The House that Herb and Jerry Built: A&M Records

THE HISTORY of American pop music is filled with great partnerships. Most of them, from Rodgers & Hart to Jam & Lewis, are songwriting teams working under pressure to create hits for the stars of the day. But occasionally fate brings together two men who create and build a record company with the same love and dedication that goes into the greatest songs.

A&M Records, brainchild of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, remains one of the great labels launched in the 1960s, a decade when thousands of independents were born in America. Home to an eclectic array of artists from Alpert himself to Janet Jackson, A&M reflected the passion and savvy of the two men, its success as great a testament to their friendship as to the quality of the acts they signed over the course of 30 years.

“What we built we’re very proud of,” Jerry Moss says today. “We were able to communicate to people that the label really meant something other than just taking a stab at records.”

Like a handful of other great labels – Atlantic, Reprise, Island – A&M stood for quality and attention, for the patient building of careers through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. From their headquarters in the old Charlie Chaplin movie lot on Hollywood’s La Brea Avenue, Alpert and Moss created an environment of fun, risk-taking, and sheer respect for talent.

The label started life in mid-1962 as a tiny DIY operation in the garage of Herb Alpert’s West Hollywood home. Alpert himself already had a musical track record of some repute: he’d co-written hits for Sam Cooke (including the wonderful ‘Wonderful World’) with fellow native Angeleno Lou Adler. But the dark, handsome trumpeter had little idea of the success in store once he’d teamed up with Bronx-born promotion man Jerry Moss.

The pair’s first label, the short-lived Carnival, was launched simply to release two singles they had made independently of each other. “Jerry and I never had this master plan of starting a label,” Alpert has said. “It just happened.” September 1962 saw the release of the first A&M single, Alpert’s own ‘The Lonely Bull’. The mariachi-flavored instrumental struck gold, hitting #6 by early December of the same year.

“For the first couple of years it was really just Herb, myself and a resourceful secretary type,” Moss says. “We tried to make records that we believed would be commercial, but also records we liked.”

The success of Alpert’s group the Tijuana Brass, one of the biggest-selling acts of the ’60s, set the tone for A&M’s formative years. Expanding their roster of pop/MOR acts, Herb and Jerry signed a number of acts working in a similar vein: the Sandpipers, the Baja Marimba Band, Burt Bacharach, and the hugely successful Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66. “It’s not a protest and it’s not a putdown,” Alpert said of the A&M sound. “I think people were bugged with hearing music which had an undercurrent of unhappiness and anger, even sadism.”

Moss, on the other hand, understood that the company had to adapt to the times. With A&M’s move to 1416 North La Brea Avenue in November 1966 came a recognition that the label needed to compete in the fast-evolving world of rock. Reconnaissance trips to the UK established relationships with producer Denny Cordell and with Island founder Chris Blackwell, the resulting signings (Joe Cocker, Cat Stevens, Free, Fairport Convention and others) transforming A&M’s image. Simultaneously Moss and his right-hand man Gil Friesen hired hip new staffers – Derek Taylor, Michael Vosse, Tom Wilkes, David Anderle – to sign such American artists as Phil Ochs, Dillard & Clark and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

“A&M wanted to become hip, so they brought me in and tried to attract some major talent,” says Wilkes, who brought the Burritos to Moss. “It was all Boyce and Hart, Sergio Mendes, Herb Alpert, and now they wanted to get into the mainstream of rock.”

“The Burritos really touched me,” says Moss. “They 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 going to have a contemporary label.”

If A&M failed to break the Burritos and other country rock bands, it was hip enough to bankroll Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, achieving further rock success with Steve Marriott’s group Humble Pie, and subsequently with Supertramp, Nazareth and others. A deal to distribute Lou Adler’s Ode label brought further rewards when Carole King’s Adler-produced Tapestry became one of the bestselling albums of 1971.

Yet A&M never forsook the pop roots that had given Alpert and Moss their early success. The signing of siblings Richard and Karen Carpenter led to some of the classiest easy-listening pop of the ’70s. “There was a very specific philosophy at A&M,” says L.A. producer Bones Howe. “It was that there should always be some place else that you can get your record played. If you can’t get it on Top 40 radio, you should be able to get it on a late-night MOR station.”

By the mid-’70s A&M could boast a formidable roster that covered most bases, from pop (Paul Williams) and rock (Styx) to jazz (Chuck Mangione) and R&B (Billy Preston) and even country (the Ozark Mountain Daredevils). Peter Frampton’s double-album Frampton Comes Alive!became one of the biggest-selling releases of all time, shifting 10 million copies and helping to bankroll new signings in the process (including, for ten heady days, punk enfants terribles the Sex Pistols).

After the music-industry slump of the late ’70s, when A&M was forced to drop a number of under-performing acts, Alpert and Moss (with the help of new president Gil Friesen) were able to guide the label into a period of resurgence in the ’80s. Mega-success with the Police and Janet Jackson ran in parallel with the distribution of dynamic new indies such as IRS and Windham Hill.

In October 1989, deciding that A&M could only grow significantly with a proper injection of new cash, Alpert and Moss sold their baby to Polygram for a cool $500m dollars. Continuing to head up the label, they presided over further success – including hits by Bryan Adams and a re-energized Alpert. But eventually the new corporate mentality took its toll on both men.

“A&M had one of its greatest years in 1991,” Moss recalls. “But it didn’t work to keep me there and eventually I had to leave. I was very sad to leave but that was the way it was. We had no other choice.”

Herb and Jerry remain friends and business partners to this day, their post-A&M label Almo Records becoming home to such acclaimed artists as Garbage and Gillian Welch.

“Herbie was a complete musician and I was sort of a promotion person,” says Moss, “but we blended extremely well. I don’t remember any issue at all where we felt passionately differently about something. 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. Fortunately we were right more often than we were wrong.”

© Barney HoskynsRock and Roll Hall of Fame, March 2006

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