With the recent release of the documentary Herb Alpert Is... the world got a glimpse into the life of a man with many accomplishments. Sure, most know him for Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, or his '80s hit "Rise." But how many even realize he partnered up with Jerry Moss as A&M Records and ran one of the most successful independent labels of all time? (Not to mention their legendary A&M Studios.) Or the fact that he's also a successful painter and sculptor? Or that he was still out gigging and touring with his wife and vocalist, Lani Hall, up until the pandemic hit? I don't even have time to get into his philanthropy, so view Herb Alpert Is... soon and learn more!
I saw your documentary this week and loved it. I've seen you and Lani Hall play up here in Portland at the Aladdin, and I really enjoyed the shows.
Yeah. We enjoyed playing up there!
I dug around in your recording history, and it even goes back to a wire recorder you had when you were really young, right?
Absolutely. I had a Webcor wire recorder. I had to edit with a soldering iron with that. That was a whole other world. But that was before your time, I'm sure.
I never used one of those, but I've seen them around. Were you just recording yourself and listening back to hear what it would sound like and such when you were young?
On the wire recorder, I don't remember what I did with it. Then I got the Ampex mono machine. A 400, I think? Maybe a 401. Then the Ampex stereo. I started out with mono, then 2-track, 3-track, 4-track, 8-track, 16... Now there are as many tracks as I desire!
You've seen the progress of the recording era. How does it look to you now when you see computers and people moving parts around in a song?
Yeah, it's a whole different world. Obviously, they improved quite a bit on the sound. But it was a different feeling going into a session with a bunch of musicians and listening to the playback on tape. That was another feeling. I think it can be great, if used wisely. It certainly opens the door to a lot of possibilities. It's not all bad.
Before the Tijuana Brass, you were recording in a garage and had a home studio set up. What was the impetus for that?
I was searching for my sound and searching for an identity in sound. I was trying to play like a lot of musicians I liked. I was trying to play like Harry James, and Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong. Anybody who had a feeling that I liked, I tried to play like them. Then I realized that nobody wants to hear that man. They've already done it. So, I was looking for my own thing. When I heard Les Paul layering his guitar on a record,I thought, "Hmm, that's interesting." So, I tried doing that. I had two Ampex tape machines at home. I went from one machine to another and I hit on this sound. "Hmm, that sounds good. Bingo. I think I got something here, maybe." But you need the songs, and I had the experience of watching Sam Cooke, who was a teacher and didn't know it. It was interesting watching this guy who was a gospel singer; just a nerve ending, man. He was real. He was authentic. Having that experience; and then I was recording for a major company, RCA, for about a year and a half.
I didn't like the way I was being treated. They were not treating me the way I felt I should have been treated as an artist on their label. I filed all this stuff away, and when it came time to start A&M, I used all that negative information as a positive, and I turned A&M into an artist-oriented label.
Famously so! There's a great story in The Wrecking Crew documentary [Tape Op #107] that you told. I was amazed that on "The Lonely Bull", you funded that out-of-pocket and in violation of the musician's union. And then you went back, took care of everybody, and paid the fines afterward. Is that right?
Yeah, but that was just the right thing to do. These musicians played on the record, and they deserved to be compensated properly.
Well, you know how the record industry works. Some people might not be so gracious.
Uh, true! But, hey; you gotta live with yourself and you gotta sleep good at night. I try to do good things.
I think you've proven that! You used a lot of the Wrecking Crew for the early Tijuana Brass records.
I did. There was no Tijuana Brass until after I recorded the Whipped Cream & Other Delights album. Hal Blaine played a big part in that album, especially that song I did called "A Taste of Honey." It was fun using these guys, because I used to go into the studio with ideas. I had the song in mind, kind of a chart for the songs, but I always left it open for something spontaneous that might happen. I used some really unusual musicians. I had Leon Russell on some sessions. Leon would just sit by the piano. When I met Leon, he used to come in wearing a suit and tie, and he had short hair. He used to sit at the piano and look at me and say, "Herbie, I don't know what to do!" I'd say, "Don't do anything. If you hear something, then chime in." He'd be looking at the keyboard, and then I'd be doing something with the guitars or the drums. Then Leon would chime in and it was like he was a groove machine! There were all sorts of really interesting musicians who did exactly that. I was really patient in the studio. I was looking for a feeling. That's all I go for. I don't think it means a thing if the feeling isn't there. Of course, you have to start with a good song. But when I have artists and musicians who are not panicked into trying to please me – they're just trying to experience their own creativity through what I'm looking for – then something has always happened. It always felt like a miracle to me. I went into the studio and knew I had a good song I wanted to work. I had this arrangement and knew what I wanted to do with it, but I wanted the musicians to be able to complement what I had in mind. I got the whole thing done in 20 minutes. It was done; period. Instead of laboring on it. Once I have a track that I feel is good, for whatever reason – it's all subjective, but what I feel is good for me – then I stop. I stop and let everyone go after 20 minutes, and that's the way it was. Those were the good old days.
It seems the public is always looking for a new sound and something that excites them sonically. You mentioned doubling the trumpet earlier as being a key feature of your sound. Do you think that was part of the appeal, just something that felt new-yet-familiar to the listeners?
I think that was a good part of it. I played all the trumpet parts on all the Tijuana Brass records. There was never a trumpet player on it; just me. It was my feel. I have a very spontaneous feel. Even though sometimes the notes were written down, I never played them like that. Basically, I'm a jazz musician. I always played them in a way that was good for that particular moment that I was recording. I don't know; it's hard to define. What I love about the arts, period, is that there's a mystery to it. You don't know how it's done. When you hear a song on the radio that you like, it might give you goosebumps but you can't identify what you like about it. You might say, "I like the song, and I like the artist, and the artist is good." Now, what else? What else do you like? "Well, I like the sound of the record." You know, you can't really pinpoint what is that thing that makes it work. If you could identify it, then you could repeat it, but you can't. That's what's beautiful about jazz. When you hear a great jazz solo, you think, "Wow, how in the hell did they do that?"
Something that just opens up a new door. Definitely. When you and Jerry moved into the old Charlie Chaplin lot, you built A&M Studios there. Was that to keep an eye on the budget and also to have a place to be creative that was all your own?
Actually, I never kept my eye on the budget. I'm a right-brained guy! I don't think about budgets. I had a partner [Jerry Moss] who was thinking about budgets. We were recording at other studios and spending a lot of money recording. Why not have our own studio? We had the space, and we had this fantastic ability to create studios there that ended up being world-class. The Jim Henson Company is keeping it up, and even improving on what we had.
I've been by there before. It's still beautiful.
Yeah, the studio's great. The sound's great. It's very user-friendly.
Was Larry Levine [Tape Op #45] your first house engineer when you moved in there?
Well, Larry was the head engineer at Gold Star Recording, where I did most of the Tijuana Brass stuff. I didn't start there. I started at Conway [Recording Studios] and did the record "The Lonely Bull" and the album [The Lonely Bull] at Conway. Then we did the second album [Volume 2] at Radio Recorders, and the third album [South of the Border] I did at Gold Star [Studios] with Larry. Then, when we built the studios, I brought him over. It was great. I also brought in Howard Holzer. Larry was great. He was a great engineer. He was passionate and honest, and he was a good friend. When we traveled and were doing live concerts, Larry used to help mix the shows.
Do you recall the first time you tracked on a digital recording system?
Yeah. I did "Rise" on an experimental multitrack from the 3M company. In 1979, they gave us their machine, just to try it out, and I recorded "Rise," which is a goodie. It ate the first verse.
You're kidding me!
No, on playback it ate it.
It just was gone?
It was a 32-track digital machine. Their first model. We kicked the tires.
Well, you made it work in the end on that one, right?
Yeah, it worked. Do you hear the difference between tape and the zeroes and ones?
Yeah, no tape hiss in the digital realm! But we tracked this week to 16-track tape, and it sure felt right. The drums sounded good.
It's all about feel. That's all there is to it, as far as I'm concerned. That's what music is. It's a feel. Assuming you start with a good song.
In the documentary, we see you practicing and doing music at home. Do you have a space at home where you record yourself?
Oh, yeah. I have a whole studio. I use [Apple] Logic. I've been recording this way for years in my studio here. I like the idea of trying to learn how to do it right and all the things that I'm capable of doing. I want to keep my brain active as I get older. It's the perfect vehicle for me.
And your sculpture and your paintings; do those feel like an important part of keeping your mind active and as a way to keep creating constantly?
Yeah, I'm a right-brained guy. I'm 85-percent the right side of my brain. I've been painting for 50 years and sculpting for 40. I do it professionally. I have shows in different parts of the country, as well as all over the world. It's been fabulous, man. The thing that I'm trying to keep alive is this idea that kids need to have a creative experience at an early age. Whether they're playing an instrument, dancing, writing poetry, painting, sculpting, or acting; it doesn't really matter. Just to have that experience. I'm so revved up on it, because that's the experience I had when I was eight and it changed my life. They don't have to become professionals when they do it, but I think that by being creative like that they become innovators. If you start feeling good about what you're doing, it'll fold over into your mature life and your adult life. What we need are innovators. This country was built on innovators. We've got to spark that feeling in kids. We beat this creative feeling out of them. You go into a grammar school for first grade or second grade, and you ask, "Is anybody in here creative?" Everybody raises their hand. You try that in high school, and you won't get the same result, because we beat the shit out of them when it comes to exercising that option.
Right. Do you think that some of that is because culturally we don't respect the arts in the same way that we respect some concept like "making money"?
Yeah, absolutely. Isn't that ridiculous? The artists are the heart and the soul of our democracy, period. They're the second responders. They're the ones we need. When we want to feel something, they're out there giving us some information to let us know that we're okay.
Right. Never more important than right now!
Oh, definitely. The beautiful part of it, as far as I'm concerned, is that all the art forms are very similar. They're all about freedom. Freedom of expression and imagination. All the great artists I've met, and man, I've met a lot of the great ones through the years. I don't care if they're Republicans, Democrats, Independent – it doesn't matter to me. They're all looking for the same thing, man. They're all looking to tell the truth through their instrument.
I really appreciate getting to talk to you.
Oh, great. Have you seen the music video I did on "Smile"?
No, that just got released, right?
Check it out, man. You'll like it. What I was trying to do was to put something positive out there, not being a politician. I think we need a little levity out there.