During the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Singer Company was doing more than convincing grandma to upgrade her sewing machine. Singer was the sponsor for a series of several prime-time music specials. In 1971, the company presented an evening devoted to the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Even today, few fans can recall that the Elvis 1968 Comeback Special was originally titled Singer Presents Elvis.
However, it was a 1967 Singer special that held a particular spell over the San Diego area television audience. The opening aerial shot was over Tijuana and guided the viewer to the historic Plaza de Toros bull ring. As the camera soared over the ring and into the seats, a handsome trumpet player led his group into the haunting instrumental, “The Lonely Bull.” It was the song that had catapulted the trumpeter, Herb Alpert, into stardom, with record sales that were downright “Beatlesque” in their mass volume. Alpert’s successful tenure as the bandleader for the Tijuana Brass is just one chapter of a multifaceted career that has placed him as one of the key figures in the West Coast recording industry. He has also been a successful songwriter, record producer, talent scout, painter, philanthropist, and co-founder of the most successful American independent record label in history. Recently celebrating his 80th birthday, the indefatigable Alpert is back on the road with his wife, jazz singer Lani Hall. The duo will be performing an intimate concert on May 7 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach.
According to his official website, Herbert Alpert was born March 31, 1935 to a Jewish family in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. It was a musical household, with his parents and siblings all playing instruments. Herb began taking trumpet lessons as early as eight and continued practicing and performing by the time he reached Fairfax High School. Located near the Farmers Market, Fairfax can stake claim as a true-to-life “Rock and Roll High School,” having among its alumni producer Phil Spector, songwriter Jerry Leiber, Bryan MacLean from the band Love, Slash from Guns and Roses, and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was during his high school days that Alpert performed as part of the Colonial Trio, a band that scored several contest victories on a local television program called High Talent Battle. After high school, Alpert enrolled in the music program at USC and became a member of the Trojans’ marching band, the Spirit of Troy. Instead of earning his B.A. in music, Alpert opted for a stint in the Army and performed with Fort Ord’s Sixth Army Band.
Upon completing his service, Alpert came back to Los Angeles and formed a songwriting team with another music aficionado with Boyle Heights roots, Lou Adler. With Herb creating the melodies and Lou providing the lyrics, the Alpert-Adler team found their biggest success with Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.” Released on the Keen label (where Alpert and Adler were on the payroll), the charming single (“Don’t Know Much About History”) rocketed up the charts, reaching number 12 in 1960. Alpert and Adler also worked with Jan Berry and Dean Torrence, coming aboard when Jan and Dean were a doo-wop group and had yet to develop their surf and hot rod sound (courtesy of Beach Boy Brian Wilson). Alpert and Adler would eventually part ways, with Adler going on to become an icon himself, responsible for the success of the Mamas and Papas and the transition of Carole King from Brill Building songwriter to a solo recording artist.
Alpert’s most important partnership was right around the corner. He teamed up with Jerry Moss, a man with a record promotion background and a strong business acumen. Initially planning to start a label called Carnival Records, Herb and Jerry opted for A (Alpert) and M (Moss) Records when they discovered that there was already a label called Carnival. A&M’s first single was an instrumental called “The Lonely Bull,” and it was the blue print for what became the identifiable Tijuana Brass sound: cheerful Mariachi trumpeting with a breezy West Coast feel. In the early stages, there wasn’t a TJB group per se; “The Lonely Bull” was actually laid down on tape using an Ampex tape recorder in Herb’s garage. When it became time to perform the TJB hits in public, a Tijuana Brass group was actually created. But for many of the early recording sessions, Alpert sought the services of the highly regarded Wrecking Crew, the crack core of the musicians who spent marathon hours in Hollywood recording studios.
For the remainder of the ’60s, Alpert fulfilled the public’s insatiable desire for his sound. Whether it was a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass record or the dozens of similar sounding instrumental groups sprouting up overnight, the zesty “Mariachi jazz” served as background music for movies, TV sitcoms, game shows (“Dating Game” anyone?), and advertising jingles. 45s or LPs, Herb was on fire. Singles that penetrated the Top 40 included “A Taste of Honey,” “Tijuana Taxi,” “What Now My Love,” “Spanish Flea,” “Wade in the Water,” and “The Happening.” Albums did equally well, including 1965’s Whipped Cream (and Other Delights!), featuring one of the most iconic (and parodied) album covers of all time, a photo of an attractive brunette providing the illusion that she’s only “dressed” in what appears to be several open containers of Reddi-wip. In the ’60s, A&M moved to a location at 1416 North La Brea, which is as architecturally distinctive as the Capitol Records Tower at nearby 1750 North Vine. Alpert and Moss went to work everyday at the Old Charlie Chaplin Film Studio.
1968 brought a marked departure in the Alpert sound. His casual singing (more from the Chet Baker school than the Sinatra camp) on Bacharach and David’s “This Guy’s in Love with You,” sounded like a song that came from a New York nightclub – no bullring inspiration here! The song has been performed by many artists over the years, including an unlikely version by Noel Gallagher of Oasis. “This Guy’s in Love with You” wasn’t the only change at A&M Records. Jerry Moss attended the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and came back rejuvenated by the new direction in rock. Overnight, A&M expanded upon its soft sounds formula of the Sandpipers, Chris Montez, the Brass Ring, Claudine Longet, and (later) the Carpenters to an impressive roster of mostly British acts: Fairport Convention, Procol Harum, Joe Cocker, the Move, and Humble Pie were among the artists that earned the label “street cred” from the burgeoning underground press. The decade ended with the TJB giving their farewell concert at the fabulous Forum in Inglewood in 1969. Alpert would make a huge return to the charts with the jazz funk of “Rise” in 1979.
Perhaps he is reflecting on the quality time of his youth spent in the Colonial Three or the Spirit of Troy Band, but you would be hard pressed to find a more enthusiastic supporter of youth music programs than Alpert. The Herb Alpert School of Music was created at both UCLA and Cal Arts at Valencia. Back in New York City, the Harlem School of the Arts is now known as the Herb Alpert Center after the musician made an eleventh hour donation, which saved the financially challenged school from closure.
Alpert and Lani Hall have been happily married since 1973. In 1966, A&M released an LP, Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, an LP that not only introduced the imaginative arrangements of Mendes to the public but also the captivating vocals of the group’s lead singer, Lani Hall. Like the TJB, Brasil ’66 chalked up an exceptionally fine string of hits back in the Day; “Mas Que Nada,” “Night and Day,” “The Look of Love,” “The Fool on the Hill,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “Pretty World.” After leaving the group in 1971, Hall embarked on a solo career, seamlessly combining the music of Brazil with the Great American Songbook. It’s the latter musical category where we find Alpert and Hall currently on an international tour, including the evening in Solana Beach at the Belly Up. The duo are together on a new album, In the Mood, a celebration of the big band charts and after-midnight torch ballads that adds electronic effects and the current studio technology into the mix.
Herb and Lani at the Belly Up? Now that’s definitely worth blowing a horn.
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall will be at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on May 7. Visit www.bellyuptavern.com for tickets.