When Herb Alpert started playing trumpet with his band Tijuana Brass, Woody Allen and George Carlin were the opening acts. In 1966, The Brass outsold The Beatles. Alpert went on to co-found A&M Records, where he identified and signed some of the industries greatest talent: The Carpenters, The Police, and Cat Stevens. He and his partner sold A&M in 1989 for half a billion dollars. He says he’s looking for the same thing as everybody else—a life of purpose and meaning.
Herb Alpert with some of his Black Totem sculptures. (Photo by Graham Howe)
This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s the Thing.
If you were listening to the radio in 1966, it was a true hodgepodge of what was then considered popular music. And right up there with the Supremes and Frank Sinatra and even the Beatles, was this guy.
[MUSIC: "A Taste of Honey"]
Yes, that signature Tijuana Brass sound.
Herb Alpert had no Latin roots, but wanted to re-create the sound he’d heard at the bullfights in Tijuana. When he decided to overdub his trumpet on two different tape machines, he captured it. And he captured more than that. Whipped Cream and Other Delights was the number one album in the country in 1965, remaining on the charts for three years. In 1966, the Tijuana Brass sold over 13 million records, outselling The Beatles.
Herb Alpert: I started playing when I was eight, and I was earning a living on weekends playing. I loved playing.
Alec Baldwin: What happened when you were eight? What had you seen or heard that made you say, 'I want to pick up a trumpet and start playing?'
Herb Alpert: I was really fortunate. In my elementary school that had a band appreciation class, and they had this table filled with various instruments and I was able to just pick one up.
Alec Baldwin: Where were you going to school then?
Herb Alpert: Melrose Elementary School in Los Angeles.
Alec Baldwin: What did your dad do?
Herb Alpert: Ladies’ coats and suits.
Alec Baldwin: He was in the clothing business.
Herb Alpert: He was in the closing business. He was a Schneider, you know. My brother was a professional drummer; my sister played piano; my mother, violin; and my dad played the mandolin by ear.
Alec Baldwin: So you parents were musical.
Herb Alpert: Very musical.
Alec Baldwin: But it wasn’t their profession.
Herb Alpert: No. Not at all.
Alec Baldwin: What did your parents think about when you were so devoted to music? Were they discouraging you of doing that or did they encourage you?
Herb Alpert: My dad wasn’t so crazy about it. He thought, 'What do you want to play in sawdust pits the rest of your life?' That was his image of it.
Alec Baldwin: The Brass, as they were called, toured often as a kind of revue -- other musicians opened for them, but also comics.
Herb Alpert: In the 60s, we played some college affairs in upper California, Woody Allen opened the show for us as a stand up comic.
Alec Baldwin: No?
Herb Alpert: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: It wasn’t just a concert-style music. You had comics open for you and different kinds of --
Herb Alpert: Yeah, Woody opened for us. George Carlin opened for us. Jim Carrey opened for us. I go back a ways, man. I’m older than dirt.
Alec Baldwin: Wow.
Alec Baldwin: At the time he didn’t know it, but Alpert was only just beginning an extraordinary career as a musician, eventually earning five number one hits, eight Grammys, 14 Platinum albums and 15 Gold. Even those achievements might be seen as a kind of footnote to his unimaginably successful career as a music producer.
In 1962, with his friend Jerry Moss, Alpert founded what would become the world’s largest independent record label, A & M Records. They signed such artists as The Carpenters, Sheryl Crow, Janet Jackson, and The Police.
Alpert and Moss started the whole thing with 200 bucks and a handshake, ultimately selling A & M to Polygram Records in 1990 for half a billion dollars.
Today, Alpert’s a prolific sculptor and painter and continues to make music -- touring occasionally. He’s 76 now, and still as handsome as ever. Herb Alpert has always had matinee idol looks. But he never took up acting…
Herb Alpert: Let me tell you something. When I was in high school, I was working at a gym. This agent came up to me and he said, 'Man, you look like you should be in the movies.' So I said, 'Well, what can you do for me?' He set me up with the people at Paramount. I auditioned. They said I was a little green, so I started taking lessons. I studied with Jeff Corey and also Leonard Nimoy, and I realized I didn’t have it. I’m passionate about playing the horn.
Alec Baldwin: What was the music scene like in Los Angeles then for a young guy who wants to play?
Herb Alpert: Well, it was quite different. It was "Sh-Boom, Sh-Boom," "Sixty Minute Man," and those types of songs that were kind of popular at the time. I had a great experience, though. I was partners with Lou Adler at the time.
Alec Baldwin: How did you become partners with him?
Herb Alpert: He was dating my ex-wife.
Alec Baldwin: Oh, Hollywood. I forgot we’re talking about L.A.
Herb Alpert: Lou was writing poetry and I started writing some music to his poetry. He’s kind of a knock-on-every-door type of guy. I’m the shy one. So we got this job at Keen Records in Los Angeles and started working for Bumps Blackwell, who was the producer for Sam Cooke. Lou and I became really close friends with Sam Cooke. We wrote "Wonderful World" together with him. He was really special. He had something very unusual. He was a very unpretentious guy, but very elegant.
Alec Baldwin: What did he teach you?
Herb Alpert: Sam had this number one record, "You Send Me," and his follow-up was "I Love You For Sentimental Reasons." The owner of this company that I was working for like an amateur piano player. Sam was recording. He goes into the control room and starts listening to a playback, and I was there with this owner, and the owner walks up to Sam and says, 'Sam, you know, in bar 12 you can put in a ‘Wo-Wo’ and in bar 35 you can put in another ‘Wo-Wo.’'
He had the sheet music, and Sam looked at the guy and says, 'Jack, you can’t just put in a Wo-Wo whenever you want, man. You’ve got to feel it.' He says, 'Man, you’re listening to a cold piece of wax, and it either makes it or it don’t.' He broke it right down to the nub.
Alec Baldwin: For me, what’s interesting about your career is not just virtuosic musicianship, but you go on to become a very serious and incredibly successful producer. Did you feel, when you met those people, that you had that skill as well?
Herb Alpert: Oh, no. I didn’t have any skills.
Alec Baldwin: Producing-wise.
Herb Alpert: No. In producing-wise I didn’t even think about it. I had an experience at a place called The Annex in Los Angeles, a recording studio, and I was watching a reasonably famous producer, producer of record. The musician is rehearsing. Plaz Johnson was a saxophone player. He was the saxophone player that played on The Pink Panther.
Alec Baldwin: For Mancini.
Herb Alpert: Yeah. They rehearsed and Plaz played this incredible solo. The producer gets on the horn and says, 'Okay, Plaz, beautiful. Just play the same thing again.' Plaz said, 'What do you mean?' He says, 'Just play that solo again. I loved that.' He says, 'Did you record it?' and he says, 'No, but you know what you did. Just play it again.' I thought, well, I can do this.
Alec Baldwin: Always be rolling.
Herb Alpert: Well, I always do that.
Alec Baldwin: Great success for you with Tijuana Brass and great success for you recording albums. When does producing become something, if ever, that was as important to you – I mean, A&M is not some mom-and-pop shop. You and Moss set up a huge company that you sold to Polygram for an enormous amount of money. You strike me as a guy that’s a real artist. You’re painting and you’re sculpting and you’re playing music, but when does it really start to take over the business side in A&M? Or did you let Jerry do that?
Herb Alpert: Well, exactly, and I surround myself with really quality people, people that can do things that I can’t. I’m a right-brain guy. I’m 85 percent on the right side of my brain, so business was always a little funny for me. Jerry and I always discussed the big, broad stroke of A&M, but the little incidental things that happened on a daily basis, I wasn’t interested in.
Alec Baldwin: Front of the house, back of the house.
Herb Alpert: Exactly.
Alec Baldwin: What was it about Jerry that you think it lasted so long and was so successful?
Herb Alpert: He’s just a really good guy. He’s honest. He ahs a lot of integrity. He doesn’t lie. It sounds strange but we never had a contract. Jerry and I had A&M on a handshake, and the only time we ever signed a contract was when we sold to Polygram.
Alec Baldwin: During that period when you were producing – I know nothing about how records are made, which must be just completely unrecognizable now from what it was back in ’65, technically.
Herb Alpert: Oh, completely. I did an album called Rewh—
Alec Baldwin Rewhipped.
Herb Alpert: Yeah, thank you very much.
Alec Baldwin: I’m your P.R. man.
Herb Alpert: Thank you. The guy who got the concept for this album got a bunch of young producers together to redo the Whipped Cream and Other Delights album. They sent me music files on a CD, or on a DVD, or through the Net. I would put my trumpet on a CD because it’s all time-coded, send the CD back to them, and they would slip it right into their master recordings, and I never met these guys.
Alec Baldwin: The ultimate Internet dating.
Herb Alpert: These guys could’ve been in Afghanistan and it would’ve worked the same way.
Alec Baldwin: What was it like before? When you recorded Whipped Cream and Other Delights, which is obviously one of the most famous records ever made, where did you record that album?
Herb Alpert: It was recorded at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, but prior to that my first recorder was a wire recorder. I had a Webcor wire recorder. If you wanted to intercut some things, you needed a soldering iron.
Alec Baldwin: Do you feel that all this technology and all of the power that comes with that has made people lazy, like people can’t get in a room and they just can’t play a song all the way through anymore?
Herb Alpert: No. I don’t think it makes them lazy. I think it gives them too many options. Now, with the digital setup, you have umpteen tracks and you can just keep going and keep going, and then you can tune them up and you can shift it around, take something that was happening at the end of the song and move it up to the front. Too many options. I think it takes some of the heart away.
Alec Baldwin: I also wonder, people say what’s the difference between theater and film, and more and more the technical cost of these highly technical fields, whether it’s film-making, television, recorded music, it’s expensive and it’s almost to the point now where they don’t care about how you feel about the experience.
I’ll stand there and I’ll say, 'I want to do another take, man, and I want to feel it. I want to do this whole speech, from page two all the way to the bottom of page four. It’s like a ski run. I want to ski that hill all the way to the bottom without falling,' and everybody looks at you and goes, 'We don’t have time for that. We’ve got to get out of here.'
Herb Alpert: Yeah, I can relate.
Alec Baldwin: Is that the way the music business is now?
Herb Alpert: No. I don’t think so. It depends on what artist you’re talking about.
Alec Baldwin: Who’s someone that you recorded that you sat there and you were like, wow, man, this is really a thrill for me, as an artist, to watch this man or woman?
Herb Alpert: There were a lot of them. We had some of the most incredible artists.
Alec Baldwin: Name a couple that you dug the most.
Herb Alpert: Cat Stevens was unusually special. Cat has something magical.
Alec Baldwin: You guys signed him?
Herb Alpert: Oh yeah, but, I mean, he was so passionate, the lyrics, and so unusual. He had his own interpretation of all these songs. He was beautiful.
Alec Baldwin: I remember those records.
Herb Alpert: And, of course, The Police. Sting just writes a great song, and when we saw them, Sting was bounding around the stage like he was on a pogo stick. They were great to watch. And, of course, I had an unusual experience with the Carpenters. I signed the Carpenters.
Alec Baldwin: On my iPod I have the Carpenters, I have Sting, and then I have Cat Stevens. You got a lot of my money, man.
Herb Alpert: Well, there’s an interesting story, if you want to hear it.
Alec Baldwin: Go. Tell me.
Herb Alpert: In 1967, I was doing a special for NBC. Jack Haley, Jr. was directing and he said, 'Why don’t you sign a song?' I said, 'Well, if I can find the right song I’ll give it a go.' So I go through my Rolodex and I called Burt Bacharach. I said, 'Burt, is there a song that you have that you think I could handle, that you have tucked away in your drawer someplace, where you find yourself whistling in the morning, a tune that haunts you?' Well, three days later he sent me "This Girl’s In Love With You."
Alec Baldwin: Sure. I watched the video this morning.
Herb Alpert: Of what?
Alec Baldwin: Of you singing the song.
Herb Alpert: Oh, okay. Then you saw my ex-wife, then.
Alec Baldwin: That’s your ex-wife? Sure.
Herb Alpert: Cute, wasn’t she?
Alec Baldwin: Yeah.
Herb Alpert: I recorded the song. I fly to New York, so Hal David would suit the lyric to suit me. As I’m walking out of Hal’s door I said, 'Hal, is there a song that you think I might be able to handle, a song you may have tucked away in the drawer,' the same yarn I gave Burt. Two days later he sent me "Close To You," which was going to be the follow-up to "This Guy’s In Love With You." I recorded it in the studio, I’m listening to the playback, and my engineer friend, Larry Levine, rest his soul, looked at me and says, 'Man, you sound terrible singing this song. Forget it.' And I lost my confidence. I put that thing in the drawer. When I signed the Carpenters in 1970, they had an album that didn’t sell. I mean, the first album was zero.
Alec Baldwin: Describe the first album. Why was it zero? Was it too reliant on Richard Carpenter?
Herb Alpert: No. It had Karen but it was very soft. It was very delicate. It wasn’t really radio-friendly.
Alec Baldwin: Got it.
Herb Alpert: So a year later, I gave them "Close To You." They recorded it and it was really light again. I said, 'We need a little bit more energy on this one.' Karen thought she was a drummer, and she played drums and she was good. But she wanted to record and when I listened to the recording I said, 'No. It’s a little too light. We need some more oomph.' They recorded it again and it still wasn’t quite there, so finally we got the Wrecking Crew. I don’t know if you know that name. Those are the guys that did most of the sessions in L.A. – Hal Blaine on drums, Tommy Tedesco on guitar, and Carol Kaye. The third recording was the charm.
Alec Baldwin: What’s the difference? How did it get there? For you, as a person who has this ear, this gift, does something happen for you, like an alchemy, where you just go, 'That’s it. They got it?'
Herb Alpert: Well, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: How do they get there? How do you help them get there, or do you?
Herb Alpert: You try to flag them down to the runway. That’s what we did with most of our artists. We didn’t try to assign them the beat of the week. We tried to get, like I was saying, the Cat Stevens. The artists we chose were artists that just had their own little identity, which we loved, and the Carpenters had that. I signed them because it wasn’t a type of music that I normally listened to, but they were so sincere about it. They were so passionate about the music.
Alec Baldwin: Unapologetic.
Herb Alpert: Oh, beautiful.
Alec Baldwin: One of the most clarion voices I’ve ever heard in my life.
Herb Alpert: Well, when I heard the original tape – and the original tape was presented to me like, 'Buddy, do you want to hear a tape?' and so he handed me a tape through the gates of A&M. I sat down on my couch in my office at A&M and I did what I usually do – put on the tape. The speakers were on the floor about ten feet in front of me. I closed my eyes and it felt like Karen’s voice was sitting right next to me on the couch. So I was just really intrigued to meet them, and when I did I just realized, this is the real deal.
Alec Baldwin: So you build this big company, and you’ve got a great record company, you and Jerry. And aside from deal-making and aside from Polygram making it well worth your while, what was it like in terms of the decision to let it go and to sell the company?
Herb Alpert: I felt something coming. I felt the music file-sharing – something just felt like the time is right.
Alec Baldwin: What year was that?
Herb Alpert: 1990. Most of these companies were run by these big corporations, and they were throwing millions and millions of dollars around for new artists. You make one mistake at our size and then your ship is sinking. We just thought it was time. And originally we were just going to sell 49 percent, which we held onto for a long time, and then they said, 'We’d like to gobble the whole thing,' and I thought, 'What can I do to throw in a little something? I’d like my catalog back.' Herb Alpert, Tijuana Brass, and Herb Alpert single catalog, plus Lani Hall’s catalog – and I got it.
Alec Baldwin: That’s what all artists crave, right, is to control their own music.
Herb Alpert: I wanted it back and they agreed to it. We signed the contract.
Alec Baldwin: And you made the deal and sold the company to them.
Herb Alpert: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Was painting and sculpting becoming more important in your life, right at the same time you decided to get rid of A&M to Polygram?
Herb Alpert: Not really.
Alec Baldwin: Were those two things intersection?
Herb Alpert: No. I’ve been painting for 42 years. I started painting in 1970. I’m not a Sunday painter. I’m not a Sunday artist. I do it every day. Traveling in the ‘60s with the Tijuana Brass around the world, I used to go to museums, and I’d go to the modern art section for whatever reason. That just appealed to me. I see these paintings, like a black painting with a purple dot or something, hanging on the wall, and I think, “Let me try something like that.” I wasn’t doing it to think something would come of it.
I’ll tell you what’s great, and I know, Alec, you know about this. There’s something about being an artist – being a musician, being a painter, being a sculptor – when you’re doing it, you’re in the exact moment of your life, and that’s rare. When you’re not in that mode, you’re thinking about yesterday or tomorrow or some other chazerai that really doesn’t make any sense. But when you’re doing it, man, it just feels so right on the moment.
Alec Baldwin: I feel that way when I’m on my boat. I don’t paint. I wish I could paint.
Herb Alpert: Well, you should try it. I mean, when I started painting I painted like a monkey. I squeezed some paint on a canvas and moved it around.
Alec Baldwin: Like a kid.
Herb Alpert: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: You had no training?
Herb Alpert: No training. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I think there’s an advantage to that. I think when you’re an amateur and you’re just fooling around, you have infinite possibilities. If you go to a professional, they’ll tell you what not to do, what to do, and how to do it, and blah-blah-blah, and I didn’t know about that. I just did whatever. I’m always going for a feel. I do that in music, in sculpting, in painting. It’s like I’m not looking for something that’s going to excite my eyes. I want something that excites my soul, something that really resonates.
Alec Baldwin: I’m assuming there’s no preference between paint and canvas and sculpture for you? You enjoy them both equally?
Herb Alpert: I do.
Alec Baldwin: I got a copy from your office of the Black Totems exhibit and the work you’ve done. These are obviously immense pieces.
Herb Alpert: They’re 18-footers in bronze.
Alec Baldwin: And are these exclusively for people who have cliffside homes in Malibu with acres of land?
Herb Alpert: Not really. I’m not interested in selling.
Alec Baldwin: I’m just saying they’re big. They’re big.
Herb Alpert: Yeah. They’re huge.
Alec Baldwin: I think of my homes in New York and on Long Island. I would be interested in buying the lower four feet of this one. If we could cut this into sections, actually, that would work quite well for me. I don’t have 18 feet in Manhattan, on the Far East Side, but they’re absolutely stunning. What is music for you now? I know that’s the ultimate clichéd question, but how do you view the music world, beyond zeros and ones and the digital and everything. You must be sitting home and sometimes you sit there and go, “Wow, that sounds great. I really dig that.”
Herb Alpert: You know, I have really varied tastes. I love classical music.
Alec Baldwin: Who are your favorite composers?
Herb Alpert: I love Ravel. Actually, Ravel taught me a lesson. Actually, I was going to SC for a few moments and I was in the orchestra there, and we were playing Pictures At An Exhibition.
Alec Baldwin: The Mussorgsky.
Herb Alpert: Yeah. Mussorgsky wrote it but Ravel arranged it. They were playing the The Great Gate of Kiev and I was so intrigued with the sound of the orchestra. I was leaning forward, listening to everybody, and it sounded like, 'Wow, it’s like natural stereo,' and I forgot to come in on my part. Right at that moment I thought, 'Hey, you know, this isn’t for me. What I really want to do is just close my eyes and play. I love Miles Davis. I love Louis Armstrong. I love those guys that just create. I want to try doing that.' So I started working on jazz, which is a very specific language. Just because you want to play jazz doesn’t mean you can play jazz.
Alec Baldwin: Had you been asked to score a lot of films? You must have been asked to score tons of films.
Herb Alpert: I did the title song of Casino Royale with Burt Bacharach, but that was about it. I don’t think that’s my thing.
Alec Baldwin: You didn’t feel it.
Herb Alpert: I didn’t feel it.
Alec Baldwin: You would’ve been great at that.
Herb Alpert: Maybe. My wife thinks I should still pursue that. But I had an experience. This is a little different aside, but I was in the studio recording the Going Places album, and the Brass was already going crazy.
Alec Baldwin: It was going well.
Herb Alpert: Yeah, it was going well. I get a call from my partner, and the album wasn’t finished yet. I get a call from Jerry and he says, 'We just have advanced orders of 1,400,000,' and I got depressed. I felt like, 'Gee, if people love the album, buy it. If you don’t…' It was a strange feeling.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Herb Alpert: I just didn’t want to be prejudged. I wanted people to listen to the album, hear it, and if they liked it, buy it.
Alec Baldwin: Purity is what you seem to be after.
Herb Alpert: I don’t mean to be too altruistic, but yeah, I was looking for that real ride.
Alec Baldwin: Until we find a better word we’ll say purity.
Herb Alpert: Okay. I was looking for that ride. You like it, buy it.
Alec Baldwin: Where did you meet your second wife, who you’re obviously madly in love with.
Herb Alpert: Oh, you don’t know that story?
Alec Baldwin: Let’s hear it.
Herb Alpert: This is good.
Alec Baldwin: Musicians in love is always a good story.
Herb Alpert: In 1966, I auditioned Brasil ’66, Sergio Mendes. Lani was the lead singer. Jerry and I signed them to a long-term contract. This was when the Brass was really cooking, and we hired them to open the show for us. They were playing for 18,000 people at a time. Lani and I became friends. We were just really good friends. She’s very unusual. She’s from Chicago. She can sing in Portuguese like a native. Beautiful voice.
Alec Baldwin: And she loves music. Do you have a similar, I don’t want to say passion for music, but do you have a similar ethic for music?
Herb Alpert: Oh, completely. She loves jazz. She loves all kinds of music. But we are really the opposites.
Alec Baldwin: How?
Herb Alpert: Well, I’m really quiet. I’m really kind of like a low-key type of guy. She has more energy and more zip-zap.
Alec Baldwin: More outgoing.
Herb Alpert: Yeah, more outgoing.
Alec Baldwin: Who makes the dinner reservations out there in California for you? Who’s picking the restaurants? Your wife.
Herb Alpert: No, she doesn’t. I do that.
Alec Baldwin: Do you really?
Herb Alpert: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: I just want to look at my wife and I want to go, 'Whatever you say, baby. What do you want to have? You want Indian food? You got it, baby.' I don’t want to have to make those decisions. I’ve got other stuff I’ve got to think about.
Herb Alpert: No. It’s kind of mutual with us. You know, I met her at a time and we became friendly, and she was able to identify my neurosis.
Alec Baldwin: Which is what?
Herb Alpert: Well, at the time I was going through a divorce and I couldn’t play the horn.
Alec Baldwin: How did that manifest itself?
Herb Alpert: Well, I took a trip to Europe. We had a little time off. When I got back we had some obligation to go back to Europe and do some concerts, and I had two or three weeks to get back in shape and I just couldn’t do it. My tongue wouldn’t go in the right place. I was all bottled up. I was stiff. My neck was tight. I couldn’t make a sound out of the horn. It was really painful. I was really upset about the divorce and I had a bottle of Mylanta at my side there.
Alec Baldwin: You weren’t happy.
Herb Alpert: There was a hole in the stomach. I just wasn’t happening, and I just couldn’t execute. I couldn’t play the horn.
Alec Baldwin: How long did that last?
Herb Alpert: Oh, it lasted for years. It did.
Alec Baldwin: What years were those?
Herb Alpert: Well, 1969, 1970, 1971.
Alec Baldwin: So right after you have this huge crest of the greatest score, as a performer, of your life, you kind of crash, and you literally didn’t play?
Herb Alpert: Well, I played but it was painful. I had an experience in Germany. I had this obligation to play these concerts in Europe. I was in Germany, in Frankfurt, and I was on the stage, painfully playing, and all of a sudden I had this out-of-body experience. All of a sudden I was in the third row, looking at me. I was thinking to myself, 'Gee, this guy is usually pretty comfortable on the stage, but when he’s off the stage and he’s in a room at part or whatever, he’s totally out of control,' which I felt I was at the time. I said, 'When I get back to Los Angeles after this series of concerts, I’m going to either throw this horn away, sell A&M, do whatever. I just want to find out who I am and why I’m here.'
Everybody’s looking for the same thing, I think – a life of purpose and meaning. Without that, what else is there? Luckily, I met a teacher in New York here. His name was Carmine Caruso. He played violin and he played saxophone. He didn’t play trumpet but he taught a lot of trumpet players. He likened the musician to an athlete, and you had to sync your body muscles to rhythm. Over a period of time, I just kind of unwound this terrible problem I had.
Alec Baldwin: How long did it take?
Herb Alpert: Before I was really comfortable, it probably took eight years.
Alec Baldwin: Really?
Herb Alpert: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Did you do that when you started painting?
Herb Alpert: That’s an interesting question.
Alec Baldwin: Because you said you started painting in 1970.
Herb Alpert: Yeah, I did.
Alec Baldwin: And you started to lose your mojo horn-wise in 1969.
Herb Alpert: Yeah, right.
Alec Baldwin: Did painting and sculpting come into your life as you found you didn’t want to play the horn?
Herb Alpert: Well, sculpting came in later. Painting was a big relief.
Alec Baldwin: You had to have somewhere to put that energy.
Herb Alpert: Exactly. It was a rough period for me.
Alec Baldwin: I’ve been there, man. I’ve been there, and mine as a result of a divorce, too. And not like I thought I needed to stay in that marriage, but it was the way that those things end, and you just sit there and go, 'This not what I bargained for. Let’s hit rewind here and go back and try to figure this out, man.'
Herb Alpert: And hit Delete.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. We’ve got to do this again. When did you marry your current wife? What year?
Herb Alpert: 1974.
Alec Baldwin: So during this time, years of you not feeling great, and then you meet her, and you meet this woman who’s obviously the love of your life.
Herb Alpert: Right, but at the same time I was still playing. Like I said, I was playing.
Alec Baldwin: You were forcing yourself to play.
Herb Alpert: Well, forcing myself. In ’74 we had a command performance for the queen of England.
Alec Baldwin: The Tijuana Brass?
Herb Alpert: Yeah. The band sounded great. And then we met Prince Charles, who said, 'I have all your records in the den.' I couldn’t picture the den. I met the queen. Very lovely. Nice smile. This was in 1974. I was feeling pretty puffed up. I felt good about that. I go out the back door and there were hundreds and hundreds of people there, just waiting for the various artists that were on the show, and as I’m walking through the crowd I hear these two ladies talking. 'I don’t know that chap. Who is that chap?' and her friend said, 'I think that’s Sergio Mendes.' After feeling so good.
Alec Baldwin: I’ve got to get over here more often, man. I’ve got to get these people straightened out. I think that’s a great thing, that you’re someone who you weren’t feeling all that great at that time in your life, but you fooled the king and the queen of England.
Herb Alpert: I didn’t fool them, but the band sounded great.
Alec Baldwin: No. I’m just saying you got it done.
Herb Alpert: Yeah. But, you know, there’s something about when you’re good at something you can fake it and nobody really knows.
Alec Baldwin: For you, who’s a horn player that you take your hat off to? Just give me one, that you’ve really dug listening to.
Herb Alpert: Oh, Miles Davis. I love Miles. Miles was the real thing.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Herb Alpert: Well, because he was completely authentic. He was just playing the music that was coming out of him – no compromise. He understood space, the silence that happens between the notes. He understood that, and I think he was the key jazz musician of the 20th century. I’ve met some really incredible jazz musicians in my day, and each one has their own little take on how to do it.
Stan Getz was like a brother to me. I produced two albums with Stan, and he played this one song that was just, man, goose bumps were flying up my back. I said, 'Man, what are you thinking when you’re playing?' and he says, 'Well, I think like I’m in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and I’m davening.' Stan, he was great. I love this guy. He wore his stuff right close to the surface.
I had an experience with Getz where I did these albums and he said, 'Can I do anything for you?' I said, 'Yeah, man. How about giving me some be-bop lessons?' He says, 'Sure. How honest do you want me to be?' I said, 'I’m just trying to get up to my own water level. I didn’t play with Charlie Parker like you did. I just want to see how far I can take this thing.' He says, 'Fine.' We’re in my studio at home.
He’s sitting down and I said, 'Do you think, for one, I should work on the 2-5-1 chords in every key,' which is page one that they teach at Berkeley. That’s how they start this thing – 2-5-1 is in all pop songs. It’s just one of those things. I said, 'Do you think I should work on this in every key, the 2-5-1 chords?' You know what he said? 'What’s that?' He didn’t think like that. I mean, those old-timers didn’t play off of that shit that they’re teaching at school.
Alec Baldwin: What do you think made Sinatra Sinatra?
Herb Alpert: Oh, man. Very musical.
Alec Baldwin: He really was.
Herb Alpert: Smart.
Alec Baldwin: He was grateful to the songwriters and the musicians, and he knew they made him. He brought what he brought.
Herb Alpert: He was a cut above. He was magic. Plus, the sound in his voice was beautiful. His timing. But I learned a great lesson. When things started happening for me, my wife was friends with Nancy Sinatra. I met Frank and I stayed at his house, and then we flew to Las Vegas. Anyway, after the show Frank comes up to me and he says, 'Do you want to play some baccarat?' I said, 'I don’t know how to play but I’ll go with you.'
He sits down with Barbara at a table, and I’m standing behind him, and in 20 minutes he must have won around $27,000 or $30,000, and Nancy was standing right next to me. Every time he won a pot he’d throw off like ten $100 bills to Nancy, so she had this pile that looked like a bowling ball in her hands, of $100 bills. Frank gets up abruptly and he just leaves, and Nancy looks at me and says, 'Here, Herbie. Go take some of this and go gamble.'
And I looked at this pile and I said, 'You want me to take half a pound? What are you talking about?' And I realized at that point, man, I’m never going to treat money like that. I’m going to honor it in a whole different way. I’m not going to be that frivolous.
Herb Alpert established the Herb Alpert Foundation in the 1980s, giving away money his way ever since. In 2007 he gave thirty million dollars to form the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA.
Herb Alpert: I love music. I think music needs to survive. I think jazz needs to survive. It’s a great American legacy. It’s such an important ingredient for a kid’s health, and it think through that they learn discipline, which can help them in the academics, so it’s just a natural. It should be a core subject.
Alec Baldwin: Do you teach? Do you go over there and guest teach?
Herb Alpert: No, I don’t. That’s really not my strong suit.
Alec Baldwin: I think they would be very happy for you to show up, though, wouldn’t they?
Herb Alpert: Well, they do.
Alec Baldwin: Isn’t that your great gift? You just have to play and it’s all there.
Herb Alpert: I think my great gift is that I have my own personality on the horn. A lot of musicians are trying to track Miles Davis, or trying to track Charlie Parker, or trying to play like. I’m just trying to play like myself, and I think that’s what everybody should be going for, their only unique voice. It’s been a nice ride. I feel thankful.
Herb recently finished a sold out 2-week run at the Carlyle Hotel with his wife, singer Lani Hall. And I mean sold out -- he couldn’t get me any tickets.
This is Alpert and Hall performing “I Feel You.”
This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s the Thing. Our podcast comes from WNYC Radio.
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