The name Herb Alpert is nearly synonymous with the term "hit record."
The trumpeter made a lot of them in the 1960s and '70s as leader of the Tijuana Brass, and as a producer and record executive. As an artist he's sold 72 million records, including such hits as "A Taste of Honey," "This Guy’s in Love With You," "Spanish Flea," and "Rise."
Now 83, Alpert is still recording and touring, with a stop this weekend at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto.
The distinctive sound he developed with the Tijuana Brass was inspired by his trips to the bullfights in Mexico.
"I got caught up in the feeling of the event," Alpert says. "Up in the stands there was a brass band, and they used to introduce the different events. I just tried to translate that feeling that I got into music. That was 'The Lonely Bull.'"
"The Lonely Bull" was a top-10 hit in 1962. That enabled Alpert to form his own record label with partner Jerry Moss. A&M Records became a major player and broke new artists, including Richard and Karen Carpenter, siblings from Downey, Calif.
"Karen was an extraordinary talent. She didn't really know how great she was, unfortunately," Alpert says. "She'd always say 'Ah, my strength is as a drummer.' Luckily for them, and us, I gave them 'Close to You.' That song was their major breakthrough song."
While Alpert was responsible for plenty of hits at A&M, there were some misses too.
"People used to come into A&M and they'd have a master recording. If you'd like it you could sign them," he says. "This artist came in with this record and I hated it. It was too long and I thought it was out of tune. I just didn't like listening to it. I turned it down.
"It turned out to be 'Louie, Louie,'" Alpert says. "That's one that got away."
One artist that didn’t get away was Sérgio Mendes, whose fresh, new sound was born after he signed with A&M. Mendes called his band Brasil '66, and it featured lead singer Lani Hall, who would later become Alpert’s wife.
Meanwhile, Brasil '66 became an instant success. One of the first tunes they recorded was "Mas Que Nada."
"He had a really fast tempo, and I said 'No, we've got to slow this baby down, you're playing this for hummingbirds,'" Alpert remembers. "So we slowed it down and got it into the groove, and that just catapulted Sérgio and the group."
Beyond his many successes and awards, Alpert is most passionate about music, a connection that started when he discovered the trumpet as a child.
"It's a beautiful instrument," Alpert says. "I [play] it every day just about, but not because I have to, I just love it. I started playing when I was 8 years old in my grammar school. They had a table filled with various instruments and I happened to pick up the trumpet and it was talking for me, because I'm an introvert."
Alpert now works to create those same opportunities for today's kids, funding a number of projects around music education.
"I work very hard with the Herb Alpert Foundation to make sure kids have some type of creative experience at an early age," he says. "I think it's so important to be a core part of kids' education."
Listen to Gary's full-length Insight interview with Herb Alpert here.