“I was intrigued by the bass bands in the stands, announcing the bullfights,” Alpert recalls. “I was trying to capture that feeling. Jerry came up with the name.”
“The Lonely Bull” was the first hit for their fledgling record label, A&M (Alpert’s and Moss’ initials). The company was started out of Alpert’s garage in West Hollywood. “We kind of wired it up a little bit,” Moss recalls, sitting next to his partner. “There was a two-line phone in there and Herb, was it a two- or three-track Ampex tape recorder?”
“Two tape recorders,” Alpert answers, “and that’s where the Tijuana Brass sound started.”Charlie Chaplin Studios
In time, the partners moved their operations into offices that once housed the studios of silent film star Charlie Chaplin (today it’s the headquarters of Jim Henson productions). Alpert says that from the start he wanted A&M to be something different from the cold, corporate record labels where he’d recorded before — something more personal.
From the early 1960s to the late ’80s, A&M was one of the most eclectic and powerful independent record labels in the world. The roster of artists who recorded there includes The Carpenters, Captain Beefheart, The Police, Joe Cocker, Suzanne Vega, Procol Harum and Janet Jackson.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of A&M’s founding by trumpeter Herb Alpert and record promoter Jerry Moss. Among the first releases on the label was a song Alpert recorded in 1962 with his band, The Tijuana Brass, inspired by the bullfights he and Moss used to go to in Mexico.
Alpert says he wouldn’t necessarily have bought a Carpenters record himself, but A&M signed the duo in 1969. After receiving an unsolicited demo tape, he says he immediately he recognized the talent in Karen Carpenter’s voice.”I learned something years back, watching Sam Cooke,” Alpert says. “He showed me how to close my eyes and just go for the feel. He says people are just listening to a cold piece of wax and it either makes it or it don’t.”
The Carpenters went on to score 12 Top 10 singles. Their success, and that of other middle-of-the-road acts like Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, allowed the label to sign or license less well-known artists like Joe Cocker and Fairport Convention.
A&M had a remarkable reputation both for picking winners and for its eclectic taste, says longtime music journalist Dave Di Martino, now executive director of Yahoo Music.
“Every record was worth picking up, paying attention to,” DiMartino says. “Track for track and numbers for numbers, artists for artist, A&M’s accomplishments were fairly staggering. If you wanted smooth stuff, intelligent folksy stuff, they were very famous for sticking by their artists. If you wanted hard rock, particularly in the ’70′s, they had a lot of it.”
Frampton Sticks Around
“Jerry and I were in sync, not wanting to find the beat of the week,” he says. “We wanted to find something that was unique, find artists that had something to say in a unique way. We weren’t thinking of how much money we could make on each artist. We were just thinking about, ‘How can we put out great records? How can we put out records that we would buy ourselves?’ ”
In 1970, A&M signed the British band Humble Pie, featuring guitarists Steve Marriot and Peter Frampton. When Frampton decided to go solo, he stuck with A&M.
“If there was ever the perfect label for a musician at that time, it was A&M,” Frampton says. “They wanted the artists to become themselves.”