In today's Arena section of The Wall Street Journal, I interview Herb Alpert on his new album, In the Mood, as well as a wide range of other topics (go here). Many of his answers may come as a surprise, including the artist who had the biggest influence on him when he was starting out in the late 1950s, where he found the sound of a crowd yelling "Ole!" for The Lonely Bull, his first hit, and why there's a two second gap between his vocal and trumpet solo on This Guy's in Love With You.
Herb is the King of Casual and a fascinating guy, both as a musician-singer and entrepreneur. He's open, candid and very laid back. In preparation for the interview and while writing, I listened to all of Herb's albums with the Tijuana Brass. Those tight horns and mariachi-flavored pop tunes really get into your blood system.
Here are questions and answers that I nipped from the published interview due to space:
What did you learn in your brief acting career in the mid-1950s?
That I wasn’t passionate about it. I was discovered in a gym. A guy I met fixed me up at Paramount and I took acting lessons, which taught me how to get in touch with my feelings. I studied with Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Corey, who were plugged into that concept. The experience taught me about my naturalness, which I used later when performing on stage and appearing on TV. As an artist, the key is to stay real. When you’re fake or you overthink things, you’re playing a role and audiences sense the artificiality.
What was the turning point for the Tijuana Brass?
After The Lonely Bull, the next album did fine but wasn’t noteworthy. The third album, South of the Border in ‘64, was the charm. I remember being in the control room late at night mixing tracks for Mexican Shuffle when the door opened. It was the cleaning lady. She said, “Honey, what’s that playing there?” The minute she said that, I knew we had something. Then the Clark Co. used Mexican Shuffle for its Teaberry gum TV ad. The song was on the album and kids bought it.
Ever worry that a faux Mexican band might ruffle feathers?
I felt a bit uncomfortable about it. But instead of feeding into it, I just played myself. People sort of figured out it was just a gimmick.
Did everything come easily in the ‘60s?
Hardly. Thanks to the Tijuana Brass, we had enough cash to survive, but that was about it. With A&M, everything we earned went back into the business. The turning point was when we picked up the We Five’s You Were on My Mind in 1965. From that point on A&M was considered a soft-rock, easy listening label and we did well. But by the late ‘60s, we started signing harder British rock artists like Joe Cocker and Procol Harum.
How were you able to balance co-running a label and recording hit albums?
Most success comes from hiring the right people. The truth is I wasn’t a businessman. I never had that chip. I just surrounded myself with people who could do things I couldn’t or didn’t choose to do. Jerry [Moss] was a perfect partner. We sat right next door to each other and communicated about everything—business and creative. [Above, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss]
A slight pause also was used on the Carpenters’ (They Long to Be) Close to You in 1970. Is that you playing trumpet?
Burt gave me the song after This Guy’s in Love With You went to No. 1. But when I recorded it, engineer Larry Levine looked at me and said, “You sound terrible.” I wasn’t happy with it either. So when we signed the Carpenters in ‘69, Jerry [Moss] and I thought it would be good for them. I was on the road when they recorded, so studio trumpeter Chuck Findley played the solo in my style.
Here's Herb's This Guy's in Love With You, which went to No. 1 in 1968...
What convinced you to sign the Police to A&M?
It was part of out Brit-buying phase. I had heard them at L.A.’s Whiskey Au Go Go and thought they were really good. They were making sounds that were full and beautiful. Of course, Sting is an unusual guy and still brilliant and a gentleman.
Also in today's Wall Street Journal, you'll find my "House Call" interview for the Mansion section with actor Steve Guttenberg on growing up in New York's Flushing section of Queens (go here). You'll split your sides when you hear who visited upstairs and what Steve thought at the time. [Photo of Steve Guttenberg in Queens by Mackenzie Stroh for The Wall Street Journal]
Also for today's Arena section, I wrote a preview of a terrific new four-CD box set—The Soul of Designer Records (Big Legal Mess), which features 101 tracks that appeared on Memphis's Designer gospel label (go here). Talk about the roots of soul. What's fascinating is that Designer's owner and the house musicians were all white while the artists were black. [Above, the Fantastic Gospel Travelers, who recorded for Designer]
And for the "Playlist" column this weekend (go here), I spoke to British chef Jamie Oliver about a favorite song that was popular when he was courting his wife back in the 1990s. Jamie has a new book out—Jamie Oliver's Comfort Food: The Ultimate Weekend Cookbook (Ecco)