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Herb Alpert has plenty to smile about. Having turned 85 in March, the trumpeter continues to play music on his own terms as evidenced by his timely and heartbreaking rendition of the Charlie Chaplin-penned standard “Smile,” which was released as a single and a video this summer. Alpert has another connection to Chaplin: His A&M Records label was headquartered within the silent film star’s former Hollywood studio complex, as explained in the documentary Herb Alpert Is … (Crewneck Productions). Directed by John Scheinfeld, whose credits include Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, the film premiered in October, in conjunction with a career-spanning three-disc (or five-LP) audio boxed set. The documentary traces Alpert’s career from a pop songwriter (with Lou Adler, he penned the Sam Cooke smash “Wonderful World”) to co-leader with Jerry Moss of the hugely successful A&M imprint, to the driving force behind the enormously popular Tijuana Brass. Subsequent musical reinventions found him hitting the charts again as an instrumentalist in the disco and hip-hop eras.
A vacation to Tijuana in the early ’60s proved serendipitous. Alpert was inspired by the sights and sounds of the bullring to craft a sound that powerfully evoked the milieu. His first recording with the Tijuana Brass, The Lonely Bull, earned him a Top 10 hit and provided a template for the hit records that followed. The band’s popularity reached a peak in 1965 with Whipped Cream & Other Delights, thanks to its high-octane arrangement of “A Taste of Honey” and its eye-catching album cover, featuring a naked woman covered in what was actually shaving cream. It sold some 5 to 6 million copies, and the movie-idol-handsome Alpert became ubiquitous, his music even going into space with the crew of Apollo 8.The film follows Alpert through the sale of A&M, his continued relevance to younger audiences (drummer Questlove calls Keep Your Eye on Me, his team-up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, “the sucker punch of 1987”) and his long-held passion for painting and sculpting. Alpert’s philanthropy is also spotlighted, particularly his multimillion-dollar contributions to music education.Alpert’s success is predicated on his desire to play what he likes, as well as a sound that has resonated with listeners through the years. “People like the human voice in pop music. It’s rare that an instrumentalist can do the same,” says former A&M artist Sting. “You need a unique signature to do that. It’s not just any trumpet, it’s the way it’s played, it’s a fingerprint, and that’s Herb Alpert.” Adds Questlove: “It’s the happiest music in existence. It’s literally feel-good music, and not in a cliché-way. It makes me feel happy.”