Herb Alpert: ‘I was rich, I was famous and I was miserable’

Nobody soundtracked the swinging Sixties like Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. For 81 consecutive weeks, from October 1965 to April 1967, the Los Angeles-born trumpeter and his group always had at least one record in the US top 10, sometimes as many as four at a time. In 1966 they sold 13 million records, making them bigger than the Beatles. Their playfully kitsch album art became iconic, while their joyous instrumentals were inescapable, scoring everything from adverts for beer and motor oil to hit TV shows like The Dating Game. It was a level of success that the son of immigrants from a small town near Kyiv was wholly unprepared for. I had the American dream,” says Alpert, now 87, on the phone from his oceanfront home in Malibu. “I was rich, I was famous and I was miserable.”

Alpert first blew a trumpet at the age of eight, while a student at Melrose Elementary School. “I was fortunate there was a music class and a bunch of instruments, and I happened to pick up the trumpet,” he remembers. “It’s been awfully good to me.” He was encouraged by his father Louis, a tailor with a talent for the mandolin, and his mother Tillie, who taught violin. When their neighbours complained about their son practising, his mum told them he’d just play louder. They were determined to give him a better childhood than the life they’d left behind. “My father was born in a little shtetl outside of Kyiv,” explains Alpert. “It’s a terrible situation that’s going on there now. It’s heart-rending and confusing. Man’s inhumanity to man is just mind-boggling.”

In the late Fifties, Alpert formed a songwriting team with famed lyricist Lou Adler. They landed a job as staff writers for LA-based label Keen Records, whose star artist Sam Cooke was then topping the charts with “You Send Me”. “Sam was delightful, intelligent and very engaging,” recalls Alpert. “I learned a lot from him. He was a mentor, even though he didn’t know it.” Cooke showed Alpert how a performer could elevate even second-rate material. “One day he came up to me and said: ‘Herbie, what do you think of this lyric?’” says Alpert. “I thought it was the corniest thing I’d ever seen. I didn’t say that to him! I said: ‘Well, what’s the song like?’ He picked up his guitar and transformed this corny lyric into something magical. I thought to myself: ‘Man, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way you do it.’ I think that’s the big lesson in art.”

Continue reading at The Independent.