Herb Alpert: His Life In Music Continues
There are few American legends who can claim the scope of a career like Herb Alpert. Over his fifty-plus year career, he has amassed nine Grammy Awards, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with co-founder of A&M Records, Jerry Moss), a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and countless platinum and gold records.
Perhaps most famous for his string of hits in the '60s with the Tijuana Brass, Alpert also scored number one hits in 1968 ("This Guy's in Love With You") and 1979 ("Rise"), as well as a top ten hit with Janet Jackson ("Diamonds") in 1987. He has also been a successful composer (most notably, Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World"), record producer, Broadway producer, and noted philanthropist.
Alpert spoke with EDGE about his astonishing career, which continues with a two-week run at The Café Carlyle alongside his wife, Grammy-winning vocalist Lani Hall, and band, from March 10-21.
Explaining his success
EDGE: You established A&M Records in the early '60s. How unusual was it for a musician to start his own record label in the early '60s?
Herb Alpert: It was not unusual. There were a lot of little record labels operating out of the trunks of their cars. You didn't need an office; you didn't need anything. In those days, if you made something you liked, you could take it up to a radio station and if they happened to like it, they'd put it on immediately, or take it to a meeting and vote on it. It wasn't complicated. Nowadays, it's a whole other problem.
EDGE: How do you explain your success in the '60s? Rock was invading the world, and yet you had incredible success with the Tijuana Brass and other records your label was putting out.
Herb Alpert: Well, I think timing plays a big part. It would happen at the right time, the right sound, the right records. The industry was in a much different situation than it is now. [Laughs] And a little bit of luck!
EDGE: It was fifty years ago that 'Whipped Cream and Other Delights' came out. I still remember seeing that on the shelf-one of the greatest album covers of all time! Whose idea was that cover?
Herb Alpert: Our director of art at A&M, Peter Whorf, God rest his soul. He had this idea at the time that I thought was a little too risqué. But compared to what's happening now, it was pretty tame!
Remembering Karen Carpenter
EDGE: I couldn't help but noting that next week marks what would have been Karen Carpenter's 65th birthday. Do you still remember their audition?
Herb Alpert: Absolutely. I remember getting the tape handed through the fence of A&M. I used the Sam Cooke technique-I was privy to experiencing the great Sam Cooke in 1957. Sam always said, 'You're listening to a cold piece of wax and either it makes it or it doesn't.' He would turn his back on the artist because he didn't want to be influenced by the way they might look or dance. I adopted that technique for myself with A&M. When I put this tape on in my office, I sat on the couch, closed my eyes, and all of a sudden this voice of Karen's came out and I felt that she was right next to me.
She had this incredible energy and projection on her voice. So I made contact with Karen and Richard, and I realized they were making music that was just oozing out of them. It wasn't necessarily the kind of music I listened to. I came up through the classical field and then got corrupted with jazz; I'm basically a jazz musician. They were making pop music, but it was real to them, and that's what I look for, that feeling of honesty that the great artists have. Karen was exceptional. She had magic and she didn't know she had it. If you asked her what her strong suit was, she said, 'I'm a drummer.' [Laughs] The tape that I heard, she sang and played drums at the same time. And Richard is not to be overlooked because he put it all together.
EDGE: Absolutely. Are there any other artists that you were proud to have signed that come to mind?
Herb Alpert: Well, of course, Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, which was fortuitous because that's how I met my wife Lani. We've been married over forty years. Lani is a world-class singer. Cat Stevens, because he was so unique. Most of the artists at A&M had their own unique thing. We were never looking for the flavor of the month, we were looking for artists that had their own thing to say. Sting and the Police. We can go on and on. It was a great label we had.
Double #1 Hits
EDGE: I believe you are the only artist to have a number one song as an instrumentalist ('Rise,' 1979) and as a vocalist. Was it a fluke that you ended up singing on 'This Guy's in Love With You'?
Herb Alpert: [Laughs] You used the right word, fluke. I was doing a television for NBC and the director, Jack Haley Jr. said, 'Why don't try singing a song instead of me always photographing you with a trumpet in your mouth?' So I thought maybe if I could find the right song, I'd give it a go. I called a friend of mine, Burt Bacharach. Ever hear of him?
EDGE: Oh yeah!
Herb Alpert: I told him I was looking for a song I could handle. I said, 'Do you have a song that you whistle in the shower that maybe didn't get the right recording?' He sent me 'This Girl's In Love With You.' It had been recorded by Dionne Warwick. I felt I could handle the song. I called Hal David and asked if he could change the gender. He agreed and I flew to New York to record it. When I was leaving, I asked Hal the same question, about a song that you might sing in a shower. Believe it or not, he sent me 'Close to You.'
We were going to use that as a follow-up to 'This Guy's In Love With You'-which, by the way, zoomed to number one in two weeks after it was exposed on the show. I did a recording of 'Close to You' and was listening to it in the control room. My friend Larry Levine, who engineered most of the Tijuana Brass records, said, 'You sound terrible singing this song.' [Laughs] So I lost my confidence and put it in the drawer and, as luck would have it, gave it to the Carpenters in 1970.
EDGE: From the '60s until well in the '80s, it wasn't unusual for a hit instrumental song to be heard on the radio along with all the vocal tracks. Why do you think modern ears no longer want to hear that instrumental break on the radio?
Herb Alpert: I think it's cyclical. There was a time when instrumental music was in vogue, and then it went out. It was the same with vocal groups. But also, radio is not what it used to be. It's very pigeon-holed. There are these dos and don'ts. So it's not as easy to get exposed on the radio as it used to be. But now we have the Internet, which is a tremendous tool for getting around the radio. With iTunes and YouTube, there can be so many spins on a record that touches the public.
EDGE: I was also surprised to learn that you had a hand in producing a couple of Broadway hits, 'Jelly's Last Jam' and 'Angels in America.' What made you want to sign on to help produce Tony Kushner's play?
Herb Alpert: I spent a good part of my life just following my gut. If something resonates with me, I go for it. I saw the first part in Los Angeles before the second part was even written, or he was still working on it. I was with a couple friends. We left the theater and I asked them what they thought. They said, 'I don't like it. It's kind of boring.' But I was enthralled. I thought the writing was extraordinary, genius. So I invested in it, not concerned with what my friends had said. I think that's the way people should react. Go with your gut feeling. Especially as an artist, because art is a big mystery. I was using my intuitive sense, and I was right. Tony won the Pulitzer Prize for a groundbreaking piece of writing.
A learning moment
EDGE: At this year's Grammy Awards, Prince came out when he was introducing Album of the Year, and he said, 'Albums matter.' How do you feel about the decline of albums in recent years?
Herb Alpert: I think it's kind of sad because we used to have this information so you could get a feel for the artist and the songs and the look and who was playing on it. Now it's more like paying 99 cents for a tune and you don't know anything about the artist or how it was made. It's much more immediate right now. It's not bad, it's just different.
EDGE: Is there any singer today that you'd love to produce in the studio?
Herb Alpert: Not really. I stopped producing records other than for my wife and myself. I think it's a tough game. I have a very distinct way that I hear music and I don't want to put that on other artists. I spent a lot of time at A&M auditioning groups and artists and I made a policy of saying to artists that I may not have liked, 'Just because I'm not receiving it, it doesn't mean you're not sending it.' It might be great, but I just don't get it. There are a lot of wonderful artists out there, for sure. But it's just such a different concept for exposing records. It's not the game I want to be in.
EDGE: Your foundation has given millions of dollars towards education. I recently asked one of my college classes how many had taken a music lesson and only three raised their hands.
Herb Alpert: What do you teach?
EDGE: Writing, but I was trying to make an analogy with music. I was telling them that you don't start playing jazz right off the bat, you still have to learn the scales and the chords, and you have to practice to become good. But the analogy may have been lost on them.
Herb Alpert: I have a better analogy. Tell them, 'While you're sleeping, someone else is practicing!' [Laughs]
EDGE: I'll use that! But seriously, are we failing our kids by denying them a music education?
Herb Alpert: I don't think you have a complete education unless there is a creative component in there. Creativity is a prime ingredient for developing a human being. Being creative at an early age, whether you are blowing a trumpet or writing poetry or dancing or acting, you get to express yourself. You get to experience your own uniqueness. If you can do that and have the discipline of learning how to do what turns you on, you can appreciate other people's uniqueness. We could have a little more harmony in the world. I think that's the one thing that's missing. Empathy is not one of those things that everyone seems to strive for.
About his new CD
EDGE: Let's talk about your new CD, 'In the Mood.' When I put it on, I smiled to myself because I could recognize that Herb Alpert sound. But I thought, "Okay, he's putting his stamp on the standards." And yet, there are elements of electronica and percussion that made me hear these songs as if for the first time. Is that what you strive for?
Herb Alpert: Absolutely, that's my goal. Especially when they are familiar songs, I want do them in a way that they haven't quite been heard before. I'm very conscious of the lyric as I play through the trumpet. You'll hear the lyric as I play it, for sure, because I think that's a key ingredient to the beauty of melody. Like the melody of 'When Sunny Gets Blue.' If you listen to that, I'm just playing what I'm hearing. The lyric says, 'When Sunny gets blue, her eyes turn gray and cloudy, then the rain begins to fall.' How beautiful is that?
EDGE: I heard that on 'Let it Be Me' as well.
Herb Alpert: 'Let it Be Me,' for sure. I did that song because of the tragic passing of Phil Everly. The Everly Brothers brought such great music to us. When I heard about his passing, I thought about a couple of the songs they recorded.
In the moment
EDGE: As you said before, you've been married to Lani Hall for over forty years. She's coming with you to the Carlyle, right?
Herb Alpert: She's not only coming with me, she's a big part of the show! We do this together. This is a tremendous opportunity for people to hear some great music. We've been doing this for eight years with the same group behind us. It's very transparent, just drums, bass, and keyboards. We have the greatest time doing this. I don't have to do this for a living, but I love to play the horn, Lani loves to sing, and I get great energy doing it. It's not my favorite thing to travel and pack and unpack, but when I get onstage, it's a delight for me. I'm doing it in a different way than I did it with the Tijuana Brass. I'll do a Tijuana Brass medley, but basically night after night, we're in the moment, it's very ad lib. I like to be creative and stay creative. I tell the group behind me, "Play whatever you want." If it doesn't work, I'll tell them, but we like to keep it loose and fun. I always thought that if it's fun for me to play, it's fun to listen to.
EDGE: Your collaboration with Lani must be seamless.
Herb Alpert: Well, I have a long history with Lani because I produced the first few albums for Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 and she was the lead singer. She's going to do a little medley too.
EDGE: At the end of March, you have a big birthday coming up. You've done so much: songwriter, musician, singer, record label owner, producer, philanthropist, painter, sculptor. I don't see a book there. What is there still left that you want to do?
EDGE: Well, I'm doing everything I want to do. I've been painting and sculpting for over forty years. I have a showing at the ACA Gallery in Manhattan right now. I'm a right-brained guy. I'm playing the trumpet every day and painting and sculpting and being creative. That's where I get my joy in life, and I'm excited to be able to do that. I will be eighty at the end of March, which is frightening. [Laughs] It happened so fast! I was always the youngest person in the band. I remember looking at my aunts and uncles when they were in their seventies and thinking, 'Man, they look ancient!'
But I feel great. I'm married to angel. I'm healthy. I'm a lucky guy. I've been blessed, and I like returning my good fortune to organizations. When we sold A&M Records, I wanted to do small things really well, and that's what we zeroed in on with the Herb Alpert Foundation. I want to keep jazz alive and help kids realize some of their dreams. Everyone is trying to live a life of meaning and purpose and some are living in a situation that makes that very difficult. Through the arts you can experience something capable of giving you some oomph. So I'm really high on the arts. I'm also involved in a program at Berkeley that is trying to teach the world empathy and compassion, which I find intriguing. That's one thing the world is lacking. The politicians don't quite get the value of the arts, and we have to just keep pushing, because one of these days they are going to have an 'Aha' moment and realize it really does matter.
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall appear at New York's Café Carlyle, Tuesdays through Saturdays, March 10-21. Go to www.rosewoodhotels.com to see the calendar and make reservations, or call 212-744-1600.