Herb Alpert may be the best known person…..that you probably don’t actually know. If the only thing his name conjures up in your mind is The Tijuana Brass...and as this website skews towards the older side (myself included,) I’m guessing that a lot of folks here remember that group….then you actually know only a little about him.
But have you enjoyed watching Bill Moyers on PBS? Have you marveled at the entertainingly subversive antics of The Yes Men? Herb Alpert helped fund their work. Are you grateful that the Harlem School of the Arts is thriving instead of shuttered? Again, Herb Alpert, who upon learning of the school’s imminent closure donated millions of dollars to put the school on a sound footing. Just part of the more than 150 million dollars his foundation has donated.
Do you appreciate the writing of Tony Kushner, August Wilson, and Arthur Miller? Alpert is a Tony award winning producer of their plays and others.
Have you enjoyed the music of The Police? Janet Jackson? Carole King, Cat Stevens, Billie Preston, Peter Frampton? Burt Bacharach, Joe Cocker, The Carpenters and Hugh Masakela? Again, thank Herb Alpert. Hell, even Cheech & Chong recorded at his studios!
A 2019 documentary titled “Herb Alpert Is...” is available on YouTube. There are commercials and unfortunately they just barge in at any moment but usually within a few seconds you can skip them and get back to the movie, which is entertaining and informative.
Bill Moyers figures prominently in the film, as does Questlove. Other contributors include Quincy Jones, Sting, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, and Chloe Flower. Questlove is a little embarrassed when he admits that when he’s down he puts on his Herb Alpert playlist, “the happiest music in the world,” as he puts it, to lift his mood. And he’s astounded to learn that Alpert is decades older than he assumed. “Really?!” he says, “With that tone?”
My earliest memory of Herb Alpert is indeed that happy music, the Tijuana Brass, whose arguably kitschy but inarguably catchy music was insanely popular in the mid-sixties. They even outsold the Beatles in the USA in 1965/66. They filled 20,000 seat arenas, unheard of for an instrumental act. At one point they had 4 albums in Billboard’s Top Ten, a feat only just recently matched by Taylor Swift.
My folks had a half dozen of their LPs (which since their passing are now mine.) I can remember the adults making a fuss over the cover of “Whipped Cream & Other Delights.” A fuss which at my young age I did not understand. But then, of course, a few years passed and my goodness did I understand.
Years later it was a compelling Bill Moyers special on the chemical industry that led to me discovering that there was more to Alpert than had so far met my ear. The credits included, as always on PBS, a list of individuals and groups who had assisted with funding. And when I heard “The Herb Alpert Foundation” I thought “Huh? That Herb Alpert?” That led to me learning about Alpert’s philanthropy, his environmentalism, his passion for arts education, and the story of A&M records.
In 1962 Alpert and his friend Jerry Moss (who has just recently passed,) started A&M records in Alpert’s garage. It went on to become the world’s largest and most successful independent record label. Their first release, “The Lonely Bull,” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass was labelled as A&M #101, so that, as Alpert explained to Marc Maron, “The distributors will think we’ve already put out a hundred records.” Alpert overdubbed his trumpet and played keyboards and drums. Session musicians from the Wrecking Crew took care of the rest. It wasn’t until the TJB’s fourth record that Alpert put together an actual band, which included jazz guitarist John Pisano.
Within 4 years the label was so successful they moved into Charlie Chaplin’s old movie studios (today the home of Jim Henson Enterprises.) A&M was known as an artist’s label. As Sting notes in the documentary, you could actually say hello to Mister A or Mister M. You couldn’t talk to a Mister C or a Mister B or a Mister S.
After 27 years the two partners sold the label to PolyGram for a $500 million dollars (over 1.25 billion in today’s money.) Some years later after A&M went through a series of mergers and acquisitions they received an additional $200 million settlement from A&M’s successor for violation of their contract’s integrity clause.
Alpert has won 8 Grammy Awards, plus a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the El Premio Billboard Award for contributions to Latin music. He and Jerry Moss are inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2013 he was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.
Today Herb Alpert is one of the wealthiest and most philanthropic individuals in the music industry. He has a beautiful home and studio on the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, where he engages in his lifelong passion of painting and sculpting. Some of his bronze sculptures are on permanent display in front of Chicago’s Field Museum and they are stunning.
And yet, at the age of 88, he continues to tour about two-thirds of the year, with his spouse of 50 years, Lani Hall, who was a vocalist with Sergio Mendes & Brazil 66. That’s her on the iconic “Mas Que Nada” and she’s also seen and heard singing the title song to “Never Say Never Again,” Sean Connery’s return to the role of 007.
As Alpert exhibits extraordinarily little ego and certainly doesn’t need the money I have to believe he continues to perform simply because he loves it.
Seven years ago I saw Herb and Lani in concert near my home. Perhaps partly because I’d only recently recovered from my near fatal mitral valve failure, when Hall launched into “Mas Que Nada” and I heard that iconic voice singing that iconic song I was moved to tears. I thought to myself “Wow….it’s amazing how powerful art is.”
Afterwards I got to meet them both and they were kind and gracious. I related my story to Lani and she looked at me and….my hand to the FSM...said “Wow...it’s amazing how powerful art is.”
And my copy of “The Lonely Bull” (A&M #101 remember!) now has Herb Alpert’s autograph on it and my CD of “Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brazil 66” (vinyl editions going for $300, alas,) has her autograph as well.
This past Saturday I was blessed to once again see them, this time at The Vic Theater in Chicago. It was one of the most amazing and moving experiences in my life. I’ve seen legends before….Ray Charles, BB King, George Jones...but as great as those performances were they felt like just that...performances. Nothing wrong with that. That’s what I came to see.
But Saturday night felt less like a concert and more like an intimate evening in an artist’s living room. In a two hour show Alpert spent perhaps forty minutes between songs taking questions and telling stories. And as music scholar Ken Robinson says in the documentary, he’s spent many evenings talking with Herb about the people he’s known and worked with...”and it turns out it’s everyone.”
You know that great song “Wonderful World”? Alpert wrote that with Jerry Adler and the amazing Sam Cooke, who Alpert says taught him much about the the importance of feeling in music. He’s worked with musicians like Art Pepper and was set to record an album with him just before he died. Chet Baker was an influence on him and he once gifted the troubled artist with a horn that he pawned within a couple days. He worked with Stan Getz and came to regard him as a brother in the last years of his life.
For…perhaps surprisingly to most…Herb Alpert’s first musical love is jazz. He and his wife tour with a trio of astounding talent; Bill Cantos on piano, Hussain Jiffry on bass, and Tiki Pasillas on percussion. Each is allowed to shine as they all improvise and work off each other. They’ve been together about 15 years.
In 1968 Herb Alpert recorded a rare vocal, a song that his good friend Burt Bacharach had written along with Hal David. Bacharach had recorded the song with Dionne Warwick, widely acknowledged as the best interpreter of his notoriously difficult to sing compositions, but the record didn’t go anywhere. Although Alpert never really thought of himself as a singer, it became his first #1 song. Here he is performing it, along with the audience, this past Saturday night. And are they a good looking couple, or what?
Eleven years after that record Alpert recorded “Rise,” a song co-written by his nephew, Randy “Badazz” Alpert. Although not associated with any album, it too rose to #1, making Herb the first and by most metrics still the only artist to have a #1 Billboard song as a vocalist and as an instrumentalist. The song has been sampled by The Notorious B.I.G. as well as Bell Biv Devoe. Randy Alpert turned down a request by Pfizer to use the song in a commercial for...you guessed it….Viagra. Stay classy, Pfizer.
Here is a snippet of him performing it Saturday night, while the song’s video plays in the background.
And finally, here is an utterly charming and warm video for Herb’s cover of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” As the kids on Instagram say, stay ‘til the end. And as Questlove said, that tone!