Herb Alpert: More Than Meets The Eye Or Ear

EVERY WEDNESDAY morning, at about ten o’clock, I make my way down the narrow lanes winding out of the Hollywood Hills, past the ivy-covered cottages which house the hippies, into Laurel Canyon, through the complexities of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, to a pretty little flower-hung studio lot on North La Brea Avenue where, until sundown, I write whatever seems appropriate to the needs of the trumpet player Herb Alpert, who is more than meets the eye, or ear.

Herb Alpert and his partner, Jerry Moss, of A&M Records bought the studios last year for a lot of money (several millions, I dare say) and not without a lot of thought. For studios like these (they are the size and shape of a small traditional British army barracks, built around a square) in the center of the movie capital of the world take as much upkeep as a medieval castle in Britain.

Charlie Chaplin, Red Skelton and Raymond (Perry Mason) Burr were former owners and all of them found the expense substantial. No wonder, then, that a man whose first hit was only four years ago should be cautious. Alpert and Moss, though their success is now as clear to their accountants as it is to Tijuana Brass fans, remain shrewdly aware of the need to maintain output, diversify artists, prune expense, and maintain the special quality which, in the first place, told the music business that Alpert and Moss and their A&M Record Company were bound to happen.

I am, as I say, on Wednesdays, paid to write for A&M Records the album notes, advertisements, program books, and all the other light, bright, many-level words which these sophisticated times demand of the successful record company. But fear not that my hands are today tied by the dollar as I write this for you, dear loyal readers of Hit Parader, for today is not Wednesday, but Sunday, and my artistic spirit is free to inspire comment as it chooses.

Yet, liberty and licence though I have, I am still bound to say that there is nothing I can find in A&M, nor in their splendid leaders, which is to their detriment, for they are indeed lovely people and they have a staff of forty who are happy and contented to the threshold, at times, of tedium. So much success and so much smiling there is at A&M that one misses, sometimes, the conflict that makes life outside so much of a battleground, so much of a challenge.

One is not, by the cruel world, prepared for A&M.

The glamour of Alpert goes deeper than the sparkle and shine of his golden trumpet. It reaches into his close personal relationship with his staff and with his band, and it is extraordinary that in his partner Moss, who is not an entertainer, there would also be such real charm and skill.

If ever two men belonged together in the business of making entertainment pay, it is they. (And it rhymes.)

What sort of man is Alpert? Shy and self-confident. Proud and humble. Fabulous and ordinary. Rich and austere. Warm and withdrawn. Worldly and simple. All of these things. He is loyal and clever and doesn’t enjoy talking about money. He is said to have grossed forty million dollars, but there is no way of checking this. It doesn’t matter anyway. He isn’t in it for the money — he is in it to achieve things.

Let him speak for himself. Here are his unedited views:

HP: How much ego do you think you have, and how do you think it is manifested?

Herb: Everybody likes to be liked, and I’m sure my ego — if that’s what an ego does — is the same as anyone else’s. What is happening to me now, since the group has become so successful, is not totally satisfying, strictly speaking, in terms of what I will call ego fulfillment.

For example, before we released our last-but-one album, SRO, we had received 1,700,000 advance sales orders — more, I’m told, than for any other album by any other artist ever. But I don’t really want to be judged that way alone. I mean, I want, or would rather, be judged after the performance, not before. So the only real kick I get now, musically, other than doing the very best I can all the time, because it’s my job and I love it, is when we cut single records.

The reason for this is because of the challenge. In the record business, the element of people which buys 45 singles is completely and totally different from that of — for example, those advance-sale album buyers. Making a single record and releasing it is a lot like being in Las Vegas. If you want to know whether it’s going to be a hit or a miss, you just have to wait till the dice stop rolling.

Another thing is that there’s no such item as an automatic-hit single disc, a 45, as we know there is with an album, because of these perfectly phenomenal advance sales on our long-play albums

The point is that your gamble, or your risk, or your challenge, is increased enormously when you decide to make a single record instead of an album, a 45 instead of a long-play, and success just doesn’t necessarily happen every time. When you do cut a single, and it is a success, then you’re assured of just exactly what the public thinks of the very latest efforts of the group.

On the other hand, though, it is a very definite blow to the ego to realize that the public doesn’t like the single, and the public doesn’t buy the single, and — worst of all — there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

HP: You are in the extraordinary and somewhat unique position now of being — and just 30 years old — someone who has enough money to do virtually anything he wants. How does it feel to wake up in the morning secure in the knowledge thatalmost any whim of yours can become a reality?

Herb: Can I really do all of that? I’d have to wait to answer that question, because to be perfectly honest this is really the first time I’ve ever thought about it exactly in that way, now that you’ve posed that question. I must say, in listening to you ask the question, though, it does seem like an ideal situation.

HP: Many American performers have said that generally, artists are treated with more respect in Europe than they are here in America. Did you find indications that that statement might be true?

Herb: You would have to ask that question of the average artist, or rather of the person who just goes over and travels with a group, for an answer. It’s difficult for me to answer honestly because wherever I go now, I’m treated in the best possible fashion. There’s a little bit of a production going on, the “star treatment,” so to speak, which perhaps the ordinary artist does not necessarily receive. But it does seem to me that the average European is much more aware of the artist.

HP: Were your audiences composed of any specific age-group?

Herb: No, all age-groups — but they are everywhere.

HP: Because audiences do react in a similar manner the world over to certain music, do you feel that this fact might bode well, eventually, in the search for understanding around the world?

Herb: I think a common love for music is definitely a step in the right direction. At least, we know that this is a specific area in which all peoples, regardless of race or politics, can agree. And I think that it is a little bit unfortunate that the heads of state of various governments and countries are not more involved with music — like President Kennedy was, for example.

HP: You once expressed a desire to become an actor. Do you still have any ambitions in that direction?

Herb: No. Five years ago I would have leaped at the chance to be in any film being made. But right now I feel that if I were to attempt to go into movies, I’d like to work at it as strongly as I do now at my music. I think that should be something that I would prefer to tackle full-time. I would not want a movie role simply because I have achieved a certain amount of popularity in another area and possibly have some box-office appeal. I would really want to go way beyond that. I’d prefer to have something to offer for a film besides the popularity of my music.

HP: You have mentioned, rather wistfully, that some day you would like to return to college. If you did, what would you study?

Herb: As you know, I did not finish college. I only went two years, but after all this time out of school, I have reached the conclusion that the degree itself is not the most important thing a person receives — or should get — from college.

The most important benefit or achievement, or whatever word we choose to call it, is a realization of one’s lack of knowledge, and a hunger to gain this knowledge. That Greek philosopher whose “I know that I know nothing” idea was the proudest achievement of his life of thought a couple of thousand years ago — his statement is something teachers read to students who probably aren’t listening. But if a student, either by paying attention to that Greek or on his own, becomes aware of his lack of knowledge and if he hungers for it — I don’t like that word too much but it’s the most expressive one I can think of — then, if that student only spends two days or two hours in college, this time was well spent.

If I were to go back to college, I think I would like to concentrate on the humanities, particularly history, religion and philosophy. That probably sounds a little far-fetched or ivory-towerish, but if I ever did return to college, it would be under the most favorable of all conditions. I would not have to worry about earning a living and I would be able to study those subjects which I most enjoyed and in which I had the most interest, and I wouldn’t have to be practical in my choice of subjects either, since I wouldn’t be job-hunting when I finished school.

I’ve learned in my years out in this big, cold world that the areas of deficiency that I have noted in people usually include a lack of faith, lack of a sense of time and scope, and lack of a fixed or determined moral code, either self-taught or learned; and on top of all of these deficiencies, a complete lack of self-discipline which might have in time corrected some of the other faults — or what I consider faults, anyway. The three areas of learning that I am most interested in — history and religion and philosophy — would help me, personally, to overcome my own deficiencies, I think, and would also help me to a better understanding and toleration of other people around me.

There were only three or four teachers while I was in school who actually taught me very much, in any sense of that word “taught.” If we could only eliminate teachers who waste students’ time and replace them with instructors who have a real flair for teaching, for inspiring in students an excitement about grasping ideas and a desire for more ideas and more knowledge.

HP: You have two children who are growing up now. What perplexes or bothers you most about the world they are going to face?

Herb: The confusion that’s going on in the minds of good people — basically good people, I think — particularly regarding political matters.

I do not have any solution for the ills of the world. As a matter of fact, I’ve never been one to get on a soapbox, and I feel that the problems are much too serious and overpowering to be dealt with by an inexperienced, untrained amateur like me.

However, I do know that education is a step in the right direction toward overcoming this confusion. I can relate this to the thing that I know best, music. Kids today understand rock ‘n’ roll music easier than jazz or classical music. Why? The answer’s simple: They are not taught to appreciate anything, and they can appreciate rock ‘n’ roll without being taught because it’s basically tribal music. That’s how that beat began, in Africa with natives pounding logs in the earth.

Perhaps the public school systems should adopt new educational devices to teach youngsters other forms of music, and literature and art and so on and on. I can speak best about what I know best, which, of course, again, is music. If information and appreciation could be imparted in schools, then jazz, for example, would not be a lost form of music. American jazz is the only form of music that we can take credit for as an innovation in this country. It’s a sad fact that out of the hundred or so fantastically talented jazz musicians in this country, there are only three or four who can earn their living playing jazz. People don’t really know how to appreciate this music as a form.

HP: Do you have any basic personal precepts, moral or otherwise, that you try to live by and which you are trying to impart to your children?

Herb: I think honesty is the basic rule of life. That rule applies in any area or in any field. There’s a popular saying — I think it came from old-time blues singers — “Say it like it is” — let’s tell the truth about what’s happening, and about life in general. Maybe that’s why a movie like A Man and A Woman appeals to so many people — even some of the critics. This film, cheaply made by Hollywood standards of money — is breaking box-office records all over this country, while major studios here in town are working on pictures costing thirteen or fourteen million dollars that will simply never be able to capture the honesty and the truth of that French film. A Man and A Woman reflects a love of life and its most basic ingredients, enjoyed honestly and truthfully, and a sense of this is probably what most audiences, whether they realize it or not, receive from a film such as this, and a few others that I’ve seen. This sense of honesty and truthfulness and faithfulness to life — probably what satisfies people most — should be achieved in any field, music or art or ditch-digging — whatever a person is doing.

HP: What is your opinion about the youngsters who are rebelling — on the Sunset Strip and at Berkeley and elsewhere?

Herb: I can appreciate what they are trying to say, but I question whether their method of saying it is proper.

HP: Do you think they have a right to protest?

Herb: Oh, definitely. I don’t question their right at all; I just question the manner in which they’re attempting to protest. I feel — and I guess most everybody would agree — that the world is a very confusing place to live in — our time is. It is especially affecting teenagers and college kids because, after all, they are the ones who are going to be running and protecting this country very shortly.

I can see how they would feel to listen to a newscast night after night and hear an announcer talk about “X” number of people dying per day — “X” number of Viet Cong killed and “X” number of our guys. It’s becoming a crazy contest of who’s killing who and what and where.

I don’t really want to get on the subject of wars, but at least in World War II there was a purpose and a goal. With what’s happening now, there seems to be no boundaries, no goals. I think people really are in the dark about why we’re doing what we’re doing in Southeast Asia. We feel that we’re right — and we’re wrong at the same time — and if intelligent adults react in this manner, then I don’t think anybody can blame those kids for being confused and angry.

HP: You are still young enough to be classed as a contemporary of these young people — at least as “in-between.” From this vantage point, have you any idea why the adults are reacting so vehemently to the manner in which these youngsters and younger adults are behaving?

Herb: Every generation rebels in one way or another, I think, and I think the problem, in essence, is still — and probably always will be — a lack of communication between the age-levels. Idon’t think there’s any solution for this silence. People just have different frames of reference. A lot of it has to do with your age and your surroundings Communication is very difficult under the best of circumstances, with another adult of similar interests and tastes, in your own home. That certainly doesn’t leave a great deal of promise for communication between along-haired, teen age rebel on the Sunset Strip or the Berkeley campus and his sober, hard working, slightly sad and conservative parents.

HP: What traits do you personally find the most attractive in human beings? What are the qualities you look for in your friends or the people around you?

Herb: I like natural people. So many people do things for special, “put-on” reasons, or to achieve specific results, and not from real, honest impulses. I tend to shy away from this artificial attitude in people. I want a plumber to be a plumber and talk however he likes to talk, not to try and be something he isn’t. This is what I look for in my friends

HP: What traits do you find most annoying in people?

Herb: The opposite of what I just said — obsequious people, people who try to get to you for reasons of their own. whatever they are. I’m in a position now where people can use my help, in one form or another, whether they’re songwriters, publishers of booking agents. I find myself being on guard just a little bit more than I used to be. It’s hard sometimes to distinguish between the real and the phony, because a lot of people are very professional con-artists. This tends to make me a little uneasy at times.

HP: Then you have found yourself, as your success mounts, becoming more suspicious of people than you were when you were just “Herb Alpert, musician”?

Herb: I don’t think I carry suspicion of people to that degree. I think life is too short as it is. I don’t have time to hate, or any of the other things that many people are hung up on.

THAT WAS Alpert the talker. Alpert the doer has, at this moment, seven million-dollar Tijuana Brass albums in the American Top 70. Five other A&M albums are in the charts.

I have nothing to add to that. But he has.

© Derek TaylorHit Parader, February 1968

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