As music critics release “best of 2016” lists, who can name the most popular musician in America fifty years ago? The Beatles? The Rolling Stones? Wrong. The Supremes or another Motown act? Nope. Bob Dylan? Johnny Cash? The Beach Boys? No, no, and no.
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Brand sold about fourteen million LPs in 1966. Anyone who has rifled through old records at thrift stores and rummage sales has seen his albums. Most famously, Whipped Cream and Other Delights featured a young woman covered in (apparently) nothing but whip cream.
No musician sold more records in 1966 than this pop trumpeter. His first ten albums, all released in the 1960s, reached the Top 20. Even more impressive, in 1966 Alpert had five albums in the Billboard Top 20 simultaneously, a Guinness World Record never since repeated. For one week, four of the Top 10 albums were Alpert’s and three of the top four!
Alpert blended multiple sounds perhaps only possible in his native Los Angeles, a city connecting diverse cultures for a century now, though the cover art didn’t hurt.
The origins of Ameriachi
Alpert combined surf rock, West Coast cool jazz, and Mexican mariachi to create a new pop sound. In the late 1950s, surf emerged as a southern California subgenre of the still-emerging rock ’n’ roll. Think Dick Dale, who graduated high school in El Segundo near Los Angeles, and his scorching, staccato guitar riffs on “Misirlou” (1962).
Cool jazz, especially its West Coast variant, also influenced Alpert. Miles Davis defined the sound on albums like Kind of Blue (1959). A growing Los Angeles-based jazz scene, including Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, adapted cool just as Alpert started playing professionally.
However, those Mexican horns, so distinctive and, at that time, so unusual for non-Mexicans to hear, probably were what listeners heard first.
In 1962 Alpert visited Tijuana where he attended a bullfight and heard a mariachi band. Inspired, he took that sound back to the studio. Playing all the parts himself, he quickly released The Lonely Bull under the name Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. After achieving some success and tour requests, he hired musicians to populate his band.
His style quickly became known as “Ameriachi,” a perfect name for his transnational music. In one 1966 interview, Alpert described it as, “a sort of fusion of the mariachi sound of Mexico with a jazz undercurrent.” His songs included “Mexican Shuffle” and “Spanish Flea,” but “A Taste of Honey” typifies his iconic sound.
Perhaps shockingly, neither Alpert nor anyone in the Tijuana Brass Band was Mexican or Mexican American. In fact, he joked in concert that his band consisted of “four lasagnas, two bagels, and an American cheese.” Four Italian Americans, two Jewish Americans, and one Anglo American. Alpert was a bagel.
Los Angeles: cultural borderland
Alpert hails from Los Angeles, home to a rich and diverse set of cultures. In the 1950s, that included a thriving, multiethnic community in Boyle Heights, on LA’s eastside. Alpert’s parents, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, gave birth to Herbert there in 1935. Boyle Heights was known as a multicultural, working class enclave with many Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans cheek to jowl with Jewish folks. The sort of place where Jews in the socialist Workmen’s Circle and garment workers’ union advocated a leftist politics that embraced the diversity of immigrants and working class peoples. Historian George Sanchez goes as far as to argue that Boyle Heights maintained this diverse, radical culture into the 1950s, when Alpert came of age.
Though not literally on the Mexican border, Los Angeles might as well be. Just a few hours drive south sits Tijuana, the definitive border town in the American imagination. Of course, the Mexican-US border is an arbitrary line drawn by politicians far removed from this region. People have crossed and recrossed this border endlessly and still do. Or, as some Mexicans declare, “We didn’t cross the border, it crossed us.”
Los Angeles always has been culturally, demographically, and economically tied to Mexico. The Southern Pacific Railroad—the “Espee” Line—terminated in LA with connections to Sonora down to Jalisco. In his book Becoming Mexican American, Sanchez notes that Spanish-language radio stations broadcast to Mexico from Los Angeles as early as the 1920s. LA remains the unofficial capital of Mexican Americans in El Norte.
Alpert in 1966
Undeniably, Alpert stood at the top of the heap in 1966. Record sales don’t lie. Whipped Cream and Other Delights sold six million platters, the best-selling LP that year. “A Taste of Honey” won the Grammy for “Best Record of the Year.” Also in 1966, Going Places, featuring “Spanish Flea,” and a third album, What Now My Love, all went to #1, the latter for nine weeks. All told, Alpert sold around fourteen million albums in 1966—way more than, yes, the Beatles.
Confirmation of his domination of the pop charts came when Alpert recorded the title track (composed by Burt Bacharach) for the first-ever James Bond film, Casino Royale, in 1967.
For this success, what “right” does Alpert have to “take” Mexican music, shear it of some of its native authenticity, and repackage it for non-Mexican audiences? It’s an important question.
Clearly, Alpert merged Mexican horns into his own sound; but artists incorporate elements of different cultures all the time. Picasso and Gauguin did it. The Talking Heads did it. Dizzy Gillespie and countless other jazz artists did so. Commercial success should not be the measure by which such “mashups” are considered theft or respectful.
As a native Los Angeleno born and raised in culturally diverse Boyle Heights, his neighborhood included countless Mexican Americans and was inextricably twined to Mexico. His visit to Tijuana in 1962 was not his first to that city, but was when it inspired him to incorporate Mariachi horns into his own music.
Alpert’s music even gained some popularity in Mexico. His album Whipped Cream and Other Delights was reported as, “One of the top 10 records in sales in Mexico City.” In 1967, he played a benefit concert in Tijuana before a sold-out crowd of 14,500 people, where he and his band recorded a one-hour program for television’s CBS.
Alpert, of course, was hardly the only American to embrace Mexican and other Latin musical traditions. “Tequila,” a Cuban-mambo slash instrumental rock song by the Champs, a LA session group, reached #1 in 1958 and has been repeatedly covered ever since. The LA-based rock music group, Love, channeled Alpert’s Ameriachi sound to create an iconic hit with “Alone Again Or” (1967), which continues to amaze. Further north, in San Francisco, Mexican-born Carlos Santana had a big hit covering Puerto Rican Tito Puente’s “Oye Come Va.” The long list of country singers, from Marty Robbins to Johnny Cash, who incorporated Mexican horns also springs to mind. Arguably, doing so is an acknowledgement of the impact of and respect for Mexican culture in the United States.
Music hardly is the only site of cultural “mashups,” as the recent LA creation, Korean tacos, confirms. They are a product of a city in which vastly different peoples live near each other and increasingly come together. Who doesn’t love the very idea of the Korean taco? But that mélange does not happen just anywhere. Rather, it emerges in cities like Los Angeles, where peoples and cultures meet and mesh.
Though Alpert’s music was very commercialized—i.e. wildly successful—we need popular musicians pushing boundaries. Whether such efforts are considered “appropriation” or respectful integration remains an ongoing conversation.
After the Sixties
Alpert continued to record, successfully, but perhaps more importantly created and managed a music label, A&M Records, with business partner Jerry Moss. A&M signed, recorded, and distributed an impressive array of musicians including Wes Montgomery, Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones, the Carpenters, Carole King, Cat Stevens, The Police, and many more. He even met his wife, who sang backup for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, via A&M, which first brought Mendes to American audiences.
After selling A&M to Polygram in 1989 for half a billion dollars, Alpert became a philanthropist. He has donated tens of millions of dollars, especially to promote music education in his hometown. According to his website: “The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music focuses on cross-cultural experimentation and musical diversity with an emphasis on music and influences from around the world.” Earlier this year, he donated another ten million to Los Angeles City College that will provide all music majors with tuition-free education, additional private lessons, and additional financial support. In his words, “I love that LACC has helped so many low-income students who have financial challenges but have a strong commitment to education and to self- improvement.” Through such generosity Alpert strives to keep music, the arts, and education alive, accessible, and evolving in his native Los Angeles.
Long-forgotten but shouldn’t be
Today, when considering the greatest American musicians of the 1960s, many spring to mind. The Doors in LA. The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead in San Francisco. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in New York. Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 in Detroit. These and many others, much loved and respected, have seen their stars continue to shine.
Still, none were nearly as commercially successful as Alpert in 1966. So, despite John Lennon’s legendary boast that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” Alpert actually was “bigger” than the Beatles if only for a moment. No doubt, he has faded from popular memory. The proof, today, lies in record bins across the land, where it is rare to not find a Herb Alpert album. Believe me, I’ve tried.
So, though every collector has seen—and passed—his LPs, let us not condemn him to the dustbin of music history, “easy listening.” Instead, think of Herb Alpert’s stunning popularity, fifty years ago, as confirmation of Los Angeles as a vibrant city where cultures come together to produce something new and wonderful. Alpert represents the best of an increasingly multicultural America arguably defined, since the 1960s, more by Los Angeles than New York. Proof that borders are meant to be crossed or sometimes even ignored. Proof that it’s better to tear down walls than build them.
Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and currently at work on Dockworker Power: Race, Technology, and Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes extensively on the history of labor unions, port cities, race matters, and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole
Copyright: © 2016 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/