1:17am

Wed November 14, 2012
The Record

A&M Records: Independent, With Major Appeal

Originally published on Thu November 15, 2012 3:12 pm

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.

"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 Marriott 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."

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Think about this, for a minute. Janet Jackson, The Police, Suzanne Vega, Joe Cocker, The Carpenters - they all recorded for the same record label. We're not talking about a major, but one of the most eclectic and powerful independent labels from the early '60s, to the late '80s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of A&M Records, and NPR's Mandalit Del Barco has their story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LONELY BULL")

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Trumpeter Herb Alpert says it all began with a song he recorded in 1962 with his band, The Tijuana Brass, inspired by the bullfights he used to go to in Mexico with his friend Jerry Moss, a records promotion man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LONELY BULL")

HERB ALPERT: I was intrigued with the brass band in the stands, announcing all the - bullfight. And I was trying to capture that feeling. Jerry came up with the name.

BARCO: "The Lonely Bull" was the first hit for their fledgling record label, A&M - the initials of Alpert and Moss - the company they started out of Alpert's garage in West Hollywood.

ALPERT: I built a room inside the garage so I can - you know, go out there in the middle of the night and start blowing the horn, and nobody would bother me.

JERRY MOSS: We kind of wired it up a little bit, in the sense that there was a two-line phone in there and Herb's - was it a two- or three-track Ampex tape recorder?

ALPERT: I had two tape recorders. When I heard Les Paul doing his multitracking on "How High The Moon," I got intrigued with that sound. And I recorded the trumpet in one tape recorder; and then went to the second tape recorder, and overdubbed the trumpet again. And that was kind of the start of the Tijuana Brass sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BARCO: Alpert says 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.

ALPERT: Jerry and I were in sync, not wanting to find the beat of the week. We wanted to find artists that had something to special to say, in a unique way. We were just thinking about, how could we put out great records? How could we put out records that we would buy, ourselves?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSE TO YOU")

BARCO: Herb Alpert says he wouldn't necessarily have bought a Carpenters record, himself, but A&M signed the duo in 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSE TO YOU")

THE CARPENTERS: (Singing) Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near? Just like me, they long to be ...

BARCO: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS")

JOE COCKER: (Singing) What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me...

BARCO: And Fairport Convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOTHERINGAY")

FAIRPORT CONVENTION: (Singing) How often she has gazed from castle windows all, and watched the daylight passing within her captive wall, with no one to heed her call...

BARCO: A&M had a remarkable reputation for both picking winners, and for its eclectic tastes, says longtime music journalist Dave Di Martino, who is now executive director of Yahoo Music.

DAVE DI MARTINO: Every record was worth picking up and paying attention to. Track for track, and numbers for numbers, and artists for artists, A&M's accomplishments were fairly staggering. If you wanted smooth stuff; intelligent, folksy stuff; if you wanted hard rock - particularly in the '70s; they had a lot of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUMBLE PIE SONG)

BARCO: The British band Humble Pie, featured guitarists Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton. When Frampton decided to go solo, he stuck with A&M.

PETER FRAMPTON: If there was ever the perfect label for a musician, at that time, it was A&M.

BARCO: Frampton says Herb Alpert - the musician - and Jerry Moss - the music lover - were always available whenever he wanted to drop in and talk. And they pretty much gave him carte blanche in the studio.

FRAMPTON: I mean, word on the street was, we've never had it so good here. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOW ME THE WAY")

FRAMPTON: (Singing) I wonder how you're feeling, there's ringing in my ears...

BARCO: "Frampton Comes Alive" became the best-selling album of 1976. It was his third for the label. And just as it did with Frampton, A&M stuck with another artist until she finally scored a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND AFFECTION")

JOAN ARMATRADING: (Singing) Make love with affection. Sing me another love song but this time, with a little dedication. Sing it, sing it, sing it, sing it. You know that's what I like...

BARCO: From her home in England, Joan Armatrading says success, for her, didn't come until her third album with A&M.

ARMATRADING: If you think about that today, after that first album, I don't think I would have had the second album made. And then the second album came; and then they'd probably be saying, well, you've cut two albums and you haven't done it. (LAUGHTER) So A&M were very much into nurturing artists.

BARCO: The label helped launch the careers of Joe Jackson, Suzanne Vega and The Police.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE")

THE POLICE: (Singing) Just a castaway, an island lost at sea-o. Another lonely day, no one here but me-o.

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

MOSS: We really wanted to make it bigger. And they bought the company and they said, no changes; there will be no changes, and you guys can run it the way you feel like. And then the first thing you hear is, um, we're gonna close the Paris office.

BARCO: 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.

MOSS: 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.

BARCO: Moss says they knew it was all over when Polygram executives did away with murals painted outside the recording studios.

MOSS: We had these incredible murals that were painted by Mike Cotton and Prairie Prince, of the group called The Tubes; the A&M logo and - beautiful, all around those studios. And the week we left, for some reason, they just whitewashed it. And it was like, OK, that's - that's - that's who they are.

BARCO: Moss and Alpert filed several lawsuits against their label's subsequent owners, over contract disputes. All were settled. 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.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE")

THE POLICE: (Singing) Sending out an SOS, sending out an SOS. I'm sending out an SOS... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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