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In January 1966 I had a phone interview with a trumpet player whose name isn't heard much these days, but for several years he and his unusual group of musicians were almost as popular as The Beatles. At the same time he spawned another unusual band that some regarded as the second coming of Spike Jones.

That he isn't more highly regarded today, I think, is because easy-listening music commands little respect, and when it came to producing music that was easy – and fun – to listen to, nobody ever did it better than Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass, or the more raucous group known as the Baja Marimba Band. (Check out "Ghost Riders in the Sky.") That band was Alpert's idea, but it was Julius Wechter who took charge – and also played the marimba.

Look at Alpert today and you might not think so, but in 1966 he was an unusually handsome fellow. He was Jewish, a native Californian, and his first group of musicians were of Italian and Russian descent. How and why they became the Tijuana Brass is explained in the following excerpt from my 1966 newspaper story:

 

The group set out to record a song called "Twinkle Star," but Alpert Mexified the arrangement by overdubbing some "oles" he had recorded in a Tijuana bull ring. The song title was changed to "The Lonely Bull" and it was a big hit. Instrumental hits were not unusual at the time – "Theme from 'A Summer Place' " by Percy Faith may be the best example – but the Tijuana Brass came up with one after another.

A song originally titled "Shocker" was released as "Spanish Flea." Most of the group's songs were written by Alpert's friends after he tapped out the rhythm he wanted. He tacked on Mexican titles after the songs were recorded.

Alpert said he never claimed the group was Mexican, but he kept the image alive with album covers that featured Mexican settings. The group's only vocal effort – on "Hello Dolly" – was performed with a Jose Jimenez-type accent.

For two years after "The Lonely Bull" hit the charts the Tijuana Brass existed only in Alpert's Los Angeles recording studio. He'd assemble musicians only when he wanted to record. Alpert was the entire trumpet section, dubbing in all the parts.

"I felt at first we had a West Coast sound that wouldn't catch on anywhere else. After one of the songs from our 'South of the Border' album – 'Mexican Shuffle' – became a hit, thanks to a TV gum commercial, I decided I'd better assemble a permanent group to take on the road.

Since then the success of The Tijuana Brass – known to their fans as The TJB – has been phenomenal. So it has been for A&M Records, started in 1961 by Alpert and his partner, Jerry Moss, on a total investment of $200. The company's roster of artists includes the Baja Marimba Band, which also existed only in a studio for two years.

Alpert, 28, certainly has come a long way since he was solo trumpeter with the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco.

"My duty as to play taps for funerals," said Alpert. "One day I counted 18 funerals."

When he was discharged he returned home to Los Angeles and worked with singers Jan and Dean on their early hits. Alpert also arranged for Sam Cooke and helped a group called Dante and the Evergreens on their only hit, "Alley Oop."

After that Alpert and Moss struck out on their own. Alpert had that song, "Twinkle Star," but kept experimenting to find the right sound. The more he played the song, the more he thought he'd find what he was looking for in a Tijuana bull ring.

Alpert has no explanation for his success. He calls his sound Ameriachi – one part jazz, one part mariachi and one part rock and roll. Twin trumpets carry the melody and the beat is proved by a trombone, drums, piano and two electric guitar.

He doesn't believe his success will trigger a return of the big band sound.

"Those days are gone forever. There are seven in our group and that's about as large as is practical these days."

 

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