Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass-Part One


As a jazz trumpet player, my No.1 idol has always been Louis Armstrong. Along the way I also was influenced by Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Dick Cathcart and many more fine trumpeters. As a young trumpet student, I was attracted to the sounds of Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, one of the most popular instrumental groups of all time. Not only did I enjoy Herb's playful, punchy trumpet style, but I loved his clever arrangements and still do. Here's an affectionate tribute to a wonderful musician.

Herb was born in Los Angeles on March 31, 1935. His dad was a Russian Jew and mom, a native Californian. He attended Fairfax High in L.A. and went to the University of Southern California. He played trumpet through high school and in the U.S.C. Trojan Band. After service in the army, Herb became a free-lance musician and dabbled in songwriting and producing records. He and Lou Adler wrote songs together and worked for the Keen record label. One of their early hits was Sam Cooke's Wonderful World. Herb also produced and wrote for Jan and Dean. He made some solo vocals as Dore Alpert and some singles as The Herbie Alpert Sextet or Quartet. As a trumpeter Herb was influenced by Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Clifford Brown. One can hear some of their qualities in his playing.

The Tijuana Brass came about almost by accident. Herb attended a bullfight in Tijuana in the early 60s. The experience moved him to combine the sounds of the bullring with his haunting trumpet sound. He took a song called Twinkle Star written by a composer friend, Sol Lake ,and used it as the model for his new sound. He added some authentic bullring sounds courtesy of engineer friend, Ted Keeps. Herb called the new tune The Lonely Bull. For the flip side Herb used a jaunty original called Acapulco 1922. A good friend of Herb's, songwriter/producer Jerry Moss went in on the project and they called their label A&M Records (for Alpert and Moss). The record quickly rose to No. 6 after 2 months. Within six weeks it had sold a million copies!

Herb went back to the studio to add ten tunes and make an album. He combined some originals along with some current pops like Let it Be Me, Desafinado, Never on Sunday and Limbo Rock. The result was a fresh, breezy type of easy listening with the mixture of mariachi and Herb's jazzy, punchy trumpet. The Tijuana Brass at this time was just a studio band. Two musicians on the session would continue to work for Herb for many years. They were Bob Edmondson (trombone) and Julius Wechter (marimba). The LP was released in December of 1962, completing a very successful musical year for Herb.

The follow-up album to Lonely Bull was Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass Vol.2. (1963). Herb himself wasn't too fond of this album, but it has many fine moments. Spanish Harlem gets a lovely TJB treatment. Green Leaves of Summer is perfectly suited to Herb's haunting sound with a touch of mariachi thrown in. The Great Manolete is a legitimate bullfight song and is treated respectfully. Sol Lake's Winds of Barcelona is a lovely piece and would be re-made on the next album as El Presidente.

As talented a trumpeter as Herb was, his real forte was in arranging. He arranged most of the TJB albums. Herb had the ability to give the tijuana sound to standard tunes, sometimes using different tempos and combining dixieland, swing riffs and shuffle rhythms. The originals he and other band members came up with were always very musical, full of charm, humor and, at times, poignancy. Herb never was a mariachi fan. He liked the style but was always trying to give his own take on tunes. When the TJB sound took off, he was obliged to arrange within that format. As time went on, the sound became more latin-tinged than mariachi.

The next album was South of the Border (February 1964). This was a mixture of the mariachi style (including the title standard) and Herb's jazz/pop take on standards. Sol Lake's catchy Mexican Shuffle became popular when used on a Teaberry Gum commercial (as the Teabury Shuffle). Other standout tracks were Girl from Ipanema with a mix of mariachi and Herb's Chet Baker-ish horn. A cute Hello Dolly had a pseudo-Mexican vocal by Herb and the band. Also Julius Wechter's bouncy Up Cherry Street, a lovely latin ballad take on Accustomed to Her Face and a shuffling, jazzy All my Loving. (Herb did many Beatles covers with the Brass).

The LP quickly made the Top 10 and by early 1965 was No. 6. The brass were on their way to big things and the next album cinched it. Whipped Cream and Other Delights (April 1965) with the hit songs Taste of Honey, the title track, and other food songs along with its sexy, controversial album cover turned Herb and the Brass into a top attraction and they were still strictly a studio group! The album spent most of the year in the top 10 and was No. 1 for eight straight weeks! A Taste of Honey with its stop and go's, bass drum kicks and breezy brass made it to No. 7 on the charts and gave Herb three Grammy awards in 1965, Record of the Year, Best Instrumental and Arrangement.

Whipped Cream itself became a popular tune thanks to it's use on TV's Dating Game. (Lollipops and Roses and Spanish Flea were also used.) Other highlights included a pretty Tangerine with a charming, wordless vocal by Herb. Sol Lake's Bittersweet Samba and El Garbanzo (used on a Sunoco ad), a mariachi Lemon Tree and a strip-tease take on Love Potion No. 9 all made the album a winner. As for the cover, model Dolores Erickson (who was 3 months pregnant at the time) was actually covered in shaving cream!

With TV and personal appearance offerings galore, Herb finally formed a working TJB culled from the great studio musicians who made the first four albums. The lineup was Tonni Kalash, trumpet, ( although Herb double-tracked most of the horn parts in the studio), Bob Edmondson, trombone (formerly with Harry James and a funny guy), John Pisano, guitar (an excellent jazzman and composer), Pat Senatore, bass, Lou Pagani, piano and Nick Ceroli, drums (formerly with Ray Anthony). Marimba/composer Julius Wechter continued to play on all the albums and was given his own road-company TJB, The Baja Marimba Band who also recorded for A&M. The label itself was growing and in time would boast artists such as The Carpenters, Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66, Chris Montez and many more to come.

Once Herb put his working Brass together, they performed in concert, clubs, theatres, state fairs and on many TV shows. Starting with Andy Williams, Herb and the Brass quickly covered Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, Danny Kaye and the Hollywood Palace to name a few. Many of these performances are available on Youtube. I hope somewhere down the road Herb can get these spots issued commercially.

The next TJB album was Going Places (October 1965). It is one of the very best Brass albums. Three songs on the album became TJB staples. Tijuana Taxi (probably the most recognizable TJB tune) was written by Bud Coleman. Bud was a member of the Baja Marimba Band and occasionally sat in on TJB records. He would contribute many more tunes to the band's repertoire. Julius Wechter's Spanish Flea and the theme from Zorba the Greek were crowd pleasers at TJB concerts. Zorba with it's tempo changes and tricky trumpet licks was a challenge for Herb and the boys and they rose to the occasion.

Two big band classics get TJB re-writes. Tommy Dorsey's Getting Sentimental over You is given the TJB shuffle treatment with Bob Edmondson giving a nice nod to Tommy. Ziggy Elman's And the Angels Sing gets a nice easy bounce with Herb's perky horn and strings. This version is reminiscent of the Bert Kaempfert style. The tune Mae from the movie The Yellow Rolls Royce is one of Herb's best "pretty" tunes and also has nice string backing. This album would be hard to top. Only a month after it's October release, the album went gold and stayed on the Top 40 for over 100 weeks. For 6 weeks it was No. 1.

What now, my Love (May 1966) went gold right after its release and stayed No. 1 for 9 weeks. The title tune earned Herb a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement and Performance. The song, a French favorite, gets a light samba treatment with Herb's punchy horn and marimba and mandolin keeping the mariachi sound alive. While the album doesn't have the punch of Going Places, it has many fine moments. John Pisano's So, What's New? became the theme of the popular Lloyd Thaxton show and also a Peggy Lee hit. Sol Lake's Memories of Madrid is one of his prettiest offerings. Bud Coleman's Freckles is a delightful dixie TJB take. There would be many of these. Julius Wechter's Brasilia was a Baja Marimba Band hit and Herb re-makes it into a bouncy TJB favorite. One strange thing is the album cover. A shot from South of the Border with Herb in Matador coat and pretty girl is used. One would think they could have come up with a new photo.

1966 was quite a year for Herb and the TJB. They had 6 singles in the Top 30 and at one point had 5 albums in the Top 20. 14 million TJB albums were sold that year! The band was making numerous appearances, including SRO crowds at the Los Angeles Greek Theatre. Other appearances included stops in London, Paris, Frankfurt and many arenas and music theaters.

SRO was the title of their December 1966 offering. This was a fine album with a combination of the trademark TJB and some new sounds and titles. The Michel Legrand favorite I Will Wait for You gets a sly, jazzy bounce from Herb, who uses a harmon mute for variety. Bud Coleman's Wall St. Rag is one of the very best dixie tunes and really swings! Nat Adderly's Work Song gets a nice TJB take and Herb, a closet jazz player, loved arranging it. Mame is one of the happiest TJB sides with more dixie and a cute band vocal with Herb stepping out for a solo passage. Flamingo is a neat cover of the Phil Spector style of rock recording in A Wall of Sound. From now on the TJB would have their trademark tunes but with a more mellow, laid back approach. Probably more of Herb's own musical personality was coming out.

1967 was another banner year for Herb and the TJB. Besides their busy appearance schedule, they hosted two TV specials of their own. (Previously they had a Hollywood Palace show to themselves.) The first in April of 1967 was sponsored by Singer and broadcast by CBS. The special was an excellent series of vignettes with Herb and the band set to many of their previous hits (all lip synced). Dwight Hemion, a veteran director of many top TV variety shows, did a great job in staging the various segments. Herb's gentle, handsome features registered well as a host and he always had a wistful sense of humor. Two standout scenes were the band playing Wade in the Water in the A&M studio and a terrific big band throwback scene with the TJB playing in a vintage ballroom to a jitterbugging crowd.

In June of 1967 they starred in the CBS Kraft Music Hall with the one and only Louis Armstrong.
Louis and the Brass did a cute medley exchanging each other's hits and it was great fun to hear Pops blow a bit of Tijuana Taxi. Louis and Herb also did a fun duet on Mame and the Brass played their new version of Lot of Livin' to Do.

That same June a new album, Sounds Like, was released. Wade in the Water and Lot of Livin' were included on a pleasant album, but not as exciting as SRO. Casino Royale by Burt Bacharach from the James Bond spoof is a standout. Fleshed out by a large studio band, the bouncy, energetic theme hit No. 27 on the charts. The LP spent 31 weeks on the Top 40. Wade in the Water, a dixieland-ish Lady Godiva and an uptempo Town without Pity are highlights.

The next album had the clever title of Herb Alpert's Ninth (December 1967). This was another pleasant, but not spectacular release. Even so it started at No. 4 and spent 18 weeks in the Top 40. The opener A Banda was a popular Brazilian melody. Herb's slow, puffy version of the Trolley Song is unique and a typical "change tempo" Alpert arrangement. Bud was a tribute to TJB buddy/composer Bud Coleman, who had passed on. Haunting Brass and lovely guitar make this a standout track. The Beatles' With a Little Help from My Friends has some of the Sgt. Pepper string sound and the closing Carmen is a clever chart by Herb and Peter Matz, using various trademark sounds in the course of the Habanera melody, ending with the Tijuana Taxi horn! 1968 would bring another TV special and two more albums.

The Beat of the Brass was the title of their April 1968 special on NBC and their May LP of the same name. The album featured many tunes featured on the special. The surprise hit of both was Herb's vocal on Burt Bacharach and Hal David's This Guy's in Love with You. Herb originally intended to use the song only in the special during a sequence where he sings to his wife, Sharon. The reaction from the show required a single release. It shot immediately to No. 1 and would become one of Herb's signature songs. The LP spent 28 weeks on the Top 40. The special was a fun tour of the country with stops in California, New York, Vegas and New Orleans.

Other highlights of the show and album are a nice TJB samba take on Cabaret, a jazzy Pisano-Alpert tune called Slick, a pretty Sol Lake original, A Beautiful Friend and a charming Jewish folk song, My Home Town (previously recorded by Ziggy Elman) that Herb dedicated to his father, a Jewish immigrant.

November saw the release of the TJB Christmas Album, a surefire winner. I can remember being home from school sick and asking my mom to pick up a copy of the LP. When she came home with album, this high school trumpeter was in seventh heaven. 4o years later, it is still a delightful LP, but I can be a little critical.

Shorty Rogers' lovely choral intros cut into the selections' already short running time. Herb coasts quite a bit here. He sings the Christmas Song (a lovely, mellow version) and Bacharach's the Bell that couldn't Jingle. Let it Snow is turned over to Bob Edmondson for a nice feature (and, yes, that sounds like Paul Desmond). Las Mananitas comes from an early single (hence the Lonely Bull sound). However Jingle Bell Rock, My Favorite Things, Sleigh Ride and a lovely Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (featuring Herb's legit sound) make up for the short-comings. The album still went gold and was one of the top Billboard Christmas albums. The cover with Herb as a horn-playing Santa is a classic. Herb and the Brass also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, reprising Favorite Things and Christmas Song (thanks to Youtube).

1969 would see another TV special and two more albums, but would also see the end of the original TJB.
The next album, Warm(July 1969) was an interesting change of pace. A very relaxed, laid back affair, there are only a few trademark TJB cuts. Despite the change in mood, the musical content is very high. The opening track, The Sea Is my Soil is a lovely track and was used in the upcoming TV show. Without Her and To Wait for Love (by Burt Bacharach) are tasty vocal features for Herb. The latter is reminiscent of This Guy's in Love. Sol Lake's Marjorine has some of the TJB dixie sound with a nice guest clarinetist. Girl Talk is a tasty chart with Herb dubbing 4 trumpets! The Beatles' Ob-La-Di gets close to the old TJB sound and Zazueira is a lively Brazilian theme with shades of Brasil '66. Warm is certainly a different TJB album, but it still stayed 7 weeks in the Top 40.

Warm was followed by the NBC special and companion album of The Brass are Comin' (October 1969). The special had some neat set pieces including Herb and the boys riding into a western town like a cowboy posse. There were also nice beach scenes, spots by guest Petula Clark and a concert segment. Some of the tunes pick up on the western element such as Little Train, Sol Lake's Country Lake and the old standard I'm an Old Cowhand. Moon River has a neat segue with Herb and John Pisano rehearsing the tune and going into a nifty Dave Grusin chart. Dave also arranged Herb's vocal on You Are my Life. This vocal didn't take off but I always enjoyed it. The Beatles' I'll Be Back makes a nice "haunting horn" vehicle for Herb and Bert Kaempfert's Maltese Melody has shades of the old TJB sound. John Pisano's Moments is one of his prettiest compositions with shades of the mariachi sound. The album came out in December and got to No. 30 on the Billboard charts. It's a nice follow-up to the ultra-mellow Warm and more in the classic TJB style.

By the end of the year Herb had decided to dissolve the group. It had been an amazing ride and could have gone on longer; but Herb wanted to regroup, concentrate on A&M and try some solo projects. Happily, he would have two TJB reunions.

More in Part Two.
CD note-All the original TJB albums have been reissued on Shout Factory.
Addendum- Herb and some of the Brass appeared on an A&M lp-The French Song(1964) by Lucille Starr,a Canadian pop singer.They play some nice Dixie passages and Herb's solo horn can be heard on a few selections.The lp is long out of print.
Also had a chance to hear a run-thru of a medley by Herb and Louis Armstrong, from the Kraft special. Herb and Louis' parts are left open and we get to hear Tonni Kalash cover a lot of the horn parts. He sounds real good. Obviously on location gigs he got a chance to blow a bit.

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jeffm12012 said...

Enjoyed your article! The reference to Ted "Keeps" should correctly read Ted Keep. He was for many years chief engineer for Liberty Records, and was the namesake for "Theodore" of David Seville's Chipmunks. Mr. Keep won several Grammy awards for his engineering achievements.