Jazz musician Herb Alpert

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The prolific musician, whose recordings (both with the Tijuana Brass and as a solo artist) have sold over 72 million copies, reflects on his 50+ years in the music business.

Legendary trumpeter Herb Alpert is a nine-time Grammy winner, who’s also made a name for himself as a Broadway producer, visual artist, philanthropist and industry exec—helping to make A&M Records one of the most successful independent labels in history and responsible for some of the most iconic releases of all time. He started his career as a songwriter and released his first single in 1962 on A&M, which he co-founded. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (for his work at the label), Alpert's latest release is "Steppin' Out," an exploration of American Songbook standards, and features his wife, Grammy-winning vocalist Lani Hall, on several tracks.


Tavis: Herb Alpert made music history with the release of “The Lonely Bull,” the debut album of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass that quickly dominated the airwaves back in 1962, and of course introduced Latin-infused jazz to the pop charts.

Some 72 million album sales later he’s just released his latest. It’s called “Steppin’ Out.” Let’s take a look at a video of Alpert’s rendition of the great Irving Berlin song, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

[Clip of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” by Herb Alpert]

Tavis: Your corpus is deep enough already, (laughter) and you still working. Why don’t you go sit down somewhere?

Herb Alpert: Oh, I’m having a great time. (Laughter) It gives me energy to do this.

Tavis: Yeah.

Alpert: Yeah. I’ve been playing since I was eight, and not stopping.

Tavis: Still practicing every day?

Alpert: Every day. It’s like a habit for me now. I just, if I don’t play, I kind of miss – something’s off.

Tavis: I read recently – and let me back up and say when I was saying go sit down I was just teasing you. I hope that you don’t sit down, because I love your music, obviously.

Alpert: Okay.

Tavis: So please don’t stop playing. (Laughter) That was my way of saying you have earned the right to go rest if you want to. It was said so inelegantly, but I think you take my point.

I read somewhere recently, Herb, where you said, which I just found laughable, but again, I know your humble spirit, so I know what you meant by it, that you don’t think you will ever master the horn.

Alpert: Oh, no, no, no. You never get to that. Dizzy Gillespie, I was friends with Dizzy. Dizzy once told me, he says, “The closer I get, the farther it looks.” (Laughter)

Tavis: I like that. I like that. But you have, if not mastered it, you have certainly, you’ve tamed this thing, you’ve tamed this beast.

Alpert: I don’t know if I’ve tamed it, but I’m looking for my own voice, and I was trying to find my own voice, and when I did, I feel satisfied with the way I play, but there’s lots more to accomplish.

Tavis: So what do you think is – and maybe you don’t know the answer because you haven’t found it yet – but what do you think is still out there for you to discover? How much better can you get?

Alpert: The more I get in touch with myself and the more I can relax – there is this book written by this famous flutist, and he said that there’s a formula for playing.

It’s P=p-I, and the large P is Performance, the small p is your potential, what you have. The minus is how you get in the way of yourself, and that minus is deducted from the performance.

So if you can get to the place where you just totally relax, totally experiencing your gift, then you can really create.

Tavis: Are there nights, though, on stage, Herb, after all these years, where you feel that sort of bliss, where you feel like it doesn’t get much better than the moment that I’m in right now with –

Alpert: I think that’s why I’m seduced by the arts in general. Arts is like the power of now. When you’re performing, when you’re playing, when you’re sculpting, painting, it’s that moment. I’m in the moment of my life, and that’s what I love to do.

Tavis: When did this – I love the way you phrase it, how you’ve been seduced by the arts. When did this seduction begin?

Alpert: Well I guess – I started playing when I was eight. I was lucky enough to have an elementary school that had a music appreciation class, and it had a room filled with instruments. It was a table filled with instruments.

I picked up the trumpet. I was super-shy. I was a kid that really couldn’t communicate my feelings. I made this sound out of the horn. It took me a while to make some sense out of it, but once I did, the horn was speaking for me.

I just over the years have had a tremendous run, and I feel like I need to return it. I feel like it’s important for me. I think to have a meaningful life you have to be of service to others as well.

Tavis: You’ve been doing that. You and Lani and the foundation, over $100 million given out now, you’ve been giving back.

Alpert: I think it’s an important ingredient to do. I think we all should, if we can, and one of my things that I’m trying to promote is if you can afford to do it, let’s support the arts. We’ve done very little as a country to encourage young artists.

Tavis: I should tell you congratulations. I mentioned it in the top, but congrats on your Medal of the Arts from President Obama.

Alpert: That was an amazing moment for me, was – I think President Obama really does get the value of the arts. He was so relaxed, so beautiful. We had, my wife and I, had a beautiful day and a half, and after the awards (laughter) – I don’t know if Lani would like me to tell you this.

Tavis: Go on, tell it. Go on, tell it. (Laughter)

Alpert: Okay. So we go into another room and I’m taking a picture with President Obama, and then his wife comes in and we take the three of us. Then Lani comes in, and the four of us are taking a picture. Lani looks at the president and says, “Do you think it’d be okay if we have a couple of these pictures?” (Laughter)

He got it immediately. He looked at her, he started laughing, and he says, “Why do you think we’re taking these pictures?” (Laughter)

Tavis: Love Lani. Love you, Lani. (Laughter) It’s not just – I’ll come back to the music in a second, Herb, but the things that, one of the things I love most about you and regard so much about you is that you have been an all-around – I mean, you’re a renaissance guy. I was just thinking the other day, I’m pushing close to that 50 mark.

Alpert: Whoa.

Tavis: Yeah, I know, I’m going to get there before too, too long.

Alpert: I got ties older than you. (Laughter)

Tavis: Funny. I’m going to get there at some point. At least I hope I get there. I’m pushing closer and closer. I was thinking the other day, I have been thinking about things that are – and I’m not trying to go anywhere any time soon.

But I’m thinking in this second half of my life things that I want to get done and things that I want to accomplish. So I’ve been spending a lot of time. Truth of the matter is for a Black man, life expectancy is 70 years, so I passed the halfway mark at 35.

So I’m on the – I got more years behind me than I got in front of me now. But I’ve been seriously thinking about the things that I have not done, things that I want to accomplish, and I think often of you and a few other people I so admire who have done so many different things.

You and my friend – our friend Quincy, Q, and others who’ve done so many things and done so many things well. What advice for me or others – did you plan it that way, did it kind of just happen? Did you put your hands – how did you end up having done all of these different things well?

Alpert: Well, I always said to myself I don’t want to like 10 years from the time of thinking about this, that I don’t want to say, “You know what, I should have when I had the chance.”

So I’m just doing the things that come out of me. I’m passionate about painting, I’m passionate about sculpting, and playing the horn for sure, and I’m passionate about being a service to others if I can.

I get tremendous – there’s a word in Yiddish called (speaks in Yiddish), you know what I mean? I get that thing.

Tavis: But in the process of all that, though, you also found a way to be a businessman and to not let this business break you, which is pretty significant. Even if artists find ways to get the artistic expression out, they don’t always match the business acumen at the level that you have.

Alpert: Well, I was recording for a major record company prior to A&M, and I didn’t like the way I was being treated. It was very cold surroundings, it was a very cold studio, and when they IDed my song that I was performing, they didn’t use my name. It was like 38257, take four, you know? (Laughter)

So I said well, that’s a little strange, but I’ll go along with that. So I go into the control room and listening to the playback, and I’m thinking well, it’s not bad, but it could use a little bit more bass. So I go over to the console, I put my hand on the bass and I push it up, and the engineer slapped my hand.

He says, “Don’t ever do that again. This is a union house, and don’t ever touch that board again.” And I’m saying man, if I ever have my chance to have a record company, shouldn’t it revolve around the artists? So I felt intimidated by it.

Not only that, I had the idea for the – it wasn’t the total idea for the Tijuana Brass, but I wanted to put my horn on this track and then I wanted to overdub my horn again. They said, “No, it’s against the union regulations.” Okay, great. (Laughter) I’ll learn from that experience.

Tavis: The unions are just wrecking your artistic dreams.

Alpert: No, they did me a big favor. They did me a big favor, because when we started A&M, Jerry Moss and I, and we developed our recording facilities, I made it look like a living room. I put a big crystal in studio B in the wall, and some of the artists would go in there and they’d be like in front of the Wailing Wall. They’d be davening in front of this crystal.

It was just a feeling of – if a studio doesn’t feel good the minute you walk into it, you’re not going to feel that loose.

Tavis: Aside from your work, when you look back on those A&M years, give me – and I don’t want to get you in trouble, because you guys put out so many artists, but just give me a few pieces of what you would refer to as musical genius that you guys helped bring to the fore. Like what albums, what kind of artists are you most proud of?

Alpert: I think our genius was that we were not looking for the beat of the week. We were looking for artists that had something special to say in their own special way.

Tavis: Right.

Alpert: So the Cat Stevens of the world – that would be the perfect example. So we tried to give the freedom to the artists, let them flag themselves down the runway through trial and error, by doing concerts.

It’s a great focus group when you do concerts. So we gave all this freedom. We had some fantastic groups, but I think the one that stands out at the moment because they sold so many records were The Carpenters that I signed in 1970 or 1969.

For the first year or so, they didn’t sell records. So I was getting from my own company, the people that I sign the checks to, it was like, oh, man, why’d this guy sign –

Tavis: Let me jump in right quick. So in today’s world they would have been summarily dropped –

Alpert: I think so, yeah.

Tavis: – if they didn’t make money fast. So why did you not drop The Carpenters?

Alpert: Well, because I heard something in her voice. I heard something in her voice, I heard something in Richard’s ability to put the right song together and get the most out of her. Great talent. So it was just a matter of time.

Then there’s another story, and that’s probably a longer one.

Tavis: No, tell me, I want to hear it.

Alpert: Oh, you want it? Okay.

Tavis: I got time. This is PBS, man.

Alpert: Okay.

Tavis: We got time. Go ahead.

Alpert: So this was a fortuitous thing that happened, because I was doing a television show in the ’60s, and the director, Jack Haley, Jr., he asked me to sing a song.

I said, “Well, if I find the right song, I’ll try it.” So anyway, I called – I had a friend by the name of Burt Bacharach. Remember Burt?

Tavis: Uh, yeah. (Laughter) I love that – “A friend by the name of Burt Bacharach.” Yeah. Yeah, I’ve heard of the guy once or twice, yeah, yeah.

Alpert: Yeah, so I called Burt. I said, “Lookit, man, do you have a song that you find yourself whistling in the shower or you have it tucked away in your drawer someplace that you think I could handle?”

So he sent me “This Girl’s in Love with You.” It was a song written by Burt and Hal David. There was a prior record of it by Dionne Warwick. She had recorded it.

So I loved the song, I felt I could handle it. I called Hal David, who was in New York at the time, and I asked him if he could change the gender and kind of adapt it for the television show. He agreed to do that.

I flew to New York, and he made the changes in the lyric. As I was leaving his place I said, “Hal, is there a song that,” I gave him the same questions I asked Burt, “That you find yourself whistling,” blah, blah, blah.

Two days later he sent me “Close to You.” Now, “Close to You” was the song I was going to do as the follow-up to “This Guy’s in Love with You,” which was the number one record.

I recorded it. Listening to the playback in the control room, my friend Larry Levine was the engineer, and I thought it was pretty good. He looked at me and he says, “Man, you sound terrible singing this song,” and I lost my confidence completely. (Laughter)

So I tucked it away in my drawer. Then when The Carpenters had this run of about a year without doing anything, I gave them the song “Close to You,” and they recorded it actually three times.

Because the first time – see, Karen didn’t think of herself as a singer. She thought she was a great drummer, and she was a good drummer, but it was very light. It wasn’t like The Wrecking Crew. You know the Wrecking –

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Alpert: Hal Blaine and those guys. So they recorded it. I said, “No, it’s a little light. Let’s try it again.” So like the third try they got Hal Blaine and the heavy artillery, and that song was – it opened the doors.

Tavis: It’s a blockbuster smash hit.

Alpert: Yeah, exactly.

Tavis: The lyrics on that song, though – the lyrics are beautiful.

Alpert: Well, it is beautiful.

Tavis: It’s a beautiful –

Alpert: But it’s more suited for a woman than a man.

Tavis: Every time I think of – I’ve said this on this program, I’m sure, before. I always have these lists of – as you know, I’m such a huge music lover.

But I have these lists of artists and on the list of artists with the best diction, pronunciation, enunciation, Karen Carpenter, her diction – Karen Carpenter, Nat King Cole. There’s some artists, every –

Alpert: Well, Sinatra.

Tavis: Sinatra. Every word, every syllable, every –

Alpert: Yeah. They close off the word with the T or the E. It was beautiful. But she was special. She had no idea how great she was, unfortunately. It’s sad for me to talk about her, because she was a lovely girl.

Tavis: I’m trying to think – and I don’t want to get myself in trouble. I think I’m right about this. My friend Dave Koz, was it one of your records that Dave Koz covered recently?

Alpert: Yeah. He called me –

Tavis: He sang – yeah. Tell us the – yeah, okay.

Alpert: Yeah, he called me.

Tavis: Whew, I am right, it was Dave Koz.

Alpert: Yeah (unintelligible).

Tavis: Okay, okay, got it, got it, got it. Okay.

Alpert: He did “This Guy’s in Love with You.”

Tavis: “This Guy’s in,” and he sang.

Alpert: He sang it and he wanted to do it for another, a different little angle on it, as you probably know.

Tavis: Exactly.

Alpert: Lani and I were in his music video. I played the trumpet in the middle, and it was nice. He’s a lovely guy.

Tavis: Yeah he is. I love Dave Koz. I thought that was – I said, “I think Dave covered Herb Alpert.” Exactly. Tell me about “Steppin’ Out.”

Alpert: Well, it started with this “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” but what I like to do is take songs that are familiar to people and try to put a little spin on it, so it’s heard in a way that it hasn’t been heard before.

When I was – before the Tijuana Brass, before A&M Records, I used to play parties and weddings, and I have this backlog of, man, a couple thousand songs in my head.

So every now and then I find myself whistling a song, and then I say, “Hm, why am I whistling that song? Must be for a reason. That melody sticks.” So I try to find a way to arrange it or do something that makes it an unusual listen.

Tavis: You’ve done that. How did you figure out the question that you knew I was going to ask you – how’d you figure out what was going to make the record, these 16 tracks?

Alpert: I just kept going until – I actually had more than 16.

Tavis: I figured.

Alpert: I had 20, 22.

Tavis: You whittled down from what, 22?

Alpert: Yeah, we whittled it down. But I just go with the ones – I’m like a right-brain guy, so when it feels good I stop, when it doesn’t feel good I continue, or toss it.

So that was the criteria for that. But “The Lonely Bull,” there’s a version of “The Lonely Bull.”

Tavis: All these years later, yeah.

Alpert: Well, it was A&M’s 50th anniversary, and I did a re-take of “The Lonely Bull” with orchestra, so it’s completely different than the original record that was recorded in 1962.

We gave that away as a thank you to the folks that supported A&M through the years.

Tavis: What for you at least makes a good song? I ask that because when you do something like “The Lonely Bull” so many years ago and you can come back and cover it again and make it sound different, there’s something there, obviously. What makes a good song for you?

Alpert: I think it’s all about the melody. It has to be a good melody. You can have a great lyric and a so-so melody; it’s going to be a tough sell. But if you have a great melody and a really good lyric, that’s a good one. So it’s melody for me first.

Tavis: The one thing that we seem to be lacking in our music today – melody.

Alpert: Amen. I think so, yeah. On this thing I feel like I’m on to something that’s a little bit different than what other artists are doing.

I might be off on this one, but I think I’m bridging. It’s not be-bop, it’s not progressive jazz, but there’s a looseness to what I’m doing that is not fusion music. It’s not that continual beat that kind of floats over everything.

A lot of these fusion musicians, there are so many tracks that they deal with that they clean it and clean it so much that it doesn’t have the heart, as I’d like to – when I think of a recording, I think it has to have that spontaneity, and that’s – Lani and I have this group that we’ve been playing with for the last seven years, and it’s very spontaneous.

Everything that’s happening is impromptu for the most part. We have the charts, we have the chord structure, but within that, we’re all just kind of playing whatever feels right at the moment. That’s what makes it fun for me to do night after night.

Tavis: That kind of innovation, that kind of creativity, that kind of free spirit allows for what?

Alpert: It allows for that good feeling inside. (Laughter)

Tavis: It helps.

Alpert: It’s like I used to play golf when we were traveling with the Tijuana Brass, and I remember one day I hit a three wood off the carpet or whatever it’s called in the fairway. It was perfect, man.

It went like 200 yards straight; it went exactly where it was supposed to go. That was the last time I ever did that. (Laughter) But that was a good feeling. When you’re blowing the horn, sometimes it’s just – everything works, and it’s a tremendous feeling.

Especially I think jazz is a phenomenal creative force, because it’s one man, one vote as you’re playing, but it’s a collective thing, what you’re doing. You’re listening to all the musicians around you and you’re working within that structure.

I think we need more of that as human beings. We need to be able to appreciate each other’s differences and I think jazz really takes us in that direction.

Tavis: Lani’s still sounding good.

Alpert: Lani’s a world-class singer. We’ve had people coming backstage sobbing when she’s – she’s the most honest singer I know, outside of maybe Billie Holiday.

Tavis: That’s high cotton, as they say.

Alpert: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: High cotton. How cool is it, though, after all these years of you and Lani being together that you guys still get a chance to work together, to play together – literally play together – travel together, just –

Alpert: Oh, yeah, we play, we do that, and in December we’re celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary.

Tavis: Is it 40 years already?

Alpert: Yeah. I met Lani in 1966 when she was the lead singer with Brazil 66. She called me Mr. Alpert for a couple of years, and of course she still does. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s such a great story, though. You guys are so cool together. I was saying when you walked in that the Vibrato, the jazz club, I love it.

Alpert: Yeah, we have a jazz club. Yeah, it’s been going for the last 10 years. What I wanted to do was have a space in L.A. where all the great musicians can play, feel good, feel comfortable.

We created the studio with Vincent Van Hough, who was our acoustician at A&M Records at the A&M studios. He was with me every step of the way as we were developing the insides of it, so the sound is beautiful.

Tavis: It’s amazing.

Alpert: Yeah, all through the venue, if you go upstairs, downstairs, left, right, it’s just, it stays. I think it’s a great place for great musicians to do their thing.

Tavis: It’s a great location. I felt stupid that it took me as long as it did to discover it, but when I did, I was there for – the Bergmans invited me, Alan Bergman, great songwriter, of course –

Alpert: Yeah. I saw something really spectacular happen one night. Dave Brubeck played there, and he was, at the time, he was about 80 years old. He walked onto the stage like, “Oh man,” I thought I was going to have to catch him.

He was just kind of like getting there slowly but surely. Sat down at the piano, and played like a kid. He was, like, into it, bam, bam, his thing. Then he finished and got up, and –

Tavis: Went back to –

Alpert: Yeah, creeped back to the green room. But it was enlightening for me. Just the power of music, the power of art, that just made him feel like a kid again, and it was beautiful to watch.

Tavis: To see, for me, the very – I’ve been there many times since then, but the very first time I went to see Alan Bergman sing his own stuff was a rare thing, and we had –

Alpert: Yeah.

Tavis: It was a beautiful – and the food ain’t bad either.

Alpert: Food is darn good.

Tavis: The food was delicious. I loved it.

Alpert: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: So if you get a chance, go to Vibrato. Check it out. It’s a wonderful spot. In the meantime, whether you are in L.A. or not, you can pick this up. It’s Herb Alpert’s latest. It’s called “Steppin’ Out,” featuring the delightful Lani Hall. You’ll want to add it to your collection.

Herb, after all these years you’re still doing it and you’re still sounding good, man.

Alpert: Thank you so much.

Tavis: And looking handsome, too.

Alpert: (Laughter) Thanks.

Tavis: It’s good to have you on. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: October 24, 2013 at 2:59 pm