He’s sold 72 million records, scored five No. 1 hits and won nine Grammy Awards. He outsold the Beatles in 1966 with four albums in the Top 10. And he co-founded A&M Records, sold in 1989 to major label Polygram for a reported $500 million.
At age 84, Herb Alpert could easily rest on his laurels at his Malibu home, painting and sculpting (his huge totem sculptures have fetched more than $200,000 each) in addition to recording music. But the pop-jazz trumpeter—who first found fame as the leader of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass—still tours with his singer wife Lani Hall and their versatile backing trio, playing City Winery on May 2.
“There’s a certain number of people that get pleasure out of the music, so I’m going to be doing it as long as I’m able,” Alpert says. “I feel better when I’m doing it. People ask me after a concert, ‘Man, aren’t you tired? Doesn’t that knock you out at 84?’ And I say, ‘No, man. It gives me energy to do it.’ ”
He also draws energy from his philanthropic pursuits. On May 13, he’ll be in New York to celebrate 25 years of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, a $75,000 annual prize given to five midcareer artists in music, film/video, dance, theater and the visual arts. In the 1980s, he and Hall also created the Herb Alpert Foundation, whose beneficiaries include the Harlem School of the Arts, which just announced a $9.5 million renovation. Alpert saved that school from closing in 2010.
“I believe in the arts,” says the son of Jewish immigrants who settled in Los Angeles. “I had this opportunity when I was 8 and I want to pass it on. It was a music class in my grammar school, and there was a table filled with instruments, and I just happened to pick up the trumpet. Lucky for me I did. I’m an introvert, basically, and as a kid I was even worse. I was a mute. And the trumpet started making noise and talking for me.”
That noise eventually grew into a smooth, mariachi-flavored sound that he showcased with the Tijuana Brass, inspired by brass bands that he heard at bullfights across the border. “Everything would happen off these various fanfares they would use, and I got caught up in that,” Alpert says. “I tried to express that experience.”
He channeled that spirit through multi-tracked trumpet on a melody that turned into “The Lonely Bull”—after one last adjustment when a DJ friend said the demo needed a hook. “I called an engineer friend who had a tape library, and he had a tape of 30,000 people screaming ‘Olé!’ at a bullfight,” Alpert says. “That was the hook, and that record took off like a rocket ship.”
Subsequent album The Lonely Bull became the first release for A&M Records in 1962, followed by infectious mid-60s instrumentals like “A Taste of Honey” and “Spanish Flea.” Yet when Alpert also sang the Burt Bacharach/Hal David favorite “This Guy’s in Love with You” in 1968, it became the first No. 1 hit for both him and A&M.
The label’s initials came from the surnames of Alpert and his business partner. “Jerry Moss was more of a businessman than I am,” he says. “I’m a right-brain person.” Alpert previously recorded for RCA Victor and says he didn’t like how he was treated. “I said, ‘If I ever have my own record company, I’d do it completely different. The record company would revolve around the artist.’ ”
A&M’s roster included Cat Stevens, the Police, Janet Jackson and the Carpenters, who Alpert signed in 1969. “People in my company were thinking, ‘Oh man, you made a mistake on that one.’ And when they broke with ‘Close to You,’ I became a genius.”
In concert, the pair tap covers ranging from Antonio Carlos Jobim to the Beatles, plus medleys of the Tijuana Brass and Hall’s former group Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, complemented by videos and pictures of Alpert’s artwork.
“All art is just broken down into one word: Feel,” Alpert says. “It’s not about technical ability. It’s about feeling.” ◆
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall play City Winery on May 2.
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