BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
“To me the Arts are the catalyst to having a fulfilling life,” says Herb Alpert, who has excelled as a musician responsible for record sales over 72 million, with 28 albums making the Billboard charts. Along with partner Jerry Moss, he was also the co-founder of A&M Records, at one time the world’s most successful independent label.
If that isn’t enough, the nine-time Grammy Award winner is also an accomplished painter and sculptor. Well known for his philanthropic activities, his Herb Alpert Foundation has donated more than 130 million dollars towards arts education. In 2013, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama.
During the 1960s. his band The Tijuana Brass had five number one albums, which included such memorable hits as “A Taste Of Honey,” “Zorba The Greek,” “Tijuana Taxi” and “Spanish Flea.” In 1966, they sold more albums than The Beatles. Alpert’s 1979 instrumental hit “Rise” made him the only artist to hit the top of the Billboard singles charts as both instrumentalist and singer, the other record being his 1968 vocal hit, “This Guy’s In Love With You.”
His latest album “In The Mood” visits The Great American Songbook, with interpretations of such standards as “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “When Sunny Gets Blue” and “Begin the Beguine,” a pair of Everly Brothers’ tributes, “All I Have To Do Is Dream” and “Let it Be Me,” plus several new original compositions.
Alpert, his band and singer Lani Hall will be bringing their magic to Englewood, New Jersey’s Bergen Performing Arts Center on March 25th, and at Morristown, New Jersey’s Mayo Performing Arts Center, the following night.
Of his current show, he says, “What I play on Monday won’t sound like what I’m playing on Tuesday or Wednesday. I’m a jazz musician, so it’s all very spontaneous, except for the Tijuana Brass songs, which I do the way the audience remembers them. We try to give everyone a little bit of everything.”
Additionally, Alpert’s art work is currently displayed at Manhattan’s ACA Gallery in an exhibit that runs until April 9th.
EXAMINER: What was it like being honored by President Obama at the White House?
ALPERT: I was caught totally off-guard when I got the invitation. Yeah, I was touched by it. It’s almost like being knighted. I really love the guy. He represents this country in a very beautiful way. Michelle is the same way. They’re both very warm people, and are totally involved in recognizing the value of the arts. After he had placed that thing around my neck, the protocol was to go into another room to get pictures taken with him and Michelle. My wife Lani said, “Do you think we can get a copy of those pictures?” He burst out laughing like a kid. “Why do you think I’m taking them!” It was a great moment.
EXAMINER: When you and the Tijuana Brass first became popular, because of your music, the way you and the band dressed, and your looks, did some people assume you were at least part Mexican?
ALPERT: Oh, yeah, some people might have thought that, but actually, my background is Jewish. My father came here on a boat from what is now the Ukraine by himself when he was 16, and my mother was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
EXAMINER: Are you familiar with a band called The Klezmatics, who made an album called “Jews With Horns”?
ALPERT: No, but I can tell you a funny story that relates to that. When I got drafted, I was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky. I met this guy from Arkansas who could not believe that I was Jewish … that I looked like a regular person. He had probably heard that we all had horns coming out of our heads. (Huge laugh.)
EXAMINER: What was the inspiration for your first hit, “The Lonely Bull?” Had you gone to a bullfight and were exposed to Mariachi music?
ALPERT: Well, it’s true, I did go to bullfights for a period in my life, and at one I saw a band in the stands that used to introduce the events. It wasn’t exactly Mariachi music, but that’s what got me hooked on that type of music.
EXAMINER: Has your opinion of bullfighting changed since then?
ALPERT: Oh, completely. It’s super cruel. I saw a horse get gored, and its guts fell out. That was like the last time for me, but once I saw an amazing fight. The matador was Carlos Azzura, who was fighting on horseback. He was giving instructions to his horse as they were circling the bull, just by the movement of his body. That was pretty exciting, and it inspired me to write the song.
EXAMINER: In your recording of “The Lonely Bull,” you can really feel the loneliness of the bull.
ALPERT: I don’t know if it’s necessarily loneliness, maybe a feeling of melancholy.
EXAMINER: Maybe pathos.
ALPERT: Yeah, I would agree with that.
EXAMINER: Was the record recorded in your garage?
ALPERT: No, but that’s where I got the idea for it. I had two tape machines. I would record my trumpet on one, and then layer another horn part on the other one like the way Les Paul had done (with guitars). This amazing sound popped out, and that turned into the Tijuana Brass’ signature sound.
EXAMINER: Prior to your success as a musician, you had also enjoyed some success as a songwriter, writing songs for singers like the great Sam Cooke. How did that come about?
ALPERT: Well, I was partners with Lou Adler. We were hustling songs prior to getting hired by Keen Records as songwriters. That’s where we met Sam Cooke who was their main artist (and with whom Alpert and Adler co-wrote “Wonderful World” – Ed.). Sam and I became good friends. He was a beautiful gentleman and an incredible artist, really a genius. I don’t think he realized that he had something so magical that translated to a lot of people.
EXAMINER: … and you and Lou also worked with Jan and Dean.
ALPERT: Yes, Lou and I found the tune “Baby Talk” for them, and we produced it. That record was a real breakthrough for Jan and Dean, although Jan had a hit record earlier called “Jeannie Lee” with his former partner, Arnie (Ginsberg).
EXAMINER: Most of your fans are probably unaware that you were originally signed to RCA as a singer.
ALPERT: That came as complete surprise to me. I called up this producer who had just had a hit record with this girl. I thought I had a good song for her. He asked me to come and play it for him. So, I sat at the piano and played and sang it. Afterward he said, “Why don’t we record you singing the song?” That was something I was totally unprepared for. I wasn’t a singer, or even a piano player. I had been playing the trumpet since I was eight.
EXAMINER: On your new album, you do “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” which was popular when you were a child just learning the trumpet. Were you aware of the record at the time?
ALPERT: No, no. At that age I was totally oblivious about Glenn Miller’s recording. Actually, it took me maybe three of four years before I could make any sense out of the trumpet. It takes a while to get the hang out of any instrument. You have to put in a proper amount of time and fortunately, I had a couple of good teachers. They really inspired me to keep going.
EXAMINER: I would imagine Louis Armstrong must have been a major inspiration.
ALPERT: Oh, sure. Louie was special. He was magic because his personality came right though the horn. The way Louie was as a human being, really showed in his playing.
EXAMINER: Did you ever have a chance to perform with him?
ALPERT: Yes, I did. I was the host of a Kraft Music Hall TV special. I interviewed him, and we performed “Hello Dolly” together. He was just a light-hearted good guy. I said, “Louie, what do your friends call you?” because everyone called him “Satchmo.” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “My friends call me Irving!” (Big laugh.)
EXAMINER: At what age were you exposed to the music of Miles Davis?
ALPERT: Well, probably when I was in high school. I had been listening to people like Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, those kind of trumpet players, around the time I first heard Miles. I just had the feeling that this guy was really on to something unique. He was very of the moment. He wasn’t concerned if you liked it or not. He was just doing what was coming out of him. That was the thing that I’ve always tried to emulate.
EXAMINER: Miles was once quoted as saying this about you, “You hear three notes, and you know it’s Herb.” That’s really quite a special testimony to your talents.
ALPERT: Yeah, I really treasure that. I know what he was talking about, because that’s what we’re all looking for as artists, whether you’re a painter, or a sculptor, or a dancer. You’re looking for your own individual voice, and if you can find that, then you have a chance of sparking someone else’s interest.
EXAMINER: I agree, uniqueness is the mark of a great artist. I mean, if you’re walking through a shopping mall during Christmastime, you might hear something like “Little Drummer Boy” by Jimi Hendrix, and you may never have heard it before because it was never an actual record, but you hear a few notes, and you just know it’s him.
ALPERT: I totally understand what you’re saying. I went through a period of trying to copy Miles, trying to copy Louie Armstrong, Harry James, all of the people I really liked. Then, I finally realized, “Who’d want to hear me do that?” People have already heard that, and from people who can do it a lot better than I can do it. So, I was always looking for my own sound, my own of doing it. When I finally hit on it, it felt right.
EXAMINER: You had a chance to record with Miles, but didn’t accept his offer.
ALPERT: Yes, Miles asked me if I wanted to do it, but I turned it down. I felt too intimidated at the time.
EXAMINER: Do, you regret your decision now?
ALPERT: I do. Sinatra asked me too, by the way.
EXAMINER: Do, you regret that also?
ALPERT: I didn’t think I was ready for that. I don’t know. I was into my own thing. I knew I had my own little niche sound with the Tijuana Brass. I didn’t know how it might translate to what I might do with Miles or Sinatra.
EXAMINER: In 1965, right in the middle of “The British Invasion,” the American record charts were dominated by The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, The Rolling Stones, Kinks, Dave Clark Five and others. Yet, the following year, by doing something totally different, you and The Tijuana Brass were actually selling more albums than The Beatles, or anyone else.
ALPERT: It was all due to timing. After “A Taste Of Honey” and the “Whipped Cream” album became such huge hits, we started doing all the big TV shows like Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, The Hollywood Palace… and that type of exposure really helped. Our previous albums like “The Lonely Bull,” and “South of The Border” started selling. At one point, we had five albums in the Top 20, and four in the top ten. That was pretty amazing but like I said, it was just a timing issue.
EXAMINER: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but how much do you think the cover photo of the “Whipped Cream” album, which had a beautiful woman covered partially all in whipped cream, had to do with the album’s incredible success?
ALPERT: I think because of the size of album covers, as opposed to CDs, packaging was a very important ingredient. I’ve run into people who’d come up to me and talk about the album, and when I’ve asked if they’ve actually listened to it, they’ve said, “Well, I haven’t really heard it.” They were just into the girl on the cover. (Laughs.)
EXAMINER: I wonder if that album cover had come out in the ’70s, if you would have been attacked by some women’s lib groups, that you were objectifying women. Of course, by today’s standards, it seems pretty tame.
ALPERT: Well, the first time Jerry and I saw the cover, I thought we might be pushing the envelope a little too far, but it became an iconic concept.
EXAMINER: During the ’60s did you have any interaction with some of the big rock stars who might have told you how much they enjoyed your music?
ALPERT: The night before our first concert in London at the Hammersmith, we had a party with The Beatles at the apartment of their manager, Brian Epstein. I have a lot of respect for those guys. They were really special, but you probably know that George Harrison recorded for A&M after The Beatles broke up. I got to spend a little time with him, and he was a wonderful artist.
EXAMINER: How did you and Jerry turn an investment of a few hundred dollars into what became the world’s most successful independent record label?
ALPERT: After the Tijuana Brass’ records started really selling, a lot of distributors around the country said, “Why don’t you guys just take the money and run,?” but Jerry and I were more enthused about seeing if we could run with the company and take it into a more positive direction. The sales of the Tijuana Brass were supporting the label, and we just kept putting the money back in it. Little by little, we built up a roster that was quite impressive.
EXAMINER: A&M had an amazing roster of talent.
ALPERT: Yeah, we did have some amazing artists. We were never looking for flavor of the week, or making records that sounded like others that were in the top ten. We were looking for real artistry, people like Cat Stevens and The Carpenters. People who had their own way of doing things: Supertramp, The Police, artists who, when you heard them, you’d say, “Hmm. That’s different.” Of course, Sting is one of my favorites. I love this guy. He’s talented. He has a good handle on himself. He’s a genius, smart.
EXAMINER: With Carole King’s “Tapestry” you had one of the all-time biggest selling albums.
ALPERT: Lou Adler produced a great album with a great concept. His idea was to make everything sound like demos, not spiffy, wonderfully designed cuts. It was just Carole at her best doing those terrific songs.
EXAMINER: What lead you to your other career as an abstract, impressionist painter?
ALPERT: I’ve been painting for over 45 years, and sculpting for 30, and I’ve always liked contemporary art. I’d go to museums and see things like black with a purple dot, or a black painting with a white dot. It just seemed like something I could do. So, I got some canvases and started painting. I’m basically a jazz musician, so I work very spontaneously. Making music and art is pretty much the same process.
EXAMINER: You’re also involved in some very worthy philanthropic organizations.
ALPERT: Well, there are so many. We’re helping to support 80 or so, but it gives me nashes; you know that word. (Yiddish for pleasure – Ed.). I’ve been doing this since ’82, and I set out to do things that are based on the concept of, “Tag you’re it. If I can do it, you can do it, too. You don’t have to be a professional.”
EXAMINER: That’s a very good concept.
ALPERT: The main thing is not worrying about the means, just the desire to do it. I think that there are too many people who are potentially good artists, but they can’t get beyond worrying if other people are thinking it’s good or bad. When you get to that point, you won’t be able to express yourself honestly. Once you start thinking, “Is this as good as Michelangelo,?” you’re in trouble.
EXAMINER: Art is really very subjective.
ALPERT: It is subjective, and you have to turn your brain off. If you stand in front of a Jackson Pollock painting and try to analyze it, you sure ain’t gonna find it.
EXAMINER: How do you feel about the way the financial aspects of the recording business have become compared to when you started? Roseanne Cash recently said that one of her songs had over 600,000 streams on Spotify, and at the end of the year, she received a check for $104.
ALPERT: That’s really terrible. The person who did “Happy” (Pharrell) had more than 43 million streams, and got a check for around $3,000. That’s definitely not the way it should be. The artists should be able to protect their own creativity.
EXAMINER: The Internet has really killed off the major record store chains like Tower, HMV, Virgin, and others.
ALPERT: It’s another world now. We’re talking about (digital) zeros and ones that can be easily duplicated by people who are transferring music files. We got off to a bum start with the Internet, which ravaged the whole music business. Then Steve Jobs, a guy who was not a musician, came up with I-Tunes, where people could buy individual songs for 99 cents, but it came too late. We … the record industry, were chasing the wrong rabbit.
EXAMINER: What is your opinion about some of the newer technologies like Pro-Tools?
ALPERT: It’s kind of sterilized, the way records sound, made them all too cute, too wonderful. With the technology we have today, you can record in a bathroom, with a thumb drive, but it still all comes down to ,“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way how you do it.” You can tune everything up perfectly, and get all the rhythm tracks lined up perfectly and all that, but if you don’t have a good song and a good artist, you still don’t have anything.
EXAMINER: Do you think you and Jerry could have created an empire like A&M Records if you were both starting out now?
ALPERT: I think that would be really tough in today’s world. It all goes back to timing. I don’t think the music of the Tijuana Brass would have the same impact now. It’s not the type of music that people listen to today, and also radio, as we knew it in the ’60s and ’70s, is just about gone. Back then, there were disk jockeys who would play the same record two or even three times in a row if they were really enthused about it. That doesn’t happen anymore.
EXAMINER: If someone told you 60 years ago that in 2015, as you’re approaching your 80th birthday, you would still be out touring, what would you have said?
ALPERT: Well, I’m still doing what I love to do. I. The road thing is a little daunting. I’m not crazy about packing and unpacking, but I love the guys in my band and, of course, I love working with my wife. It all keeps me young. I still think I have a very young attitude on everything.