Sunday, August 12, 2007

Herbal Therapy

Note: I originally submitted this article to a few online pop culture magazines. No one ever got back to me. Maybe you'll appreciate it?

When one thinks of successful pop groups of the sixties, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass probably isn’t one that instantaneously comes to mind. To many of the pubescent British Invasion worshipping coterie, they were often regarded as a joke: a mimic mariachi band whose claim to fame was providing background music for television commercials and game shows, a last ditch effort by their necktie wearing, middle-aged parents to keep elevator music on the charts. No doubt many a teenager rolled their eyes as their square mom and pop dropped a record needle onto an Alpert album, while proclaiming it groovy, in a half-hearted attempt to be perceived as cool by a generation that was falling deeper into flailing rock and roll.

Yet Alpert’s music was delightfully groovy. On the dreariest of winter days, download an Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album onto the I-Pod, and you can’t help but be instantly transported to an enchanting world south of the border – a giddy destination synonymous with sunshine, Volkswagen Beetles, and margaritas. Too peppy for the easy listening stations and too ethnic to be classified as jazz, Alpert's effervescent, Mexican-inspired style emerged during a decade dominated by the long haired music genres to make him one of the most unlikely and beloved recording artists of the decade. This was the sixties, after all: the last time in history when such a diversity of what constituted popular music at the time – Motown, folk, psychedelic rock, swing, and even novelty acts such as Tiny Tim - happily shared real estate on the charts. Herb Alpert and the TJB scored huge hits with jaunty instrumentals such as Mexican Shuffle, Tijuana Taxi, Whipped Cream, Lollipops and Roses, and A Taste of Honey. If the tracks sound too much like television theme music, they should, as several of their hits served as the incidental music of The Dating Game while bachelors and bachelorettes alike strutted their stuff. Yet it would be all too easy for cynics to dismiss their sound as expired novelty kitsch if it weren't for the fact that Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (the "Brass" portion of the group were actually all American studio musicians, none Latino) won six Grammy awards, and racked up fifteen gold and fourteen platinum disks. It’s a little known fact that during the 1960s, only three artists outsold Alpert: Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles. In fact, in 1966, Alpert's albums outsold The Beatles by two to one. No other purely instrumental group in pop music history has achieved that kind of success since.

Herb Alpert, the mastermind behind this merry brass band, has enjoyed a prolific music career his whole life. He was born in 1935 in Los Angeles and learned to play the trumpet at the age of eight, perhaps drawing inspiration from Louie Armstrong and the big band sound that was so prevalent during World War II. After high school he joined the U.S. Army, which allowed him to practice his expertise of horned instruments during military ceremonies. By 1957 he had ventured into the songwriting business after partnering with Lou Adler, another aspiring musician, for Keen Records. During this period he co-wrote a number of well-known songs that became hits, most notably Baby Talk by Jan and Dean, Wonderful World by Sam Cooke, and Alley-Oop by Dante and The Evergreens. He also teamed with Jerry Moss shortly thereafter to form A&M Records. But it was a trip to Tijuana, Mexico in the early 60s that sealed Alpert’s fate. While witnessing the theatrics during a bullfight he became enamored with the mariachi sound, which inspired him to put together a crack team of studio musicians and rework a song called Twinkle Star. He released the finished version as an A&M single, The Lonely Bull, under the name Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (or the TJB as they were referred to) even though Alpert himself and none of his band mates were Mexican. The handsome Alpert, who is of Jewish decent, looks deceivingly darker on the album cover then in other photos, as if makeup was utilized to play up the effect. By his side is a bottle of tequila. A bit gimmicky, perhaps, but one that worked well: The Lonely Bull became a Top Ten Hit in 1963. Complete with fanfare, audio of an audience cheering (a precursor to Sgt. Pepper, perhaps?) and a female vocalist providing a soaring background operatic voice, one can easily imagine the song surfacing today on Dancing With the Stars during the paso doble round. Alpert later said in a 1979 interview with radio announcer Richard Warner that the sound effects were the imperative opening hook needed to deter picky radio program directors from tossing aside the record. The single introduced the nation to the Latino sound, and Alpert soon secured a permanent Brass band consisting of six musicians, releasing an album by the same name. Alpert knew he had a hit new sound on his hands. As he explains in the liner notes of his Definitive Hits CD, “Since receiving letters about the record from people from all over the world thanking me for taking them on a vicarious trip to Tijuana, I recognized the power of making visual instrumental music.”

Despite the success of The Lonely Bull, the TJB’s next album flopped, perhaps partly due to its rather lackadaisical title Volume 2. Just as it seemed the group was about to fade into one hit wonder obscurity, intervention arrived in the form of the Clark Teaberry Gum Company. They wanted to use the band’s Mexican Shuffle in a national television commercial. It’s a typical contrived early 60s advertisement that shows everyone from policemen to business people doing a juvenile hopscotch maneuver (called The Teaberry Shuffle) to Alpert’s music while chewing gum, but the song reintroduced the group to listeners who were all too delighted to learn that it was available on vinyl.

Buoyed by their newfound popularity, the TJB released a new album each year or two throughout the 60s. Even music listeners who weren’t Tijuana Brass fans might recognize one of their most infamous albums, Whipped Cream and Other Delights, thanks to its controversial cover of the time featuring a Natalie Wood look-alike wearing nothing but a white blanket and shaving cream (real whipped cream can’t survive hot studio lights.) The same teenage boys who initially scoffed at their parents’ record collection admit to swiping this album and sneaking it into school; it was the closest thing to porn that a hormone infested sixteen year-old could lay his filthy mitts on. There’s a naughtiness to this record that goes beyond the frothy packaging as well, as many of the cuts revolve around a mouthwatering food theme: Lemon Tree, Tangerine, Butterball, and A Taste of Honey. The TJB’s popularity soared and the group held the No. 1 spot on Billboard's pop album chart for 18 weeks during 1966, more than any other act that year. For four weeks, the Brass held both the No. 1 and No. 2 albums in the country, preventing the Beatles from reaching number one for that period. By April 1966, Alpert and his band had four albums in the Top 10 simultaneously, which still remains the greatest domination since the mono and stereo album charts were combined in 1963.

Alpert’s rearrangement of core Brass tracks, not to mention show tunes and covers of other hit pop songs, is often overlooked. He took the obscure The Work Song (a song I’ve only ever previously heard performed by Bobby Darin, who sang it in a very sexy style, akin to Peggy Lee’s Fever) and frantically sped it up to use as background music for one of the group’s TV specials that showed instruments being manufactured in a factory. Leave it to Alpert and the TJB to transform a song about a prison chain gang breaking rocks with a hammer into a jovial jingle you might hear during an educational segment on Mister Rogers Neighborhood. His reworking of A Taste of Honey, a tune that had been previously covered by several artists including the Beatles, is an instantly recognizable classic. Where other performers had recorded the old Scott/Marlow composition as a ponderous waltz, Alpert sped it up to a 4/4 beat and gave his drummer creative rein to experiment, resulting in the famous thumping background solo. Conversely, Alpert transformed The Searchers’ hit Love Portion #9 into a sultry kissing cousin of The Stripper.

Although early members initially came and went, the established TJB band by the mid 60s consisted of Alpert and Tonni Kalash on trumpets, Bob Edmondson on trombone, John Pisano on guitar, drummer Nick Ceroli, pianist Lou Pagani, and 
Pat Senatore on bass. Despite the absence of Mexican blood in their ethnic backgrounds (Alpert used to tell his audiences that his group consisted of "Three pastramis, two bagels, and an American cheese,”) they seemed to playfully stretch the illusion, sometimes to the point of coming across as borderline politically incorrect. For example, on their rendition of Hello, Dolly, the guys put on a fake Mexican accent by singing the lyrics as, “Well, hallo Dolly, hallo Dolly, it’s so nice to have yoo back where yoo belong…” Matching bolero jackets became the official performing garb, and on their Hollywood Palace appearance, corny background dancers sporting matador-inspired costumes flip around fake Rapunzel-like braids in tune with Tijuana Taxi. Audiences at a live TJB performance were also treated to comic routines written by comedian Bill Dana, best known for his José Jiménez character on The Steve Allen Show. But the cheese factor didn’t stop the TJB from selling out concerts nearly everywhere they went, or from making appearances on the top variety shows of the time. They were already a household name by the time they made it to The Ed Sullivan Show, even though Sullivan, during one of his moments of arrogance, tried to tell Alpert he would now make it big because he appeared on his program. They even starred in several of their own television specials, one of which won several Emmys.

In 1967, the TJB recorded the title track to the original version of the James Bond movie Casino Royale. Late in the Brass’ career, Alpert enjoyed a number one solo hit with a cover of This Guy's in Love with You, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic, one of the rare times he laid down his limited vocal skills on vinyl. Alpert had originally sung the song to his first wife in a 1968 CBS Television special titled Beat of the Brass. After the program aired, CBS was inundated with thousands of telephone calls inquiring about it, which convinced Alpert to record and release it as a single. He also had the chance to record a follow-up Bacharach composition, Close to You, but wisely passed it onto The Carpenters, who turned it into a huge hit.

But much like the Beatles, by the late 60s Alpert had become disenchanted by a demanding work schedule filled with constant television appearances and touring, even though his popularity was at its all-time high. During a vacation in 1969, he decided it was time to call it quits. “It got a little boring,” he recalls in a 1979 interview. “I needed a change…a chance to get away from it all.” He disbanded the Tijuana Brass only to bring them back for a while with a few new musicians in 1971 and again in 1984. Each reincarnation didn’t achieve the initial popularity that the 60s provided to them, but Alpert – who would go on to score a few solo instrumental hits in the 70s including the disco inspired Rise - continues to enjoy an active career as a music producer and is also a sculptor and painter.

Years after their demise, the Brass’ legacy is still inherent in a lot of music if you listen closely enough. Remnants of their sound surfaced in brass-based groups such as Chicago and Earth, Wind, and Fire, which made it big in the 70s and 80s. Latin music is now widely embraced, and there are shades of the TJB in The Buena Vista Social Club, which recently put their own brassy stamp on a cover version of the Coldplay hit Clocks. Canadian crooner Michael Buble also gave the The Drifters’ Save the Last Dance for Me a tropical, TJBesque makeover on his 2005 album It’s Time.

There’s still a soft spot among fans of the TJB, especially on the Internet. Viewers on YouTube leave many adoring comments on Tijuana Brass video clips, and admit they were inspired to learn the trumpet as children after watching the Brass on TV. Drew Carey paid homage to Alpert and the TJB by performing A Taste of Honey on his 90s sitcom.

Alpert hasn’t completely forgotten about the TJB’s popularity, but he took a chance recently by messing with the original formula. Last year he released a modern remix version of the TJB’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights (called Rewhipped), which even features a new cover model taking on the whipped cream garb. Reviewers on Amazon.com either widely embraced the remixed versions (which sound like background techno music for a Victoria’s Secret store) or are vehemently against it. States one disappointed listener on Amazon.com: “It's like trading in the Mona Lisa for a coloring book version.”

Curiously, there hasn’t been a single biography written about Alpert or the TJB phenomenon, perhaps because his life has been admirably void of any sort of scandal or devious behavior that is so common in the music industry (if you don’t believe that, ask Phil Spector.) Which is why Alpert and the Tijuana Brass deserve some long overdue respect and a toast - with margaritas, of course.

2 comments:

princesscami said...

I love the Tijuana Brass. I played their greatest hits cd numerous times for my kids when they were growing up. I have a large collection of instrumental music (pop, new age, celtic, swing, classical, rock n' roll etc...)

Thanks for your work on this article.
Ramona Leiter

Pam@GoRetro said...

Thanks, Ramona. Geez, looking back now I see this was a VERY long blog post. Appreciate you plowing through it!

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