess the biggest one was the Carpenters. They were self-contained. They did demos with Karen playing drums, Richard playing all the keyboards, doing the arrangements, and Karen’s magical voice. I was impressed with their sincerity. They were making music that was just naturally coming out of them. And Karen’s voice was I guess the thing that really hit me over the head. ’Cause when I heard her voice coming out of the speakers it felt like she was sitting right next to me on the couch when I was listening. Then when I met them I just felt their innocence, that they had something special to offer. Richard was a student of the recording business, he knew about who recorded what, when, and what type of echo they were using and the process. So I felt it was just a matter of time before they would connect with the right record. And then people would really appreciate them. Honestly, for the first year at A&M they didn’t sell any records and most people thought that we were chasing the wrong group.
VIDEO: The Carpenters “Close To You”
What made you think “Close to You” would work for them?
Well, I just thought it was a great song. It had the right melody. I gave it to Richard, and they recorded it, but I said, “I think you can do it better.” I had them re-record it. The first recording, Karen was playing drums, and it was just a little light, it was a very airy type record. And I felt it needed more depth. And that’s when we talked Karen into not playing the drums on recording. Although she was an excellent drummer, she wasn’t really a quality recording drummer. So Richard got Hal Blaine and a different rhythm section, got a deeper recording, and that was the magical one that opened the door for them. She had that certain something. It was right there. Every now and then, that artist comes along that has that “it” thing. She had the it!
And you have a new single, “Smile,” that’s not on the box. Can you talk about that?
I wanted to do something that was uplifting.
Oh, you think we need it now [laughs]?
Oh, man. It’s a really, really crazy time.
The line “Smile, though your heart is breaking” has such resonance now.
Yeah, well, it’s also a beautiful song, a beautiful melody that kind of lingers through the years, because it was written many years back. Even though Charlie Chaplin supposedly wrote it, it really doesn’t matter. It’s a memorable song, memorable melody.
VIDEO: Herb Alpert “Smile”
I wondered if that was a subtle connection back to A&M Records, because the company’s headquarters were on the former Chaplin movie lot.
No, it had nothing to do with that. I thought it was the right song at the moment and the right message. I think a lot of people got some energy from it, because it took about 10 days for a million and a half people to watch it on YouTube. So it connected.
Are you working on new material now?
Oh man, I’ve got so much music, it’s ridiculous. Yeah, I do that. I record at home, and I record with other musicians around wherever it has the equipment. And I’ve done albums with other people, like Whipped Cream & Other Delights Re-Whipped; I re-did that album with various mixers around the country. I’d send them my information, some new trumpet parts and new ideas when they were asking for it. And I never met these guys. I sent them my trumpet parts, and all they had to do was slip it back into their rig, and off you go. It’s another world now. It can be great; it can be overwhelming. You can get to a point where you’ve got so many options that you don’t know what to do. So I try not to get to that place.