No sensible history of the ’60s would begin with Herb Alpert, but any that’s worth reading needs to include him. Yes, that Herb Alpert: as in the Tijuana Brass, “Whipped Cream & Other Delights,” mariachi-meets-mohair. How less ’60s can you get? The Beatles the Brass were not. Except . . .
“We’re more popular than Jesus,” John Lennon said in 1966. So what did that make the Brass? They sold over 13 million records that year, more than the Beatles did (and, ahem, the Brass cover of “A Taste of Honey” — that kick drum! — makes the Beatles version sound waxen). Fourteen Tijuana Brass LPs went platinum during the ’60s. Like the Ford Mustang and Kodak Instamatic and NASA, Alpert and his band aren’t part of the decade as remembered, the canonical ’60s. What they were was the decade as experienced, the workaday ’60s.
Herb Alpert’s music tapped into the dreams of more people than the Summer of Love or Woodstock did. True, that music was as authentic as a Tang-topped burrito (speaking of NASA). But it sure was infectious. It still is. As Questlove somewhat sheepishly says in John Scheinfeld’s documentary “Herb Alpert Is . . .,” "It’s the happiest music in existence. If I feel down or whatever, I have a Herb Alpert mix and that sort of brightens my —” he starts to laugh, realizing what he’s about to publicly admit “— I feel silly saying [this], but . . . it makes me happy.”
The ellipsis in the film’s title is meant to remind us how much more Alpert — still sprightly and performing at 85 — has on his resume than just “Tijuana Taxi” and “Mexican Shuffle." He helped compose Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.” Is there a simpler, sweeter love song? He’s had number one hits on his own, as singer (“This Guy’s in Love With You,” 1968), and trumpeter (“Rise,” 1979), making him the only artist to have done that as both vocalist and instrumentalist.
Alpert is the "A" in A&M Records, the biggest independent label in the industry — until he and Jerry Moss, the “M,” sold it to Polygram, in 1989, for $500 million. The range of artists A&M recorded is jaw-dropping: the Brass, of course, but also the Carpenters, Cheech & Chong, Peter Frampton, Quincy Jones, the Police, Squeeze, Janet Jackson. Richard Carpenter, Jones, and Sting are among those heard in the documentary singing Alpert’s praises.
That Polygram payday (which would be worth slightly more than $1 billion today) has helped underwrite Alpert’s most important accomplishment, as a philanthropist who’s given tens of millions to fund education and the arts. Speaking of arts, Alpert’s also a painter and sculptor, though the amount of attention his artwork gets in the documentary may be, let us say, disproportionate to its aesthetic impact.
The documentary begins with its subject painting and, a nice touch, uses brushstrokes as a transitional device between scenes. Alpert goes in for big, colorful abstract canvases. It’s a very different style from his understated, slightly aloof, trumpet playing. He’s never been a virtuoso, but virtuosity was never the point. “It’s all about feel," Alpert says Sam Cooke taught him. "That’s all there is.”
Appropriately, “Herb Alpert Is . . .” has a nice feel of its own. The first two-thirds is lively in pace, all of it is amiable in tone and sun-splashed in appearance. The final half hour gets a bit gushy. It’s mostly devoted to Alpert’s blissful second marriage, to singer Lani Hall — they’ve been married nearly 50 years — and his philanthropic largess. But since there’s a lot to gush about, that’s okay.
HERB ALPERT IS . . .
Written and directed by: John Scheinfeld. Available for streaming via Regent Theatre, Arlington, at www.regenttheatre.com/details/herb_alpert_is and as video on demand. 113 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: a few casual obscenities, some wink-wink, nudge-nudge reminiscences about that “Whipped Cream” cover).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.