Herb Alpert's trumpet has one of the most distinctive sounds in music. Miles Davis once said, "You hear three notes and you know it's Herb Alpert."
Alpert started his career as a songwriter, helping pen songs such as "Baby Talk" for Jan & Dean and "Wonderful World" for Sam Cooke. A student of the trumpet since age 8, Alpert released his first single, the Top 10 hit "The Lonely Bull (El Solo Toro)," in 1962 on his own label, A&M Records, which he co-founded with his business partner Jerry Moss. The song featured a double-tracked trumpet solo and launched both Alpert and the label, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012.
In recent years, the seven-time GRAMMY winner has gone back to playing standards from the American songbook with his wife, vocalist Lani Hall, and a small jazz combo. Alpert recently released his latest single, "Puttin' On The Ritz," a version of the Irving Berlin classic that blends contemporary club beats and traditional swing.
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Alpert discussed his new single and the creative direction for his forthcoming album, Steppin' Out, a special moment at the 8th Annual GRAMMY Awards, his July 17 concert at the Hollywood Bowl, and receiving a top honor from President Barack Obama, among other topics.
Why did you choose "Puttin' On The Ritz" as the first single from your new album, Steppin' Out?
I didn't choose it; it chose me. [The rhythm track] was something my nephew, Randy "Badazz" Alpert, came up with. I put my horn on it and, when we finished it and fleshed it out, it sounded like it had international appeal. Randy did the groove and the rhythms; we arranged the melody and everything else together.
Will Steppin' Out be composed of standards, or will there be contemporary music and your compositions on it as well?
There are quite a few standards on it. "I Only Have Eyes For You," "It's All In The Game," "La Vie En Rose," "Skylark," and Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do." I [also] wrote four songs for the album with [GRAMMY-nominated keyboardist/composer] Jeff Lorber.
How do you choose a cover tune? What do you look for?
I love good melodies and most of the old standards have them. They're few and far between in the world of music that I hear on the radio lately. The lyric is an integral part of the song. When I play it on the horn, I'm very aware of the lyric.
Going back to the beginning of your career, "The Lonely Bull (El Solo Toro)" was completed in a studio in your garage. Was it a surprise when it took off?
I worked out the parts in my home studio, but we made the record in a regular studio. There was no Tijuana Brass group at the time, just a few musicians of my choice. I played piano when we made it, as well as both trumpet parts. My home studio was a room within a room in a small garage, so I could play in the middle of the night and nobody would complain.
"A Taste Of Honey" from 1965's Whipped Cream & Other Delights won Record Of The Year at the 8th Annual GRAMMY Awards on March 15, 1966. What do you recall about that evening?
It was a simple affair and I was honored by the attention I got for that one song, arrangement and record. It wasn't televised. Jerry Lewis presented me with the award. It was held at the [Beverly Hilton Hotel]. I met Louis Armstrong that night and that was a special moment. He's one of the great innovators of all time, both as a musician and a person.
When you won a GRAMMY for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Rise" in 1979, did it affect you differently?
I was a little more mature, hopefully. I got the award before the major telecast. It was presented the way they do many other awards [at the Pre-Telecast Ceremony]. It was a happy moment for me and [songwriters] Randy ["Badazz" Alpert] and Andy [Armer].
As the founders of A&M Records, you and Jerry Moss were honored with a Recording Academy Trustees Award in 1997. When you started A&M Records, how long did you realistically think it would last?
We didn't have any goals and didn't know how long it would last. The Lonely Bull was our first record [in 1962]. A lot of distributors asked why we didn't just take the money and run, but we started reinvesting the money in the company and it began growing gracefully. There was no master plan.
You'll be appearing at the Hollywood Bowl with your wife, Lani Hall, on July 17. Will the program be an extension of what you've been doing together on recent albums such as Anything Goes and I Feel You?
We do play a lot of standards, with no set list locked down in cement. I'll be playing with Lani and three other musicians. There will be a lot of improvising as we go along. We've been playing together for six and a half years now, so we can scramble it up. We're also going to try something unique. We'll be projecting the music video of "Puttin' On The Ritz" and playing the music live.
You just received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. What was it like meeting the president?
Once I got used to the idea that is this was really happening to me, I settled in and enjoyed it. President Obama has an amazing energy and he understands the value of the arts in our society. I had big dreams about my music, but never thought about receiving any accolades for it. When he put the medal around my neck, I whispered to him that it was a double award to be receiving it from him.
(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)