Herb Alpert: 1979 Interview with Richard Warner

I’ve been on radio and TV in Atlanta since 1978. As part of my various jobs, I’ve interviewed hundreds of celebrities, business executives, famous folks. In fact, during this same week, I interviewed Charles Kuralt and Mel Blanc. But this was Herb Alpert.

I had played trumpet since the fifth grade; the very first day, I was playing along with his albums. It helped define who I was. I bought all his stuff, collected A&M Records, tried to buy stock in it! Finally, during my tenure at WSB radio — the big signal in Atlanta — Alpert came through to promote “Rise,” and I got to sit down with him.

Listening to this tape for the first time in almost 25 years, I sounded every bit as nervous and focused on asking stuff I wanted to know as I feared it would sound. Not very professional on my part…talk about gushing and talking obscure facts that only a fan would care about. But Herb was a gentleman. It really comes through listening to this…he was a class act.

The interview ran several times, in several forms, on WSB shortly after we completed it.


Richard Warner: I’m curious…do you pay much attention to what you’ve already recorded?
Herb Alpert: No, really only rarely. Now and then I hear cuts on air… A Taste of Honey, This Guys in Love with You, The Lonely Bull, What Now My love.

RW: It was 10 years ago this month that the Tijuana Brass disbanded. Looking back on it…why did that happen?
HA: I think its reached natural conclusion. We’d had a nice run, played a lot of places. And then we started repeating the same places…staying in same hotels. It got a little boring. I needed a change…a chance to get away from it.

RW: I read where it came to a head the night before you finished taping “The Brass Are Comin’”.
HA: No, it came to a head a little before that. I took about a month long trip through Europe in the early part of ‘69 and realized didn’t have my priority systems straight. I was obligated to do a bunch of concerts and a television show, but something in my stomach was telling me this wasn’t what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I wanted at the time, I just knew I needed to get away from it and get an overview of my life.

RW: Back in the early ‘60s, how was it that the concept of the Tijuana Brass and the Lonely Bull came to be?
HA: Well, it started with song I used to play on weekends in LA. A piano player named Sol Lake wrote it. It was called “Twinkle Star.” It had a very appealing melody to it. In 1962, I had my first experience at bullfight; I saw the great Carlos Arruso. I was taken in by the bravado and the sounds of Mexico…not so much the music, but the spirit. I got home that afternoon and had this tune — Twinkle Star — in my head. I translated that song and worked it into tone feeling I was having. We finished recording it, but needed one more element: the sounds of arena. A friend, Ted Keeps — an engineer — happened to have a tape of sounds of bullring in Tijuana and overlayed it onto the tape, and we became the Tijuana Brass.

RW: So who named the group?
HA: My partner Jerry Moss. He was an ex-promotion man and he was insistent that we pick a name that people would hear name once and remember. “Tijuana Brass” stuck. It was strange because didn’t want to deceive anyone…we weren’t a band from Mexico; I didn’t want to be an imposter or living up to an image people had of me or the group. But it’s been nice…they were beautiful times. “The Lonely Bull” allowed me to explore myself musically. Latin instruments have always been a part in my music, but I never felt a closeness to music from south of the border.

RW: That bullring sound: you had to have something that would catch the attention of radio programmers right away.
HA: You know, the record business is much different than being artist on stage. There’s a whole different way of approaching it. I was around a lot of record people and watched the process. The program director would listen to the record for 10 seconds and if he didn’t like it, he threw it into a pile. So you had to strike sooner. I was looking as they say in the trades for a hook…or a bridge. I don’t have that long to wait; you gotta hook ‘em from the get-go.

RW: Whatever happened to Sol Lake?
HA: He’s retired and living in Palm Springs. He’s living a serene life.

RW: One cut on the “South of the Border” did particularly well….Up to that point, the Tijuana Brass had been mostly a regional group.
HA: Yeah, “The Mexican Shuffle”. I got a tip from a couple of people…one was Henry Bussey, the old jazz trumpet player used to use that shuffle rhythm a lot. And around that time I was checking into Phil Specter’s sound. Mexican Shuffle was a turning point of the Brass. One of the larger gum companies wanted to use it for their commercial, and it exposed the tune and turned people on east of the Rockies.

RW: Teaberry gum…which I don’t think is with us anymore.
HA: I’m not sure, but it worked well for them and for us, too.

RW: Do you realize “Winds of Barcelona” and “El Presidente” are the same song?
HA: Oh yeah…I like that song. In fact, I’m trying to find another way to do it. I have a good feeling about it. Wes Montgomery recorded it.

RW: Album #4: Whipped Cream. Your favorite?
HA: Well, it’s one that I think about a lot. When people think of Tijuana Brass, they think of that album…or of the cover. It had “A Taste of Honey,” which was record of the year in 1965. It was fun for me because most people didn’t think it was a hit record. You couldn’t dance to it — it stopped in the middle. It was too long. But I had a feeling for it. And it came about because of the tune I received from a publisher in New Orleans called “Whipped Cream.” Alan Touissant wrote it for Al Hirt. Al turned it down. Someone played it for me over the phone — our distributor down there — and I liked the melody and recorded the song and it became a moderate hit. My partner Jerry Moss got the ideas to get a bunch of food titles together… “Whipped cream,” “Tangerine,” “Lemon Tree,” “A Taste of Honey,” “Butterball.” So A Taste of Honey stepped out and established the sound for us.

RW: “Going Places”: the first album that actually had a picture of the group.
HA: Yeah it was the first album where I actually had a group. Prior to that, it was pick up group and musicians of my choice. There are only five musicians on The Lonely Bull. I played piano…I didn’t play drums — the drummer was the drummer with the Ventures. I played the timpani, percussion, other instruments. It sounded like there were 50 people playing.

RW: Who were the guys on the back?
HA: That was a group that…at this bullfight, there was this place in Tijuana called the Caesar…a hotel. It’s where Caesar salad was invented. (Laughs.) Since you asked for a little bit of trivia, I have some of my own, Man! There was a mariachi group playing there. I was a hit in Tijuana at that point, too. So I went down on a Sunday after we had finished the album and took a picture of these guys and Jerry thought it would be a good idea to have them on the album.

RW: “Sounds Like”. I remember when you appeared on the Kraft Music Hall, opening the fall season…sitting up there playing “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do.” How important were TV appearances to you?
HA: Well, they did a lot to open up our audience. I remember in ’66, we had and still hold the record for most albums in top 100: we had 5 in the top 20 at one time. Prior to that, it was hard to get national exposure. Most of the sales were west coast. We finally got our big break when Ed Sullivan put us on his show. This was during that period when we had five albums on charts. After that Sunday rehearsal in New York, I was really nervous about the show. This was live television…it was network…it was at the peak of the show. And I remember after the rehearsal, Ed put his arms around me and said, “Herb, I discovered you!” And I had to make him aware we had 5 albums in the top 20.

RW: I know you paid at least one other visit to his show.
HA: Oh yeah, we did a lot of others. Andy Williams, Dean Martin, the Tonight Show…

RW: The first time I ever saw you, you were on Red Skelton show…you were kidding about who would pay the an album for his daughter.
HA: Oh, yeah man. You got a good memory.

RW: I was just a little kid…
HA: I was a little kid too!

RW: Seasons have been often a theme in your records. When “Warm” came out… remember the 800 number? “Our summer album, Warm…”
HA: Yeah…

RW: Seasons were a part of “Summertime,” “The Christmas Album”…Are you a fan of seasons?
HA: I don’t consciously think about it. But Warm was a result of my trip to Rio De Janeiro which had a major affect on my life. Chose a lot of Brazilian songs written by well-known Brazilian composers of that period.

RW: It opens with “The Sea is My Soil…”
HA: This was during a period when I was producing Brasil ‘66 records and got infected by Brazilian music. I had never been exposed to those rhythms before. I didn’t want to step on Sergio’s toes, but I knew that little by little, it was gonna seep into my own work.

RW: As far as Brasil ’66, of course, you married Lani Hall. Did you think long ago that you’d get married?
HA: Not immediately. The beautiful part of our relationship is that we were friends long before we were lovers. We met in ’66, traveled together, were good friends. It developed naturally into real beautiful relationship.

RW: She is such an excellent singer. Even more than yours, her albums are each distinct.
HA: She is a wonderful artist…she’s looking for that one breakthrough record. People who are into her music really dig it. She really expresses herself in a unique way. She is just trying to find that one breakthrough record.

RW: “Sweet Bird” was such an emotional album.
HA: We felt “Sweet Bird” would be the one. But when you listen to radio and the types of records that are on top 40, you see what kind of competition you’re in, trying that to get foot in the door. Then you can take some turns once an audience trusts what you’re doing.

RW: The first vocal that clicked for you was actually the third one you did…There was “Hello Dolly” and “Mame.”
HA: You call those vocals? Thanks!

RW: How did you come to record that?
HA: I did special called “The Beat of the Brass,” which was directed by Jack Haley, Jr. and written by Tom Mankewicz. They both felt I should do something different. I had done specials prior, and they felt it would be nice for me to sing a song. So I called Burt Bacharach and he said he had a song tucked away that he had a feeling for, but that no one else did. I said I wanted to hear it. He pulled out “This Guy’s in Love with You.” We made some lyric changes…worked with Hal David to adapt it to the show…and it was a real magical moment. I saw that show recently…I showed it to my 4 year old daughter, Aria. Visually, it was real nice. Because of the show and the popularity of the Brass, it just happened in two weeks.

RW: You re-formed the Brass in 1974.
HA: I did that for year and a half. I went thru a period where I didn’t know what I wanted to do musically, but I was always active in A&M, working in the recording studio, discovering new talent, which I continually do…looking for material for our artists. I was restless about playing. In spite of everything that’s happened to me being a musician, playing trumpet provided me with greatest satisfaction. So I was looking to get a group together and experiment…see if I could come up with that magical song…something that would turn me on.

RW: It was a different approach in one way, because you used a trumpet player who was very good. Ever had a problem with that?
HA: No, I am into great musicians…like to surround myself with them…I like to pad my deck! The fact he played great was only a plus. I learned a lot from him. I never thought of myself as a trumpet player in the traditional sense: I never played in a big band…I didn’t struggle the normal way. I was a record producer and songwriter in the record buisiness and I had the horn. A while back it felt like the horn was being abused. It felt like Maynard Ferguson, when he was playing with Stan Kenton, he was stretching the sound, which became abrasive to my ear. The trumpet was not a lyrical singing instrument. I’ve always approached the horn from a much easier point of view. I use it as a voice. So Bob Findlay’s style was much different than mine…more bravado…he would show highs and lows.

RW: What are your favorite songs…that you’ve done…
HA: I don’t know. I like this last album I did (“Rise”). It gives me a good feeling when I listen…especially “Rise.” I found myself listening to it prior to its release for my own pleasure. Because of the acceptance, I got a lot of enthusiasm for going into studio and recording. We did six other sides and remixed “Aranjuez.” I did the album with a lot of gusto. And I had a lot of fun in the studio with my nephew, Randy. It left me with a real good feeling…to find myself listening to a whole album as a listener…as an audience. It’s given me boost.

RW: What’s next?
HA: Well, we’ll see what happens with the album. I’ll probably get a group together…hit the boards and perform. Open it up to the World. Instrumental music can spread the international language. I’m planning to go to the UK, Europe, through South America and Japan…and see if I can spread the gospel.

(c)1979, 2002 Richard Warner