South of the border to top of the pops
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By Simon Collins | 27th August 2016
Alongside the jingle of car keys being placed in a bowl, Herb Alpert’s horn work with the Tijuana Brass was the sound of the swinging 60s.
Alpert got lucky being in the right place at the right time.
The jazz instrumental legend’s 1962 chart-topping single The Lonely Bull was inspired by a trip to a bullfight in Tijuana, Mexico.
It wasn’t the blood sport, rather the mariachi brass bands that prompted his sonic shift south of the border. “I saw many bullfights in Tijuana,” Alpert, 81, says from his home in Malibu, California. “I was trying to express the feeling I had watching these fights.”
The Los Angeles-born musician had already graced the charts with Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World and Jan and Dean’s Baby Talk, both written with Lou Adler.
But The Lonely Bull kicked open a door for Alpert, who followed with instrumental hits such as Spanish Flea, Tijuana Taxi and Magic Trumpet.
He helped introduce Latin music to the mainstream, even though he is Jewish and none of the sessions musos in the Tijuana Brass were Hispanic.
The surprisingly rapid success of The Lonely Bull forced Alpert and his partner Jerry Moss to set up A&M Records to deal with demand.
“The record was out two days and I got a call from a distributor in Australia wanting to distribute our record,” he says. “And it happened like that all over the world. We didn’t have distribution. We didn’t have a company. We just put out a record.”
While Alpert played trumpet from age eight — and continues to play every day — one of his biggest hits came as a singer.
In 1968 after a director asked the handsome star to sing on TV, Alpert hit up his friend Burt Bacharach for a song.
“He sent me This Girl’s in Love With You,” he recalls. “He thought I could handle that song. I loved it and called Hal David, asked him to change the gender.” Easy-listening classic This Guy’s in Love With You became A&M’s first No. 1 single on the US Billboard charts.
Trumpet legend Herb Alpert still makes great music, and looking to the future, at the age of 81.
The young and handsome Alpert.
After Alpert asked David for some more tunes you could “whistle in the shower”, he had a crack at a ditty called (They Long to Be) Close to You.
“I thought it was a really good recording until I was listening to a playback with my friend, engineer Larry Levine,” he says. “He said ‘You sound terrible singing this song’.”
A chastened Alpert shelved the song until he was looking for something special for a young sibling duo signed to A&M after they were passed over by “every company in LA”. Close to You became the breakthrough hit in 1970 for the Carpenters, who went on to sell more than 100 million records.
“That’s the way life is and you’ve got to keep your antennae up,” Alpert says. “You never know when you’re going to get a sign that’s worth listening to.”
And sometimes you’ve got to do the right thing, such as when A&M let Arizona disc jockey Waylon Jennings, who was being groomed as a folk singer, break contract to follow his country music dreams with RCA Nashville.
“I thought ‘If we can do that and be honest with our artist roster, it’s going to come back to us 100 times’, and that’s actually what happened.”
Before being sold to PolyGram for a reported $US500 million in 1989, A&M Records boasted an incredible rosters of artists, including the Police, Cat Stevens, Carole King and Quincy Jones.
The label also hosted Sergio Mendes, whose band Brasil ‘66 featured singer, Lani Hall — Alpert’s wife since 1974.
Alpert and Hall recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Brasil ‘66 with a star-studded concert at the Hollywood Bowl, after a two-week residency at Manhattan’s Cafe Carlyle.
The remarkably vibrant legend is working on an orchestral Christmas album, which will feature Richard Carpenter on a remake of his Merry Christmas, Darling.
Next month, Alpert will unveil Human Nature, a collection of electronic and dance music-infused originals and classics, alongside the re-release of 24 of his albums on CD and four on vinyl.
“I’m not thinking about the past, you know, quite frankly I’m thinking about what I’m doing right now,” he says. “I love the idea that people are talking about all the old music but it’s not my focus.”
Alpert remains passionate about the creative process, whether that’s playing music or making art. His sculpture of a trumpet player adorns the cover of Human Nature, while for more than 40 years he has painted in an abstract expressionist style.
“I get tremendous pleasure,” says Alpert, who regularly gets talked into exhibiting. “I’m a right brain guy, you know. I’m 85 per cent in the right side of my brain. Art is something you can’t put into words,” he adds.
“You don’t know why you like a Miles Davis solo or Louis Armstrong solo or Charlie Parker solo. The people who get excited about art, they listen with their soul.”