From the outside looking in, Herb Alpert had it all in the latter half of the 1960s. He was handsome, he was rich and the breezy radio hits with his Tijuana Brass were the feel-good Southern California sounds of an era. A&M Records, the independent record label the suave trumpeter co-founded with Jerry Moss in 1962, was thriving. His 1965 album Whipped Cream & Other Delights was sophisticated pop confection for the masses, with erotic cover art particularly appreciated by adolescent boys.
Looks were deceiving. For one thing, that album cover was jive: The lady on the cover was covered in shaving cream, not whipped cream. More important, the man making the happy music was frowning on the inside.
“I was willing to give the whole thing up,” Alpert says, on the phone from his beachfront home in West Malibu, Calif. “I was going to throw my horn in the ocean and sell my half of A&M Records.”
Alpert, 85, is the titular subject of Herb Alpert Is..., a jazzy, colourful life story by John Scheinfeld that attempts to explain the musician, painter, sculptor and philanthropist, with the help of testimonials from fellow famous people.
“Herb Alpert is a cultural icon,” says Sting, of the man who signed the Police to A&M. Songwriter Paul Williams says he’s “who I’d like to be when I grow up.” And Billy Bob Thornton describes Alpert as “butter.”
That all may be true, especially the butter. But a film clip from the turn of the seventies shows Alpert struggling to define who and why he was. “I can’t talk anymore,” he tells his off-camera interviewer, cutting the segment short.
Alpert can talk about it now. “I was immature,” he says. “I was going through a divorce. I had all this fame and the success of A&M, and I thought I had the brass ring. But I didn’t."
WHAT HAPPENED TO HAPPY MUSIC?
Both the documentary and a companion box set covering five decades and 63 songs offer a look back at a time when a feel-good instrumental single like A Taste of Honey by Alpert and the Tijuana Brass still charted regularly. The mid-1960s were carefree wonder years in America – white America, anyway. Those of a certain generation remember a melodiously upbeat age of suburbs, surf guitar and Pan Am stewardesses, and a much-needed break between soul-shattering assassinations.
“Timing plays a big part in the success I had,” Alpert says. “I was at the right place at the right time, and I was ready for it. I did my work.”
Asked why instrumental music fell out of favour, Alpert says "these things are cyclical,” and that radio today is less free-form than it used to be.
It’s not just instrumental music that has disappeared from the charts, it’s fun music – de-stressing songs easy on the ears and mind. Something like The Girl from Ipanema, a Brazilian bossa nova number by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto that was on Getz/Gilberto, which won a Grammy for 1964′s Record of the Year.
The next year, the Kinks released Where Have All the Good Times Gone, a hard-rocking question that deserves an answer. The young, incoming singer-songwriters and their earnest melancholia are partly to blame for the transition from fun to glum. They took over from the Brill Building’s good-cheer professional song-makers. By 1970, James Taylor was singing that he’d seen sunny days that he thought would never end, but wasn’t it his Fire and Rain that helped bring the clouds?
“A lot of artists are reflecting the times,” says Alpert, who was still touring before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “Now we’re inundated by the 24-hour news and all the things that are being thrown at us. It gets in your soul. Musicians are not responding to the good times. They’re responding to the grotesque things they’re hearing about.”
A New York Times review of a wet show in 1967 was headlined “Alpert concert defies the rain,” which, unwittingly, served as a metaphor for Alpert’s place in the socially convulsing times and darkening musical landscape. By the summer of ’68, the Alpert-sung version of Burt Bacharach’s This Guy’s in Love with You shared chart space with Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild and the “crossfire hurricane” of the Rolling Stones' Jumpin' Jack Flash.
(If radio is less lighthearted than it was, so is television. The Dating Game, for example, began airing in 1965, with Alpert’s endorphined instrumental version of Spanish Flea serving as the show’s Bachelor’s Theme. That swinging program of turtlenecks, miniskirts and quick Q&A courtship was diametrically opposed to the melodrama of ABC’s The Bachelor today.)
With his fusion of Mexican mariachi and the rhythmic vibration of American jazz, Alpert was half sophisticated and half fluff. His was a serious version of light music, but he never overthought it.
“I remember sitting at the console in the studio listening to the entire Whipped Cream & Other Delights album and thinking to myself, ‘Man, this is good. This is fun – this is nice to listen to.' "
In the documentary, actor-musician Thornton says Alpert’s music took him to different places, "into a world where I wasn’t thinking about all the horrible stuff.” Couldn’t we use that kind of music today on the radio? A three-minute distraction, a snappy uplift, an “up, up and away” air balloon?
“Hey, man,” Alpert answers with a chuckle, “that’s what record players are for.”
The film Herb Alpert Is... reaches a pivotal point in its story in 1969, when the disillusioned Alpert played a gig in Germany with the Tijuana Brass. He had what he describes as an out-of-body experience. He couldn’t understand why the guy he was watching was so comfortable on stage when he was uncomfortable otherwise.
“I just wanted to find out who the hell I was and what I was doing on this planet and how I could make sense of my life,” Alpert says. “That was my pursuit.”
After the ill-fated European tour, he disbanded Tijuana Brass and married his current wife Lani Hall, the original lead singer with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66. Enduring a two-year period where he could no longer bring himself to play his instrument, Alpert sought the help of a New York music teacher, Carmine Caruso, who held up a trumpet and told him that it was “just a piece of plumbing,” and that Alpert himself was the real instrument.
“It took some time to get better,” says Alpert. "One therapist told me to make sure the music matched the lyrics. She was talking in the abstract. She meant that what you say should be what you feel. You don’t say ‘yes,’ if your body says ‘no.’ "
After a spell of inactivity, in the mid-seventies Alpert grew a mustache and formed a new band. Neither initiative lasted long. A pair of albums in 1978 with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela sold moderately. It wasn’t until Alpert’s funky solo instrumental hit Rise in 1979 that his comeback was complete.
HERB ALBERT TODAY
ln 1989, A&M Records, the independent label home to Alpert, Sting, Mendes, Sheryl Crow, Bryan Adams and many other acts, was acquired by Polygram. The deal made Alpert a rich man, if he wasn’t one already.
“The day I left the A&M lot, I didn’t look back,” Alpert says. “I didn’t think twice about it. I was just moving on.”
Today, when he’s not blowing his horn – a tour of Western Canada this spring was postponed because of the pandemic – Alpert’s time is spent painting, sculpting and, via the Herb Alpert Foundation, giving his money away. (Just last month, he was named Philanthropist of the Year by the Los Angeles Business Journal.)
In 2015, his giant black-bronze Spirit Totems found a year-long home at the steps of Chicago’s Field Museum. Asked about his art and his music, Alpert says it all comes from the same place.
“It’s just another outlet. When I’m painting and sculpting, the feeling in my body is no different than when I’m playing. It’s like meditation. I’m totally lost in it."
In the film, Alpert says that when it comes to art and music, you never quite get there – that in jazz as in life, you inch forward but never quite realize completeness. Watching the conclusion of Herb Alpert Is..., it’s hard not to think that Alpert has made it. That he’s gotten there.
Alpert disagrees, and tells me to hold on before blowing a bright ripple of brass notes from his horn. “I play every day,” he says, picking the phone back up. “You get a little better. You work on things that aren’t as good as they could be. And that’s the thing that keeps you going.”
Herb Alpert Is... is available on demand through Amazon, iTunes and other video-on-demand providers, and on DVD and Blu-Ray.
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