“It wasn’t music I was crazy about. But I was crazy about that voice.”
On first hearing Karen Carpenter
Man behind the music
Few have had more impact on pop music than Herb Alpert
By Bob Keefer
Appeared in print: Friday, Jan 15, 2010
It’s tough to imagine a bigger name in the music world than trumpet player Herb Alpert. He’s won eight Grammys. He’s cut 14 albums that went platinum, 15 that went gold.
He’s the “A” in A&M Records. He discovered the Carpenters. He’s made millions of dollars as an entertainer and artist and given millions of dollars away to support the arts.
Alpert, who is 74, learned much of what he knows about the music business while working early in his career with R&B legend Sam Cooke.
“Oh boy, I learned a lot from that guy, I did,” Albert said in a phone interview this week. “I watched him record. I watched him come in with a notebook full of lyrics, and he’d say, ‘Herbie, what do you think of this?’
“I’d look at the lyrics and say, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding?’ To myself. And then he’d pick up a guitar and start singing, and you’d say, ‘Wow, man!’ ”
Alpert and his wife, singer Lani Hall (think Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66), come to the Shedd on Jan. 22 for a concert of American standards and occasional looks back at Alpert’s early musical career, those days when he burst onto the scene in the 1960s as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
But back to Sam Cooke.
Alpert said he learned, watching the singer at work, that music wasn’t simply about lyrics on the page.
“Between where he put the melody and his sense of rhythm, and his joy for doing what he was doing, all of a sudden, ‘Cokes are in the icebox, let’s have a party!’ turned into something magical.
“For the first time it hit me: It’s not what you do; it’s the way you do it.”
Cooke told Alpert, about making records, that, “People are just listening to a cold piece of wax. It either makes it or it don’t.”
“That’s really bringing it right down to the nub,” Albert said.
All that brass
Albert grew up in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, a Jewish neighborhood; his father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia and his mother a Californian.
His father played mandolin by ear, and young Herb picked up music quite naturally. He went to the University of Southern California, where he was in the Trojan marching band, and did a stint in the Army before returning to Los Angeles to work in the music industry.
Early on, he was fascinated by recording technology. His first audio recorder was a WebCor wire recorder. (For the uninitiated, wire recorders used a hair-thin strand of wire running rapidly between reels to record magnetic pulses.)
“That really dates me,” Alpert laughed. “Don’t put that in there!”
He soon moved onto magnetic tape. “And then when I heard Les Paul overdubbing his guitar several times. I tried that on the horn, just out of curiosity and came up with this sound I thought was interesting.”
That was the sound of the Tijuana Brass.
A little known fact: The Tijuana Brass never existed as a band until after its album “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” came out in 1965. The early TJB was all Herb Alpert and his tape recorder.
But after “Whipped Cream” skyrocketed on the charts, people wanted to book the band for concerts. Alpert started hiring musicians to play the music he already had laid down on tape.
“Whipped Cream,” as any guy of a certain age will recall, was an iconic album in more ways than one. Its cover, shot by photographer Peter Whorf, showed model Dolores Erickson apparently wearing nothing but a strategic pile of whipped cream.
Alpert didn’t like it.
“At the time, I thought it was a little too risqué,” he laughs. That was 1965. “At the time it was pushing a little bit, and I thought maybe it was too lowbrow for the audience we were playing to.”
Even Herb Alpert gets to be wrong now and then.
Building the Carpenters
Alpert and Jerry Moss founded A&M Records in 1962. The label published an extraordinary and diverse run of musicians, from Joe Cocker and Burt Bacharach to Waylon Jennings and Cat Stevens.
Perhaps Alpert’s biggest find at A&M was singer Karen Carpenter. One day, he was handed a low fidelity audition tape with a woman’s voice.
“It wasn’t music I was crazy about,” he said. “But I was crazy about that voice.”
That gets him talking about “authenticity,” and the conversation loops back to Cooke once more.
“I was watching a session of his after he recorded ‘You Send Me.’ He was recording ‘For Sentimental Reasons.’ The owner of the company listened to the playback of one of the tapes and he called Sam over to him.
“He understood music. He understood reading music. He was showing Sam where he could put a ‘whoa-whoa’ in here and a ‘whoa-whoa’ over there. The ‘whoa-whoa’ was the thing that sold ‘You Send Me.’
“I remember Sam saying to him, ‘Jack, man, you can’t just put a whoa-whoa in wherever you want. You got to feel it.’ ”
Carpenter felt it.
“When I heard her voice, it just jumped out of the speakers and sat right next to me on the couch. I wanted to sign them. They had something magical.”
The Carpenters, by the way, didn’t gain traction right off. “Most people in the company thought I was a loony for signing them,” Alpert said. “Of course they didn’t say that to me. After I gave them ‘Close to You,’ and it happened big time for them, I turned into a genius.”
Today and yesterday
Alpert hasn’t released a new album in about a decade. Then last year he and Hall started touring, playing intimate venues such as the small RedCat theater at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Yoshi’s Jazz Club in San Francisco.
They asked their sound engineer to record several of their appearances. “Anything Goes: Herb Alpert and Lani Hall Live” came out as a CD last year.
It’s got the couple’s reworking of such standards as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “That Old Black Magic.” The Shedd audience can expect a “creative” look back at the Tijuana Brass.
Alpert never has confined himself to the music business.
For four decades he’s been a successful abstract painter and sculptor, and he has a show of his work coming up in Los Angeles next month. He owns a restaurant.
He’s a Broadway producer, with such plays as Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” to his credit. He takes an active role in dispensing money from his charitable foundation.
I mentioned that his résumé sounds like a workaholic’s. And for the first time in our conversation, he sounds slightly offended.
“Not at all. Not at all!” he said. “I just like to do things when it feels like it’s time to do them.”
Call Bob Keefer at 541-338-2325 or e-mail him at [email protected].