The great contradiction of A&M Records, the independent record label that turned Peter Frampton, the Police, Janet Jackson and Soundgarden into superstars, was that the man in charge was an easy-listening icon who tooted a trumpet on songs like "Spanish Flea" and "The Lonely Bull." And Herb Alpert, who founded the company in 1962 with his partner Jerry Moss, acknowledges he didn't always get all the music that made him so much cash.
"I was kind of — not stuffy, but I have this classical background, and I love jazz," says Alpert, 78, whose smash Tijuana Brass hits throughout the '60s were antidotes to harder, more youth-oriented hits by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Motown. "And rock 'n' roll, to me, was kind of a foreign thing. It was a little loud and (had) too many guitars."
It took rock singer Joe Cocker, whose anarchic band Mad Dogs and Englishmen signed to A&M in the late '60s, to turn Alpert around. The trumpeter had learned a trick from his mentor, soul singer Sam Cooke, that involved sitting on a stage and listening to music with his eyes closed.
"All of a sudden, man, did I get it," Alpert recalls, by phone from his Los Angeles home. "I opened my eyes, and Cocker was gyrating and doing the action with his hands, and it was so moving. From that period, I loosened up."
A&M, which stands for Alpert and Moss, would have grown into one of the world's most famous independent record labels with or without Alpert's newfound looseness. When the partners created A&M in Alpert's West Hollywood garage in 1962 to sell Tijuana Brass albums, they divided the labor along strict lines: Alpert made the music, and Moss sold it.
But Alpert was also a key business adviser — he personally signed the Carpenters in 1969 — and nonmusician Moss provided crucial feedback to the Tijuana Brass. When Alpert's band was recording "The Lonely Bull," Moss told him: "It needs something high up there. I'm not sure what it is, like a voice." So the Brass added a soprano's "ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-AH!" between trumpet and flamenco guitar, completing the song's melodic identity. Says Alpert, "He couldn't describe what he was after, but his instincts were right."
The ampersand in A&M was Gil Friesen, who'd met Moss while on the road, pushing their competing singles to radio stations. He would become the company's general manager for decades, steering its day-to-day business until Alpert and Moss finally sold the company to a major label, PolyGram, for a reported $500 million in 1989. Friesen died in December at age 75.
"The irony was, he was never sick a day in his life," Alpert says. "Even at his age — 74, 75 — he looked like he could walk through a brick wall."
Born in LA, Alpert served in the Army, then returned home to try to make it as an actor. Leonard Nimoy, soon to be on "Star Trek," was his early mentor. But he realized the trumpet, which he'd picked up at age 8, was his primary talent. He started recording for labels and writing songs with Lou Adler, who would become famous as the producer for such pop stars as the Mamas and the Papas and Carole King. Together they wrote "Wonderful World" and "Only Sixteen" for the great soul singer Cooke.
It was Cooke who gave Alpert the melodic advice he needed.
"Sam used to come in with his loose-leaf notebook, and he'd say, 'Herbie, what do you think of these lyrics?' I'd think to myself, 'Man, this is really corny. I don't know what he's trying to communicate here,'" Alpert recalls. "I'd say, 'What's the melody like?' He'd pick up his guitar, and this thing that had this so-so lyric attached to it became magical."
By the late '60s, Alpert's Tijuana Brass run was over. In part, he was frustrated with the very growth of the record business he helped create: A St. Louis distributor called and said he hadn't heard the new album but was "selling a lot of tonnage." But also, Alpert and his wife, Sharon, were on the way to divorce.
"The horn, who was my best friend up until then, was turning against me, and I was not able to play it," he says. "Obviously, I could get notes out of it, but it was not giving me the experience I was used to."
At this point, Alpert took up abstract expressionist painting, a hobby that turned into a public endeavor, beginning with his first exhibition at a prestigious LA gallery in 1989. He also began a romance with Chicago-born Lani Hall, then lead singer of A&M stars Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, whom Alpert produced. They've been married for almost 40 years, and they collaborate in concerts and on albums, most recently 2011's "I Feel You," which includes jazz, samba and light pop as well as Beatles and Van Morrison covers. There's no great science to their song selection.
"I just find myself whistling 'Moondance,' and all of a sudden I'm playing it on the horn, and Lani has an idea about how to approach it," Alpert says. "I'm a melody person. I think about the melody."
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave.
Tickets: $45; 773-929-1322 or jamusa.com/Venues/ParkWest/Concerts.aspx