HERB ALPERT WITH 28 OF HIS ALBUMS JUST REISSUED AND 3 NEW ONES BUSY AS EVER
Like Bob Dylan and the late Miles Davis, trumpeter and former Tijuana Brass leader Herb Alpert prefers to look forward, not back.
“I never listened to my albums after I made them, except for maybe a cut here or there,” said the 2006 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and 2012 National Medal of Arts recipient.
But Alpert made a recent exception when no fewer than 28 of his albums were re-mastered prior to being reissued this year. His assessment?
“I was surprised by how good they are!” he said, laughing.
Could Alpert elaborate?
“I always try to make music out of passion and I loved the process,” said the trumpeter, who performs a Bayside Summer Nights concert here on July 6, with his wife, singer, Lani Hall, their band and the San Diego Symphony.
“You know my story — I started playing when I was 8, so I’m hooked on music. I’m seduced by the whole idea of recording. And I met some great mentors in my day.”
One of those mentors was the late, great vocal star Sam Cooke, whose 1960 hit, “Wonderful World,” was co-written by Alpert.
It’s a relationship that had a major impact on the then-fledgling trumpeter, who was barely 22 when he began working as a staff songwriter at Keen Records in Los Angeles in 1957. It was there that he met Cooke, the former gospel singer-turned-pop-sensation.
“When I started playing trumpet, i was inspired Harry James, Louis Armstrong and Clifford Brown,” Alpert recalled. “But when I met Sam Cooke, he was a mentor — and he didn’t know it — by example. He came out of the gospel field and had this soulful quality that was infectious. He said: ‘Herbie, people are listening to a cold pice of wax; it either makes it or it don’t.’
Alpert laughed as he described watching Cooke walk around with a notebook filled with song lyrics, including the yet-to-be-recorded “Having a Party.”
“Sam came up to me one day, and said: ‘Herbie, what do you think of this lyric?’ It went: The cokes are in the icebox, the popcorn’s on the table / Me and my baby, we’re out here on the floor…
“I thought I twas corniest thing I’d ever heard! But I didn’t tell him that. Instead, I said: ‘What does this song sound like?’ He picked up his guitar and turned this corny song into something beautiful, with his passion and his great voice.
“That’s when I got it — it ain’t what you do, it’s the way you do it. What I learned from Sam was to listen to myself as an audience would. When I record something and hear it played back, I’m not listening to the trumpet player, I’m listening to the overall feeling. When I hear something I’ve done that makes me feel content, I stop.”
From Cat Stevens to Janet Jackson
The success of Cooke’s “Wonderful World” in 1960 came two years before Alpert and Jerry Moss launched A&M Records with just $200 between them.
Their independent label went on to become the home for everyone from The Carpenters, Cat Stevens and Quincy Jones to The Police, Amy Grant and Janet Jackson. Alpert and Moss sold A&M in 1989 for $500 million.
Alpert still contends that singular West Indian singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading, who signed with A&M in the 1970s, should have been a much bigger success than she was. he also recalled one of his earlier signings, a brother-sister duo that faltered before clicking with radio programmers and record buyers in a very big way.
“When I signed the Carpenters to A&M, their first couple of records didn’t do well,” Alpert admitted.
“People in my own company said: ‘Why are you recording these kids? Their music is too soft.’ Then ‘Close to You’ came out, and bang! They are one of A&M’s biggest artists, to this day.”
In ealy 1977, A&M signed budding English punk-rock provocateurs the Sex Pistols, then dropped them six days later.
Alpert has no regrets about cutting the band loose so quickly, even though A&M forfeited the advance payment it had given the band. The relationship soured the day A&M signed the Pistols, whose members then went to A&M’s London offices, where they cursed at employees, destroyed a toilet and generally wreaked havoc. The fact that the band’s singer, Johnny Rotten, threatened to kill a close friend of the head of A&M’s English operations didn’t help matters.
“I was never crazy about them, right from the get-go, so it didn’t hurt my feelings that we let them go,” Alpert said of the Sex Pistols. “I didn’t like their negative energy.”
But the first artist to put A&M on the map was Alpert himself. His worldwide album sales withe the Tijuana Brass and as a solo artist now top 72 million.
He and his band scored 13 Top 40 hits in the U.S. between 1962 and 1967, including “The Lonely Bull (El Solo Torro),” “Taste of Honey” and “Tijuana Taxi.” Alpert went solo in 1968 and quickly scored his first No. 1 song with “This Guy’s in Love with You.” He topped the charts again with “Rise” in 1979. In 2014, he won his ninth Grammy Award.
Tijuana inspiration was no bull
“The Lonely Bull,” incidentally, was inspired by Alpert’s annual visits to Tijuana, as he recounted in a 2015 Union-Tribune interview.
“I used to go to bullfights in Tijuana for about three years, during the spring, and I liked the sound of this little band that was used to announce the different fights,” Alpert explained.
“It wasn’t a Mariachi band, it was a brass band, and I was trying to get the feeling of those afternoons that I spent there with ‘The Lonely Bull.’ Then, Jerry, my partner, came up with the band name, Tijuana Brass. We later did a TV special, and part of it was filmed in that bullring in Tijuana.”
By the time 2017 ends, Alpert will have released three new albums this year alone and completed a national tour wife Hall with their band. He is also very involved with the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, now the home to the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
A native of Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood, Alpert chortled when asked if he now felt a sense of urgency to do as much as possible.
“An urgency because the end is near? Have you spoken to my cardiologist?” he said, laughing again.
The 82-year-old trumpeter grew more serious.
“I’m not kicking back; I’m kicking it forward!” he said, speaking from his Los Angeles home. “I wake up each morning, excited about painting and sculpting and playing my horn. Doing these concerts gives me a lot of energy and pleasure.
“I know I can make a lot of people happy with my music, and I will do that as long as I can. I’ve been very blessed, beyond my dreams.”
But those dreams hit a major road block in 1969.
While going through an emotionally wrenching divorce before he married Hall, his wife of 43 years, Alpert found he could no longer play his trumpet. That made his sold-out European concert tour “really torturous,” he recalled.
“It was emotional; I was not in touch with myself. I was thinking: ‘I have the American Dream come true.’ I was famous, rich and miserable. That was a real eye-opener for me. I had to see who the heck I was, what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and whether I wanted to be a musician or not.”
For his performance here with his band and the San Diego Symphony, Alpert plans to cover a lof of musical ground.
“We have specific charts for playing with orchestras,” he noted. “Lani and I have been playing with the same band for the past 12 years and we have big back-log of songs. I try to make it iinteresting for myself, my wife and our group.
“We scramble it up — it’s not cookie a cookie-cutter concert. It’s very loose, with a lot of jazz, a Tijuana Brass medley and Lani does a Brazil ‘66 retrospective. And, around that, it’s just stuff we lke to play and it’s very loose, with a lot of improvising. It’s been very successful; we’ve had standing ovations.”
As the conversation drew to a close, Alpert’s interviewer noted that some musicians are just getting to bed at 9 a.m., not doing press.
“Those were the old days, man, I can’t do that anymore!” he said with a chuckle.
“Yeah, them were the old good days.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Veteran Herb Alpert band keyboardist Bill Cantos is a former San Diegan.”He’s a brilliant musician,” Alpert said, “and I’ve told him.”
San Diego Symphony Bayside Summer Nights presents Herb Alpert and Lani Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, July 6
Where: Embarcadero Marina Park South, 200 Marina Park Way., downtown
Phone: (619) 235-0804