This is what it's like to chat on the phone with Herb Alpert, who has proved so integral to the rise of pop, jazz, even hip-hop — not to mention The Dating Game, Steve Carell apocalypse movies and Cool Whip sales — it's impossible for the 77-year-old trumpeter (and then some) to spin a story that doesn't sound like a Grammy roll call:
"So I call up a friend [dramatic pause] by the name of Burt Bacharach," Alpert says when I ask him if he has seen the recent Carell dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which uses Herb's 1968 hit This Guy's in Love With You to heartbreaking effect.
"I ask Burt if he has any songs kicking around that would be good for me. He sends me a demo of Dionne Warwick singing This Girl's in Love With You. It needed a gender change so I call up another friend [pause] named Hal David..."
Thanks in part to that hit, Alpert — who plays the Palladium in St. Petersburg March 2 with wife Lani Hall and Michael Franks — is the only artist to score Billboard No. 1s as a vocalist, for This Guy's in Love With You, and an instrumentalist, for 1979's Rise. The latter was sampled for 1996 Notorious B.I.G. smash Hypnotize. Not that Alpert is a rap fan: "It's not a creative thing to do to take someone else's groove and lay your thing on top of it."
Grumpy? Maybe. But he knows creativity: A famously restless artist, he started his career as a songwriter, co-penning Wonderful World with — cue more bold-faced names — Sam Cooke.
"Sam was special. He had that it, you can't put your finger on it. He was a mentor of mine. He'd show me stuff he was working on, and I'd think it was so trite, and then when he'd pick up a guitar and sing it, I'd be like 'Holy sh--!' "
After a trip to Mexico in the early '60s, where at a bullfight he fell in love with mariachi horns, he became a bandleader: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, a sexy, multicultural jazz outfit that had several huge LPs, including '65's Whipped Cream & Other Delights.
The groovy title track of that album became the cheeky theme of The Dating Game, but it was Whipped Cream's cover art that had the most lasting effect, as it featured dark-haired model Dolores Erickson (who was actually three months pregnant at the time) covered in strategic piles of cream (which was actually of the shaving variety).
"It's certainly an iconic cover," says Alpert. "At the time I thought we pushed it too far. People were wondering, Is Herb Alpert hanging out under there?! I still have people come up and say how much that cover art meant to them — but they've still never heard the album!"
For all his mainstream success, Alpert once ran the world's largest indie label: A&M, the "A" standing for Alpert, the "M" for partner Jerry Moss. Under Alpert's eye, A&M signed such acts as the Carpenters, Cat Stevens and Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, the latter featuring Alpert's future wife Lani Hall on vocals. But making stars while being a star himself was too much: "A&M started as just Jerry and I in my garage; then suddenly it was 500 people. ...My eyes started to glaze over. I couldn't do it anymore."
After such an astounding six-degrees-of-Herb-Alpert life — which includes being an acclaimed painter and sculptor — the man says that at the end of the day it all ultimately boils down to one simple passion, a still-vivid talent he's been honing since he was just a pup: "I love to play the horn, man."
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected]