The Backpages Interview: Jerry Moss and A&M Records

RBP: Is it true you and Herb Alpert first met in New York? Was he still working with Lou Adler at the time?

JM: He wasn’t working with Lou when I met him. They had stopped producing together because Herb was pursuing a career as an actor at the time. Herb and I have continually gone over this, and we haven’t reached a conclusion as to whether we met in New York or we met in LA. I seem to remember meeting him in LA.

What took you to California in the first place, and when did you make the move?

Oh, it was just a dream. I had a wonderful aunt living in LA, and I always believed that somehow I would end up in California. I moved there in early 1960.

When and where did you form publishing company Irving Music?

I founded it in California. I began to work out here as sort of an independent promotion man, and I got to understand the publishing business having been exposed to it in New York because I worked for a year and a half in the Brill Building. My bosses there were great people: Marvin Cane and George Paxton. They also had a record label but they were mainly music publishers. So I sort of understood that, and sometimes as an independent promotion man I took copyrights of B-sides in lieu of promotion fees, and I started a publishing company to accommodate that.

Your first label was Carnival, and you had a minor hit on it by Charlie Robinson. Herb has said that “Jerry and I never had this master plan of starting a label, it just happened.” Is that how you remember it?

Absolutely. We both were in the process of producing records, and both of the records we’d produced had no affiliation, other than with us. One was with Herb as a vocalist, a record that he’d produced, and I’d made a record with a friend of mine who was on a TV show and I used Herbie as a trumpet player for the middle part. Both records cost about the same to make, so we looked around and said, “What if I just sorta promote them and see where we go?” We each just literally put $100 into a checking account to cover initial costs, and then I went around the radio stations with first his record and then eventually the record I’d made.

After Herb’s ‘The Lonely Bull’ was A&M’s first big hit in August 1962, is it true you demanded distributors pay up before they got the album?

Well, if money was due I would ask for it. I’d try to be rational about it. I knew a lot of the people because of my experience from New York, so I asked for what I believed we deserved and most of the distributors came through.

Let me ask you a bigger question, which is: How come A&M survived when a thousand other American independent labels of the ’60s didn’t?

Well, we really put in the time, and we put in the time to experiment. For the first couple of years it was really just Herb, myself and a resourceful secretary type. We were making records and then developing albums as we saw fit. We tried to make records that we believed would be commercial, but also records we liked. And we sort of came up with the fact that this Tijuana Brass thing really had a shot, because there was continuing interest well beyond the first single and album. And also what took place was the fact that we didn’t waste a lot of money. Herb and I never took a lot of money out of the company. For a couple of years we were drawing $125 a week. We left the assets in the company because that was our life. So when it did hit, say by the end of 1964 when we put out South of the Border, we believed we had an album that would sell at least 100,000, and that’s when we started to think we had a real chance of building something successful.

Did you consciously set yourselves apart by concentrating on pop/MOR acts in the ’60s, and was that partly because of the mega-success with Tijuana Brass?

I would say that the first big artist we were able to attract to our label were Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, and that was a huge signing. There frankly was no doubt in my mind they were going to be enormous, because they were an incredibly classy fantastic band. The fact that they ended up going on the road with Herbie enhanced what that signing meant. The next big artist we were able to attract was Burt Bacharach, who was an old friend of mine and who was able to cut loose from the label he was on because of a key-man clause. Burt was a friend of mine from the Brill Building, and the fact that he was able to join us was huge for us at that time. So we chased people that we really felt in our hearts were artists of quality, and we were very flattered when they came with us.

Had there been any other label where the boss was the main artist on the roster? I suppose you could cite the example of Sinatra and Reprise, but that was a little different.

Not really. The greatest thing about Herbie and I was that he was a complete musician and I was sort of a promotion person, but we blended extremely well. And through him I learned how to talk to musicians in the studio. He gave me the confidence that I could really talk to anybody I felt like.

How musical were you and how much of a businessman was Herb?

Well, you know, we were a little bit of each. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t make any major deal in the company without consulting with Herb and letting him know passionately I felt about an artist. The whole basis for our label, and what was exciting about what we did, was that if one of us really wanted to do something we just did it. Unless one of us felt very strongly the other way… and I don’t remember any issue at all where we felt passionately differently about something. Fortunately we were right more often than we were wrong.

Is the story of A&M as much a story about the compatibility between two men as about anything else?

I would think so. We’re still partners, and we still believe in each other. What we built we’re essentially very proud of, and I think this pride spread through the ranks, so to speak. We were able to communicate to people that the label really meant something, other than just taking a stab at records. And I think we kind of established a culture that kind of ran on its own for a while.

Did it feel like taking a gamble when you signed the Flying Burrito Brothers?

Well, no, they really touched me. I thought they were brilliant. The sadness is that they couldn’t tour together because…

Because they were out of it?!

Well, yeah. But they were unavailable. That first album is incredible.

Were they the label’s first hip rock act?

Well, in 1967 we started getting our first product from Denny Cordell from my trips to England and from relationship with Chris Blackwell. So we started to get some great British records to work with. But meanwhile the Flying Burritos set a course for us in America, that we were open and available and competitive in this area. This was where we felt we needed to be if we were gonna have a contemporary label.

How did you hook up with Denny Cordell?

Denny had an association with David Platz, who was associated at that time with Howie Richmond in America. And the man that worked was my mentor Marvin Cane, the man that literally brought me into the music business. Marvin suggested I check out Procol Harum in England, and we all hit it off. Denny was one of the greatest people I ever met in the music business, and we made some amazing records together.

You had the Carpenters on the one hand and Humble Pie on the other. It was as if A&M had a kind of dual identity.

Exactly. We had a large number of genres that we dealt with, but they all started out in left field. They all were not hit acts when we signed them.

You brought in interesting, maverick people like Derek Taylor, Michael Vosse, Tom Wilkes, David Anderle. Presumably these guys helped to shape the aesthetic of the label.

Gil Friesen was the first one, and he helped to attract people in the art and visual area. He brought Tom Wilkes in, and then Tom helped us get the Burritos. You got people through other musicians. If Humble Pie was on the road, I’d asked them who they played with that they liked.

Tell me about moving into the old Charlie Chaplin lot on North La Brea Avenue on November 6, 1966.

We needed to have a new space, because the office that Herbie had taken in 1962 we were adding a room at a time to as we added staff, and finally we just ran out of room. We thought about building something with all the Tijuana Brass money, and then a real estate guy we knew came in and said he’d heard CBS was selling the lot on La Brea. We went over and Herbie and I looked at it, and we ended up buying the lot for a million bucks. We moved in with I think about 28 people and started wondering what we going to do with these sound stages.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen, of which you were the executive producer, has just come out on DVD in the UK. How do you remember that tour?

It was incredibly exciting, and the music was amazing. Of course Denny was involved. When this band started to rehearse on our sound stage, all of a sudden nobody was working. It was something that was just magical. Needless to say I felt it was so special that we needed to film it. There were a lot of things that went on during that tour that we decided not to include in the film, so it became basically a music film with some characters. We ended up with something that was, I think, quite interesting and yet rather wistful, because that tour took a lot out of Joe Cocker.

How much of a challenge was it to maintain the identity of the label in the ’70s when there was so much diversification on the roster – the Tubes at one extreme, the Brothers Johnson at the other?

And Chuck Mangione and Gato Barbieri…

And Styx and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils…

Absolutely, and we loved them all. There was not a band that I was involved with that I didn’t love. When I saw Mangione perform in a New York club, nobody was coming to see this guy and I really felt he had something.

From a UK perspective, what was it like having the Sex Pistols for ten days?

You know, I mean, that was very disappointing. But you’d have to talk to Derek Green about that. We thought they had incredible music; I didn’t know them as people, though I knew Malcolm and we negotiated with Malcolm and the lawyer in Los Angeles. We all agreed on the deal, and I guess things didn’t work out as some people had hoped, because we actually pressed some records.

Was Gil Friesen right when he said that it was “perfect timing” when you inked your distribution deal with RCA in 1979?

Yes, because the independent distributor was starting to get hurt by these major merchandisers that were buying for the country out of one location. A few independent distributors were going out of business owing quite us a lot of money, so we looked around and tried to find a major company that would literally take us out of the distribution business. In one year we lost maybe eighteen, twenty million bucks and that really threw us off. To give validity to the line and let RCA know they could distribute with some sort of impunity, we had to do this.

How important was Gil in the ’80s, when A&M had the Police, Janet Jackson and many other huge artists?

Gil became president in the mid- to late ’70s. Before that he was head of administration and in charge of the look of the company and I was sort of in charge of music and A&R and Chuck Kaye was head of publishing and so on. Then we just decided, let me be the chairman and do what I need to do, and we’ll let Gil be more responsible for the running of the company. He had to make some pretty hard decisions but he did a great job. We made bounty from our deal with RCA because after we started getting rolling again we picked up some labels to be distributed, like Windham Hill and IRS. We were very lucky, because we were gifted with having great people – people like Gil and like Derek Green, who signed the Police in the UK.

After you sold to PolyGram in 1989, and finally left in 1993, was there sadness at how A&M inevitably got absorbed into the conglomerate until it barely existed anymore?

In all fairness, we sold A&M because we wanted to make it bigger and stronger, and we realized we’d need some super funding to be able to do that. I had a great relationship with David Fine and he was there for the first year of our association, when everything was fantastic. And then in 1991 I was informed that because David had reached the age of 61 he had been retired. So then along came Alain Levy, and it’s well-known that we didn’t along very well. Even though in 1991 A&M had one of its greatest years – I think we had four No. 1 albums – it didn’t work to keep me there and eventually I had to leave. I was very sad to leave and I didn’t want to leave, but that was the way it was. We had no other choice.

© Barney Hoskyns, December 2005

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