When you think of who gave the Beatles a run for their money in the 1960s, the Rolling Stones and the Monkees come to mind. But it was Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, who scored their first hit with the release of their single “The Lonely Bull” in 1962. Just four years later, the group had five albums in the Top 20 at the same time — an achievement that remains unmatched.
Alpert, a nine-time Grammy winner and five-time album chart-topper, also founded A&M Records with Jerry Moss (the “A” and “M,” respectively). The label went on to find success with a wide range of artists, including Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Peter Frampton, Supertramp, Janet Jackson and the Police.
Alpert’s accomplishments are beautifully portrayed in the documentary and 63-track boxed set, Herb Alpert Is…. The film is a career-spanning look back at Alpert’s life, including memorable moments that shaped the musician and artist and feature intimate interviews with Questlove, Sting, Quincy Jones and Billy Bob Thornton. The film also quotes the late Miles Davis: “You hear three notes and you know it’s Herb.”
“When I talk to kids, I tell them that’s what you all should be looking for. That’s the key,” Alpert notes. “It doesn’t make any sense to play like someone else, you gotta play like yourself.”
Taking his own advice is what boosted his sound and his career. As a young boy attending Melrose Elementary School in Los Angeles, Alpert battled near debilitating shyness, until he discovered the trumpet. “I was very shy and when the trumpet started speaking and making noise, it was talking for me,” says the still soft-spoken artist. “It was saying things I couldn’t get out of my mouth.”
A lot of practice and dedication resulted in an authentic sound unlike any other. “It took a while for me to find my voice and when I finally found it, it was working for me. When I heard that Tijuana Brass sound when I doubled my trumpet or even the sound of my horn, I realized I was on to something. It was good. It was honest.”
Early influences and finding his groove
Inspired by watching bullfights in Tijuana, Mexico, Alpert, 85, developed the sound of the Tijuana Brass, combining the influence of mariachis with jazz, as heard in “The Lonely Bull,” the debut single by the Tijuana Brass and the first release on A&M Records in 1962.
“I received this letter from a lady in Germany when “The Lonely Bull” was in the top 10 in the country and she said, ‘Thank you for sending me on this vicarious trip to Tijuana.’ She was excited about it. Excited about the record and the way it made her feel. And I thought about that later and I thought, ‘That’s the music I want to make. Visual music. Music that takes you some place.’ And that’s what I’ve always tried to do. Music that takes me some place and I feel if it takes me some place maybe it will take someone else some place.”
Because of the name, however, many listeners mistakenly believed Alpert was Latin. “It’s not true,” he says. “My roots are from Russia!”
His major breakthrough came with the 1965 album Whipped Cream & Other Delights, which featured then-pregnant model Dolores Erickson covered in shaving cream (whipped cream would melt under the heat of the lighting) and Alpert’s seductive trumpet-fueled instrumentals. “It swung the door right open, and because of that, ‘A Taste of Honey’ and that international and national exposure is probably the reason we’re talking today.” A year later, “Spanish Flea,” which would become omnipresent as the theme of TV’s The Dating Game, was released on the B-side of the single “What Now My Love.”
He met his future second wife, singer Lani Hall in 1966, when Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 signed to A&M Records. The two bands toured together, and in 1973, Alpert and Hall were married. They’re still together today. In 1985, the couple created the Herb Alpert Foundation, a philanthropic initiative that supports artists, musicians and students.
But not everything ended in newsworthy success. An agent approached Alpert while he was working out in a gym, telling him he looked like he should be in the movies. “Have you thought about acting?” he asked.
“He introduced me to some people at Paramount and I did some auditions there and I got excited about that for a few moments. And I started studying acting,” Alpert says. “Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy, was one of my teachers. And he was great, but I realized that really wasn’t my thing. I didn’t feel honest with it. I might have looked OK at the time, but that wasn’t what I was set out to do. I did it for a couple of years but it didn’t work out.”
After his success with the Tijuana Brass, he went on to work with a number of collaborators and producers, including Hugh Masekela and the production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, making more contemporary recordings, but still managing to maintain his signature sound.
“I just like to have fun playing. It’s part of me. I started when I was 8 and I play every day. I’m always looking to record something that’s fun. My theory is if it’s fun for me to play it’s going to be fun for some people to listen to so, I’ll leave it at that.”
That’s something he learned from the musicians who influenced him, including Louis Armstrong, Harry James and Miles Davis, who also had their own distinct sounds.
“Jazz is all about freedom of expression and using your imagination,” Alpert adds. “I think all the great artists have the ability to be honest with that feeling. I think everyone wants freedom of expression. I think people around the world are looking for that.”
Exploring other endeavors
For Herb Alpert, blasting out bold trumpet notes and creating striking pieces of modern art come from the same place: the right side of his brain.
“I live in the right side of my head about 85 percent of the time,” Alpert says, referring to the theory that the right side represents artistic and creative. “I get to wake up thinking about making music and sculpting and painting. I feel very blessed that I’m able to do that. I wish more people would have that ability to be able to wake up and be excited about what they were going to do the rest of the day.”
Many know Alpert as a musician and cofounder of A&M Records. But he’s also been an accomplished artist for decades after trying his hand at painting during the height of his fame in 1970.
“I’d go into museums and for some reason I’d gravitate toward the modern art section and I’d see these paintings, like a black painting with a purple dot, and in another painting, I’d see a white painting with a black dot,” he explains, in a phone call from his home studio in Malibu. “And I said, ‘Come on, man, let me try that.’ So I started grabbing some material when I got back [from touring] and I started having a lot of fun. I was doing it for my own pleasure.”
Eventually, he added sculpting to his repertoire and his work began gaining notice from gallery owners around the world who wanted to show his work. Focusing on abstract expressionism, Alpert’s work is stunning and instinctual — much like his music.
“Sometimes I’ll walk into the paint studio and look at a piece of work that’s half finished or close to finished and I’ll look at it and I won’t know what to do with it, so I won’t force it,” he says. “I feel the same about music — I try to be as authentic as possible.”
Paying it forward
Alpert was led to share his wealth by funding multiple music education programs. Through multiple endowments, the Herb Alpert Foundation has funded the creation of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts, and supported the Harlem School of the Arts, among others. In 2013, Alpert was awarded the National Medal of Arts Award by President Barack Obama for his musical, philanthropic and artistic contributions.
“The arts are the heart and soul of our democracy,” he says. “The artists are the second responders. The first responders obviously we need. These are courageous people, but the second responders — they’re the people, if you all want to feel something, you’ve got to listen to the great artists or watch the great artists and see the great artists, because they have a way of identifying what we’re doing here on earth — that we’re not alone and we’re OK.”
Today that empathy extends to those hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. “I feel for all these people that are suffering,” he says. “Man, it’s just a tragic time in the history of our country.”
’12 notes and what can happen’
While the documentary and boxed set represent an end of a chapter, it’s far from the end of the story for Alpert. “I’ve got some really great new songs. I’m excited.”
At one point during the interview, Alpert picked up his trumpet and blasted out a few notes.
“That’s what I do most of my days (picks up trumpet and plays). It’s right by me all the time. There’s so many different ways to do it. So many different ways to record and write songs. It’s an amazing process when you think there’s only 12 notes, period, in the Western lexicon. … 12 notes and what can happen. It’s amazing how you can scramble up those notes with different rhythms, different nuances, different times — it’s mind-boggling beautiful,” he says.
Guest Playlist by Herb Alpert
Legendary trumpet player Herb Alpert calls this playlist he created exclusively for AARP “Herb Alpert’s Early Influences.” It shows that many of his heroes had their own unique sounds that helped Alpert find his own distinct voice through his horn.
Read about his picks here, then scroll down to listen to the playlist on Spotify.
Tico-Tico performed by Rafael Mendez
“He’s one of those trumpet players that can kind of scare you because he had this unbelievable technique. He was tonguing and he had this rapid tongue. It was almost like it was coming from this electronic device.”
And the Angels Sing performed by Ziggy Elman
“I was working at a resort in Ontario, California, when I was 18 years old in this little band and every Thursday night we’d have a stump the band contest... This guy yelled out ‘And the Angels Sing.’ Well, I knew it so I started playing it and when the band took a break this guy came up to me and said, ‘How in the world did you know that song?’ And I said, ‘Well, I know the song. I remember the record. I loved it. It was by Ziggy Elman.’ And this guy put out his hand and it was Ziggy Elman.”
Let Me Off Uptown performed by Roy Eldridge
“I don’t think people listen with their ears or their eyes. They listen with their heart. When music gets to you, it gets to you on that other level. It’s hard to identify what it is, but Roy Eldridge was on that level for me. It’s very personal. It doesn’t mean everybody is going to feel that same thing, but he struck a chord and I felt him.”
West End Blues performed by Louis Armstrong
“Louis Armstrong was one of the most unique artists of all time… His personality and his humor and his goodness came through the instrument. Whatever you heard, that sound was Louis. It wasn’t affected. It was just him.”
You Made Me Love You performed by Harry James
“Harry James had that undeniable sound. The minute he came on, you knew it was him. He had an interesting vibrato. His sound was one that when I thought of Harry James, I thought the only way to be a successful artist is to find your own voice.”
I’m in the Mood for Love performed by Bobby Hackett
“Bobby Hackett used to play on all those Jackie Gleason records. He was a trumpet player that had a beautiful echo, but always very smooth and romantic. That always appealed to me. He was kind of sexy in his own way.”
Cherokee performed by Clifford Brown
“When I heard Clifford Brown, it was almost like I wanted to put my horn in the case because he was doing everything that I thought was conceivable on the trumpet. It was a real eye-opener for me, because this was an extraordinary young trumpet player who had magic and who was different and who was pushing the envelope into a whole other area.”
Popo performed by Shorty Rogers
“Shorty was a dear friend of mine. I used to go in high school, he had a big band [that played at] a club on Hollywood Boulevard. I used to like them because Shorty always used to make upbeat positive music with a touch of humor. The band was very loose and guys would yell out certain things during a performance when they were playing. I enjoyed Shorty because he was an extraordinary guy.”
Bea’s Flat performed by Chet Baker
“Chet Baker was a phenomenon. He was a tremendously gifted musician who didn’t have any idea what he was doing. He didn’t know a C chord. He was doing everything by instinct… He was a troubled guy, unfortunately, but very, very, very gifted and talented musician.”
How to add playlist directly to your smartphone
Every playlist on Spotify has its own unique code, similar to a QR code. Called Spotify Codes, these bars make it easy to add a playlist to your Spotify app on your smartphone. To use, open Spotify, click on the Search field in the middle bottom of the screen. Click in the Search field and when you see the camera icon on the top right, click on that. Aim your camera at the code and it will bring up the playlist. To save the playlist, click on the heart.
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