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25th Anniversary Of Record Label : A&m Celebrates Independence

June 25, 1987|STEVE POND

It was, almost certainly, the first time that Herb Alpert, Suzanne Vega, Barry White, Joe Jackson, Richard Carpenter and David Crosby had been in the same room together.

And it was quite likely the first time that a single display case of promotional items included a Peter Frampton watch, a Cat Stevens yo-yo, Cheech and Chong candles and a Police (the band, not the department) whistle.

And it was definitely the first time that a wall of Herb Alpert memorabilia was on public display: a letter from RCA Records turning him down for a job in the A&R department, a sales chart showing Alpert's 1962 recording of "The Lonely Bull" at No. 6, an early newspaper clipping headlined "Many Expect Herb Alpert to Be Jolly Mexican Type," and even the small reel-to-reel tape recorder on which the original version of "The Lonely Bull" was recorded.

The paraphernalia was on display and the musicians were in attendance at the A&M Records sound stage Tuesday night for a cocktail party celebrating the 25th anniversary of A&M, the local record label that grew from a two-man operation out of Herb Alpert's Fairfax District garage into the best-known and most prestigious independent label in the country.

Symbols of that success were displayed on wall panels at Tuesday's bash. One named every artist ever signed to A&M. Another listed the label's Top 100 hits (the top five are the Police's "Every Breath You Take," Carole King's "It's Too Late," the Carpenters' "Close to You," Alpert's "This Guy's in Love with You," and the Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together").

However, the real story of A&M--the shifts in musical tone over the years--was told in the display that occupied one side of the room. One portable wall showed A&M's artists from the '60s, when the the emphasis was on soft-rock and pop acts. Another dealt with the '70s, with artists like Joe Cocker, Cat Stevens, Supertramp and Styx reflecting more of a contemporary rock edge and a third dealt with the diversity of the '80s: from Bryan Adams and the Police to Janet Jackson.

For the weeklong celebration, the label has flown in staffers from 45 countries as well as virtually all its American employees. Besides a marathon of daytime meetings, private nighttime concerts are scheduled.

Things got under way with Tuesday's party on the sound stage where Charlie Chaplin shot many of his films. A&M President Gil Friesen (the company's third employee) welcomed the staff and introduced Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss--the A and M of A&M.)

Said a grinning Alpert, who launched the label with record promotion man Moss in 1962, "Twenty-five years ago, I never even imagined that I'd be standing in front of this many people associated with A&M . . . wearing a name tag. It kind of gives you an identity crisis."

But then, the variety of artists present in person and in photos was enough to give any record company chief an identity crisis. At one side of the room, the acclaimed and waif-like singer Suzanne Vega talked to the beefy rock 'n' roll veteran David Crosby, who just signed a solo deal with A&M.

Elsewhere, Nashville-based roots-rocker John Hiatt chatted with Glen Tilbrook, an English singer-songwriter from the pop band Squeeze. Massive, deep-voiced disco pioneer Barry White prowled the room. So did warbly Irish popster Feargal Sharkey. And so did easy-listening mega-seller Richard Carpenter and critically acclaimed rock newcomers David & David, and Elvis Costello sidekick Nick Lowe and Joe Jackson and . . . .

The party's visual displays were designed to be fairly low-key. "We didn't want to inundate you with memorabilia," said Moss, "but some of it's kinda cute."

Still, it made its point. "It's a pretty amazing story, really," said Vega's manager Ron Fierstein. "A musician and a businessman started this label because the other labels wouldn't pay attention to them, and look what happened. If you're like me and you think you're an entrepreneur, that's encouraging."

A couple of hours into the party, some of the artists were clearly tiring of having their pictures taken and others were milling around outside the sound stage. But plenty of folks still jammed the room and looked at the memorabilia--and Alpert took time to think about what this party and this anniversary meant.

"I don't think of A&M as any age," he said quietly. "A very good friend of mine died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 82, and I didn't think of him as being that old, either--I just thought of him as my good friend."

Alpert, who's also celebrating the anniversary with "Diamonds," his biggest hit in years, shrugged. "I don't think of it as a milestone. I don't want to take away from the joy of this for anybody else, but it almost seems like this means a hell of a lot more to other people than it does to me. As far as I'm concerned, we're just doing our jobs and having fun, and that's what we're going to continue to do."

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