Herb Alpert Talks Passing on the Kingsmen, Loving the Beatles, and Recording His New LP

Herb Alpert, the legendary recording artist, and A&M Records co-founder, remembers passing on the Kingsmen’s recording of “Louie Louie” in the early 1960s. At the time, the record just didn’t speak to Alpert, he says. So, he trusted his instinct and passed on the opportunity to distribute the recording. Even though at that moment, it may have steered him wrong, commercially speaking, Alpert doesn’t regret the decision, artistically. It’s of no real matter to the Kingsmen, of course, who went on to make history with their recording. Yet, the story is indicative of how Alpert approaches just about everything in his life: he uses his mind, intuition, understanding, and makes the best decision he can. It’s what led him to found A&M with partner Jerry Moss, and it’s what led him to record his famous 1965 LP, Whipped Cream & Other Delights, and what’s led him to release his newest album, Catch The Wind, out Friday (September 17).

“I listened to the record and I hated it,” Alpert tells American Songwriter. “It was too long, it was out of tune.” He adds, “I passed on it and I didn’t like it, that’s how it goes. I don’t have any magical touch for what other people are going to like.”

What Alpert does know acutely is whether a song or piece of art touches him, moves his spirit. It’s what he listened to when he signed The Carpenters when no one else was interested and what he used when he helped put the great Sergio Mendes on the map. When he goes into a session—and this has been true from the early ‘60s until today—Alpert doesn’t go in with a set plan. Instead, he goes in with an intended feeling.

“The basic idea of what I like to accomplish,” he says. “But I don’t know how to get there until I’m fooling around and experimenting. Being free and not judging what I do. I do it and if it touches me, I stop. If it doesn’t, I keep pursuing.”

In a way, Alpert is a mystic. He has the rare ability, which is getting rarer and rarer, to not immediately self-edit when he’s creating something. As the notes come out, as the work appears before him, he doesn’t trash it immediately. He doesn’t let some idea of the perfect interfere with making something from scratch, not as a solo artist or playing with his now infamous group, the Tijuana Brass. For his newest album, Alpert wrote and performed original and cover songs that appealed to him. That was the general and only rule.

“Strangely enough,” he says, “I don’t plan in advance the types of songs I want to do. I just try to go with songs that come into my head for some reason. I don’t think about if they’re all compatible. I don’t even worry about that. I’ll tell you the truth: I’m making music for myself. I just try to make music that makes me feel good.”

More and more, as computers and social media attempt to dictate thought patterns, it’s refreshing to hear someone talk about instinct and intuition and trying to please one’s own sensibilities through creativity. For Alpert, if he likes it, there must be others who will too. Instead of trying to manufacture for an outside audience, he manufactures for his internal one.

“A lot of times with the Tijuana Brass,” he says, “I’d go into the studio with an idea and I knew that I was surrounded by some great musicians. So, on the spot, I would create the feeling that I was looking for through them. I would lead them in a direction.”

Even if a certain accompanist said he couldn’t think of something, Alpert said no problem. He kept the expectations low so as to keep the output quality high. A little reverse psychology, Jedi mind trick. “If you give them that type of freedom,” he says. “You know something good is going to happen.”

Highlights on Alpert’s new LP include a version of “Summertime” with a rich chorus backing and renditions of the melancholy-beautiful Beatles songs, “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Alpert, in fact, has an interesting history with the Mop Toppers. In 1966, Alpert sold over 13 million records, which outdid the Beatles. Few mortals can say they ever outsold the Fearsome Foursome. Alpert can.

“No, I don’t think of it as a competition,” Alpert says, graciously. “They just wrote beautiful songs and McCartney wrote beautiful melodies. The version I did of ‘Yesterday’ I played on flugelhorn instead of the trumpet. It’s one of those songs that conjures up a lot of images when you hear it; it has a haunting melody.”

Alpert, who is a prolific sculptor and painter who has works hanging in museums all over the country, works just about every day on a new project. The 86-year-old artist likes the practice, enjoys the improvisational work.

“It’s a strange feeling to be able to do it,” he says of his sculpting. “I have nine pieces at the Field Museum in Chicago and the last time I was there, I was just walking up to these pieces in the garden there. I was looking at them, thinking, I don’t know how I did all that stuff. It’s a mystery. It almost feels like they belong to somebody else. Though I was there the moment they were created.”

For Alpert, living in art is, in many ways, like walking out onto an invisible bridge. He almost receives the directions, the trust, and confidence. As Don Draper of Madmen once put it, it’s about living in the unknown.

“I think basically that’s jazz,” Alpert says. “That’s what jazz is all about. It’s about experiencing the moment and if you can hear those great jazz musicians — Miles, Herbie Hancock, Coltrane—you could feel they’re not repeating what they did because it sounded good. Of the moment is the thing that makes jazz, it makes art. I think all the great artists have that.”

Admittedly, it’s rare to find an artist who can improvise on the spot and be recognizable at the same time. Alpert is one of those rare beasts. To explain how this is the case, he tells the story of a friend who was known for troubleshooting musicians experiencing blockages in their playing. In the late ‘60s, Alpert, who was going through a divorce, couldn’t play his horn, he kept “stuttering.” So he asked the friend for help. After some prodding, the pal said, “Let me tell you kid, the horn you have is just a piece of plumbing. You’re the instrument.” To which Alpert adds, “To find your own voice, period. That is the goal.”

For the prolific, accomplished artist, in the end, what his life in music is all about is not what’s available, on the table, out in the open. Rather, it’s about the mystery, the search, the journey and discovery.

“You can’t identify art,” Alpert says. “That’s the beauty of it.”

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