Herb Alpert: ‘I was rich, I was famous and I was miserable’

The iconic Sixties trumpeter talks to Kevin E G Perry about his hit-filled career with the Tijuana Brass, writing ‘Wonderful World’ for Sam Cooke, signing the Carpenters to his record label and releasing a new album with his wife of 49 years, Lani Hall

Thursday 28 April 2022 17:11 BST
<p>Herb Alpert in Malibu: ‘I don’t think you can be a great artist and be a bulls***ter at the same time’</p>

Herb Alpert in Malibu: ‘I don’t think you can be a great artist and be a bulls***ter at the same time’

Nobody soundtracked the swinging Sixties like Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. For 81 consecutive weeks, from October 1965 to April 1967, the Los Angeles-born trumpeter and his group always had at least one record in the US top 10, sometimes as many as four at a time. In 1966 they sold 13 million records, making them bigger than the Beatles. Their playfully kitsch album art became iconic, while their joyous instrumentals were inescapable, scoring everything from adverts for beer and motor oil to hit TV shows like The Dating Game. It was a level of success that the son of immigrants from a small town near Kyiv was wholly unprepared for. I had the American dream,” says Alpert, now 87, on the phone from his oceanfront home in Malibu. “I was rich, I was famous and I was miserable.”

Alpert first blew a trumpet at the age of eight, while a student at Melrose Elementary School. “I was fortunate there was a music class and a bunch of instruments, and I happened to pick up the trumpet,” he remembers. “It’s been awfully good to me.” He was encouraged by his father Louis, a tailor with a talent for the mandolin, and his mother Tillie, who taught violin. When their neighbours complained about their son practising, his mum told them he’d just play louder. They were determined to give him a better childhood than the life they’d left behind. “My father was born in a little shtetl outside of Kyiv,” explains Alpert. “It’s a terrible situation that’s going on there now. It’s heart-rending and confusing. Man’s inhumanity to man is just mind-boggling.”

In the late Fifties, Alpert formed a songwriting team with famed lyricist Lou Adler. They landed a job as staff writers for LA-based label Keen Records, whose star artist Sam Cooke was then topping the charts with “You Send Me”. “Sam was delightful, intelligent and very engaging,” recalls Alpert. “I learned a lot from him. He was a mentor, even though he didn’t know it.” Cooke showed Alpert how a performer could elevate even second-rate material. “One day he came up to me and said: ‘Herbie, what do you think of this lyric?’” says Alpert. “I thought it was the corniest thing I’d ever seen. I didn’t say that to him! I said: ‘Well, what’s the song like?’ He picked up his guitar and transformed this corny lyric into something magical. I thought to myself: ‘Man, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way you do it.’ I think that’s the big lesson in art.”

Sam Cooke taught me it ain’t what you do, it’s the way you do it

Herb Alpert

Alpert and Adler went on to write “Wonderful World” for Cooke, who recorded it as a demo shortly before leaving Keen for rival label RCA Victor. In response, Keen put the demo out as a single. “Nobody thought it was going to be a hit, but it was probably the largest selling single Sam ever had,” says Alpert. It has gone on to be Cooke’s most popular of the streaming era, with over 337 million listens on Spotify. “It caught us all off guard. We thought it was just a nice song, but of course Sam had magic dust on him.”

In the early Sixties, Alpert would take day trips down to Tijuana to watch bullfights. “I picked up on this little band in the stands,” he remembers. “It wasn’t a mariachi band, just a band playing fanfares to introduce the different events. I got enamoured with that sound and the excitement you felt at a bullfight.” Back home in his garage in LA, Alpert tried to recreate what he heard, layering his trumpet so that it sounded like a group. “I played all the trumpet parts on all the Tijuana Brass records,” he explains. “That was part of the sound. I mean, not part of the sound. That was the sound.” The first song he crafted, “The Lonely Bull”, gave Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass their debut top 10 single in 1962. “It took off like a rocket ship,” he says.

The success of “The Lonely Bull” spurred Alpert to start making records. His first No 1 album arrived in 1965, Whipped Cream & Other Delights, featuring hit single “A Taste of Honey”. “That record really opened the door for the Tijuana Brass sound because we got all the major television exposure including the big one, The Ed Sullivan Show in New York,” recalls Alpert, who had hired session musicians to fill out the Tijuana Brass as a live act. They appeared on the show on 7 November 1965. “That was an interesting moment because the record was already screaming hot, and the Tijuana Brass was hot,” says Alpert. “After rehearsals, Ed Sullivan came up and put his arm around me and said: ‘Herb, I discovered you!’ I said: ‘You’re a little late, man. I’ve been discovered already!’”

Herb Alpert puts his feet up at London’s Les Ambassadeurs Club in 1974

Follow-up record Going Places was another No 1, spawning hits such as “Spanish Flea” and “Tijuana Taxi”. A 1968 television special, Beat of the Brass, produced chart-topping single “This Guy’s In Love With You”, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and featuring a rare vocal performance by Alpert. “The director asked me to sing so he didn’t have to photograph me with the trumpet in my mouth all the time,” recalls Alpert with a laugh. “I called Burt and said: ‘Is there a song you find yourself singing or whistling in the shower, something that maybe didn’t get the right recording?’ He sent me “This Girl’s In Love With You” that he’d recorded with Dionne Warwick. I loved it. I don’t think of myself as a singer, but I can carry a tune.”

Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass arrive in London to play the Royal Albert Hall in 1966

By the end of the Sixties Alpert, who calls himself a “card-carrying introvert”, was beginning to bow under the relentless pressure of touring and recording. He disbanded the Tijuana Brass in 1969 after finding himself unable to play. “I think I was just bottled up emotionally,” he says. “I was going through a divorce and got into a bunch of bad habits trying to play the horn. I was stuttering through the instrument.”

He turned his focus to A&M Records, the independent label he’d co-founded to release the Tijuana Brass records with his business partner Jerry Moss. Their reputation as an artist-friendly outfit and Alpert’s skill as an A&R man helped them sign an impressive roster including Bacharach, Quincy Jones, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Carpenters. It was Alpert who suggested the Carpenters record Bacharach and David’s “They Long To Be Close To You”, which became their signature song. “When I signed the Carpenters in 1969, I think most people in my own company thought I was a little wacko,” recalls Alpert. “They were too cute, and it was not the type of music that was happening on the radio. As luck would have it, I gave them “...Close To You” and boom! They’re probably the largest selling artists we ever had on A&M, and they’re still selling. It’s just unfortunate that Karen passed on at such an early age, and really didn’t recognise the impact she had as an artist.”

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall in 1974: 'She changed my life. I’m crazy about this girl’

Another A&M act had an even bigger influence on Alpert’s life: Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ‘66. Their debut album, Herb Alpert Presents…, gave them an international hit with “Mas Que Nada”, a song that has become synonymous with Brazil and was famously used in a 1998 Nike advert starring the country’s football team. “The first time I heard it, I was thinking: ‘Man, that’s a good song, but he’s playing it too fast!’” remembers Alpert. “I said: ‘Sérgio, you’re playing this for hummingbirds. You’ve got to slow this baby down!” Alpert was particularly struck by the group’s lead vocalist Lani Hall, a singer Mendes had recruited in Chicago. “She changed my life,” says Alpert. “I’m crazy about this girl.”

Alpert and Hall dated for four years before marrying in 1973. This December the couple will mark their 49th wedding anniversary, and Alpert has just produced a new album for Hall, Seasons of Love. “Herb is very gentle, very respectful, and he doesn’t try to change me,” says Hall. “I had never been in that kind of relationship! I was from Chicago and he was born in LA. There’s a completely different rhythm to those cities.”

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall at home in Malibu

Hall had considered herself retired from recording until, during the pandemic, Alpert put together an instrumental version of one of her favourite songs, “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent. “I called Lani into my studio one afternoon and said: ‘Listen to this track, what do you think?’” explains Alpert. “She said: ‘Oh, I like that song a lot!’ I said: ‘Great! Is this your key?’ She started singing along. I knew it was in her key because I’d already worked that out!” Hall adds that the song speaks to their relationship. “It’s about: How do you measure a life?” she says. “To say, through sunsets and midnight and cups of coffee... it just touches my heart. It’s a beautiful lyric and a beautiful message.” The couple plan to embark on a 52-date tour of America this year, and have announced UK shows at legendary London jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s for 2023. “I’ve always wanted to play there,” says Alpert. “A lot of great musicians have played there and there’s a vibe in that place that’s supposed to be beautiful.”

In 1987, Alpert and Moss sold A&M Records to PolyGram for $500m. In the decades since, Alpert has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to support the arts, including grants to New York’s Harlem School of the Arts and forming UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. In 1994, he created the annual Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, which this May will hand out grants of $75,000 to 10 emerging artists. “I’ve been compensated way beyond my imagination, and instead of buying a Van Gogh and sticking it on my wall, I try to help others who are struggling to follow their passion,” says Alpert. “We can use some honesty in this world, and I think artists do that 100 per cent. I don’t think you can be a great artist and be a bulls***ter at the same time.”

‘Seasons of Love’ by Lani Hall featuring Herb Alpert is out now

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