Alpert was touring the country, giving interviews to radio stations and newspapers to promote the release of “Fandango,” his new Latin-flavored album recorded in Mexico City. This is a transcript of an interview that aired on WGST radio in Atlanta, and later fed as a multi-part feature to 140 radio stations on its statewide news and programming network.
He was wonderful; it was very much a giving interview even during those few times when my questions stepped a bit over the line as an Alpert fan.
Richard Warner: This album (Fandago) is different in that you didn’t produce it.
Herb Alpert: Well, I co-produced it. The last few years I’ve been using co-producers. I had a co-producer on “Rise” and “Beyond” and the two albums I did with Hugh Masekela. I find that it’s nice to work with somebody and spin off on someone else’s feelings. You get a little jaded by yourself.
RW: This guy — Jose Quintana — is very famous, but not in this country.
HA: He just joined us at A&M Records. He is the premiere producer in Latin America. Last year he was responsible for 17 of the top 25 albums in Latin America. He’s produced albums with all the most important artists: Jose Jose, Camilo Sesto, Raphael.
RW: Have you always been big down there?
HA: It’s a record-to-record thing. A lot of my records have been popular down there.
RW: I find it interesting that you sell well in Japan.
HA: The Japanese seem to be a loyal audience. It’s different promoting records there. If you get a big sponsor that likes a particular song, they might use it to promote a particular product. And because of that exposure, you get heard not only because of the product but because of the album it’s attached to.
RW: Have you toured over there?
HA: In the ‘60s, I did. I’ve been there since to promote “Rise.” Rise was a big album there — it was double platinum.
RW: They’re a much different audience than we are, as I understand it. Very subdued. Very polite.
HA: I think that’s changed. They’re into it now. They’re cutting loose. But that’s the way it was in the ‘60s when I was over there with the Tijuana Brass. They were so quiet. And then after the concert, there were thousands of people milling around. I thought, gee we didn’t go over very well…but they saved it till after!
RW: This album, Fandango, was not recorded in your studio at A&M. A&M must be home to you — is it hard to work in a place that isn’t “home”?
HA: It’s just a matter of adjusting to the studios, to the facilities. I purposely wanted to go to Mexico City, to be in that environment and to see what it was like recording in another studio. I found it a little confusing at first because the studio itself — the interior — was very “live” and we were trying to record acoustic guitars, drums, couple pianos and I found there was a lot of leakage…cross sound between the instruments. So we had to construct a little house inside the studio so we could barricade the drummer (Carlos Vega) and get the sound of the acoustic guitars.
RW: Are these clear glass things that surround the musicians?
HA: Well, it’s half-glass, half-wood, half-upholstery.
RW: People probably don’t realize that an artist usually doesn’t sit down and record an album — or a song — from beginning to end.
HA: That’s true. Sometimes it does. “Rise” was recorded live in the studio. The only thing we overdubbed were hand-claps and guitar, but for the most part, that’s the way it appeared.
RW: Those hand-claps were great!
HA: (Laughs) Those hand-claps had a sound, didn’t they!
RW: There was something unusual about making “Rise”…
HA: We used the digital process. It’s — as opposed to tape where you have a magnetic tape that’s excited by frequencies that you hit, digital was a process where musical sounds are transferred to numbers and stored as numbers. This isn’t accurate, but it’ll give you a picture what it’s like: say you have numbers from one to 20,000 and assign — let’s say, a piccolo, which has a very high pitch, 14,000…you assign it 14,000 cycles. And a tuba or bass fiddle, you give it “42.” The machine samples…I think I’m getting beyond what I can explain.
It’s very clean. With tape, you get noise. I found that…let’s say you stick your ear down by a bass drum and you hear that impact, you can capture that impact in the digital process. With tape, you capture the impact, but you bring in some other elements. Sometimes those elements are good and sometimes, they’re not.
RW: Was Rise the only album where you used digital?
HA: Rise was the only album. We had one of the first units. We were like a trial for the digital process, and I found that in that particular timeframe, there were too many problems with it. I had to wait a lot while they tuned it up and tweaked it and brought the think tank in. It was tough, although I recommend it. I’m sure I’ll go back again and record in the digital process.
RW: I have that album on an audiophile pressing. Is it worth spending the extra money for that?
HA: Some people think so, if you have real sophisticated hardware. It brings out that tingly sound in the upper register and that bottom has a clear sound. It’s processed in a different manner; the masters are processed at half speed. If you look at a record under a microscope, the high frequencies are short jagged edges…and the low frequencies are long swinging ones are deep bass sounds. When it cut it at half speed, you’re getting more of those on the record.
RW: You seem to be happier with this album than any album since Rise.
HA: Yeah, I think so. I’m out pushing it. (Makes a funny voice). I’m on the hustle. (Laughs.)
RW: You ever going to tour again?
HA: I’m thinking about it. I have a group rehearsing now in Los Angeles. The reaction to this album has just been fabulous around the world…and I’ve had offers to perform from around the world and I’m tempted to do it. I’ve got itchy lips.
RW: I remember your concerts in the late ‘70s. I have great memories.
HA: I have some great memories, too. And along with it, I have some memories that don’t work so well! There’s something interesting about playing live; you’re in the moment, and I think it would be beneficial.
RW: When you play live — in fact, you played live here with Hugh Masekela —
HA: Yeah, at the Menagerie…
RW: That was playing to a very small crowd. Was that better.
HA: Well, I enjoyed that. It was more of a different experience. It was more jazz, had more of a nightclub setting than we did during the ’60s. Although there was a point with the Tijuana Brass where we were playing for such huge crowds that I kind of lost contact. At one point, the only connection I had with the audience was with people out there lighting cigarettes. I couldn’t see that crowd or feel them…and when you’re in a small situation, they’re right on top of you.
RW: Do you miss that? Do you miss being able to pack a stadium?
HA: Sometimes I do. Sure, I’m a little spoiled in that regard.
RW: Somebody in the industry — a man here in Atlanta named Kent Burkhart — told me once, “Herb doesn’t have to work another day in his life if he doesn’t want to.” He’s got the business end, he’s sold enough albums…
HA: That’s true. But you could have said that years back. But I do this for pleasure. Selfishly, I make music for me. I like to make music. I like looking for songs. I like working with interesting musicians. I like producing records. It’s something I will always do.
RW: Do you see another slack period coming?
HA: No, I feel like I just got my fastball back! I don’t want to let it loose! (Laughs)
RW: 20 years ago, A&M got put together with $200 bucks. Why did it work?
HA: I think that we were able to gather a great staff of people and we made quality. Our choice of artists, I guess. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer I was looking for.
RW: I guess the answer I was looking for…here I go, answering my own question…
HA: OK, why does it work?
RW: Well, I was thinking, the “A” was the creative and the “M” was the businessman.
HA: It worked hand in hand. We had a feel. My partner Jerry Moss has a feel. What we did do was respond to our gut. When we liked an artist, we recorded them. When we didn’t, we passed. If we felt good about it, we tried to find a way to do it, and if we didn’t like the song, we passed. And we’ve used that process right from the get-go. And not bottom-lined it. Our question to ourselves was never, “how much can we make if we invest ‘x’ amount of dollars?” We always felt that if you do something with quality and integrity, then it’s going to come back to you. I’m an old-timer in the business from the sense that when you do something that you feel good about there might be another person out there who feels the same way, or a hundred or a couple million.
RW: I was a trumpet player in high school and I played everything you did, by ear.
HA: You should try using your lips! (Laughs)
RW: I’m not going to tell you I have all your records because you’ll say, “Oh that’s where they all went.” But I got a sense of listening to your interview with Larry King that a lot of people feel that way.
HA: It feels like there are a lot of fans out there. Sometimes I wonder if they’re talking about me…I confess that I listen to my own music for my own pleasure.
RW: Even the old stuff…
HA: Not so much the old stuff. When I finish an album and I find myself listening to it in the car, because it makes me feel a certain way, that’s the time to try to let other people know about it. And that’s how I feel about “Fandango.”
RW: You picked the right song to release as a single! (“Route 101”)
HA: Well, I’ll tell you what happened…and this kind of goes against a little bit of my grain…but I had myself researched by a firm in Toronto, Canada. When Rise was #1, I asked this guy…if we had had ourself researched, could we have sold more records, and before I got the words out of my mouth he said yes. He said it’s because there is a whole audience out there that is not hearing Rise, which led me to the idea of thinking that a lot of people come up to me and ask what happened. “Why aren’t you recording anymore?” I ask them if they liked Rise, and they never heard the record. So I had this company research whether there was an old Tijuana Brass constituency out there and if there is, would they buy a record of mine if they liked it. And if the answer to that was “yes,” where are they? How can I find you? Some startling answers came back. Now I’m out on the campaign trail.
RW: Whoa whoa — what did you learn?
HA: Well, my audience is essentially from 35 to 50. The people that heard Rise in this focus group (and the focus group wasn’t just one, it was chosen from all over the country) — when they were asked if they knew Rise by Herb Alpert, like 80% of them said “no.” When they were asked after hearing the song — they were familiar with it — but they thought it was Chuck Mangione or they didn’t know who the artist was. I found it to be very interesting and very helpful for us because normally we would have tried to market Fandango in that same way to the same people that bought Rise, so we would have been heading in the wrong direction. Certainly I don’t want to turn my back on people who bought Rise, but I sense there’s been a lull. I sense that this audience…this 35 to 50 audience (maybe they’re younger, maybe a little older)…feels like there’s an audience that hasn’t bought records in a while. They walk into a record shop and they’re forced to look at records they don’t identify with because of lots of rock and roll and lots of the beats of the week being hustled. And I think they dropped out. They’re listening to easy listening stations and they’re not really participating.
RW: The easy listening stations aren’t doing that well. There’s not that much new music to this group.
HA: I don’t think radio is selling records like they used to. They’d hawk the song and hawk the artist and you’d get so excited, you’d stop your car and go into the nearest record store. Now you’re lucky if they even back announce it. I’ve heard records that I had to look at my watch and see what time it was, jot down the call letters of the station and either call or have my secretary call and say, “What was the song you were playing at 4:10?!” It’s a different world out there. But the point is, I think there’s this audience that I’m in pursuit of…and I think they would enjoy listening to Rise if they heard it.
RW: How much do you practice?
HA: I practice every day. I’ve been doing it since I was eight. I get enjoyment out of it — it’s part of me. There’s a discipline. I wake up in the morning, I do a little stretching exercises, pick up the horn and play.
RW: With a record?
HA: No, I go through a routine. I start very softly and play some light calisthenics or I do a Carmine Caruso exercise…which has nothing to do with playing. He has a method that likens the musician to an athlete, so I do physical exercises designed to keep a musician in shape in order to perform the function, which is to play music. So while doing his exercises, his basic rule is not to think and not to judge it. We’re basically trying to balance our body. So I’ll do one or two of his exercises and go off on my own and free-form on my own. Sometimes I’ll play with a record…
RW: Your own?
HA: Rarely my own. I usually just put on something that allows me the freedom to doodle around and play whatever comes to mind.
[At this point, I changed the reel to reel tape. He mentioned that Sergio Mendes had re-signed to A&M…and that he was pleased at the development because the two had a falling out years earlier when “I stole his girl”. (Lani Hall, who recorded as a solo act for A&M when Mendes went to Bell. Said Alpert of Lani Hall, “we were friends long before we were lovers…”)]
RW: Fans. I read about this one time. You had a house that was on the tour of stars’ homes and you moved.
HA: The bus would stop in front of the house and people would knock on the door and say, “Would you mind posing?”
RW: Do fans get out of hand?
HA: Well, not anymore. It’s changed quite a bit for me. You know, in the ‘60s, when things were going crazy and I was very visible through the media…television specials, etc…I was bothered much more. Now it’s just the occasional person who says, “are you…” But I’m OK with it. I mean, gee whiz, I’m real lucky to touch so many people’s lives. And if I give someone pleasure, it gives me pleasure.
RW: You think of John Lennon who did nothing to anyone, who becomes a victim. Does that cross your mind?
HA: It does. But the beat goes on. I certainly don’t want to dwell on it. Crazy things happen in life. I’d rather get to the positives.
RW: Positives: new music. How do you find new music to listen to. Do artists send you records? Earl Klugh decides he wants to hear his new stuff?
HA: Well, I’m listening to the radio. I’m the old dial turner. I have my favorites. I like to listen to classical music…I like mainline jazz. I like to listed to the adventurous guys — the Coltranes, Miles Davis, the guys who just let it loose.
RW: I read about a trumpet player who influenced your life early on…an artist who died very young.
HA: Clifford Brown was in the jazz circles considered to be probably the greatest trumpet player who ever lived. He had the potential to be…just the top of the hill. Died at 25 in an automobile accident. He had it all. A great sound, a sensitivity, he played great melodic lines. He didn’t just play the jazz that was designed to catch your attention…he played meaningful music. He was just a great musician.
RW: What do you listen to now? Is there anything you’d go out and buy? I guess you don’t have to buy…
HA: Don’t have to buy? Sure I have to buy. There’s a great trumpet player who records for Columbia, Wynton Marsalis. 20 years old, just a marvelous musician.
RW: I’ve never heard of him. Someone phoned in the other night [on Larry King] to mention him.
HA: He’s wonderful.
RW: Have you heard of Marcio Montarroyos?
HA: Yes, I have. In fact he’s close friends with Sergio. I have that album. He’s excellent. He has a good heart, a nice feel when he plays, and also Bobbie Shue is a wonderful jazz artist out of Los Angeles.
RW: How can someone go into a record store and know what to buy? Not many people are willing to risk the $7 bucks…
HA: Well, you know it’s deceiving. You used to get an idea of what was happening inside [the LP] by what was happening outside. Now that marketing strategy is such that, outside the packaging might be just beautiful and inside it might be just nothing! It’s all personal. You have to listen. I hope radio in the future will loosen up and just create and not worry about whether it’s salable. Not worry about whether it’s right for this or that format.
RW: Can you do that as an executive of a record company? How difficult is it to find someone you’re willing to sign?
HA: I take that license. I don’t listen through a researcher’s ears and figures. I listen with my stomach. When I hear someone I like, I go for it.
RW: Next…what’s next?
HA: I’m going to be out for another week and a half. It’s a promotional tour in hopes the album catches on. Ideally if everything fell into place, the tour would promote the record…the record would start selling…Herb Alpert would go back to Los Angeles, get my group together, start rehearsing and do some concerts…do another album and live happily ever after.
[Alpert reads a promo, says he doesn’t have very good eyes. I said, “Oh that must have been the problem on “Midnight Special.” He asked, “What do you mean?” “You had trouble with one of the promos going into a station break.” “Oh yeah, I had trouble with ‘Kraftwerk Orange.’ Man, you’ve got a good memory! You’ve been tracing me.”]
(c)1982, 2002 Richard Warner