Yes, Herb Alpert turns 80 today, a fact that gives me the perfect excuse to pay tribute to this man so remarkable in so many ways.
(First, I'll say a brief word about myself, so you can just skip this paragraph. I've been a fan of this guy's music since before I was old enough to pronounce his name. I listened to a dozen or so of his albums hundreds of times. After about 20 years, I got tired of them and stopped listening, but I still mentioned him now and then. Last year, I got hooked again. I mentioned it at the time. Since then, I listened to those 13 albums dozens of times each, and bought another.)
So what can I say about Herb Alpert? First of all, no, he isn't Mexican, nor Hispanic. (In fact, his band, the Tijuana Brass, had no Mexicans at all.) He came from a Jewish family in California. He picked up the trumpet at age 8. After attending college, serving in the U.S. Army, and dabbling with acting, he decided to pursue a career in music. After working in the industry for a few years, co-writing some songs (such as Sam Cooke's Wonderful World) Alpert decided to do his own thing.
But... what SORT of thing? He didn't know, at first. Alpert and his friend Jerry Moss created their own record company, A&M Records, and Alpert started working on a song, called "Twinkle Star," written by another friend, Sol Lake, but his direction still seemed uncertain...
...until he happened to attend a bullfight in Tijuana, Mexico, where a mariachi band introduced each new event with a rousing fanfare that made the crowd go wild. Alpert then knew he wanted to make Mexican-style music (or rather, what he PERCEIVED as Mexican style at the time. 20 years later, another trip to Mexico would teach him more about authentic Central American musical styles, but I'll get to that later in this history.)
So he changed "Twinkle Star" and called the result The Lonely Bull which became a Top 10 hit in 1962.
And the legend began.
Alpert then went on to create a whole record in the same "Mexican" style, using the band name "Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass". (Actually, "the Tijuana Brass" didn't exist yet. Alpert hired backup musicians on an irregular basis only, at this point. Alpert himself played all the trumpet parts, overdubbing whenever necessary.) Some of his songs were original, written by his friends. Others were covers of popular songs of the time, or of older tunes. After that album, he made another Tijuana Brass record in 1963. Starting with his third album in 1964, Alpert achieved a more polished, professional sound.
A growing demand for live concerts compelled Alpert to hire musicians to form the REAL Tijuana Brass (or TJB, for short). The concerts were great successes, attracting audiences of people with a surprising variety of age. And at the same time, Alpert made more #1 albums, like !!Going Places!! (1965) Even today, many people know Spanish Flea and can't think of the show "The Dating Game" without remembering the song.
In 1966, the next album, What Now My Love, also hit #1. After the release of another album, S. R. O. the Guinness Book of World Records recognized that Alpert set a new record by placing five albums simultaneously in the Top 20 on the Billboard Pop Album chart, an accomplishment that has never been repeated. Alpert sold 13.7 million albums in 1966, making him the top-selling artist of the year. In 1967, his next record, ...Sounds Like... also hit #1, and although the ninth album "only" reached #4, Alpert made it back to #1 with The Beat of the Brass in 1968.
In 1969, though, Alpert grew tired of the style. He released a couple of lifeless, unsuccessful albums and disbanded the TJB.
In fact, Alpert needed a break from performing altogether for a while. His schedule of recording and touring proved too busy for him, and caused him stress. What's more, his lip physically failed him, and he couldn't play the trumpet without stuttering the notes. Needing a new creative outlet, Alpert took up abstract expressionist painting. He painted almost every day for the next 20 years, a fact that may seem insignificant at this point. But keep reading.
To be sure, Alpert was still running a successful record company, signing with many musicians and making them famous. For instance, it was Alpert who gave the Carpenters their first break in music. He also first brought the song Close To You to their attention, which catapulted them into fame. Over the years during which Alpert and Moss owned A&M Records, its recording roster would come to include Burt Bacharach, Cat Stevens, Peter Frampton, Cheech and Chong, Bryan Adams, the Police, Styx, Supertramp, Janet Jackson, and many others.
But what about Alpert's own music? For years and years after returning to the trumpet, he made albums in different styles, without achieving the popularity of his Tijuana Brass years. (In the mid-1970s, Alpert even recorded a couple of albums under the name "Herb Alpert and the T.J.B.", and even formed a new band of that name with some of the same performers in the original TJB to tour behind those albums, but didn't meet with the same level of success.) The height of this has-been's career as a musician was obviously past, right?
In 1979, he tried a more laidback sound, mixing modern pop with jazz, funk, and dance, resulting in his biggest success: Rise. He went on to make an entire album in that style, which sold over 3 million copies.
You'd think he would continue imitating that style to capitalize on its success, but he was rich enough to afford the luxury of doing what he WANTED to do. His next album was only somewhat like "Rise", and he continued to experiment with different styles.
In 1982, he wanted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of "The Lonely Bull", so he traveled to Mexico, where he learned some surprising things about Latin-American music. (I told you I'd get to it!) The result was the album Fandango. One single from that album, Route 101, hit the top 40.
He went on to make many more records, such as 1984's Bullish. That album bore the name "Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass". Again, he re-formed the Tijuana Brass with some of the same performers, which went on a concert tour to support that album.
In 1988, Alpert and his wife Lani Hall started the Herb Alpert Foundation, which would go on to give away more than $100 million promoting education in the arts.
In 1989, Alpert and Moss sold A&M Records to PolyGram for $500 million, which Alpert and Moss split 50-50.
I'd say he was doing passably well, wouldn't you?
As a musician, however, he continued making records. Meanwhile, Alpert was surprised to get numerous offers to buy his paintings. In 1989, he held the first exhibition of his work. In 1990, he got started in the art of sculpting. Around the turn of the century, he decided to take a break from recording and performing music, and concentrate instead on the visual arts. He's had many gallery shows. His sculptures go for 2 to 3 hundred thousand dollars.
His music still sold, however. In 2005, he sold the rights to his most popular albums to a company called "Shout! Factory" which continues to sell those CDs to this day. He also assembled some old Tijuana Brass recordings dating from 1962 to 1974, finishing and editing them, and also remixing and improving a few of his previously released songs. Shout! Factory compiled them into an album called Lost Treasures which I would recommend to any Tijuana Brass fan.
In 2009, Alpert, with his wife Lani, went back to making new records and going on concert tours.
And he still supports education. For instance, in April of 2010, the Harlem School of the Arts shut down for three weeks due to financial difficulty. 3000 miles away, Alpert read about it in the newspaper, and just like that, he wrote out a check for half a million dollars to keep the school open. In 2012, the Herb Alpert Foundation granted over $5 million to the school.
And he still hasn't put down the trumpet. Herb Alpert's latest album came out in September of 2014 and hit the Billboard chart on release. His concert tour is still going on.
What can I say about his music? I can seldom explain why I like a certain song, musician, band, or type of music. Well, I left links to plenty of songs for you to sample, so you can judge for yourself. All I can think to say is one word: