Herb Alpert’s Secret to Success in the Music Business

About as close as trumpet player Herb Alpert ever came to the blues was signing artists like Joan Armatrading and Quincy Jones to A&M Records, but his role as a renaissance artist, record executive, painter and sculptor could fill a book on how independent artists can make it out of the bush leagues that so many blues artists seem to get stuck in.

Herb and his band the Tijuana Brass had their first hit in 1962 with “The Lonely Bull” recorded for A&M Records, an indie he co-owned with Jerry Moss. “The key (to its success) for me is that I surrounded myself with great people. I had a wonderful partner Jerry Moss, and he would handle the business end of it, and I was mainly – I’m a right brained guy – handling the music and the things I feel I have a gift at. The big decisions in the company we made together, but the little incidental decisions I wasn’t interested in.  That’s not my strong suit. I’m a creative guy. I paint. I sculpt and make music.”

Now in his seventh decade of playing trumpet, writing songs and touring, Herb has racked up nine Grammy Awards, 14 platinum LPs, and 15 gold records. He’s in the Rock and roll Hall of Fame and was presented the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama.

What has he learned almost seven decades into the music business? “You have to be true to yourself. You have to find your own voice. I tried to play like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, and all the great trumpet players that I grew up with, and I realized they’ve already done it. Nobody wants to hear a copy of them.

“I was looking for my own sound, and then I hit this sound in 1962 with ‘The Lonely Bull.’ It developed into something that was really special for me. I realized my voice was good enough. I didn’t have to compare myself to any of the other trumpet players.”

Herb grew up the son of Jewish immigrants. How he went from that ethnic background to fronting a band called the Tijuana Brass was not something he’d even considered. “It wasn’t my idea, and it wasn’t an idea that I liked. I didn’t like the whole thing. I never wanted to feel like I was an imposter. So, it was my partner’s idea. 

“We used to go to bullfights in Tijuana, and I got this idea listening to this brass band. It wasn’t a mariachi band. It was a band that introduced different sections of the bullfight, and I got interested in trying to recapture that feeling on record. That’s how ‘The Lonely Bull’ came about. It was called The Lonely Bull, and then my partner said, ‘Let’s call it the Tijuana Brass,’ and I said, ‘Oh, man!’”

One of A&M Records’ biggest successes was with the pop band The Carpenters. “I signed them in 1969 not because I listened to that type of music but because I recognized that Karen had a good voice, and Richard was very smart. He knew how to get the most out of her as an artist, and it worked. It didn’t work for the first couple of months because people in my own company thought, ‘Damn, why did you sign these kids?’”

It was Herb who brought The Carpenters their signature hit. “I gave them ‘Close to You.’ The rest is history. I had them record it three different times.”

How did Herb know that song would work? “Well, I listen to melodies. I don’t listen to the lyrics. I listen to the melody first. And a good melody is a great melody. I think that’s why I’ve had success ’cause after I had ‘The Lonely Bull,’ our distributor said, ‘Why don’t you guys just take the money and run?’ That intrigued me because I thought we had more to offer.”

Herb is 89. When I tell him I’m 80, he says, “I’ve got underwear that’s older than you. My secret is good genres, obviously, but I enjoy getting up in the morning and getting busy. I’m painting or sculpting or making music and talking about things that give me pleasure. I try to be a responsible citizen and do whatever I have to do from that point of view, but I have to – I’m a right-brained guy. I’m an introvert, and I can entertain myself in my room,” he chuckles. “That sounds pretty lonely, but that’s the truth.”

Herb Alpert is currently on tour with his wife Lani Hall originally with Brazil 66 backed by a three-piece band. “The show is a mix (of old and new). I’ll do the Tijuana Brass medley. She’ll do a Brazil 66 medley. and then around that we just do songs that we enjoy playing, and I think the audience enjoys listening to.”

The show includes a three-piece backup band. “It’s the same band we’ve been playing with for 15 years now. We’ve been doing it and getting tremendous reaction because there’s a slide show and things that kind of represent my past and Lani’s past on the screen, and I think people really enjoy it. It’s coming from an honest point of view.”

Herb is about to release his 50th album called 50. “This is the 50th album that I’ve produced, and it’s a milestone for me. There’s a couple of standards, but these are mainly songs that I haven’t recorded yet.”

What is the take away on this man’s incredible success over seven decades in the music business? “Nobody knows what a hit sound is. So, I never tried to make a hit record. I just try to make sounds that make me feel good.”

He tells a story about the fickle quality of the big score. “I’m at A&M. So, this guy comes in wanting us to distribute his record. That happened quite frequently. He didn’t have a company, but he wanted to get into a company that had great distribution, and we did have great distribution. So, I listened to this song. This thing bores me to death. It’s too long, and it’s out of tune, and I heard a better version of it years back. I turned it down for A&M. I turned it down! I didn’t tell him this, but I didn’t get it. I told him, ‘Don’t lose your confidence. Just try a different record company.’ 

“I turned down ‘Louie Louie.”’

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