Herb Alpert: The Mariachi Sound

THE CALL from London to A&M Records, on Sunset Boulevard, went through surprisingly quickly. Chap who first answered the phone there was the “M” part of the company, one Jerry Moss. He yelled out for the “A” part, who happens to be Herb Alpert, guv’nor figure of the Tijuana Brass, that instrumental group who roared up the British charts with ‘Spanish Flea’.

“Ready to be confused?” queried the amiable Herb. “Well, for a start I’m not a Mexican, we don’t use all brass in the group and there are only seven of us. That’s me on trumpet, one more trumpeter, a couple of guitars, piano, drums and trombone — and let me not hear anyone saying we must do a lot of double-tracking because it just isn’t true.

“What’s more we haven’t stuck to the same line-up in the nearly-four-years we’ve been going. Why ‘Lonely Bull’, which was really our first big hit, had trumpet, piano, bass, drums, mandolin and three voices. If you don’t charge your style then, brother, you’re dead…

“I’d like to clear up exactly where our music comes from. It IS based on the Mariachi sound, which comes from Mexico. As a matter of pure fact, Jerry Moss and I heard it when we were watching a bullfight in Mexico. I didn’t think it was all that commercial for pop music, but we figured you could add simple jazz figures to it and we worked to that end. You couldn’t get too wild on the jazz content, we knew, but it would add a definable sort of swing. Me, I’d been hooked on trumpet stars like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis for years.

“I guess you know that we first experimented with this Tijuana sound in the garage at my home. Well, that’s perfectly true. That was in my own home, Los Angeles, California. We hired some session musicians and sweated it out through several sticky hot summer evenings. When the records started doing well locally, the promoters said: ‘Come on, boy, let’s book your Tijuana Brass’, and there wasn’t such an outfit so we had to form one double quick.”

That was only in January, 1964. Herb picked his men for their stage personalities as well as their musical prowess. Now they are to visit Britain in mid-March for a few days promotional touring. They also expect to do a couple of TV spectaculars which should give British groups a few ideas on how to enlarge their sounds.

And he offered this bit of advice. “If you wanna make your way over a long period, you must make changes. Take jazz. Now I’m hooked on jazz, but it’s been dying on its feet for a long time now. Pop music has much more variety, ranging from the Beatles way on down to those guys who get just one hit record and then fade away back to truck-driving. Even the one-hit boys add something to the scene, though. The Beatles will go on just as long as they want because they are inventive and they create their own words and music and they really work hard at ringing the changes, even if it’s just a small change here and there.

“Those guys who set out to copy the Beatles… boy, they make me feel right sick inside! We’re getting just that now; groups cropping up all over the place using our line-up, our ideas, often our arrangements. They don’t have an original idea in their empty heads, so I’m not being too outspoken when I say I hope they don’t make a jumpin’ bean out of our kind of music.

“I get letters from British fans asking if this brassy trumpet sound is going to be the next thing. Could be — but where are your young trumpet players? Look, I studied trumpet since I was eight years of age, which is… well, it’s twenty years ago. Right, I’ve worked at it ever since. Now trumpet is one instrument you just can’t pick up overnight. You have to have the lip for it and if you don’t practice all the time your lip gives up on you. It’s a matter of breath-control and fingering and that lip. Playing guitar is just one thing: co-ordination of two hands. You don’t have to worry about your lungs.

“If there are young brass players coming along in Britain — that’s fine. Brass added to the guitar and drums line-up is good, musically. But it must be good. I’ve got a crazy bunch of musicians who make life like one long ball, but they’ve all got long experience as full-time musicians. Four of them are Italian, by the way, and one originally came from Hungary. So there’s nothing at all Mexican about us…”

I mentioned to Herb that I’d been associated with a radio programme in Britain that featured his version of ‘Up Cherry Street’ as the signature tune — it was a much-requested item on Newly Pressed. He said he’d heard about that: “Got quite a few letters forwarded to me from Britain after listeners had written to the recording company there. But for a long time I felt that we’d never go in Britain. I figured it was a long, slow process anyway and it was a bit heartbreaking because at one stage we had two million-selling albums high in America and two singles featured, including a number one in ‘Taste of Honey’.”

Married (wife Sharon and daughter Dore), Herb puts on an hilarious routine with people who won’t believe that he is actually not Mexican but an all-American boy. He also speaks in hushed tones about the offers coming his way to take speaking parts in movies. “ME, an ACTOR”, he says with disbelief.

“Got it?” said he. “We play mariachi, or Americachi, whichever you like! And we’re looking forward to meeting some of your artists and fans when we hit Britain”.

And he was gone. The thriving company of A (for Alpert) & M Records was on to some other Very Important Business.

© Peter JonesBeat Instrumental, March 1966

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