10 questions for trumpet legend Herb Alpert
His career spans five decades and he's still going – in 2014, he released "Human Nature" – but he saw wild success in the '60s. Consider this: The songs you hear during the "guess the attendance" game at Miller Park, or on old game shows, outsold the Beatles in 1966.
As if that's not enough, Alpert also founded A&M Records. He owns nine Grammys and has sold 72 million records. And he definitely has a sense of humor. We caught up with him from his home in Los Angeles for a phone interview before his Pabst show Sunday night.
OnMilwaukee: Tell me about what's your show going to be like at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee this month?
Herb Alpert: Oh, it's going to be great. We've been doing this for 11 years now with the same group. Standing ovation every night. We just play a bunch of songs that are fun for me to play. It's all positive. I'm on the upbeat, I'm on the up side of life. I'm trying to make positive music. We vary it each night, but we'll play a Tijuana Brass medley, of course. My wife Lani, who was the original lead singer with Brasil 66, will do a little Sergio Mendes Brasil 66 tribute.
Surrounding that, we'll play a bunch of songs that have beautiful medleys, and we do them in a real honest, passionate way. It's something that I'm doing out of love. I've been playing the trumpet since I was 8, and I just like the feeling.
I'll tell you a little story about Milwaukee. When I was playing there in the '60s, I got a knock on the door, and it was the great football coach, Vince Lombardi. He said, "I just want to tell you my wife and I really enjoy your music," and I invited him to the show that night. He had another engagement. That was a memory for me. It was beautiful.
Yeah, that's a high compliment from a pretty cool guy.
Yeah, he was very cool.
I'm 42, so my first exposure to you was looking through my dad's record collection and seeing the "Whipped Cream" cover. I'm probably not the first guy who's ever told you that, right?
No, you're about the 4,000th person that mentioned the "Whipped Cream" cover to me. This is actually true: This sounds like I'm making it up, but about three months after the record was released, this guy comes up to me and says, "Herb, I love that cover. It's one of the most beautiful covers for an album. It's just magnificent. Thank you so much." I said, "Thank you. What do you think about the album itself?" He says, "I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet."
Well, I popped it on the record player, I listened to it and I liked it. But what I liked the most I think was when you remixed that into "Rewhipped." It brought music that was quite old into a new sound. Can you tell me a little bit about that album?
It's kind of fascinating what happened. With technology, with recording into zeroes and ones, I was at that time recording for Shout Records, and Shawn Amos who was one of the A&R people there. You've got this idea to do a mix of the "Whipped Cream" album and get these various star mixes from around the country to work with the individual tracks. I agreed to that.
We got these mixes together. Because of the way technology is, they would send me their file that they're mixing that they're working on and ask me to put on an additional trumpet, which I did in my little studio here. I would send back just the trumpet because it's all time-coded. All they had to do was just slip my trumpet that I recorded back into their template, and it would all sync up.
The reason I'm telling this story is because these guys could have been in Vietnam or Afghanistan. It wouldn't have mattered. I never met these guys face to face. We produced this album in a very unusual way.
Did you have a lot of say in how these songs turned out, or was it pretty much letting them take your material and turn it into what they wanted it to be?
Well, they would use my feedback, of course, but I wanted them to express themselves. I didn't want to step on any of their creative ideas. I'm actually crazy about the "Whipped Cream" album, the original album.
I also want to ask you about that. In 1966, you outsold the Beatles. That's an amazing thing that a jazz musician back then could conquer Top 40, too. It's surprising to me that it happened then. That couldn't happen now, right?
It could not happen now. I think timing plays a big part of it. It was a very fortuitous that I had this huge record of "Taste of Honey," which kind of really opened the door wide. Once that record did what it did, we started performing on all the major television shows which were before your time.
Those shows had a lot of big listening audience who not only dug into the "Whipped Cream" album but they went right back into the very first album, "The Lonely Bull," and then the second volume two, "Tijuana Brass," and then the third one was "South of the Border." Those albums all started selling. That all gathered that momentum at that particular time. It's probably something that can never happen again in that way.
Yet, you're still recording. I've listened to "Human Nature," and I like it. I especially like the last song, "Doodles." The thing that strikes me, though, is I feel like when I hear you playing trumpet, I know it's you.
I modestly say that Miles Davis said, "You hear three notes, and you know it's Herb Alpert." That's a great compliment. I was looking for my own voice. I spent a lot of time trying to play like other musicians. I came to the aha of who wants to hear that? They've already done it. I was looking for my own voice and what I tell young artists whether they're musicians, dancers, poets or whatever, that's the whole key to being an artist. Try to find the way you can personally do it and don't compare yourself to other artists.
That's great advice. Kids these days they probably hear your songs at baseball games and on commercials and maybe they don't know, or maybe they do know, what came before them. I hear your songs and sometimes they feel kind of jokey but also they're not.
That's a funny description. I understand what you're saying. I'm a positive guy. I try to make positive music, uplifting music. Jokey is probably taking it to the extreme, but I'm lighthearted. I have this interesting concept when I play ... It's not a concept. It's just the way it comes out, but it's kind of a sad upbeat quality. I'm playing both ends of it.
Yeah, and that defined some of your biggest hits. They're great songs. They're not jokes.
I think it's all about songs to begin with. A great lyric with a terribly melody is going to go nowhere, but a wonderful melody with a so-so lyric has a better chance.
Do you smile to yourself when you hear one of your songs being played at a baseball game or in an unusual place. Do you think, "Hey, I made that?"
I really don't think about that. I know what you're saying, but it's like that was then, that's nice. Every now and then, I'm surprised by somebody coming up to me and telling me how much they like a particular record. That feels good. I try to live in the present.
Before we get to the present, founding A&M was a transformational part of your life, I'm assuming. You must have made more money through that then you did as a performer right?
My career actually started before A&M. I was recording for a major recording company prior to A&M.
But owning your own label, that's an entirely different stratosphere, I'd imagine.
It absolutely is, but the negative things I learned from recording with this major company led to all of the good stuff I put into A&M. A lot has happened since A&M started in 1962. Everything has turned upside down in the way of recording records, in the way of promoting records, the way radio has taken a back seat.
Are you glad you're out of that part of the business?
Oh, completely. Yeah, the timing was right for us to sell. I wanted to do other things. I paint. I sculpt. I make music. I'm a right-brained guy. That's how I spend my life.
And you're 81. You're still performing.
Yeah, I will continue to perform until I'm six feet under. I love to do this. This is fun. I get great satisfaction out of it. It's a lot easier for me to do than people recognize. It's something that gives me energy. I know that I've made a certain amount of people happy with my music, and we get great crowds and I know they leave the venue feeling better than when they entered. That's a nice feeling for me to be able to do that.
I read that you said that you feel like your trumpet playing is even better than it used to be.
Well, it is. It's easier for me to play than it was 20 years ago.
Why do you think that is?
Well, for one, I studied with an interesting trumpet teacher years ago that taught me the physics of playing the instrument. What actually happens? How do you make the sound? That's something I never considered. I never thought about that when I started playing at 8 years old.
When I run into a problem on the horn I go to the mechanics. What's happening? How do you do this? How do you make this sound? How do you get in trouble with the instrument? One way to get in trouble is if you play to the acoustics of a particular venue or environment and everything is very loud and you try to be heard over that noise. You tend to overblow and by overblowing the next day you wake up with swollen lips. I don't do that any more.
You're a smarter trumpet player?
Yeah, absolutely smarter. I get more for less.
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