A&M Records: Independent, With Major Appeal

Herb Alpert (left) and Jerry Moss, who founded A&M Records in Alpert’s garage in 1962

(Source: NPR)

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.

“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.

“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?’ ”

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.

Herb Alpert with Karen and Richard Carpenter, whom the label signed in 1969.

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

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.”

Frampton says Alpert — the musician — and Moss — the music lover — were always available whenever he wanted to drop in and talk. And he says A&M’s laid-back studios provided a family vibe.

“I never went to college, but I felt I was going to college at the A&M campus. That’s what it was like,” he says. “You’d see The Carpenters going into the studio and one day I saw Sting come in on a motorbike. It was the great place to hang out.”

Frampton says he got to sit in on other musicians’ sessions and was invited to help choose the cover art for his albums.”Word on the street was, ‘We’ve never had it so good here,’ ” he says. “They never once said, ‘You should do more of this,’ or ‘Don’t do that.’ They just let us do our thing. We made mistakes, and we learned by our own mistakes. And that’s sort of unheard of now.”

Nurturing Artists

Frampton’s third album for the label, Frampton Comes Alive, became the best-selling album of 1976. And just as it did with Frampton, A&M stuck with another artist until she finally scored a hit. From her home in England, singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading says success didn’t come until her third album with A&M.

“If you think about that today, after that first album, I don’t think I would have the second album made because people would probably be saying, hang on a minute, how come you haven’t given us that song yet? And the second album came and they’d probably be saying, well, you’ve had two albums and you haven’t done it, ” says Armatrading. “So A&M were very much into nurturing artists.”

Bryan Adams was just an 18-year-old Canadian singer when he got signed to A&M. “Those were great times,” he recalls. “The record business was flourishing; radio was a force. The people who were involved were dedicated to building A&M — which at the time was just an independent label — into a major label. It was a label that took their chances with artists who weren’t exactly mainstream until they found their niche. They took huge chances.”

The label helped launch the careers of Joe Jackson, Suzanne Vega and The Police — as well as Sting. Producer Quincy Jones says he and many other jazz musicians also have fond memories of recording at A&M.

“Honey, are you kidding?” Jones asks. “We recorded ‘We Are the World’ there in the A&M studios, That’s something you never forget.”

The Police’s 1978 single “Roxanne” helped the band secure its deal with A&M Records.

End Of An Era

A&M continued to produce hits through the 1980s. But in 1989, Moss says, he and Alpert decided to sell their label to Polygram Records for half a billion dollars.

“It was sad because we really wanted to make it bigger,” Moss says. “They bought the company, they said, ‘No changes. There will be no changes. You guys can run it the way you feel like.’ The first thing you hear is, ‘Um, we’re gonna close the Paris office.’ ”

Then A&M’s New York offices were shuttered. Moss says he and Alpert managed the label for three more years before bowing out, unhappy with their new bosses.

“They didn’t appreciate the founder’s way, so to speak, of doing business,” he says. “All of a sudden, they were taking away from us our individuality. And we thought, ‘That’s what you were buying, was the fact that we were different and unique!’ ”

Moss says they knew it was all over when, the week after he and Alpert sold the company, the new owners painted over murals — created by musicians from the San Francisco band The Tubes — on the outside walls of the recording studios. “Now why would anybody do that?” Moss says, shaking his head. “This is great art, this is important art. And they just whitewashed it. And it was like, ‘OK, that’s who they are, these people.’ ”

Moss and Alpert filed several lawsuits against their label’s subsequent owners for violating an “integrity clause” written into the sale. The suits were settled years ago. Since then, Moss and Alpert have donated A&M’s archives to UCLA, and in 2006 the partners were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Today, the label launched in Herb Alpert’s garage is owned by the giant Universal Music Group, which has released a 50th-anniversary collection of A&M artists. To this date, nearly 600 of A&M’s original albums are still available.

The Forgotten Hits: 70’s Rock and Pop

Every era and genre of music has songs that were popular in their day, but whose footprints have been washed from the sand over time. Our goal in this series of posts is to resurrect their memory; to help in a small way to reverse the process of the “top tenning” of oldies formats, which reduce hit makers from previous decades to their most popular song or two and then overplay them until you almost loathe an artist you used to enjoy (think “Sweet Caroline” or “Don’t Stop Believin’”).

I’ll be citing the Billboard pop charts for reference. Billboard Hot 100 charts of the 60′s and 70′s were a much more accurate reflection of a song’s popularity, before there were so many other ways for a song to enter the public consciousness (reflected by the number of pop charts Billboard now uses). It was an era when radio ruled–before a car commercial, social music sharing site, or Glee were equally likely ways for a song to break through.

badfinger

Badfinger: “Baby Blue”

#14 in 1972

Badfinger were responsible for three of the decade’s classic pop songs, “No Matter What”, “Day After Day” and “Without You” (which Nilsson recorded a Grammy Award-winning version of). But “Baby Blue” from 1972 is a lost treasure and a classic case of pop oldies radio’s “top tenning” of its format. Give it a listen and see if you agree it deserves a better fate than its obscurity:

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I'm In You

Peter Frampton: “I’m in You”

#2 in 1977

Following the impossible-to-follow Frampton Comes Alive album, the LP credited with single-handedly bringing the record industry out of a mid-70’s slump, Peter Frampton was somehow talked into one of the most unfortunate cover shoots in pop music history. Where he’d looked like a badass guitar hero on the iconic live album’s cover, here he looked like kind of a pussy. And “I’m in You”, as a musical follow-up, was kind of a pussy song.

Don’t get me wrong, I love pussy rock songs. But when you’ve just established yourself as an FM radio god (we made the disctinction back then, because AM was still home to top 40 stations) and recorded the 14-minute “Do You Feel Like We Do” and brought the talk box into our collective consciousness and so on, “I’m in You” seemed like a concession to the female segment of your audience, and a betrayal of the pale young boys–you know, the ones who bought Frampton Comes Alive.

A career-killer if there ever was one. Frampton never really recovered from this.

Nice song, though.

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Alice Cooper Goes to Hell alice From the Inside

Alice Cooper: “I Never Cry”

#12 in 1977

“You and Me”

#9 in 1977

“How You Gonna See Me Now”

#12 in 1978

I know, I know. Alice Cooper, Shock Rocker. In your face, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, “School’s Out” Alice. To the uninitiated he was one-dimensionally demented. But I’ll say this for the man Bob Dylan called the most underrated songwriter of his generation: he could write a pretty ballad. No less than three qualify as Forgotten Hits in my book. All date from a period when he was trying to kick the bottle and change (or at least broaden) his image.

His personal life needing to be put in order, Alice the man had to learn to keep Alice the character onstage, for the sake of his own sanity and longevity. Like Kiss a couple of years later, he even took the makeup off. Looks rather charming I think on the “You and Me” 45 sleeve above–though it’s hardly Peter Frampton in pink silk pants…

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sally g

Paul McCartney: “Sally G”

#17 in 1975

Ever restless in the first post-Beatles decade, Paul seemed to record in a different location each time he worked on a record. The flip side of non-album single “Junior’s Farm” came from sessions he recorded in Nashville in 1974–and the fiddle and steel guitar didn’t exactly make it a country song. They made it a McCartney song with fiddle and steel guitar. But even as a stylistically atypical B-side it went top twenty on the pop charts. A cute, largely forgotten piece of Paul’s catalog.

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 Hearts

America: “Woman Tonight”

#44 in 1976

Although the guitar effect known as the “talk box” has a history dating back to 1939, Peter Frampton’s use of the effect on Frampton Comes Alive‘s “Do You Feel Like We Do” was the effect’s first exposure to many. But a few months earlier America (of all people) used it on the reggae-tinged single “Woman Tonight”. The song isn’t typical of America’s stuff–it’s neither the dour meditation of “A Horse With No Name” or a pretty harmony-laden ballad like “I Need You”. It sounds like a party song. And maybe it’s because it sounds so little like an America song that radio programmers have left it behind. Or maybe it’s because it never charted very high in the first place. Either way it deserves another listen.

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Endless Wire

Gordon Lightfoot: “The Circle is Small”

#33 in 1978

“The Circle is Small” was the final top 40 hit in Gordon Lightfoot’s nearly 8-year run as a pop star. He’d never really followed up the success of the #2 “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” a year and a half earlier. Funny how you don’t really see the end of an artist’s run until a few years go by and you’re wondering whatever happened to… Such was the case with Lightfoot, at least as an American pop artist. He remains a Canadian folk music legend, though, to this day.

Gord’s hits like “Sundown”, “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Carefree Highway” fit the playlists of senior radio perfectly. But they’ve never found a place in the rotation for his final chart hit. The circle is small, indeed.

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5th

The Fifth Dimension: “If I Could Reach You”

#10 in 1972

“If I Could Reach You” was the last top ten, or even top thirty, hit of the many the Fifth Dimension racked up between 1967 and ’72. The sophisticated, proto-Adult Contemporary ballad peaked at #10 and I don’t know why it doesn’t slot into the same radio formats that still keep “Wedding Bell Blues” and “One Less Bell to Answer” and “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All” in the mix. Marilyn McCoo’s melancholy delivery nails it on this ode to unrequited love. Should be a classic. It’s a buried treasure instead. Dig it.

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