March 31, 1935, is the birthdate of the musician, record executive and philanthropist Herb Alpert, who started in the 1960s from a garage recording studio and would break one sales record after another with the recordings of his Tijuana Brass – an “ensemble” that initially consisted of Alpert playing multiple instruments, together with a drummer. And in the half-century since, he has remained active in both creative endeavors and business.
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Herbert Alpert was born in Los Angeles, and grew up in the Boyle Heights section of the city. His father, Louis Alpert, was born in the Russian empire and emigrated in 1910 to the United States, where he manufactured women’s wear. Tillie Goldberg, Herb’s mother, was born in New York to Jewish immigrants from Romania. She worked as a bookkeeper. Herb was the third of their three children.
Herb began playing the trumpet at age 8, and within a few years was studying under the lead trumpeter of the San Francisco Symphony. While a student at Fairfax High School, he organized a small ensemble, the Colonial Trio, which played at weddings and bar mitzvahs, and also appeared eight weeks running on a local TV talent competition.
Alpert began music studies at the University of Southern California, but dropped out after a year, in 1955, to enlist in the U.S. Army. He spent his service playing in the 6th Army Band, stationed at Fort Ord, California.
Following his discharge, Alpert did some acting (one of his bit film appearances was an uncredited role as a drum-playing Hebrew slave in the 1956 movie spectacular “The 10 Commandments”) and played in pickup bands, but didn’t begin to make a mark until he joined forces, in 1957, with Lou Adler writing songs for Keen Records. In 1959, the pair co-wrote — together with Sam Cooke, who also performed it — the now-iconic song “Wonderful World.” (Adler went on to have his own successful career as music producer and entrepreneur.)
In 1961, Alpert and a friend, Jerry Moss, each chipped in $100 and started what became A&M Records. One of their first recordings, made in Alpert’s garage, was of a song, “Twinkle Star,” written by another friend, Sol Lake. After attending a bullfight across the border, in Tijuana, Mexico, Alpert began thinking about recreating the feeling evoked by the mariachi band he’d heard at the bullring. He overdubbed “Twinkle Star” with a second trumpet and piano – both played by himself – as well as drums, and added the sounds of a crowd of 30,000 crying “Ole!”
“The Lonely Bull,” as the song was renamed, became one of A&M’s first releases. It sold 700,000 copies, and also served as the title song of the first album by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which until its fourth album, was little more than Alpert playing a bunch of instruments.
In 1966, the Brass sold 13 million recordings — more than the Beatles that year — and at one time had five separate albums in the top 20.
The mammoth revenues Alpert’s records were bringing into his company allowed them to record additional acts, and in the coming years A&M released albums by Joe Cocker, Cat Stevens, Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 and – the biggest sellers of all – the brother-and-sister act of Richard and Karen Carpenter, whom Alpert had signed over the objections of his talent director. Their song “Close to You” ended up being A&M’s biggest single of all time. (Go figure.)
Ultimately, an independent label like A&M could not compete with the conglomerate-owned record companies. Alpert and Moss sold their firm to PolyGram in 1987 – for an estimated $500 million.
Alpert continues to record and to perform – now more often than not with his wife, Lani Hall, formerly the lead singer with Sergio Mendes. He also has an independent career as a painter and sculptor, and through the Herb Alpert Foundation and the Alpert Awards for the Arts, has given away hundreds of millions of dollars for music education – at UCLA, the California Institute of the Arts, the Harlem School for the Arts, and even at the Louis and Tillie Alpert Youth Music Center, in the Hinnom Valley, in Jerusalem.
Happy 80th birthday, Herb Alpert!