Herb Alpert Interview: The Colorful and Creative World of a Music Mogul
Image attributed to Herb Alpert
Trumpeter Herb Alpert turned the Tijuana Brass into gold, earning 15 gold and 14 platinum records, winning nine Grammy Awards between 1966 and 2014 and receiving the Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. Alpert co-founded A&M Records with his business partner, Jerry Moss, which recorded artists as varied as Carole King, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Janet Jackson, Peter Frampton, Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones, Sergio Mendes and the Police.
John Scheinfeld’s documentary, Herb Alpert Is…, hit theaters and VOD platforms on October 2, 2020. The film is a passionate and inspiring exploration of Alpert’s personal and creative journey that reveals the critical events, experiences and challenges that have shaped an extraordinary life and instilled deep within the Grammy-winning trumpeter the desire to make a difference each and every day.
"I became very closed until I found the trumpet. The trumpet started talking for me because it was making a sound that I couldn’t get out of my mouth."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Herb, how are you doing these days?
Herb Alpert: Well, you know, I get to do what I love to do every day. I practice the horn, I paint and sculpt. I’m a lucky guy in that respect.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The documentary is very well done. How did you feel about making a story of your life?
Herb Alpert: At first, I was reluctant. I’ve been approached over the years many times by different directors to do a documentary, and I just wasn’t interested. I just didn’t want to live my life in the past when we sold A&M Records. I drove out of the lot for the last time, and I never looked back. I was into other things, and I just thought that I wasn’t ready to do it. Then when I met John Scheinfeld, who did the John Coltrane documentary, did a very nice documentary on Harry Nilsson, John Lennon and had some other projects, we started talking about it.
John seemed to have a really interesting approach to it. It was more like a jazz approach. He wanted to interview me, and he couldn’t do a storyboard or anything like that until he had all the information from me. He went by the seat of his pants for a while, and I kind of liked that approach. So I decided to go with him and follow through. I think it came out really nice. I think it could be helpful to a lot of people in terms of my life, to what happened to me and the success I had starting with A&M Records in 1962. In 1969ish, I thought the American dream had come true. I was famous. I was rich, and I was not happy. There was something wrong in that equation, and I worked my way out of that. I’m out the other end of it and feeling really good about my life. But I think the process could be helpful to others.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Billy Bob Thornton, who appears in the film, has been involved in music since he was very young even before he became a successful actor.
Herb Alpert: Yeah, he has, and we are dear friends. He’s really serious about music. He has a little studio at A&M Records actually, the A&M old studios. He has an office there, and he’s recording all the time. He has so many projects that he almost can’t keep track of them. But, yeah, he loves to make music.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve said that you were an introvert, and you told the story in the film about a teacher you had that couldn’t decide whether to give you an “A” or a “B” in reading, so she called in another teacher to confer about it. That made you nervous and sick, and you didn’t do well when you had to read for the other teacher. So did that have a profound effect on your personality even later in life?
Herb Alpert: I can’t say. It’s interesting that you told exactly how I was feeling but, I can’t exactly say that was the thing. But when I started in grammar school, it seemed to me that I was an “A” personality. I was very verbal, I used to write plays, I used to write skits for the kids that had this certain comic touch to them. But when that happened to me, I kind of closed up. Everything went dark, and my life took another turn after that experience. I was a mute.
I became very closed until I found the trumpet. The trumpet started talking for me because it was making a sound that I couldn’t get out of my mouth. So I can’t honestly say that was the effect that experience had on me, but it certainly weighs in my memory because here I am 80 years later still remembering it and still thinking about how that was a terrible thing for a teacher to do.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you have a close relationship with your mom and dad?
Herb Alpert: My dad was from Russia. He was born in a little town outside of Kiev, came to this country when he was 16 years old and worked his way to being a middle-income person with the ability to bring some of his family over from Russia. He was a little more remote, and I was closer to my mother because she really was supportive of me and wanted to help me stay with the trumpet. She found teachers for me and helped me a great deal. My dad was a big hero because of what he did and what he accomplished, and he was a good guy, but I was much closer to my mother.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the late 50s, you and Lou Adler went to Specialty Records, met Sonny Bono, who was the A&R guy, and he said that you should get out of the business. Good thing you didn’t listen to him.
Herb Alpert: Well, we had no intentions of listening to Sonny, you know. He was a good guy. I had no problems with Sonny. The reason why I kind of liked him was because he was an honest guy. He said what he felt, and I liked that. But he was absolutely wrong.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you see Sonny later in life and tell him that he was wrong?
Herb Alpert: Yeah, absolutely. When he was in Washington, I ran into him someplace, and we talked about that (laughs). But it’s like trying to predict a hit record. It’s hard to do that one, too. I never tried to make a hit record. I tried to make a good record, and I became very lucky because of that. I think my success was built on being at the right place at the right time, which is the key to any business you’re in, or if you’re a musician, to be there when the time is right. If we tried to start A&M Records in today’s environment, I don’t think we’d have a chance.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Right. The music industry as it was in the 60s doesn’t even exist anymore.
Herb Alpert: No, it doesn’t. It’s another world. It doesn’t mean it’s bad. There are ways of working around it. If you know social media and how to play that game, you have a chance. It’s just a whole different world. When I started in the business, I had a Webcor wire recorder (laughs). That’s how I started. I had a wire recorder, then I had a mono tape machine, and then I had a stereo tape machine. Then all of a sudden, 8-tracks came in, then 16 and 32, and then zeros and ones became the whole new measure. Zeros and ones changed the whole atmosphere of recording completely.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When did you actually feel successful as a musician?
Herb Alpert: That was in different phases. It wasn’t necessarily when I sold a lot of records. It took a long time before I was able to make some sense out of the trumpet where I was able to play what I was hearing. Once I was able to do that, I started playing in the bands in schools, the orchestras. I was the first trumpet player in junior high and in high school.
Then we formed a little group in high school that was a trio. It was the beginning of television here in Los Angeles, and there was this program called High Talent Battle, and they pitted high school talent against each other. Our trio entered, and we won 12 weeks in a row. Because of that, we started playing parties and weddings, and I was getting good feedback from people saying, “I like the way you play. You have a beautiful sound.”
Then I found myself trying to emulate various musicians that I liked, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis or Harry James, some of the trumpet players of the day. When I came to the realization that nobody wants to hear that because they had already done it, that’s when things started to click for me. I started looking for my own voice, my own way of doing it and not emulating those musicians that I liked a lot. Once I got beyond that and realized that I can’t do what Miles Davis does, but he can’t do what I do either and finally got that hurdle out of the way, things started happening for me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: All of those years you performed live, you had the “cool” factor. Were you aware you were giving off that vibe?
Herb Alpert: No. I never thought about it. I heard people call me “cool" or "the coolest guy in the room,” but I didn’t know what I was doing to deserve that (laughs). I was just trying to be myself. That’s all.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you ever have any unusual or interesting encounters with fans?
Herb Alpert: Yeah, probably some that I couldn’t talk about right now (laughs). It’s always been an interesting trip for me. I was never desperate to be a famous person. But I had to learn how to do that. It wasn’t easy for me. In some strange way, I liked the attention, but I didn’t like the attention (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the late 60s when you recorded “This Guy’s in Love with You,” you were primarily known for being a trumpeter and the leader of the Tijuana Brass. Were you apprehensive about singing?
Herb Alpert: Not really because I’d never thought of myself as a singer. Burt’s a friend of mine, and he gave me this song he recorded with Dionne Warwick that I liked a lot called “This Girl’s in Love with You.” He got Hal David to change the lyrics, Burt did the arrangements, and we recorded it at Gold Star Studios with a pretty nice group. When we had the track, I wanted to see if my voice even suited the track so I could feel comfortable singing the song. I was a little apprehensive about doing it. So I was in the studio with earphones on listening to the track singing the song that I liked a lot as a demo. In my head, I was just making a demo.
I went into the control room, and Burt was there with a few of the musicians and obviously, the engineer. When I walked in, they said, “Don’t touch it.” I said, “What do you mean, don’t touch it?” They said, “Don’t touch it. Just what you did was perfect.” It just felt good. So it was an unpretentious reading of that song that worked. I didn’t croon it. I didn’t try to do anything that I thought would attract attention. I just wanted to see if I could get the lyrics out properly and sing the melody. I backed into it.
Then when we were doing this television show, I guess it was 1968, so many people watched the show. We released the record two weeks later, and it was number one in the country. That was really an amazing thing that happened. I’d never planned anything like that (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It is reported that you sold more records than the Beatles in 1966. Did you ever meet John, Paul, George and Ringo?
Herb Alpert: Yeah. We had a party with them actually. The first time we went to London with the Tijuana Brass, Brian Epstein, who was their original manager, booked our engagement in London. On the second or third night we arrived there, Brian had a party at his apartment with us and the Beatles. I met all the guys. They were really unpretentious guys. When the Beatles broke up, George Harrison had a label called Dark Horse, and it was being distributed through A&M, so I spent some time with him. George spent so much time on our lot at A&M that he met one of our secretaries, and they got married. So yeah, it’s been kind of an interesting thing. The Beatles really pushed this whole pop music thing. They came in with provocative things to say and do, so I think that changed the attitude of lyrics and the way people were making records at that time.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Who were some of the biggest selling artists during your time at A&M?
Herb Alpert: Believe it or not, the Carpenters were one of our biggest artists, Janet Jackson, of course the Tijuana Brass, the Police, Sting, some of our jazz artists, but they were quieter in terms of the amount of sales. Those are the biggies. Cat Stevens would be in there also.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: One of my favorite albums of all time is Carole King’s Tapestry.
Herb Alpert: Carole King, yeah. That was being distributed by us. Lou Adler did that album. That was a huge album. Tapestry was around 12 million or something like that. It was huge. It was an interesting album the way it was done because you know, I’m dear friends with Lou Adler. We started in the business together. Lou wanted to do this album with Carole like in the old days when she used to work in the Brill Building in New York where she made demo records. So he wanted this record to have that type of flavor to it. It wasn’t over produced. It was kind of sparse. But here again, good songs always win out, and Carole is really a wonderful artist. She writes good melodies, and she has bright people writing lyrics for her. That’s a nice combination.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me about the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts.
Herb Alpert: We’ve been doing it for 26 years now. We help not struggling artists but artists that are in mid career. I always kind of gravitated toward the artist that was a little off the wall like “took the road less traveled” artist. Those are the artists we honor every year. I just want to give them a little shove, give them a little encouragement to take it to the next level. I really feel that the artists are the heart and soul of our democracy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you ever told those in political office how important the arts are to education and in society as a whole?
Herb Alpert: That’s a tough one. The politicians don’t seem to get just how important it is. It was so important to me I wanted to give back in that area. I think all kids should have some sort of creative outlet at an early age. It shouldn’t be a priority. It should be a right for all kids to have that in private and public schools.
I think once they start delving into creative things like painting, sculpting, acting, writing poetry, blowing the trumpet or playing guitar and start feeling good about themselves creating, maybe they can feel good about others as well. I think there’s a win-win situation in that area. They don’t have to be professionals, but they can take that creative, inventive, improvisational spirit and do whatever they choose to do in life.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You and Lani are heading toward 50 years of marriage. Is it your similarities or your differences that keep the relationship successful?
Herb Alpert: It’s a little bit of everything. She’s a great artist. She’s a great friend. We have a tremendous relationship. We’ve worked on it, but she’s an angel. She changed my life. I’m so blessed to have her in my life. She’s honest. She’s authentic. She feels for others. We’re kind of opposites. I’m a right brain kind of guy and kind of quiet for the most part. She claims to be an introvert, but I don’t think she is. She’s like a racehorse. She’s like a thoroughbred. She’s ready to go.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: While I was preparing this interview, I was listening to your latest single, “Smile,” which is simply beautiful and the video is so emotional. The first comment under the “Smile” video says, “This man just oozes cool without even trying.” So there you go, Herb.
Herb Alpert: Well, I don’t think you can try to be cool. I think you’re either cool or you’re not. I hope I remain cool (laughs).
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