“We did it on a handshake — the story is true,” says Herb Alpert, adding that last affirmation for emphasis, knowing how hard it might be to believe that the duo behind one of music’s all-time greatest independent label, A&M Records, were never quite lawfully wed. Of him and Jerry Moss founding A&M in 1962, Alpert says: “I don’t recall signing anything that locked us together. But honesty locked us together.”
The A&M label’s legacy is celebrated in a new documentary, “Mr. A & Mr. M: The Story of A&M Records,” airing in two parts on the Epix channel and its app. (The first hour-long episode premiered Sunday night on the network and the conclusion airs this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/7 PT.) Alpert and Moss both got on the phone to talk about the new doc, which was produced by the Kennedy/Marshall Company, and a friendship that outlived the label, to the point that — against all odds, after more than 60 years in business together — they can still shake each other’s hands.
When you’re founding a label, it doesn’t hurt to start with an all-time smash, and that’s what these two did in ’62 when they wanted to put out Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull” after the trumpeter had left RCA after an unhappy stint there. Do they ever think about what might’ve happened if “Bull” had been speared right out of the gate and not become an instant blockbuster? “It never entered my mind. I never get into the what-ifs,” says Moss.
But there’ve been a lot of multi-platinum artists who may have taken a moment to wonder whether their careers would ever have happened in an alternate history with no A&M Records — among them, Sting, the Police, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Peter Frampton, Joe Cocker, Supertramp, the Go-Go’s, Sergio Mendes, Burt Bacharach and the Carpenters, to name a few A&M-affiliated titans of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s who get their own vignettes in “Mr. A & Mr. M.”
A handful of those artists will be on hand at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next month, incidentally, as L.A.’s Music Center hosts two nights of benefit concerts honoring one of its key benefactors, Moss, and celebrating A&M history with performances by Sting, Bacharach, Mendes, Merry Clayton and others. (More on that later.)
Alpert has certainly been well-documented in the last two years, as August 2020 saw the release of a film just about him, “Herb Alpert Is…” In sharing the glory in “Mr. A & Mr. M,” Alpert says, “I was wondering whether the timing was right, but I think the idea is right. A&M was an interesting company,” he says modestly, “and I think it could inspire lots of people if the story was told, and I think they told the story pretty well.” But times have changed enough in the biz that he knows the lessons aren’t all applicable. “The only thing that I think about is that if it happened in today’s environment… it wouldn’t have happened,” he laughs.
But integrity never gets outdated. “Ee were putting out records for the right reasons — putting out records that we would have bought ourselves,” Alpert says. “We were trying to keep the integrity very high with the sound quality and choosing artists that were not the beat of the week. They were just artists that we felt had something special to say. And even though they didn’t have the cache when we signed them, we always felt that they’d be able to flag themselves down in the runway if we gave them an honest place to create, And the feedback that we would give them. And, here again, timing — we were at the right place at the right time.”
Alpert continues, “I mean, I think about the artists that we had — Cat Stevens and Sting and of course the Police and the Carpenters, those artists that really broke through in a big way that were not supposed to because they didn’t have the ingredients that the top 10 records had. But they had that other thing called honesty and magic. And those are the artists that my gut wanted to sign, and Jerry’s as well.
“I mean, when I signed the Carpenters in late 1969, I think most of the people in my company thought, ‘Wow, why’d you sign these two cuties?’ They were not really what was happening at the moment. But there was something about Karen or something about Richard and the combination that gave me that feeling that I learned from Sam Cooke years ago, when he said, ‘Man, it’s all about a feel. There’s nothing else. People are just listening to a cold piece of wax, man, and it either makes it or it don’t.’ And so I always tried to make those records that touched me personally. And I thought, well, if it touches me, maybe it’ll touch others. So in that regard, we were lucky. Jerry had good taste for picking out artists as well, and it was a nice combination.”
Much of what worked about A&M was a reaction to Alpert’s short and very unhappy stint at RCA in the late ’50s and early ’60s. “I recorded for RCA for a year and a half before A&M, and I noticed the way they treated me… I mean, I borrowed a lot from that,” he says — meaning in an Opposite Day kind of way. “I’m grateful that when I pulled out my horn and I wanted to play something on a record that I did, they said that it was against union rules or something. They were way out of the pocket — they didn’t get it. They slapped my hand when I tried to lift up the bass (fader on a studio control panel)… And that’s when the aha hit me: Holy shit, man. If I ever have a chance to have my own label, nothing like that will ever happen. I wanted our company to be centered around the artists first, and that’s the company that we designed.”
If you look at some of the early compilations that A&M put out, you won’t see anything in the way of rock ‘n’ roll. Alpert admits that he just didn’t get it for the first six years or so of the label’s existence, as it subsided on hits by himself, Mendes and Bacharach, among others. “Jerry sparked it. He said, ‘Man, we’re kind of known as an easy listening label.'”
And then Alpert had what he almost recounts as a religious experience, having been bitten by a mad dog.
“That was a pivotal experience for me, watching Joe Cocker and the Mad Dogs and Englishmen on that tour they were rehearsing on our soundstage,” Alpert remembers. “I walked in there and my eyes were closed as I sat on the soundstage to listen. Because I have a classical background and I love jazz, rock ‘n’ roll to me was just like a little noisy. I didn’t really accept it on the level that it was presented. And I was listening to them and all of a sudden, I started to get that feeling crawling up the back of my neck, and I opened my eyes and there was Joe gyrating and looking like he was playing guitar as he was singing from his inside out. He was like a Ray Charles — he had that voice, he had the intent and it was all real, coming from a deep place in him. And then of course they had Leon Russell on keyboards and a couple of drummers, and it knocked me out. So I had the awakening that afternoon. And ever since then, I’ve been totally open to anything that comes along that touches me.”
Including the moment in the mid-’70s that when the pendulum swung so far the other way, the Sex Pistols were signed to A&M, infamously… for about 10 minutes. “I couldn’t wait for them to be gone,” Alpert says. “I didn’t like that energy, that vibe, that whole feeling. I don’t care what they were saying. It just didn’t appeal to me at all.”
Moss has a more specific recollection of what went wrong, noting that the group became persona non grata after trashing the label’s U.K. office. “I think the Sex Pistols would have gone over if they’d been a lot more together in their performances,” Moss says. “And the unfortunate thing was, they messed up our British operating company. The artist upset the relationship I had with Derek Green [senior VP of A&M Records Ltd.], and I couldn’t have that happen.” But, as Moss’ wife, Tina, adds, “Jerry has said that he liked the Sex Pistols and he did feel it reflected A&M’s openness to so many different types of music and different types of bands, so it’s unfortunate that that happened.”
Experiences were happier with most of the British acts that signed to the label, though. And “Mr. A & Mr. M” makes a point of how Moss led the charge in specifically going after artists in the U.K., after having his own awakening when he attended the Monterey Pop Festival and came back determined to add rock to the roster. That included bands like Humble Pie, eventually leading to the very un-humbling blockbuster success of “Frampton Comes Alive” some years after the group’s guitarist went solo.
Yet, even with that huge a mega-seller in the catalog, Cat Stevens remains the rock-era Brit most associated with the imprint. “There was a British way of doing things that was quite fantastic in a way,” says Moss, “and it lasted for years and we were in good shape. Cat Stevens was the first of the British imports.” The documentary, of course, goes into Stevens’ religious conversion and transformation into Yusuf. His retreat from pop was sparked by a near-drowning experience in the ocean outside Moss’ house. “He wasn’t able to help himself,” Moss recalls, “so he said, ‘Lord, if you help me out, I’ll work for you.’ And he became a different person – different than a rock star.”
There may be no feather in the A&M cap greater than Carole King’s 1971 album “Tapestry,” released in a deal with Lou Adler’s Ode Records, which became known as the biggest-selling album of all time for a good number of years in the pre-“Thriller” era.
“Of course it caught Lou off guard as well,” says Alpert. “I mean, I don’t know if he thought it was going to be that monster record. But luckily enough, Lou and I were friends and we were partners years back. That’s how I started in the business, with Lou, when we recorded Jan and Dean and wrote a couple of songs for Sam Cooke, ‘Wonderful World’ being one of them. When he came to A&M and we were distributing his Ode Records, I watched the concept that he had for Carole. He wanted to make a record that was like a demo record, almost, and understated —just go for the songs, the beautiful songs that she writes. And he was absolutely right. It was a wonderful recording, recorded in our studio B, and I’m certainly proud to have had that on our label.
“I think people respond to artists that are honest,” he continues,”artists that can just give you their thing in an adulterated way, and they just put it down. I mean, of course you have to have a good song to start with. You can’t just be an honest artist without a good song,” he laughs. “But if you have a good song and you have an interesting concept, that honesty to me is the key.”
Alpert talks about one of his greatest successes … and a couple potential signings that got away, one causing more regret than the other.
“I remember popping into Jerry’s office and I said, ‘I’m going to sign these two kids; they’re called the Carpenters.’ He said, ‘Oh, great.’ That was our decision,” he laughs. “You know what I mean? It wasn’t a corporate board of 10 people raising their hands, or five people coming up with all sorts of ideas why not to. We didn’t ask; we were able to move. We were very quick with decisions based on what we felt.
“I don’t know if I’ve told you this one, but a guy comes in with a master record without any distribution. I don’t recall the year exactly, but he wanted us to distribute this record. I listened to it, and man, I didn’t like it at all. It was, I thought it was out of tune; it was too long. And I passed on it. Well, that was ‘Louie Louie,’ and I turned that thing down and it was No. 1 for a hundred thousand weeks in a row. And you know, I felt okay. Even when I heard it (again after it was a smash), I never did like the record. And I made the decision just based on my gut, and that’s how we signed the Carpenters and Sergio and Brazil ‘66 and Cat. They weren’t calculated decisions.
“The only calculated decision that we made was with Prince, because we wanted Prince. We heard what everyone else heard, but he was going for such a huge sum of money that we couldn’t afford to be wrong. So we had to pass on that.”
Missing out on Prince was the kind of thing that convinced Alpert and Moss that they needed some help from a major corporation. They sold the label to Polygram in the late ’90s, assured they could continue to operate with autonomy. And then, as recounted in “Mr. A & Mr. M,” their friend who led the company called them and said he had reach the age of forced retirement in his early 60s and would soon be leaving. His replacement had less love for the label, and the two men behind the initials were forced out.
“Oh, at the time, we had to do that,” Moss says. “It was predicated on different things that at the time were important, such as signing bonuses certain artists received. We just couldn’t match those. And we thought we needed the help of another label to do that. Polygram had been helpful before. But they were not helpful afterwards.”
The documentary ends with the two founders leaving the label, and does not get into the success that followed for A&M in the ’90s (Sheryl Crow is interviewed, but it doesn’t cover her story), or how the label moniker exists now in name only as part of the Interscope Geffen A&M imprint. Alpert and Moss went on to found the Almo Sounds label and a publishing company, although Alpert is known primarily known now as an artist — as ever — and Moss developed his interest in horse racing; both are widely known for their largess and philanthropy.
Alpert says he didn’t regret selling. “No, I didn’t. When I drove out the gate that last time, I didn’t look back. I was wanting to do other things — paint, sculpt, make music, and move on. I try not to look backwards. The documentary they did on me, I mean, it was hard for me to look back. I’m not a guy that dwells in what happened. I’m into the present and future. But I appreciate (the documentaries). As I see it now and I look at what they put together and what happened in all those years, I’m darn proud of it. I’m darn proud of finding somebody like Jerry to be my partner. Or he found me — he could say the same, maybe – but I think if it wasn’t for Jerry, I wouldn’t have had the success as an artist. I needed him. He knew what to do with what I had to offer.”
Says Moss’ wife Tina, “Something everyone loves about Jerry is that he’s very inclusive, and that’s well reflected in the film— and very humble. I do think from what I’ve heard from everyone is he was the business person that gave Herb the freedom to be an artist and not worry about things so much. But their friendship was that they really trusted each other, and Jerry always talked to him about what he was doing and they always agreed upon everything. … Jerry gets touched by a lot of these memories, and watching the film in private, he’s been very touched watching it by many of these memories. Including the fact that they’re doing these upcoming concerts in his honor — he’s overwhelmed by it all, because he was just doing something that he loved, and it turned out the way it did and became very successful. But he in some ways feels a bit overwhelmed by this concert coming up in honor of him.”
The Music Center concerts in February honoring Moss “are gonna be good,” Alpert promises. “You know, Burt and I are close friends and I’ll probably do ‘This Guy’s in Love with You’ with Burt playing the piano. That’ll be fun for people to hear and see and listen to, hopefully.”
Alpert didn’t consider himself a true businessman, then or especially now. “My nephew, Randy bad-ass Alpert, handles everything for me. We have put out records every year and I’m happy doing that. I’m a right-brain guy and I love to play the horn. I like to try to make music that makes me feel good. And if it makes me feel good, I figure maybe there’s a couple other people, or a thousand, or I don’t know how many might feel the same. So I get to do what I love to do. And I feel very grateful that I have this life that allows me to do that.”
Any lessons A&M can offer the present generation of music bizzers? “It’s a different time right now. So the elements are not going to be the same as what we had to deal with. I’m not a businessman in the traditional sense, but I was lucky to be partners with somebody who could handle that type of business. And I think honesty wins out in the long run.
“If you’re not totally passionate being a musician or being a record person or in any business that you happen to be in, don’t do it. That’s my advice. It’s nice to wake up in the morning and be excited about what you’re about to do that whole day. And if you’re not, and you’re doing it for alternative reasons, like trying to make a lot of money or attracting attention with others, that ain’t happening. That’ll catch up to you in the long run.” He pauses and laughs at himself. “He’s a wise old man, this Herb Alpert!”