Headed back to town for a pair of performances alongside his wife Lani Hall this week at City Winery, I spoke with Herb Alpert about cultivating an artist friendly vibe as the co-founder of A&M Records, his series of “Spirit Totem” sculptures on permanent display at the Field Museum, the importance of music and arts in the classroom and much more…
Following a start to a recording career where he felt more like a number than an artist, Herb Alpert, alongside Jerry Moss, co-founded A&M Records in 1962, initially running it out of Alpert’s garage. The debut album by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (1962’s The Lonely Bull) was the label’s first release, beginning an incredible run that would establish A&M as a highly successful, artist friendly label. A&M featured a diverse roster of performers ranging anywhere from Phil Ochs to Styx and launched the careers of artists like The Police and Janet Jackson along the way.
In addition to his tenure as a producer and label founder – one which would garner him induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Moss, as a non-performer – Alpert can also claim an array of remarkable distinctions as a recording artist.
- In 1966, Herb Alpert outsold The Beatles.
- Later that year, he simultaneously charted 5 albums in the top 20 of the Billboard album chart. It’s the only time that’s ever happened.
- When his instrumental solo hit “Rise” went to #1 in 1979, it made Alpert the only performer ever to reach that mark with both an instrumental song and a vocal performance (“This Guy’s in Love With You” got there first in 1968, featuring a rare Alpert lead vocal). Notorious B.I.G. sampled “Rise” on “Hypnotize” and took it back to #1 in 1997 as one of rap’s biggest hits.
Selling the label to PolyGram in 1989 gave Alpert the freedom to pursue a slew of artistic projects, like sculpting and painting, in addition to his music. It also enabled him to pursue his philanthropic interests. Alpert feels strongly about music and arts in the classroom and a $30 million grant from the Herb Alpert Foundation in 2007 funded the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, one of Alpert’s many charitable endeavors.
But Chicago holds a special place for him. Alpert’s wife, Lani Hall (lead vocalist of Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66), hails from Chicago. And a collection of his sculptures was recently added to the Field Museum’s permanent collection.
I spoke over the phone with Herb Alpert, 82, about looking back on The Tijuana Brass and Brasil ’66 alongside Hall live in concert, his first new Christmas album in nearly 50 years, his vast philanthropic contributions and much more. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows below…
Q. You’ve performed here so many times over the years. Your wife, who you’re performing with at City Winery is from Chicago, there’s the Field Museum sculptures – what’s it like for you coming back to Chicago after all these years?
Herb Alpert: I love Chicago. Mainly because they brought me Lani Hall, my wife! We’ve been married for 43 years.
Lani was the lead singer with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 and I auditioned them in 1966 and that’s when Lani and I met. We were friends and one thing led up to another.
The funny story is, when they started travelling with us – they were opening the show for the Tijuana Brass – I got my guys together and I said, “Whatever you guys do, don’t fool around with the girls in Sérgio’s group. It’s not good business!” (Laughing) So that’s a memory.
We enjoy playing at the Winery. We’ve been there before. I liked the enthusiasm of the crowd, it’s fantastic. Young and old are there. It’s quite a place. We just played at the Winery in Nashville which was also fantastic.
We’ve been playing together with the same group for eleven years. It’s very transparent – just drums, keyboard, bass and my wife and I. We have some special things that we’ve added onto the show. We have some visuals that are beautiful and people are really loving. It’s kind of a retrospective show, what we’re doing behind us when I play the Tijuana Brass medley and Lani plays Brasil ’66.
She does a little Brasil ’66 medley and then I do a little Tijuana Brass medley. But surrounding that, it’s pretty open. It’s pretty spontaneous. We play a lot of songs. We have a large catalog so we scramble it up every night. It’s always different for me. It’s a new experience every time we perform.
So it’s a great show and people leave the venue feeling much better than when they arrived. And that’s the feeling that I like. Because I’m trying to put positive music out there that makes you feel good.
Q. Your “Spirit Totems” sculpture collection has been on display at the Field Museum and I’m told it will now remain a permanent feature on their outdoor terrace. As another form of artistic expression, what does sculpting mean to you and how did the partnership with the Field Museum come about?
HA: Well, I’ve been painting for 50 years and sculpting for probably 40. It’s just a natural extension of what I do. I’m a right brained guy. I’m 85% on the right side of my head so I wake up in the morning thinking about doing something artistic.
But it was kind of fortuitous. My wife was always saying, “Why don’t you try to get something [placed] at the Field Museum?” And I said, “Well, how do you do that?” So we made some connections and we approached them. They liked it. We were doing it just as a trial. We were putting them up for a year – this was a couple of years back – and the reaction was fantastic. So we said, “Ok, we’ll extend it another year.” Which we did. And people started taking pictures in front of them. And it became kind of a nice feeling for the people walking up to experience the Museum itself.
And there’s a huge piece inside the Field Museum by the way. Kitty-corner to Sue. So the reaction has been fantastic and we were approached to see if we’d like to keep a couple of them there. And I said, “What if we kept them all there? The full monty. Nine pieces.”
So that’s what’s happening. They’re going to be a part of the permanent collection now.
Q. Your 1968 Tijuana Brass Christmas Album is regarded now as a classic. Nearly 50 years later, you’ve got a brand new Christmas record out: The Christmas Wish. What made now the right time to revisit the spirit of that holiday?
HA: Well, the right time is Christmas but, you know, I recorded it in August! The heat of summer.
But when we did the Christmas Album with the Tijuana Brass, after finishing that, I always said, “One of these days, I’d like to do an album with orchestra and choir.” That was on my bucket list and the timing seemed to be right. So we went ahead.
I’m very proud of the album. It’s good and the reaction has been fantastic so it’s given me a lot of pleasure to be able to do that.
Q. The culture of the record business obviously changed vastly between the time you founded A&M Records in 1962 and the time you sold it in 1989 (let alone the way it’s changed since then now). What was kind of the mentality or the vibe that you were trying to cultivate when you founded A&M?
HA: A&M was all about the artist.
I recorded for a major company prior to A&M and I wasn’t crazy about the way I was being treated. I wasn’t being treated like an artist, I was treated like a number. I’d go into recording facilities and they’d say, “78242, take one.” It wasn’t a good feeling.
Then in the control room, I was listening to one of my playbacks – and I wanted to listen to a little more bass – so I went to the console and I lifted the bass track up and the engineer actually slapped my hand and said, “Don’t ever touch that again, this is a union board!” I said, “Ok, thank you very much!” So I filed all of that.
When we started A&M, I wanted A&M to revolve around the artist. The artists are the ones who make the record industry work. I wanted them to feel comfortable. I wanted myself to be comfortable. So we created that type of environment at A&M.
I’ll tell you one thing… This was the turning point for me. This was the point I really knew we were gonna be successful. We signed Waylon Jennings. We were the first ones to sign Waylon. I went down to Phoenix and recorded Waylon at a studio there. I did a record with him called “Four Strong Winds” that Chet Atkins happened to hear. He was the head of RCA Nashville. And Chet made some overtures to Waylon that whenever he got clear of his contract, he’d like to talk to him.
Anyways, Waylon told me about that. I wanted Waylon to be a little more pop but Waylon really wanted to be a country artist. So my partner Jerry Moss and I said, “We are gonna let Waylon out of his contract and let him go with Chet. That would be in his best interests.” And we did that. I remember the day we signed his release, I looked at my partner and said, “This guy’s gonna be a big star.” And my partner Jerry said, “I know it.” And he obviously was a big star.
But I said to myself, “If we can be that honest to artists that record for us, we’re going to be very successful.” And that’s what happened.
Q. You mentioned Waylon. A&M launched such a diverse roster of artist careers – The Carpenters, The Police, Janet Jackson. Is there an artist you discovered or launched at A&M that you’re particularly proud of discovering or that maybe you feel defied the odds in breaking through to the masses, that people told you wouldn’t make it?
HA: (Laughs) You threw me a softball there! Of course it’s The Carpenters.
I signed them in 1970. And they had a couple of records. And people in my own company were saying, “You know, maybe these kids are a little too soft. They really don’t belong on the radio. They’re a little too cute or sweet. Blah blah blah…” And then I gave them “Close to You.” And they recorded it.
At the time, the first recording they had, Karen [Carpenter] – bless her soul – was playing drums. And it was a little light. So I said, “No, we need a little bit more artillery.” So we got The Wrecking Crew – Hal Blaine and Joe Osborn and those guys – they came in and made that record that was the major breakthrough record for The Carpenters. And they’ve been huge. They’re still selling records.
So, my point is, you never know what records are really going to take off with the public. It’s all about timing. I think the whole thing is timing.
If we tried to start A&M in today’s environment, I don’t think it would’ve happened.
Q. You were able to wrestle control of your catalog and the Tijuana Brass catalog and your wife’s catalog back. We still see artists like Paul McCartney fighting for that today. Having operated on both sides of that coin – on both the label side and as an artist and performer – what’s your advice for an up and coming artist desperate to sign what is, historically, often an awfully one-sided first label contract?
HA: Well, have a good lawyer next to you. An honest one. And make sure you know what you’re signing.
The laws need to be upgraded. In years back, we didn’t know about 0’s and 1’s and the internet and file sharing and the Spotifys of the world. So there’s some revision that needs to take place. We’re a little out of sync at the moment. Because artists, and especially songwriters, are finding it really hard to earn a living now.
My nephew wrote, with his friend, “Rise.” That song I did in 1979 which was a #1 record. It was huge. It gets like 40 zillion spins on the Spotifys of the world and he gets a check for $17. It just doesn’t make sense.
We’ve gotta straighten that out or else songwriting is gonna be a hobby instead of a profession.
Q. Growing up, I had a music class and an art class in grammar school. And both of those are largely disappearing in schools in this country right now. Obviously, through your philanthropic work, it’s very important to you. What do you think is happening to kids as programs like that continue to go away?
HA: We’re not teaching the arts in public schools and probably in some private schools. It’s a whole different feeling.
I think to develop the total human, you need that as a part of the thing you develop in life. And it spills over into the academics. Once you start learning to play an instrument, you realize you can’t just think about it, you have to put in the time. And there’s a certain amount of thinking that’s involved with that – and reading, writing and arithmetic fall into place.
It’s a win-win and I don’t know why our politicians don’t understand the value of that. It’s kind of sad to think that even our President doesn’t want to go to the Kennedy Center to honor the performing artists that are being honored. It’s kind of sad.
With the Herb Alpert Foundation, I’ve been really trying to make sure that kids have that experience at an early age. Because I had an exceptional situation. When I was 8 years old, in my grammar school, there was a music class – a music appreciation class. And, in that class, there was a table filled with instruments and I happened to pick up the trumpet.
It obviously changed my life. But it did a lot of other things for me. I’m super shy. I’m basically an introvert. When I was a kid, that trumpet was talking for me. So, I think kids need to have that type of creative outlet – whether it’s poetry, writing, sculpting, painting or playing an instrument.
If they stick with it, they get to appreciate their own uniqueness. And then, hopefully, with fingers crossed, they can appreciate the uniqueness in others. Because I think we need a lot more of that. Because we’re living in a very strange time right now.
– Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on this week’s Herb Alpert & Lani Hall shows at City Winery below)
An Evening With Herb Alpert & Lani Hall
Monday, November 6, 2017
Tuesday, November 7, 2017
Doors open at 6PM
Shows begin at 8PM
$65 – $90 SOLD OUT
(Click HERE to join the waiting list)