This Guy's Herb Alpert
Musician/producer/record mogul/painter/philanthropist reacts to the moment
50 years ago this month Herb Alpert was one of the biggest stars in the music industry. With a string of hits on his own A&M Records, sold-out concert tours and lucrative licensing deals, his next move was The Beat of the Brass, his second television special. Originally broadcast April 22, 1968 on CBS, the show's soundtrack included the Burt Bacharach/Hal David-penned "This Guy's In Love With You," featuring a rare vocal performance from Alpert.
Audience response to the song was so great that a single was quickly issued. The result was Alpert's first number one record and the tune became a staple of the era. After a three-tiered run with the Tijuana Brass spanning the '60s, '70s and '80s, he has continued to release wildly diverse recordings - including last year's excellent Music Volume 1 on his Herb Alpert Presents label. The album finds the 82-year-old musician in fine form, still exploring standards and familiar material with a fresh vitality and openminded acceptance of modern sounds and technology.
In addition to exhibiting his modern-art inspired paintings and sculptures, he still tours the world with wife, singer Lani Hall and his band performing a mix of his hits and improvisational jazz.
INsite spoke with Alpert by phone from his studio in Malibu.
What's on your schedule for today?
Well I was just doing something like this [sits the phone down and plays a few bars of improvised jazz on his trumpet]. Practicing the horn!
Do you practice every day?
I don't have to, but I like to; there's a difference. I've been doing it since I was 8, so it's just a part of me.
And like with Music: Volume 1, you don't have to release new records at this point in your career, but it's a solid collection of songs.
I like the process. I'm kind of a music junkie. I like to find songs that are fun to play and then I try to find a way to do them that hasn't been done before, so that keeps it fun for me.
You still find new ways of looking at often very familiar melodies - on your own terms.
I just try to find ones that touch me and then I do them. But it's a whole different thing now. With A&M Records, we had these monster studios, A, B and C and they were equipped to handle lots of people. Now you can record on a laptop and do pretty much all that you could do in a big studio.
Is that the biggest change you've seen, people can stay home and record an album rather than to go to a good studio?
That's one. Of course, the zeroes and ones have made a huge impact. When I started out, I had a mono tape machine and then a two-track stereo and then a four-track, then eight, sixteen, thirty-two. Now it's endless. Now you can have as many tracks as you choose, which is probably not really a good idea. You have so many choices, you can get confused.
Now you have a new version of the A&M mindset with Herb Alpert Presents.
It's a whole different world now. You have to deal with Spotify and iTunes and all that. I just got an email yesterday that said in the month of December my music was streamed 16 million times, which is really just kind of mind-boggling. That's probably a pittance compared to some of these artists getting billions of hits and it's something I'd never really thought about before.
So probably somewhere on Earth at any given moment, someone is streaming one of your songs.
That could be! But I'm not doing it for the glory or the attention. I just want to make music that makes me feel good. And you know, I paint and sculpt so it's a fun situation.
Creatively, that's the best place to be.
I have no choice. I'm a right-brained animal. I'm 85% in the right side of my brain.
Let's talk about your art. What first attracted you to abstract painting?
Travelling around the world with the Tijuana Brass, I used to go to museums. For some reason I was attracted to the modern art section. One day I saw a painting hanging in a prominent museum. It was just a black painting with one purple dot on it. I kinda chuckled when I saw it. Then other museums had something similar, like a white painting with a black dot. I thought, 'Let me try that. I know where to put a dot!' I got some paints when I got back home. I didn't go for that type of style but I was just moving paints around like a monkey. Just trying to get a feeling on the canvas. I had fun doing it so I kept going and little by little, people started noticing. There was a gallery in Los Angeles that saw my work and wanted to show it. Bang, I was off to the races. Then a few years later, I started sculpting. It's all just a great creative outlet.
You Herb Alpert Foundation is a big supporter of the arts for kids.
Yeah through the Foundation, I want kids to have a similar experience at a young age. I think it's very important to develop the total person. It's a win-win situation when kids get to experience their own uniqueness and then hopefully they'll appreciate the uniqueness in others. I had that opportunity when I was young and that's why I'm really high on doing this. To me, all art is about a feel. There's no other ingredient involved. When you like an artist, a musician, a painting. It gets you on a visceral level. You can't put your finger on it exactly. What is that element of a song that gives you goosebumps? You can't really pin it down. That's the beauty of art and that's why it's such a mystery.
I've noticed that a lot of your visual art and much of your music has a very improvisational feel.
Yeah, man! You got it. It has to have it. That's why I love jazz. I played with Louis Armstrong one night and the 'ah-ha' hit me. It was just Louis and the joy of making music. It was wonderful to see. You can have musicians who have all the technique in the world but if they don't touch you they're trying too hard. A while back, I did a master class at the Monk Institute at UCLA with the jazz musicians there. They played something for me. Then I said, 'Ok, now don't try to impress me or anyone else here. Just respond to what you're really feeling as you're playing.' The transformation was amazing, the feeling that was coming from just being yourself.
That's the hallmark of great art.
That's why the great musicians of the past touched us with so much emotion. Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and all those people. They didn't give a darn whether you liked it or not. They were just doing their thing as honestly as possible.
Right, the honesty was of the moment.
And the moment changes from moment to moment and day to day. The concerts we do with the band, yeah I'll play a little Tijuana Brass medley but surrounding that is all improv jazz. I'm totally convinced that it ain't what you do, it's the way you do it. Timing is everything. If we tried to start A&M in today's environment, I don't think it would have had a chance.
You mentioned Miles. I love how he'd direct his band to "Just play." That seems to be the way you play, paint and run record companies.
I don't think there's any other way to do it. I've always tried to express myself as authentically as possible and then leave it at that. React to the moment.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of your hit "This Guy's In Love With You."
I didn't know that! I'm glad you told me. You know, that just came by accident to me and it was Number One in two weeks. We did a TV show and the director wanted me to sing a song so I called a friend of mine, his name was Burt Bacharach. He sent me this song "This Girl's in Love with You" that he'd recorded with Dionne Warwick. I liked it a lot. We changed the gender, Burt played piano on it and I produced it. It was one take, believe it or not. I was just doing it as a demo to see if I could handle it. I walked into the control room and they said, 'Don't touch it!' I said, 'Don't touch what?' They said, 'Don't touch that vocal, it was perfect!' I just go for what feels good for me. If it feels right, I think there'll be a certain amount of people who might like it and I'm ok with that.
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall perform May 5 at City Winery. More information about Alpert's music, art and Foundation is available at herbalpert.com.